The Dagenham Girl Pipers Pipe Band
Claimed to be the world’s first female Pipe Band, the Dagenham Girl Pipers Pipe Band was founded by the Rev. J W Graves BD, the first congregational minister in the town of Dagenham, a large suburb of East London. Rev Graves arrived in Dagenham in March 1930 to take on the role of congregationalist minister at Osborne Hall on the newly built Becontree Estate, after some years living in Canada. The 50-year-old had a lifelong fascination for Bagpipes, and decided he would form his very own Pipe Band.
He chose 12 girls from his Sunday school, all around the age of 11, and hired Pipe Major G Douglas Taylor of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers to teach them piping, drumming, and Highland Dancing. It was important that the girls looked the part, so Rev Graves’ wife, May, managed to produce a set of uniforms complete with kilts, tartan socks, velvet jackets, and tam-o-shanters. After 18 months’ intensive training, the pipers were ready to play their first public performance. Taken to an outdoor stage near the Osborne Hall, they performed to an audience of journalists.
In 1932 the Band took the Lord Mayor of London Show by storm. One newspaper wrote at the time: “Girl Pipers of Dagenham, we salute you. Marching through the sanded streets of an historical city you succeeded more forcibly than any other feature in portraying the spirit of the age. You were like a fresh breeze from the mountains.”
The following year, as demand grew, Rev Graves resigned as pastor, and turned the Band into a full-time professional organisation. He appointed himself as manager and made the girls, many of whom had now reached school leaving age, paid employees (with a wage of £5 per week). By 1936 the pipers, who were not allowed drink, smoke, or wear too much makeup, were fulfilling 400 engagements each year. At particularly busy times there were four separate Bands all doing separate tours. In 1937 Rev Graves’ first ever recruit, Edith Turnbull, became Pipe-Major, and another original member, Peggy Iris was appointed Assistant Pipe-Major. In August that same year they headed to Berlin and played in front of Adolf Hitler, who declared that he wished Germany had a Band just like them. The pipers were touring Germany’s Black Forest two weeks before World War II broke out.
During the War the Band played for War charities and entertained the troops, sometimes in War zones as far away as West Africa and the Middle East. After the conflict came to an end, the girls re-formed, as many of them had left the group to help the War effort. Their popularity continued to soar with tours in America, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and Europe, and numerous television appearances.
Rev Graves retired in 1948, and was replaced by David Land, who ran a theatrical company in Broad Street, Dagenham (and was later known for nurturing the careers of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber). David Land managed the Dagenham Girl Pipers until his death in 1995. As the band headed into the 1960s the costs of running a large company rose considerably, and it was decided that the group should revert back to its original amateur status. From the 1980s onwards the Dagenham Girl Pipers struggled to attract the massive crowds they once enjoyed, but continue to play at functions and concerts around the country. The Band is still together and remains a much loved and respected part of the community. The modern version of the Dagenham Girl Pipers still plays at events, but on a part-time basis. Their agent is Brook Land, son of David Land who took over as manager when Reverend Graves retired.
The Reverend Joseph Waddington Graves was no ordinary minister. He was a man with a strong personality. When he and his family arrived in Dagenham, he was in his fiftieth year. In his early years he had been buried alive, survived being knifed in a New York doss-house and had survived a plane-crash. His earlier jobs included being jewelry store detective, a bronco-buster in Saskatchewan and a medium for a professional hypnotist. He had risen from the rank of private to captain in the Canadian Forces, and he had qualified for his Bachelor of Divinity degree at Yale University. On arrival in England, he had served as the warden of the tough Browning Settlement in London.
Pipe Major Douglas Taylor of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers ran a Highland dance and piping academy in Hertfordshire. At first Pipe Major Taylor was doubtful about teaching girls to play the Bagpipes. He eventually was persuaded by Rev Graves to teach piping to a dozen girls. The first practice meeting for the youngsters was on Saturday 4 October 1930. This day was an important one for 11-year-old Peggy Iris, whose own destiny was shaped by that first introduction to the Bagpipes as her role within the Dagenham Girl Pipers was to become a lifelong profession.
Peggy Iris and another girl piper, Edith Turnbull, having been tutored by Pipe-Major Taylor, took on the job of instructing the younger recruits, which by the time War was declared in 1939, numbered 53 members, divided into four groups. During a medical check in 1938 prior to flying off to appear at the New York World Fair, doctors reckoned the girls were so fit, they would live to a reach a ripe old age. Jokingly, they pledged to meet at noon on 1st January 2000 on the steps of Dagenham’s Civic Centre. 62 years later 20 pipers fulfilled their extraordinary promise and enjoyed the Millennium reunion.
Researched by the RSPBA Historical Research Group from various publications about the Dagenham Girl Pipers