The story of St Kilda Brass begins in 1901, when the popular North East Valley Band folded, and its members sought a replacement. The Mornington Brass Band was thus inaugurated, with Ned Smith as conductor and William Wills as president. After a year the band had managed to source instruments and uniforms, enjoyed good attendance at rehearsals, and decided to affiliate with the Otago and Southland Bands’ Association.
The Mornington Brass Band attended its first contest in 1903, won the B Grade championship in 1904, and repeated this feat the next year in Canterbury. Ned Smith and his ambitious band then wished to enter the A Grade, much to the disbelief of their supporters. But at the 1907 contest in Christchurch, it placed fourth in the A Grade – a field of 29 bands from around the country – firmly placing the band in the highest grade. 1908 was an even more successful year, in which Mornington won its first national A Grade championship title in New Plymouth. The band had set itself a high standard for the next few years.
In 1911 the band requested a subsidy from the Mornington Borough Council to help it attend further contests. All the council could offer was £2/2/-, if the band would perform inside the borough monthly. When the band turned this offer down, the St Kilda Borough Council offered to sponsor the band: for £40 a year, the band would be required to change its name and provide four concerts in the St Kilda Borough. They accepted this deal, and in 1912 became the St Kilda Municipal Band.
The newly named band sustained its success until World War One interfered and there were no contests, nor a full band with which to compete. During and immediately after the war, the band continued to provide its civil service, despite several changes of conductors and personnel.
The St Kilda Municipal Band entered a new era in 1923 with the appointments of conductor James Dixon and drum-major William H Donaldson. This combination led the band to victory at the 1926 contest held in Dunedin by the South Island Brass Bands’ Association and the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition committee. Additionally, eight soloists won their respective events.
The next major triumph for the band came in 1929 at the national contest in Wanganui, where it won every important trophy – the Besson Shield, Conn Shield, Hawkes Shield and Boosey Shield. The champion band included seven wining soloists. To commemorate this achievement, the St Kilda Borough Council and vice-presidents presented each member with a gold medal.
In 1935, St Kilda repeated its 1929 effort at the national contest in Timaru. Here the band became the first recipient of the New Zealand Brass Bands’ Association Gold Challenge Cup, and nine soloists became national champions. Immediately after this contest, James Dixon retired, along with several older members. Thus it was the end of a very successful era.
Les Francis took over a much younger band in 1936, and with it enjoyed moderate success. Due to wartime conditions, the band decided not to attend the 1940 Centennial Exhibition contest in Wellington. Public opinion, however, forced the band to reverse its decision, and luckily so – St Kilda once again became national champion band, and was asked to perform a special programme at the exhibition.
There were no more contests held during World War Two, when no fewer than 26 band members served with the armed forces. William H Donaldson left his position as drum-major in 1945, leaving behind a record of seven firsts and four seconds in 14 quickstep contests. After the war the band began to return to its previous position, under Les Francis until 1947.
Nine months after his appointment as conductor, K G L Smith led St Kilda to victory at the Dunedin Centennial contest in 1948, a result repeated in 1949. After such success it was suggested that the band be sent to represent Dunedin and New Zealand at the Edinburgh Music Festival, though at an estimated cost of £20,000 this was impossible. Determined to travel overseas, the band chose a much closer and more affordable alternative.
In October 1949, after months of fundraising and the day after a farewell concert, St Kilda left for Ballarat, Australia. Here the band competed in the Australian national contest with an impressive record – it won two events, and took the championship by six points. Returning on a plane caught up in storms, the bandsmen were welcomed home as heroes all the way down the country.
By the 1950 contest, the conductor’s son, Ken Smith Jr, had won three New Zealand championships in a row and one in Australia. This earned him an invitation from Fairey Aviation Works Band in the UK to join them as principal cornet. To celebrate his achievements, St Kilda held a farewell concert for him in the Dunedin Town Hall, which was filled to capacity.
In 1953 a National Band was selected to represent New Zealand in the UK. St Kilda had the largest representation of any band, including K G L Smith as conductor. Following this successful tour, the representatives were welcomed home, and K G L Smith resigned from St Kilda to take up another appointment.
Ken Smith Jr soon returned to New Zealand and took up the position left by his father. Within months he had truly followed in his father’s footsteps, and led the band to victory at the 1955 national contest in Auckland. St Kilda was becoming so popular that in 1956 it provided a junior band, which itself became so popular that it later split into two bands.
The band’s next triumph came in 1958 under the baton of Elgar Clayton. St Kilda won the championship in Dunedin by a record seven points. The next few years were not quite as successful, though in 1961 the band celebrated its Diamond Jubilee, by producing a commemorative magazine and holding a weekend of celebrations. St Kilda returned to top position at the 1962 contest, and repeated this in 1963, but unfortunately did not secure a hat-trick in 1964. The next win came in 1966 in Dunedin, again led by Ken Smith Jr.
Allen Francis took over as conductor in March 1967, and in the same month the band reached a first by producing a televised programme. Following this came another contest win in 1968, and although this wasn’t repeated in 1969, St Kilda had another first: Alan Brieseman became the first playing member to win the Champion of Champions event. The band then took another championship in 1970 under Ken Aiken-Jones. In 1975 the band began a financial relationship with Otago Savings Bank, and the next year it celebrated its 75th Jubilee.
St Kilda Brass has continued to be at the fore of New Zealand banding in the last few decades, taking another championship in 1992 under Peter Adams. The band has also been well placed at several Australian contests, accompanied international soloists, and in 2001 celebrated its centenary with a large concert in the Dunedin Town Hall. In 2005 the band welcomed its new musical director, Steve Miles, from the Brighouse and Rastrick Band. St Kilda Brass has since instituted a successful annual concert series, premiered brand new compositions, recorded a CD, and continues to perform solidly at national and provincial contests.