Bill Sharpe, who along with his supportive wife Joan, and their companionable dog Billy, was relaxing in their cosy Littleport home, when I visited.
In the course of conversation, talking about his involvement with the Littleport Brass Band, I asked him how he got into music, and who influenced him?
His father Sidney, whose nickname was Sam, was an excellent tuba player who worked for the Metropolitan Police force in London and also played for the Metropolitan Police Band, and following in father’s footsteps, at just 8 years old, Bill took up playing the cornet.
Bill admitted that he didn’t practice when he should have done, but there again he wasn’t given any lessons either. One tip he had from his Dad which he still remembers to this day was “You really can’t go wrong if you just play long notes.”
Bill would constantly listen and memorise music which is how he says he became such a good musician.
“I did what I wanted to do and I had some great times, but I truly wish I made a career out of music”, said Bill.
“The family lived in Finborough Road, Earls Court, before the war broke out, and young baby Bill moved with his parents and sister Betty up to Littleport in Camel Road that Bill recalls was then surrounded by fields.
Bill first played for Littleport and stayed with them, despite being conscripted into the RAF for 2 years. Then he was in the Lakenheath Band before they amalgamated with the Newmarket and Brandon Bands to become the Forest Heath District Band enjoying yearly trips playing in Germany.
Bill now 85, is currently with the Ely Military Band and plays the tuba, having given up the cornet.
“You need less puff to play the tuba and we are in dire need for bass players” says Bill.
The Sharpes continue to support the Littleport Brass Band regularly by attending their Christmas concerts despite Bill not being such an active player with them anymore.
In fact Bill and Joan’s three children, Graham, Beverly and Simon kept the musical family tradition going by playing for Littleport Brass Band. Even their granddaughter Eleanor (now in her 20’s and living in Milton Keynes) would be called upon to play the ‘Last Post’ on Armistice Sunday either at the war memorial or in St George’s Church.
Graham, now 54, was a very good tuba player and he was only 17 when he joined the Artillery Band. Their daughter Beverley (56) played the tenor horn, and their youngest, son Simon (42) still plays the cornet for the Littleport Brass Band.
One wall of Bill and Joan’s hall is covered with band pictures from the past – a lovely reminder of what great musical times the family shared.
In 1932, the Littleport branch of the British Legion formed a Littleport Silver Prize Band only for the name to be changed to The Littleport Town Band in the 70’s.
Joan told me that she didn’t have any interest in music whatsoever until she met Bill! She came to love music as well as Bill.
“But the Band always came first in our household, so both me and another band member, George Elsegood’s wife Doris, used to call ourselves the ‘band widows’. Invariably we were left alone while our husbands cleared off to pursue their musical interests.
“There were many times I’d have to get the 3 children washed, feed and clothed before getting all of us ready and out of the house and travel to Hunstanton where Bill and his band members would regularly play. I wouldn’t see Bill for the whole day, so in order to occupy and amuse the children I would repeatedly walk them up and down the promenade which tended to tire me rather than the children” Joan said smiling as she remembered.
The Council paid for the band to play on the green at Hunstanton, and in Ely’s Jubilee Gardens.
“The British Legion Band which became the Littleport Town Band was so rigid in its rules those days that they wouldn’t allow women. It all changed under the tutelage of band player and member Brian Hall. Women’s Committees were being formed around the country, and here in Littleport we organised many events from dinner dances to bingo to raise money as well as playing in the bands.
Violet Cooper, Phyllis Neal and Joan Sharpe are the 3 remaining members of that Women’s Committee.
The hut behind the Ex-Servicemen’s Club is in fact owned by Littleport Brass Band who bought it in 1947.
There used to be two huts and an open access, and both the Guides and Red Cross also used the premises before one of the huts got knocked down.
There were a lot of band members who came from the Salvation Army like Tom Sallis (who’s now passed over) and George Elsegood who was the conductor.
Littleport Band used to have concerts on the green, and they played every time there was a feast week too.
“Do you know I met Bill when I was 17 and he was 22 I would do anything for him being young and in love. I would religiously clean his baritone for him which meant getting all the saliva out of the instrument, but when he later on swapped it for a tuba I said to Bill, ‘If you think I’m cleaning that monstrosity of a thing out – you’ve got another think coming. In fact being silver plated I’m able to clean it in the bath for him,” said Joan, who will be celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary this year.
Bill still enjoys playing but not so much these days practicing only on a Tuesday at Ely. And already the Ely Military Band have a few dates booked, so why not go along and enjoy their Patriotic Concert on Sunday 14th October at Ely College, or their Remembrance concert at the Ely Market War Memorial on Sunday 11th November at 11.30 am? They will be finishing the year with their highly entertaining Christmas Concert on Sunday 16th December from 2.30 pm to 5 pm.
Tickets for their Tea ‘n’ Tunes and Christmas concerts are £6.00 which includes seasonal refreshments. You can buy your tickets either from Burrows Bookshop, The Passage, Ely or from their Band Secretary Mr Malcolm Fletcher 01353 663324 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Just to round this tale off, The Littleport Society has uncovered some very interesting information involving one of the original Littleport Brass members Charlie Key who went to Australia on the emigration ticket and even took a band out there. Charlie went on that post-war emigration scheme where you could go to Australia for just £10. A baton with the inscription ‘Presented To E.A Dring- From the Littleport Town Bandsmen – Nov 1916’ was found in Australia and sent back to The Littleport Society who proudly have it on display. Edwin Arthur Dring (born 1863) was one of the founder members of Littleport Brass Band in the early 1880’s and was elected to become their first bandmaster.
In the Littleport Society Magazine Issue 74 Autumn 2009, Roger Rudderham’s article entitled Teddy Dring And The Littleport Town Band wrote about the baton…
‘At a meeting of the Littleport Town Band in November 1916, held to discuss a concert in aid of the band’s funds, a presentation was made to Mr Teddy Dring of a silver mounted baton, inscribed “Presented to E.A. Dring from the Littleport Town Bandsmen Nov 1916”. The presentation was for the tremendous work he did to bring the band to a state of efficiency and for his zeal in assisting members and stimulating others. Mr Dring remarked that it was a labour of love and it had “always given him the greatest pleasure to foster the love of music in others.” When the presentation was over Mr Dring took up his baton and “was soon wielding it in the conduct of the band.”…