Phillip Island & District Historical Society

The Phillip Island Band

Last updated on 22-Sep-19

The following are the transcripts of two interviews regarding the history of the Phillip Island Band. 


Arthur “Artie” Murdoch – the Phillip Island Band and Rotunda

Interview by Christine Grayden, 10.3.2010

I was involved with the closing down of the band. We gave some of the instruments to the Wonthaggi Technical School who were trying to start up their own band then.


I came to the Island in 1941. I joined the band. The youngest member was Bob Cleeland who was eight years old when he started.

The Cowes Band Rotunda was used for play-outs and regular practice. The amusement park operator locked all valuables in there when the band was in recess.


We used to practice downstairs. We had the glass shutters put in to stop the wind and rain getting in upstairs. Alf Towns and “Snowy” Dixon made them up at the joinery. Each shutter had four padbolts which could be lifted out and the shutters removed. With the shutters in place we were able to practice upstairs, and with them out on the east side we could have our play-outs up there and everyone below could hear us.

We did Music for the People at Erewhon Point for some years. Then it went to Mossvale Park. Every year we led the Anzac Day parade. After the service people would mill around and we would go up the top of the Rotunda and play hymns. The Rotunda was really our headquarters.

We had Sunday afternoon play-outs in all weathers. Some people always turned up, whatever the weather.

The early band competed a lot, including at South Street, Ballarat. There were trophies on display in the Rotunda, but I don’t know what happened to them. There was also a doll’s pram that had special significance for the early band and was always at the Rotunda, but I don’t know what happened to that either.


Harry Philpott, an earlier bandmaster than my era, became famous in Melbourne as a band player and conductor. We had a lot of good players over the years who ended up in top Melbourne bands.

The band even had its own cricket team. The Historical Society has the score book for that.

To get upstairs we went up a staircase to a manhole cut into the floor of the upstairs storey. This was on the east wall. There was a handrail for safety. Once upstairs we shut the manhole behind us. Downstairs we had a big cupboard for our library on the south west wall, and also stored music and the music stands under the stairwell. The rest of the space downstairs was taken up with tables and chairs. We had no kitchen, but we did have the power on.


Upstairs was a vacant area. There was bitumen on the floor up there to make it waterproof and the water that got in was diverted through drain holes. Prior to the window shutters going in though, the floor deteriorated, cracked and loosened.

We would take our chairs upstairs with us to practice. At the most we had 27-30 players, but it dwindled down to 7-9 in later years. The young ones we trained up had to leave and go to Melbourne for work.


The process to finish up the band was a long one. It was this:

25.3.1976:  some music and instruments went to Wonthaggi Technical School.

15.12.1977: Council told us the band needed to renovate the Rotunda or they would demolish the building.

28.5.1979: Council decided to renovate the building.

16.6.1979: The music library and remaining equipment was given to the Wonthaggi 
Citizens Band.

27.7.1979: The band handed the Rotunda back to the Phillip Island Council.

3.4.1985: The remaining band funds of $1211.06 were presented to the Phillip Island Ambulance Service to help furnish their new building.

I hope I’ve been of some help. We don’t want to lose the Rotunda really.


John and Laurie Dixon – the Phillip Island Band and Cowes Band Rotunda

Interview by Christine Grayden, 2.3.2010

J = John            L = Laurie

L: We joined about 1955. We were still going to school.


J: We were riding our pushbikes because we didn’t have our licenses then. We had no lights; we just rode by the moonlight with our instruments on our backs. We were mates with Allan and Robert Cleeland who were in the band, and we went because of that and just kept going. We were in the band for eighteen and a half years.

I started off playing the bass. I would ride home with it on my back. They looked at my lips and decided I’d be better off with a smaller instrument, so I bought a cornet. [John has donated the receipt for one of his cornets to the Phillip Island & District Historical Society]


L: We used to practice once during the week and on Sunday morning.


J: Sunday morning we sometimes practiced in the top section of the old shire hall. We had juniors and seniors. When the juniors got good enough they joined the main band. Noel Cleeland and Bill McLardy were the instrument tutors.


L: Juniors would go into the main band to play hymns and that sort of thing that was easier to play. The more you practiced the better you got.

L: Some of the other members were Hec Goodall, Bob Watson, the De La Hayes. Harry De La Haye was Secretary-Treasurer for quite a while. 


J: Alf Towns and Frank Towns were also in the band. Frank was a wonderful soprano cornet player and played in the Victorian Police Band for many years.


L: Noel Cleeland was a fantastic euphonium player. He won at Ballarat.


J: We didn’t compete much in our time. Not at Ballarat. There was a local group of bands from Warragul, Wonthaggi, Phillip Island and Leongatha. We used to compete together locally. There’s a photo of us lined up for a competition in Leongatha in the early 1960s. [This photo has been donated to the Phillip Island & District Historical Society by the Dixons. Players identified.]

J: Other Phillip Island Band members to play in other bands were: Philpott played with the Malvern Band, and so did Bernie De La Haye, who also played in one of the force’s bands. Melvin De La Haye played in the Victorian Police Band then in a band at Surfers Paradise. We had some wonderful players.


L: John and I played til the last day.


J: Unfortunately a few fellas died and others left, and we were down to ten or twelve of us. We couldn’t recruit others, and we just got too small to be a decent band.


L: A few instruments got stolen out of the rotunda after the band broke up. The rotunda stood there vacant for quite a few years before the council took it over.


J: Some of the events the Phillip Island Band played for were: the annual Warley Hospital gymkhana; we always led the New Year’s Eve procession; always led the Anzac Day march; Carols by Candlelight; St Theresa’s home for the Aged and Infirm; all the guest houses; around the streets and opposite the Shire hall. We played for the Back to Phillip Island centenary of settlement celebrations in 1968.


L: We also had a Band talent quest each year. Don and Bob McRae were baritones and would sing. Marj Mallory was a school teacher and she would recite poetry. Don Grayden was another baritone and he sang. Ronny Jobe played banjo; we picked up a few talented musicians from the guest houses. Merv Simpson played the trumpet. He was a brilliant trumpet player and played with the Victorian Trumpet Trio.


J: The New Year’s Eve procession was a big deal. It had a huge following. At about 5.30 p.m., all the different guest house guests dressed up and had floats all decorated up. It was enormously competitive. Individuals dressed up too, such as Hec Goodall. The band used to lead the procession and then we’d play out the front of Winston McGuir’s milk bar. He had three billiard tables out the back. Joey Churchill bought it from him. It’s unclear whether McGuir’s had the first mint juleps ever, or Regos’s cafe had them. In the procession there’d also be a jazz band on the back of a truck.

There would be dances everywhere. One in the Shire Hall, one in the Parish Hall, one at most of the Guest Houses. At Ventnor Hall Tom Foster would boil up four gallons of milk in a big copper and his wife Hilda would make us coffee. It was wonderful.


L: When we started the contests we had to have uniforms. We tried to have a uniform of sorts – grey trousers and white shirts – but someone would always turn up in light trousers. In one photo we’re standing around just in sports jackets and all sorts of clothes. 

We couldn’t afford to have them tailor-made. We went to the disposals store. We got air force uniforms – black with red stripes down the sides of the trousers and matching hats. [John has donated his band hat to the Phillip Island & District Historical Society]  John was the same size as me, so he went up and tried on uniforms for me as well.


J: We had great fun trying on everything!


L: Robert Cleeland played by ear and could read music. He played in a dance band when he was twelve or thirteen years old. Grace, his mother, played piano and organ and his dad “Fat Jack”, sang. Noel Cleeland would practice, practice, practice, every night. That’s how he became so good.

Frank Towns carried his mouthpiece in his pocket and practiced while he was riding his bike. He went into the Police Band later.


J: Robert Cleeland and I used to sometimes play the Last Post and Reveille as a duet at Anzac Day ceremonies. Sometimes Alf Towns would play with us and we’d play a trio. We used to go to Bass for the Anzac Day ceremony. One year we were asked along and had to be there by five a.m. We took a breath, and Robert used to count us in, “One, two, three”. He just got to “three” and someone from the army unit started playing! What a mess-up!

J: When we played in the Rotunda we lifted some of the windows out, the ones facing the Isle of Wight. There was always a bit of a crowd gathered below. 


L: We used to practice up the top too, as we all decided it had a better atmosphere.  Alf Towns and Frank (“Snow”) Dixon put the windows in.


J: Our first bandmaster was Noel Cleeland. Then we had Bill McLardy, then Ernie May, who was a printer from England, and finally Tom Westley. We would play in the shed at the Council caravan park and the footy rooms.


L: We used to hear the old band members talk about how they built the Rotunda. The bottom part is all concrete form-work. They’d build one section, then they’d go back and do the next section until it was finished. It was all done by hand – no cranes to help in those days. It was very hard work!

When they were building the Rotunda they had no idea how to build the dome. So they went and saw “Big Jim” Hyslop who had the newsagents and had been a bridge builder. He had a big pushbike, and used to have a little dog in a basket on it. He worked it out for them. Harry “Brickie” Bennell built the dome, assisted by band members.


J: There was a terrific dance band, which Tommy Westley from our band led on trumpet. Dezzie Cartwright on saxophone and his brother Bobby on clarinet. Hec Goodall was the drummer, Teddy Roberts, Millie Roberts and Jimmy Cleeland alternated on piano. Les Baine also played in that band. They were very popular. 

And of course the Phillip Island Band was always very popular too. People used to love to come into Cowes on Sunday afternoons and listen to the band play in the Rotunda.