Phillip Island & District Historical Society

The Phillip Island Band Rotunda

Last updated on 19-Sep-22

These historical notes were written by Christine Grayden for an application to Heritage Victoria to have the band rotunda Heritage Listed. Unfortunately the application was not successful, but the rotunda is covered by a Heritage Overlay by Bass Coast Shire Council.



From application to have the rotunda placed on the state Heritage List 23.4.2010


The Phillip Island Band was formed in 1923 with a £50 grant from the Phillip Island and Woolamai Shire Council. Apart from a brief period in recession, the band continued until World War II. It went into recess for the whole of the war, due to members serving in the forces, or being required for essential services. The band reconvened in 1948 and operated continuously until it was disbanded in 1967. 


During the early years the band practiced and performed in various venues, many of which were shared by the numerous other organisations on Phillip Island at that time. As a result of the difficulty this situation caused, the members decided to build their own band room, which became the Cowes Band Rotunda. In the same year in which the Cowes Band Rotunda was built – 1935 – the Anglican Parish Hall was also built to fulfil the need for accommodation of organisations for events. This was also the year the Phillip Island Masonic Lodge was established, and interestingly, the Rotunda, Parish Hall and Masonic Lodge branch all survive; in the case of the former two, despite having been built by voluntary labour during the Depression when quality materials were beyond the means of this relatively poor farming and tourism community.


Only the applications for Bandmaster in that same year, 1935, survive from the earlier band, but these are themselves a collection of major figures of Victorian band history. However, hundreds of documents survive from after WWII including:


Bank statements

Accounts payable and invoices

Account books

Score sheets from band competitions

Programs, etc

These documents form a substantial archive of band history and together with the Cowes Band Rotunda itself, represent an important aspect of Victoria’s cultural history. Brass bands were, and still are, a major feature of many Victorian communities. The Society is fortunate to have both our document archive and an original building in good condition to represent a period of this history. 


The Cowes Band Rotunda differs completely from other extant rotundas and bandstands listed previously and illustrated on the Heritage Victoria website. Sturt Street Ballarat East Bandstand (VHR Number HO106), Beach Street Band rotunda (VHR Number H1735), Titanic Memorial Bandstand (VHR Number HO105), Catani Gardens Bandstand (Catani Gardens VHR Number H1805), Warrnambool Botanic Gardens Bandstand (Warrnambool Botanic Gardens VHR Number H2090) and Walhalla Bandstand (VHR Number H1315) all have partly or fully open sides, and apart from Walhalla Bandstand which is mounted on a frame and Beach Street Band Rotunda which is on a brick platform and both are approached by a staircase, all are single storey. All have more than four sides. None appear to be form-work concreteand certainly none appear to have a brick domed roof.


Whilst the Society members do not pretend to be experts in band rotundas and bandstands, our members are widely travelled and do note older buildings as they travel around. None has seen anything resembling our Cowes Band Rotunda anywhere else in Victoria. 


The band members decided on an enclosed design because they needed an all-weather venue in which to practice. They opted for a square design because that was the least complicated for volunteers (many of whom were farmers or worked in shops) to build under supervision of their bridge building supervisor turned newsagent, “Big Jim” Hyslop. The roof proved to be a problem for the amateurs to build, so they asked Harry “Brickie” Bennell to build it, assisted by band members. 


As Laurie Dixon said: 


            “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.”   (See record of interview with John and            Laurie Dixon, p.3, Appendix 1). 

The floor of the second storey originally had a covering of bitumen paper to make it more waterproof. (see record of interview with Arthur “Arty” Murdoch, p. 2, Appendix 2)

Both the unique design and method of building – readily available materials and volunteer labour by band members – were indicative of the isolation of Phillip Island in 1935. Of course other parts of Victoria were also isolated in 1935, but Phillip Island is the only island as far as we know that tackled a problematic (for those days) project such as a concrete and brick band rotunda. There was no bridge in 1935, and everything came by sea. So the band members built with what they had, or what they could easily get, and what they could afford as the world crawled out of the Depression era. We think they did an amazing job, all things considered.

However, the open top floor design proved to be a real issue, as recorded in Band Secretary Rupert De La Haye’s letter to the Phillip Island Shire 20th October 1954:


            “(b) Band Rotunda needs quite a sum of money spent on repairs to keep out           water downstairs, which comes in by the bucket full from the top floor...”

            (See Appendix 3)


While the band members maintained the Rotunda as best they could, even painting it inside and out (correspondence 12th Dec 1955, Appendix 4), by 1962 the Band had accumulated enough funds to glass in the top of the Rotunda (correspondence 6th July 1962, Appendix 5) to prevent the water problem. Local joiners Alf Towns (a band member) and Frank “Snow” Dixon inserted the windows which were fitted with pad-bolts so they could be removed for play-outs to enable the sound to more effectively reach the audience gathered below. Having the Rotunda closed-in upstairs when the windows were in place meant that the Band could also practice upstairs which was more spacious than the downstairs area, which was used for storage of the music library and music stands, etc. (see record of interview with Arthur “Arty” Murdoch, p.2, Appendix 2) It was an ingenious arrangement and a wonderful solution to the various problems the Band faced. 

There can be no doubt that the Phillip Island Band and its Rotunda were extremely important to the lives of Phillip Islanders and the thousands of visitors who holidayed there every year. The correspondence records contain scores of letters from organisations which were assisted in their fundraising efforts by appearances from the band, or by collections taken up during band play-outs. In one year alone (1947/48) the Band donated £447 divided between the Red Cross, Phillip Island Progress Association, Warley Bush Nursing Hospital, and the Phillip Island Shire Council for lighting and improvements to the Cowes Recreation Reserve. (see Appendix 6).


The correspondence records also include a letter (unfortunately in very poor condition) from the Shire Council thanking the Band for playing for the Governor, Sir Rohan Delacombe on his visit in 1953, and a letter from “a Music Lover on Holidays”, 1959 (see Appendix 7 & Appendix 8) thanking them for the enjoyment they gave.


Furthermore, the Band enjoyed the full support of the community, both through donations by members of the community, and funding from the Council, which also subsidised the Band by charging a token annual rental for the Rotunda (which sits on Council managed land). 


Whilst the Cowes Band Rotunda has not been used for its original purpose since 1967, it has been used for tourist purposes – firstly as a storage for the fair ground proprietor who operated in the immediate vicinity for many years, and now as a ticketing office for the ferry service – and this is not ideal for a building for which we are seeking State Heritage Listing, it is an advantage to the Rotunda to be occupied and used in some compatible way which has not markedly altered the structure. This use has ensured that its maintenance has continued and it is not subject to vandalism because it is monitored by police and Council by-laws officers. A large sign on the north face of the building states: “Victoria Police. This area is under video surveillance. National Community Crime Prevention Program. Bass Coast.” This has proved to be very effective in stopping problems.


The understanding of the building by the public is enhanced by the placement of a plaque by this Society on the south eastern wall of the building in 2003 which states:


To commemorate the construction

of the Band Rotunda in 1935,

By members of the Phillip Island Band,

with the support of the community.

Plaque erected by the Phillip Island Masonic Lodge No.512

and the Phillip Island and District Historical Society 2003.