The Guelph City Band

Author: Ross W. Irwin

Publication Date: 1998

Edited: 2021



Guelph Musical Society Band

Guelph Musical Society Band in front of City Hall, c. 1914, with William Philp, conductor, standing behind bass drum. Philp directed the band 1878-1882 and 1910-1922.


Music and the performing arts hold a prominent place in the life and history of Guelph from its very beginning. On August 12, 1827, for example, a small band of musicians from York, sponsored by John Galt, performed at the first public celebration in the new community.1 The village was a market, and the centre of commerce for the surrounding farming area, but making a living in a remote pioneer community required work from dawn to dusk six days a week. Social visiting was confined to the Sabbath after church, and there was scant time for entertainment. Music, however, soon became a popular form of individual and group social entertainment. Such entertainment depended on willing local talent, talent trained by family members, neighbours or hired teachers. Thus, as early as 1847, William Wheatley advertised that he offered lessons on violin and flute.2



Brass bands were an early form of group musical entertainment in the village of Guelph. Brass instruments could be learned in a shorter time than the string or reed instruments of the period. Bandsmen bore most of the expense of performance, although they were assisted by paid engagements. These early bands numbered eight to ten men, who provided their own instruments and paid for their own lessons.


In a small village there were only a few people with both talent and willingness to perform, and with the ability to provide themselves with instruments. Bands changed name frequently, but the same people continued to be active from one band name to the next. Changes in
name reflected changes in leadership, direction and/or sponsorship. Guelph usually had a single band, civil or military, operating in any particular time period.


These were the days when the cornet solo was featured at concerts. A talented player was always sought, and agreeable work was found for him in a local factory. The bandsmen tended to be made up of mechanics and artisans rather than men from the business and commerce community.


Local brass bands were an important part of the community, and responded to the needs of that community. They played at garden parties, parades, shivarees, and civic events, but they presented very few formal concerts. The birthday of George III on June 4 was celebrated long after his death and was not superseded by the birthday of Queen Victoria, May 24, until the 1870s.


William Sunley settled near the present village of Eramosa in 1835. He had a large family of boys. Two sons, George and Noah, established stove and tin shops in Guelph. The Sunley family established the first brass band in the area before 1845. Members of the Sunley Brass Band included: George Sunley (Guelph's second mayor), Robert Sunley, William Sunley, William Dyson, Berry Bright, Sutton, Colin Campbell, J.W Colson, and one or two brothers. When Mayor George Sunley died on March 30, 1857, the band played the, "Dead March in Saul," in his funeral procession.3


The 50th anniversary of the founding of Guelph was held April 23, 1877. There were five bands in the parade: 30th Battalion Band of Elora; St. George's Society Band of Hamilton; St. Patrick Society Band of Guelph; the pipe band of the Caledonian and St. Andrew's Society; and the Berlin Musical Society Band.4 A consequent meeting of citizens deplored the fact the town did not have a band to take part in the ceremony.


The following year, Guelph again had no band for Natal Day, the July 1st celebration, and it hired the Hespeler Brass Band. A large number of citizens signed a petition which led to a special meeting of ratepayers on June 27, 1878, to consider the advisability of rendering aid in the establishment of a band in the town. Mayor George Howard and Captain David McCrae led the proceedings and two civilians, two military people, and a member of the Town Council were appointed a committee to establish a brass band, and also, "To recommend that such a grant be made by the Council," for the formation and maintenance of the band. The first town grant in support of a band was $300.5


The proposed group was to be uniformed as a military band in connection with the Field Battery and was also to perform as a civilian band. So, the Artillery Brigade Band and the City Band, comprising the same people, originated in June 1878. Bands in Guelph were placed on a financially secure footing after the town provided an annual grant to the City Band. This support of a city band has continued to this day.



The Guelph City Band, named for the sponsorship by the city, held its practice in the drill hall on August 17, 1878.6 As the Artillery Brigade Band, it competed with bands from across Canada at the Toronto Industrial and Arts Exhibition in 1879. The Artillery Brigade Band took first prize, winning $175.


William Philp was born at Cobourg in 1941, and taught music at Trinity College School at Port Hope. Philp was also the bandmaster of the 57th Peterborough Battalion and the 46th Durham Battalion bands for 15 years. In 1876 he brought the 46th Battalion Band to Guelph to compete in the first William Bell Organ Co. competition. Philp liked the town, and accepted a position as choirmaster at Dublin Street Methodist Church. He also organized the Guelph Choral Union. He was appointed bandmaster of the new combined City and Artillery bands in 1878.


Better bandmasters depended upon music for a living. As a base income, 'Professor' Philp was paid a stipend which amounted to one half of a city grant. He supplemented this by his work as an organist, by giving private lessons on flute and violin, and also by dealing in instruments and music as an agent.


Philp was an excellent teacher of most instruments. He trained John Scoon, a young cornetist, who defeated Bandmaster Hiscott of the 7th Fusilier Band of London in competition. Hiscott was considered the best cornetist in Canada at that time.


The military portion of the city band - the Artillery Brigade Band - dissolved in 1882. This disruption was probably due to local politics. Sir John A. Macdonald, seeking support for re-election, had visited the city on June 9, 1882. The report stated that, "A band," led his parade. On June 13, Lt.-Col. A.H. Macdonald placed a notice in The Guelph Mercury stating that, "Members of the Artillery Band are ordered to bring in all articles of military clothing, music stands and instruments this evening to the band room." The Artillery Brigade Band had a very short life!


The Guelph City Band of 25 members was reorganized and enlarged, and it continued with city financial support. The City paid $50 per quarter, "On the understanding that the band play when required on public occasions and regularly in the evening during the summer on the band stands erected for that purpose."8 Rehearsals were held Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Concerts were presented Friday and Sunday evenings. Servicing the community by playing in a band took dedication and a substantial allocation of time! Before marching in the Toronto Semi-Centennial Parade in July 1884, the band had, "GUELPH CITY BAND," painted on the bass drum.


Philp left Guelph in 1882 to take over the Sarnia band. He was followed as Bandmaster by Walter Hulme, who later became Bandmaster of the Galt Citizens Band.


Officers of the City Band for 1887 were: T.W Hastings, President; Walter Copeland, Vice-President; Joseph B. Collins, Secretary; C. Peters, Treasurer; W.S. Smith; Geo. Brown; and Bandmaster Hulme as Managing Committee. The band had 30 members and George Sleeman provided a practice room.


The City Band and the Fire Brigade held a Band Tournament and Firemen's Demonstration on August 17, 1887. Over 1,000 came by rail. The City Band met each band at the station and escorted them to the Wellington Hotel. The first band to arrive was the Sarnia band (35 men) under Prof. Philp. Following were bands from the Dominion Organ Co., Bowmanville (29); Waterloo Musical Society (29); Kincardine Band (18); 30th Wellington Battalion, Elora (20); Wellesley Cornet Band; 32nd Bruce Battalion, Walkertohn, the Doherty Organ Company, Clinton; and the Preston Musical Society. The first prize was $275.9 A similar Great Band and Fireman's Tournament was held June 19 and 20, 1889. Over 10,000 people crowded Exhibition Park to attend this event.


In 1893 the 30th Battalion Headquarters was moved from Elora to Guelph. A band was raised from the City Band, and concerts were presented under the name of 30th Battalion Band. J. Wyatt Trendell of Vancouver was appointed bandmaster.  Trendell was an accomplished clarinetist, and also became the musical director for the Royal Opera House. Edward Johnson played flute in this City Band: his mother insisted!



In the 1890s, many bands in the surrounding towns were associating with local music societies and were changing their names. The Guelph City Band, under Wyatt Trendell, gave a final concert for the St. Patrick's Society on March 17, 1899. Shortly after that, a Guelph Musical Society (GMS) was formed, and the band became part of the Society. So, in 1899 the name of the Guelph City Band was changed to the Guelph Musical Society Band.10


The function of the band did not change, but it was now administered by an elected Board of Management. The Board consisted of a member of City Council, representatives of the band, and prominent citizens. The Board raised money to operate the band and provide it with musicians and a bandmaster.


Guelph Musical Society Band (1)

Guelph Musical Society Band in front of War Memorial Hall, 1948, Dundas S. Heron, bandmaster (1945-1964).


The band rehearsed on Monday and Thursday evenings during the winter, and presented concerts on Friday nights from May 24 to September 15. It also presented an annual concert in the Royal Opera House in April of each year. Joseph Collins was band manager for many years.


Over 50 people attended the Annual Meeting of 1905, held in the band room at Castle Hall (Castle Theatre), 164 Wyndam Street. The Board reported they proposed to raise $1,000 to $2,000 a year to run the band. The city provided a grant of $300, about $700 was collected at band concerts, $95 from private engagements, and $160 from subscriptions.


New officers appointed for the year were: Honorary President, Mayor George Sleeman; President, H.J.B. Leadley (City Clerk); 1st Vice President, Robert Gordon; and Staff Captain L.C. Wideman and W. Heatley. The Board decided, "To reorganize the Guelph Musical Society and the band to a more efficient state." Committees were formed, and it was proposed to sell memberships for $1.00; these entitled members to attend concerts and vote.


In 1907 the GMS raised $3,254.64 by private subscription from citizens, in order to buy new instruments and uniforms. The board then included J.I. McIntosh (proprietor of the Guelph Mercury); J.W. Lyon and J.M. Duff. They also hoped to get free rehearsal space in the new armouries. The city grant of $600 went to pay the bandmaster, Joseph Dawson. Purchased were four Buffet cornets, two trombones, one tenor horn, one baritone horn one BB flat bass, two E flat basses, four clarinets, one flute, one piccolo, one bass clarinet, four French horn shaped alto horns, one bass drum and cymbal and one kettle drum. The Guelph Musical Society was determined to have one of the best bands in this part of the country. It had 33 players. The band attended the Toronto Exhibition that year.


New rules were developed for engagement. Rates were $1.25 per man for one engagement a day, and $2.50 for two. An all-day engagement was $3.00 per man. The Society took about 20 percent toward its fund, the players receiving the balance. It was stressed that the rates were to be adhered to. This was because the band had expenses that must be met, and it had few options for meeting them. Taking a collection of concerts was one method of obtaining money; the other was selling the band's service. Unfriendly observers were soon calling the band the, "Guelph Money Squeezers."


The program of selections played at a Royal Opera House concert on April 17, 1908, gives an indication of the band's repertoire:
- Overture to William Tell
- Caprice Militaire - von Herzele
- Wedding of the Winds - Walls
- Auld Lang Syne with vocal chorus
- Euphonia - Euphonian solo
- Warblers Serenade
- Hallelujah Chorus - Handel
- Onward Christian Soldiers March - Carter
Tickets for the concert were 25, 35, and 50 cents.


In 1912, Local 92 of the American Federation of Musicians was chartered in Guelph. Joseph Collins was the first President and D. E. McGimsie, Secretary. The charter was cancelled in 1934 and GMS band members transferred their memberships to Local 226 at Waterloo. The GMS band became a 'union' band, and one requirement for band membership was belonging to Local 226. This criterion was not removed until after 1968.


The Board frequently brought name musicians to the city to play with the band, and found them work in a local factory. The arrangements, however, did not always work out smoothly: a lead cornet player imported from England was fired after being drunk on a band job in 1906!


Listening to band music was an important part of the citizens' leisure time in the period from 1900 to 1950. Regular free weekly city concerts were presented on the Trafalgar Square and Jubilee Park bandstands to fulfil the agreement regarding the city grant. Weekly concerts were also presented at the Homewood Sanitarium after its corner stone laying in 1905. Regular concerts were sponsored by the Ladies Day of St. Joseph's Hospital and the General Hospital. These were held on the large lawn at the Ontario Agricultural College. The Guelph Central Exhibition each September, the Horse Show, and election nights in the Winter Fair Building all took time.


The band travelled by train or by carryall to engagements out of town. In 1905 the GMS Band went to the Arthur Fair. They left Guelph at 7:00 A.M. by carryall and arrived at Fergus at 9:00 A.M., where the horses were rested. The band arrived at Arthur at noon. They played in front of all the hotels and marched about town to collect a crowd. Then in the afternoon they played a concert in the park. The band returned to Guelph that night. Bandsmen were paid $2.50 for a very long engagement.11


The band performed at many other small local fairs such as those in Fergus, Rockwood, Aberfoyle, Harriston and Berlin. Garden parties were serviced at Arkell, Duff's Church, Everton and Speedside. A popular concert place was the Roman Catholic Rectory. The GMS Band was photographed in 1911 at the front door of city hall prior to a concert to celebrate the Coronation of George V. The band then consisted of four bass horns, two drums, one flute, three French horns, one alto horn, two saxophones, seven cornets and clarinets.


The GMS Band donned a military uniform for special events such as the regular church parade for the Army Service Corps in 1905. An artillery uniform was worn for the opening of the armouries on April 27, 1911. The band was called the 30th Regiment, Wellington Rifles, for these events.


The very great contribution of the Guelph Musical Society Band to the war effort from 1914 to 1918 was detailed in the Guelph Daily Mercury in 1919.12 Twenty-three bandsmen from the GMS enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The GMS Band put on a concert in August 1917 at Exhibition Park. The concert was to benefit the Guelph Red Cross Society and had a, "Splendid offering of $116.25." S. Carter MPP spoke in support of the war and, "Called attention of those present to the fact that words were not appropriate enough for the splendid musical organization (GMS) which had given so much of its time gratis to patriotic gatherings."


The Guelph Musical Society consisted of J.M. Duff, and R.J. Stewart (merchant tailor) of the Society, and Fred Lynch, James Reilly, Sydney T. Cronk of the Band. Fred Kelly and Douglas Crowe were later ardent members of the Board for many years. Cliff McKay; a prominent dance band conductor in Toronto, worked in Kelly's Music Store and played in the GMS Band.


 The GMS Band was reorganized once more, on May 14, 1978, to take advantage of the musical talent of the returning soldiers and to, "Secure as members of the band all the available musical talent in the city." The Board included two members of the Chamber of Commerce. In order to obtain free rehearsal space in the armouries, the band had to agree to enlist in the Wellington Rifles. Surplus funds were distributed to bandsmen at the annual meeting. This practice ceased in 1975.


At the massive peace celebration on August 20, 1919, were the Guelph Musical Society Band, the Great War Veterans Band, the Highland Pipers under Reeve John Campbell of Mount Forest, and the Jazz Band.


 The GMS held a special meeting on February 20, 1925, and adopted a new constitution. The Board consisted of C.H. Burgess of the Chamber of Commerce, Major C. D. Crowe, F. B. Kelly, L. P. Clarke, and W. Simpson. The GMS Band consisted of 30 to 40 musicians selected by the Musical Director and appointed by the Board of Directors. Each musician had to agree to enlist in the Wellington Rifles. According to the contract with the city, the band was required the performance of 12 free weekly concerts; it received a grant of $1,200. The city grant continued during the Depression years but was reduced from $1,800 in 1931 to $1,000 in 1932.


The GMS Band also took an active part in local patriotic events during World War II. The band participated in parades twice a year, and monthly church parades to St. George's Church and to the Church of our Lady from the Ontario Agricultural College for the RCAF Wireless School.



The Guelph Junior Boy's and Girl's Band and the Guelph Y's Men Boys and Girls Bands were started in 1941-42.13 They requested time and space on the available band stands, and this created friction with the senior band. They also asked for financial support from the City which also tended to affect the senior band as the bands had to share a grant of $3,000. Alderman Rife stated, "The band situation is a mess." The city requested a closer liaison and control of the bands. A new organization, the Guelph Municipal Musical Society was formed about 1944; encompassed vocal and instrumental groups in addition to the band. The City requested a new constitution for the band, the constitution to include provision for a return of assets to the City Treasurer should it become necessary. At the same time the city paid for new uniforms for the band.


The Guelph Musical Society Band was renamed the Guelph Municipal Musical Society Band. In September of 1944, the City asked the band to turn in the new uniforms to the Treasurer. On February 7, 1945, the band tried to have their new uniforms released. It failed, and
the band severed connections with the GMMS to become the GMS Band once again. Good will finally prevailed.


The GMMS Music Centre (the old Trinity Congregational Church) on Norfolk Street seated 500. It was redecorated in January 1945, and was used every night by a different branch of the Society. Monday was the Guelph Male Chair, Tuesday the Junior Boys Band, Wednesday the Symphonic Orchestra, Thursday the Legion of Frontiersmen, Friday a Mixed Junior Choir and Saturday a Young Peoples Society.


The GMS Band was now rehearsing in the basement at City Hall. In March 1948, City Council changed the GMS practice schedule - they objected to the practice on Monday evening when Council met. It was changed to Thursday. "Two good rehearsals a month are better than four poor ones."


In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, annual meetings of the band were held at the Guelph Lawn Bowling Club. Chris and Albert Robinson provided the 'meaI.' For example, in 1968 they used twenty pounds of sirloin, five loaves of bread and two pounds of butter. Members always looked forward to the Robinson 'picnic.'


Band concerts at Exhibition Park each summer Sunday evening provided a gathering place for young and old, whether they loved music or not. Boys walked around the stand clockwise and the girls counter-clockwise. Selections were made and the young people went to an ice cream parlour to complete the evening. Cars lined all the streets. Boy Scouts took up a collection for the band. After 60 years of use, the old bandstand in Exhibition Park was removed in October 1964. Band concerts were not held for a number of years until the Kiwanis Concert Shell was built in Riverside Park.


Band membership has ebbed and flowed. In 1964 there were 35 members, and 18 concerts were performed. By 1971 there were 50 members and 22 concerts. Recently the Guelph Concert Band has included about 40 members and performs about 20 concerts each year.


By 1965 the band was no longer managed by non-playing members. The Guelph Musical Society scarcely existed. At the Annual Meeting of the GMS, November 26,1968, the name of the band was changed to the Guelph Concert Band and a new Constitution was adopted.


The new name was adopted to better describe the band activities of the time. The title 'concert band' implies a repertoire of a lighter nature although the instrumentation does not preclude more serious works. The band was still funded from a city grant which by this time had reached $2,500.  The band did much extra work during Centennial Year of 1967, and the city provided funds for a new uniform - black pants and a maroon blazer with the city crest.


In 1981, with assistance from a Wintario grant and the city, the band purchased new percussion instruments and new blue coats for uniform. The musicians were expected to provide the balance of the dress.


The role of bands in the city has changed over the years. Prior to 1950, traffic was lighter and street parades were common. The Parks Department maintained stands for band concerts at four locations. Band music was a major entertainment focus, particularly on summer Sunday evenings. Today, parades are seldom seen in the city. Permits are required and the expense is high. Most band members would need drill in marching practice to make a reasonable appearance, and current band uniform is not conducive to this activity. Civic functions are very important but infrequent. Only the Riverside Concert Shell exists for concerts. When the band began to play there, it seemed too far from the general city population to be effective, although this has changed. Concerts for senior groups are now an important programming item. Formal concerts are more common than in the past. Bands are versatile and can provide the music people wants to hear. There's nothing like a home-town band!



  1. Gore Gazette, August 13, 1827.
  2. Guelph Advertiser, January 28, 1847.
  3. C. Acton Burrows, Annals of the Town of Guelph (Guelph, 1877), p. 97.
  4. Guelph Evening Mercury, April 27, 1877.
  5. Ibid, June 28, 1878.
  6. Ibid, August 17, 1878.
  7. Ibid, June 13, 1882.
  8. Minutes of City Council, April 18, 1881, p. 368.
  9. Guelph Evening Mercury, August 17, 1887.
  10. R. W. Irwin, Bands of Music in Guelph, 1993.
  11. Arthur Parker Engagement Book, 1904 - 1910, p. 33.
  12. Guelph Evening Mercury, January 11, 1919.
  13. Robert F. Hamilton, Guelph's Bands & Musicians, 1996.