Although the sequence is somewhat disconnected, the history of the Wollongong Steelworks Brass Band can be traced back to the formation of a small ironworkers band in 1893 in Lithgow, N.S.W. With the transfer of the works from Lithgow to Port Kembla, the old Lithgow combination disbanded as most of the players migrated to Port Kembla and Wollongong.
The Wollongong Steelworks Brass Band (now the City of Wollongong Brass Band Inc.) was formed in 1934 by the late John McDonald Tougher, along with his father Bob and a few players, who worked at the Port Kembla Steelworks (hence the name).
Rehearsals were held in a corrugated tin shed at the rear of No. 3 Ellen Street, Wollongong, which still stands today behind the band hall, built on the same block of land. Players put in money to buy kerosene for the lamps so they could read the music until the electricity was eventually connected.
Some instruments were owned by the players, others were scrounged from wherever they could be found. One was offered to the band and when Jack went to pick it up, the donor told him it was out the back in the chook yard. So he went out and there it was, covered with the things chooks do. After cleaning and disinfecting, it became a useful asset to the band.
The band used to play at different departments within the steelworks at lunchtime every second Thursday on payday. Players were granted time off for this period. This tradition continued until the late 1950s, when there were fewer players employed within the works.
Jack Tougher used to make periodic trips to Sydney and on one occasion visited H. Paling & Co, a large music store and agents for instrument maker Boosey and Hawkes. On one of these visits they offered Jack a set of new instruments, valued (circa) 12,000 Pounds. Obviously Jack declined (that’s the story). The manager took him to lunch and then on to Central Station in their truck and that was that. Later that day after arriving home he got a message from Wollongong Railway Station to ask him to pick up his packages. Of course he didn’t have any, so he went to check and to his astonishment there was a full set of new instruments at the parcels office.
When challenged by the band’s president, Jack reported to have indicated that it was now his problem to solve. We don’t know exactly what happened next, but the band started to make payments as it could afford them.
The Hoskins family became aware of the situation and the band was engaged to play for an official steelworks function some time later and afterwards a donation was made to the band by Mr. Hoskins. That was an indication of the high regard in which the band was held by A.I.& S. as it was known then.
Over the ensuing years, the band made a name for itself playing engagements in the Wollongong area. Almost every Saturday morning, it would play on the corner of Crown and Church street. It also attended band contests. The first of which was in 1936, coming first in the South Coast Championship. Back then, there were a number of brass bands in the Illawarra area, starting at Helensburgh, then Bulli-Woonona, Wollongong Town band, Wollongong Steelworks, Port Kembla and Kiama.
The Steelworks Band continued to enter contests and were very successful on and off over the years.
Gradually, all other bands disbanded and in 2000 the Miner’s Federation Band made the decision to also disband due to diminishing numbers. Some of the remaining players from that band have since joined the City of Wollongong Brass Band.
During World War II, the band was officially attached to the 34th Battalion Regiment and based at a camp west of Dapto. There they performed all official duties and also played at various points around the town, where troops were positioned. One such place was the Fort Drummond gun emplacement.
At the end of the war, the band was alerted that an “important announcement” was imminent and to be ready to meet in Crown Street as soon as it was made. The news that the war had ended came around the middle of the day and the band then assembled and played to the crowd. Later that night, a lot of people had gone home (including most of the bandsmen) but there was a reasonably large group of revellers determined to continue celebrating and would not take notice of police, when asked to disperse.
At that point, the local sergeant of police arranged for Jack Tougher to get on the back of a truck and play to the crowd and was then driven slowly to Lang Park, so the crowd would follow and allow them to carry on without disturbing anyone. A car was waiting to bring Jack back to the township (where the main Crown Street Mall is now). This event became known as the “Pied Piper” episode.
In the early fifties, an offer was made to the band, to purchase the house at No 3 Ellen Street, Wollongong. This was accepted and the band started paying it off privately to the owners. After a time it became necessary for the owners to seek finalisation of the balance. The band had very limited funds but the secretary and treasurer approached the Commonwealth Bank for a loan. The bank set up the repayments, so the band could repay the loan as we raised the money.
To do this, the band ran a huge Christmas stocking raffle every year, with wives and other volunteer helpers, working a roster during the lead up to Christmas. The electrical store H. G. Palmer (where Retravision is now) let the band store the stocking just inside their front door each night.
Also, for many years, a Lucky Envelope “raffle” was operated outside the National Bank in Crown Street, every Saturday morning. These and many other activities went toward paying off the house.
The next step was to build a new band hall and a lot of canvassing was done for donations of money and materials. The steelworks donated used furnace bricks and large steel RSJ beams. Plaster manufacturer R. Barbee donated the acoustic ceiling. Mr. Toulmin (a father of one of the young players, who was a licensed builder) oversaw the project, arranging trades people etc. at no cost to the band. Once again, band members got to work and dug the foundations (1m x 1m) in clay and attended many working bees to help keep down the costs. An official opening was held in 1961, with many local business people and civic leaders present. The band president at the time was Mr. Charles Jennings, secretary Bob Wallbaum and treasurer Mrs M. Tougher. The building is still as it was designed having had no alterations except for maintenance and painting.
In 1979 the band committee approached the steelworks with a view to obtaining financial support to purchase a new set of instruments. At that time a set would have cost in excess of $40,000.00. The steelworks came back to the band, saying it could not help us with this amount of money but felt that, if using the steelworks name hampered our fundraising efforts, they would assist in the cost of changing the name of the band.
After a lot of discussion, it was decided to change the name to Wollongong Brass Band.
For many years, the band attended the Sydney Anzac Day march and was the first civilian band in the parade, following the armed forces bands. It continued to do this every year until 1971. In 1973, the band played for the Anzac march at Windang, followed by a concert and has done this continually for over thirty years. The band has a contingent playing in the Wollongong march as well.
In (circa) 1953, the band played for the opening of the then new Police Station in Church street (that building has since been demolished).
1975 saw the band play for the opening of the Crown Central Shopping complex and in 1988 it played for the opening of the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre by HRH Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Another notable performance was in 2003, when the band played at the rededication of the Wollongong Cenotaph, playing for the march and the inspection of the troops by Minister Dana Vale.
There are many more functions the band is called upon to perform at – too numerous to mention – but be it official, sporting, a street march, religious events or just plain playing in the park the band has performed for all these events making a huge cultural and musical contribution to the City of Wollongong for seventy years.