In the early days of the gold fields, much as it is today, you weren’t really having a party until you had some good music playing. But our ancestors would have to wait another 150 years for the invention of Spotify playlists; if you were having a party in 1870s Thames, the music was live and the best band in town was the Thames Navel Brigade Band.
The Navel Brigade itself was serious business in Thames. 120-men strong, and armed with a rather impressive arsenal and a 40ft twin-sail boat (for protecting Thames from German war boats – a real threat in 1874), the Thames Navel Brigade was a formidable force in the town’s early history. The Navel Brigade held regular parades through the township, maintained a friendly rivalry with the neighbouring Scottish Volunteers, and had a strong connection to the newly-opened St. George’s Church in Mary Street.
Thames’ Navel Brigade Band began as the brigade’s fife and drum band, one of only a handful of official musical organisations in the town in 1869. The band supported the navel brigade’s engagements, including the monthly town parades and the annual Thames Navel Brigade Ball. Once a fortnight, they played promenade concerts at the Thames Miners’ Union Hall and the Academy of Music, and they provided the background music for a night at any of the town’s three popular skating rinks in the 1870s. The band also toured, playing to approving crowds from Coromandel Town to Karangahake throughout the late nineteenth century. They gained a reputation as one of the country’s top military bands.
Perhaps one of the band’s biggest gigs was the turning the first sod of the Thames Railway by Sir George Grey in 1878. This first step towards the arrival of the railway was a huge event for the people of Thames, marked in style with the band playing My Own New Zealand Home – the locally-penned hit that was a serious contender to become New Zealand’s national anthem.
One of the band’s last performances under the Thames Navel Brigade Band name was in 1901, in an open-air evening concert on the corner of Mary and Pollen Streets. They played a selection of popular operatic pieces to raise money for the recently-widowed Mrs. Kerby, whose late husband had been a member of the Thames No.1 Rifles.
In 1902, the band was honoured for its conduct and long-service by being appointed as the No.2 ‘Hauraki’ Battalion Band of the Auckland Defence District, chosen out of all of the bands in the upper half of the North Island. Today, the band is still going strong, now better known as the Thames Citizens’ Band.