Canterbury Salvation Army Band at 125

In the last few centuries, the city of Canterbury has heard many sounds. From Cathedral bells and the chatter of market traders and shoppers to river users and the roar of motor cars – there can surely not have been a moment of quiet in all those years. Since Victorian times, there has been one sound in particular that will be familiar to many city residents; that of Canterbury Salvation Army Band. Its music has been integral to services at the church, and it has woven its way into much of the city’s life – services in the High Street, carolling at Christmas and many civic events are all supported by it.

This year, that band becomes 125 years old. My history in the band stretches back only three years, which is almost nothing proportionally – so I was keen to find out more about the group and its past. Twelve and a half decades is a long time; what has changed, and what stays the same? What has the band done so far in its life, and why does it do what it does?

The Beginnings of the Band

Firstly, we should say something of the church from which the Band is formed. The Salvation Army (or simply, the Army) opened a centre, known as a Corps, in Canterbury in 1886. Occupying an old converted rag mill (where we are still based today), the early days were difficult for Salvationists who experienced physical attack and even sackings from their jobs because of their involvement with the Army. Thankfully, modern times are very different – people of all ages and areas of the local community take part in our activities, and injury is not quite such a threat!

Photo of the Fry family of SalisburyAt this time in the early history of The Salvation Army (the organisation was formed in 1865), brass banding was increasingly becoming used as a tool to spread its message of God’s love for humanity; the first such group was in Salisbury, led by the Fry family in 1878 (who are pictured on the left). They formed a brass quartet which they took to the streets in outdoor meetings.

William Booth, The Salvation Army’s founder, was initially opposed to these new brass groups, fearing that they would bring with them the culture associated with secular brass bands at the time. Upon realising the power that such music could have when used in the right way, though, he sent out an order encouraging their formation:

‘And as in many instances the obtaining of an instrument is a difficulty, we shall be glad if any friends who may have such instruments lying idle will consecrate them to this service, and send them to Headquarters. This includes violins, bass viols, concertinas, cornets or any brass instruments or anything that will make a pleasant sound for the Lord.’

It is interesting to note that whilst today’s Army music groups are most commonly brass bands, Booth was interested in all music. He came to see that there was an opportunity to relate to people through popular tunes by grabbing their attention and seizing the chance to talk about God. Frequently, early Salvationists would use the melodies of the songs of the day but change the lyrics to Christian words. Booth recorded in his journal in 1865:

‘We had an efficient band of singers, and as we passed along the spacious and crowded thoroughfare, singing, “We’re bound for the land of the pure and the holy,” the people ran from every side. From the adjacent gin palaces the drinkers came forth to hear and see; some in mockery joined our ranks, some laughed and sneered, some were angry, the great majority looked on in wonder, while others turned and accompanied us, as on we went, changing our song to “There is a Fountain filled with blood,” and then to “With a turning from sin, let repentance begin.”’

So what of the beginning of our band? 1889 saw the formation of the group; it had seventeen members, and the first conductor (Bandmaster) was John Snow. Below is the first photo of the Band that we can currently find in our archives. It was taken in 1892.

Photo of the band in 1892

Still a commitment

One item from our collection that demonstrates the sense of purpose of the Band is below: a Bandmaster’s and Band Member’s Bond. This document commits an individual to serving, through music, The Salvation Army and in doing so commits him to God’s service. Note the stamps on it, where this pledge is renewed annually. This illustrates how being a part of the Band was seen as a real duty and ministry – and indeed, this is one aspect where things remain much the same today. Though it is not formally renewed each year and the language is more relaxed, Salvation Army Band members still sign a commitment to act for God and to use their music as a form of ministry.

Bandsman's Bond

As stated, instruments were important too – further shown by the photo of the dedication and presentation of the tuba below. Judging by the mayor shown, Le Fevre, this image is from the 1930s.


Still a part of services

At Canterbury Salvation Army, we hold, as we have since the beginning, Sunday worship services, and the Band still plays a large role accompanying songs and providing pieces of music to reflect upon, inspire or uplift.


The photo above shows the Band accompanying a song during a service in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Though you would find the room looking a lot more modern (for example, there is more comfortable seating and the platform the Band sits upon is much lower!), you could find a similar-looking scene today. The nature of a musical ensemble allows for many people to be involved, and our current group (led by Martin Neeve) has 25 or more players. Though the numbers have fluctuated over the years, the Band’s drive has always come from a desire to worship God and to express a Christian message of hope to others.

Still playing far and wide

The photos below show that Canterbury Salvation Army Band has always gone out and about when playing. The first shows it playing on the city’s old Cattle Market. This area is now occupied by the bus station – but once played host to weekly Sunday open-air services during the summer. Once the outdoor service finished, the group would march up the High Street to Whitehorse Lane and the Army hall where the evening service would be held indoors.


The next five photos show the Band taking their music to Canterbury shoppers and further afield: at Long Market, outside Marks and Spencer, in Wingham and in Belgium in 2012.







So what has changed? The timing of our open-air services and the way we do them is a little different, but we still worship each week outdoors. Mostly we do this outside Costa or the Beaney on a Sunday, but many other places at different times of the year. Particularly at Christmas, we can be found all over the place.

Each summer, we make the most of the warmer weather and visit a different residential home or complex each month for a short service. In May 2014, for example, we visited St John’s Hospital nearby and, along with our Songsters and Singing Company provided a range of popular hymns and some of our other music. We can find the original source of this idea in our archives, way back in 1967. An entry from a meeting of the Corps Council states:

‘It was proposed… by the Y.P.S.M. that the band alternate open airs to villages[,] old peoples [sic] homes and hospitals during the summer months.’

Canterbury Salvation Army Band, along with our other musical groups, is glad that it is able to take its music all over the surrounding area – even abroad, visiting Belgium twice in recent years, for example. It is all part of a wish to engage with the public and to share our Christian faith.

Still inspiring future generations

I did not feel that it would be right to talk about the history of Canterbury Salvation Army Band without referring to Canterbury Young People’s Band. The YP Band was formed in 1922 and since that time we have seen generations of young people developing their talents and their understanding of the Christian purpose of an Army band, and moving up into the adult equivalent.

Below is the earliest available photo of the YP Band – from 1926, it shows a high membership posing outside the hall. Today’s YP Band is led by Chris Ward, who follows a long line of leaders and helpers that have freely given their energies to supporting the next wave of Army musicians.


Still with links to other Christians

Throughout its history, the Band has strived for good relationships with other Christians in Canterbury (and elsewhere!). This photo from 1931 depicts queues of Salvationists awaiting ‘church history.’ The visit to Canterbury of General Higgins called for this ‘extraordinary occasion’ and saw 3,000 people in the congregation. Our Band led them in from Station Road West – but this was not the last of such services.


The Band regularly meets in the Cathedral for worship – both as part of United services with other Canterbury churches and to provide music for the University Carol Service each Christmas. Moreover, we are always willing to be part of other churches’ events and services, for we think that our shared faith makes us all the richer.

Now even more open

So far, it seems that the Band has experienced more of an evolution than revolution. We still take part in services, open-airs, we still make a commitment, we still do it all for God. So what has changed?

One big difference is that players are no longer required to be Soldiers of The Salvation Army. A Solider is a member of the Army who has made a specific commitment to God and pledges to live by certain standards. Traditionally, a Band member would be required to be a Soldier and to wear an Army uniform, but membership of the Band at Canterbury is more open in modern times. We now welcome players from other churches, and indeed anyone who is interested and can play can now come along.

Most movingly, a friendship that begun as a result of this open invitation between the Band and one member of the public who began to come along to Band practices has seen a Christian faith grow in her. She recently became a Salvation Army Solider and spoke of her love for God on her day of enrolment. She says that were being a Soldier still a requirement of being in the Band, she would not today be a Christian.

Summing up

The modern Canterbury Corps is active every day of the week, running the Annexe, BP Groups, a Friendship Club, Monthly Fellowship and a choir practice throughout the week. There is even a French club. Its activities are diverse, yet the Band still remains just as much a part as ever.

Its music has enriched the lives of many people through the years – certainly in the time I have been here, I have heard many stories from the public of how this is so. The sheer number of events the Band has been a part of is huge, but new projects are always in the pipeline, and relationships with new groups are always being formed. What keeps it fresh and relevant for modern audiences and modern Christians is its ability to renew. Thanks to the YP Band and shifts in policy on membership, the people who form the Band change all the time, and the way we do things changes too. That ensures that Canterbury Salvation Army Band is always looking to the future.

We may not do things perfectly, and we certainly do not get all the notes right – but our goals is always to reveal God to those who hear us, to bless the public, and to draw attention to modern Christianity.


A note on copyright: all images are used in good faith to illustrate the history of the group. If you are unhappy with any of these appearing here, please contact us for their removal.

Can you help? The images here are just a small part of what must be hundreds of available photos of our Band. If you have any that are not here, please do send them to us for inclusion. Additionally, if you have any corrections, suggest these too. We hope to update this page over time, so your contributions will help. Please check back!

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