Article MT224

The Billy Bowman Band

The Minute Billy's Music Starts, your Legs will Dance Themselves!

The Billy Bowman Band was probably the best-known dance band in Cumbria for much of the last century.
In January 2002 Sue Allan talked to Billy Bowman about his musical memories.

These days you can probably find a barn dance somewhere in Cumbria on any given weekend, played by one of a dozen or so folk dance bands resident in the county.  Some have been on the go for over 20 years: I myself played in the Ellen Valley Band, which had 22 yearsof playing under its collective belt when it finally wound up a few years ago.  However, they're all 'Johnny-come-lately's' by comparison with the doyen of dance bands, the late lamented Billy Bowman Band, with its 85 year history of entertaining Cumbrians.  No Hunt Ball, Fair Day, village dance or wedding was complete without the Bowman Band, in their distinctive red jackets.  And the name Bowman is still very much a part of the musical landscape in Cumbria, with Billy Bowman's well-known music shop in Lowther Went, Cockermouth. 

Billy is the son of the original Billy Bowman and still plays music regularly, albeit more for pleasure than for work these days, and as we settled down in the comfortable living room of his bungalow in Broughton with a pile of old photographs and a few musical instruments, Billy reminisced about his family.  Music evidently runs in the blood because although it was Billy's father who started his eponymous band, with brother Jack and sister Florrie, in fact grandfather Johnny Bowman was also a musician.  Johnny played concertina and banjo in the somewhat alarmingly named 'Broughton Darkie Band'.  As politically incorrect as the Black and White Minstrels perhaps, but blacked-up minstrel bands were a popular style of entertainment in the early years of the 20th century.  Johnny was also a prize-winning Cumberland and Westmorland wrestler, although Billy did admit somewhat ruefully that he had the unfortunate habit of pawning his prize cups - and turning them into drink!

The old days …

But our story really starts with Johnny's son Billy who, invalided out of the First World War, bought himself a melodeon and started the Billy Bowman Band in 1916.  His day job was as a farm labourer, hired at the Whitsuntide and Martinmas Fairs in Cockermouth for £2.10s for a six month term.  The money he earned with the band no doubt came in very handy, and Billy ended up playing for the dances at the Public Hall on those Fair Days, with maybe 250 people paying a shilling or one and sixpence each: riches indeed. 

The mainstay of the band was always Billy on accordion (it soon replaced the old melodeon) and younger sister Florrie on piano.  Actually he also played the saxophone, but Billy junior was not certain how good his father really was on it: “He kept the sax on a hook on the wall in the kitchen.  But do you know, he had just to reach up as if to lift it off its hook and our cat would bolt straight out of the kitchen!”  Not a great recommendation certainly, but he was a great accordion player, despite not being able to read music.  Billy again: “Florrie was the music reader: if a new tune came out Florrie would buy a copy and then then they would all practise it out on a Saturday night.  Every Saturday night for 21 years the band played the Public Hall in Station Street, Cockermouth (where the NatWest Bank is today), and anybody in the band who couldn't 'busk' along to the new tune was out.”

Billy's younger brother Jack played violin or drums in the early days, until he went in the police force and moved to Lancashire, and after that the band would pull in perhaps a fiddle player, such as Ralph Denwood, or maybe a trumpet player.  There were various other players over the years, but always Billy and Florrie.

Florrie, who's now 95, was just a young girl when she started playing, and it was Billy who got her to go to piano lessons.  A few years ago Florrie spoke about her memories of the early days of the band in a radio interview:

“I would never have played if it hadn't been for my brother Billy.  He used to come and drag me out of bed when he came in at night.  He would say, “Has she practised?”  Mother would try to shield me, but Billy knew if I hadn't.  He'd go right upstairs, and drag me back down in my nightdress.  I'd be sitting with tears dropping down on the notes as I played: Oh Where, tell me Where, has my Highland Laddie Gone or Won't you buy my Pretty Flowers - I played that 'til I could see t'flowers coming up t'piano!"
“For my first turn out with the band my brothers walked to Dovenby with a concertina, a melodeon, and me.  But when we got to Dovenby School, they hadn't got permission to use the piano - in fact it was locked.  So I was told to go back home, and I had to walk back from Dovenby School on me own.  I was terrified walking back, a dark night like that, and it was half past eleven when I got home.  So instead of making my debut at Dovenby, I made it at Loweswater the week after.  There was somebody ill, so they asked our Billy to play.  "Now", he says, "you can come along with me - you've thrown your music lessons up (well I didn't like them and I thought I could play better without!) and you're not going to waste mother's money like that, so you'll follow me."  Out came mother's bike, and I followed him to Loweswater, pushing our bikes half of the way through floods: Cockermouth streets were flooded that day - 4th October 1918.  I played until about three o' clock in the morning for a bit of practice, but I must have been all right because they gave me two shillings.  Well, I thought I would never be poor any more!  Mind, I was frightened in case my mother would take if off me, but she didn't - so it all went on sweets.  So that was the start.  I was 12.  Mind you, when our Billy said, "You follow me", I didn't realise I would follow him for the next fifty years!”

Initially the band used to travel to dances on motorbikes and sidecar, with the accordion on Florrie's back, although later they travelled by car.  Florrie, remembering those early days, said: “We used to play all day on Fair Day in Cockermouth and then get the motorbikes out and go to Seaton and play until four o'clock in the morning.  One time our drummer Harold said "We'll not bother with motorbikes, we'll get our James' old car."  So we loaded it up, but it wouldn't start.  Now, the Fair in those days was on the main street, so we had to push the car through all the back streets, then leave it down at the 'Goat' while we went back for the motorbikes.  I hadn't time to charge the lamp - they were carbide lamps - so I put a tin of carbide in my pocket and set off, thinking that I'd catch our Billy and he'll charge them up for me.  But he went via Camerton, and I daren't do that because there was supposed to be a ghost at Camerton, a Black Dog.  So I went round by Workington, my lamp was giving up when I got on to Workington Bridge.  Just then a policeman stepped out: "Do you know you've no light?"  "Ooh", I says, "has it gone out?"  "Aye, it's gone out!" he says.  "Have you got your driving licence with you?"  I says "You're not going to make a case of it!" He says "I am!" Well, I arrived at Seaton about twenty past ten, I think it was, and I was crying.  I says “I've got a summons!” and they all laughed on the stage - they all laughed!  I had to pay at Workington Court, and all the money that I made at the Fair Day and at Seaton, they took it all off me.  I'd played all day and all night for nothing!”

The Billy Bowman Band played at all the Hunt Balls.  Billy junior explained: "We did all the final dances, the Melbreak and the like.  You see, in those days each village had a Hunt Ball, and each village chose a Queen.  Now on the final night, a bus load went from each village, to support their Queen.  The Ullswater final used to be in the Drill Hall at Penrith, but after that burned down they took it to the Pavilion at Keswick, where the Blencathra final was as well.  However, the Ennerdale Hunt used to hold its final one year at Gosforth and the next at Broughton, but my dad would never travel as far as Broughton, nor to Morecambe for the Lunesdale final - although you would have thought that was a prestige job.  He would just say 'Oh hell, I needn't go all the way to Morecambe when I can get a job at Keswick on the same night!'"

The other regular booking, every Saturday night, was Cockermouth Public Hall.  “When you went in, it was a proper dance hall where you paid your money and the lasses went this way, the fellas went that way, up two lots of stairs.  The stairs came out at either side of the stage, so the fellas were on one side and the women on the other.  And my father played there for 20 - 21 years.  There was always fights at such Saturday night dances, in fact, if you didn't see a fight you got your money back!”  By the mid 1920s Billy and his band had become such local celebrities that a poem was written about them and published in the Cockemouth & District Advertiser in 1926.  Jack Bowman was so tickled he put a tune to it and added a few lines to be sung as a chorus:

Oh it's barn dance, foxtrot, quickstep, lancers, Billy's the lad to suit all dancers;
Any old tune, any old time, Billy's the lad for rhythm and rhyme.
But just what were the tunes the band used to play? I asked Billy about the music, and he said that the band played what would now be called old-fashioned tunes, for old-fashioned dances such as the Canadian three-step, quadrilles, lancers and eightsome reels.  “Most of those dances have gone now though - the most we did in the latter days was Three Drops of Brandy and Dashing White Sergeant.  We always played hunting songs of course, although when I first started (around 1950) they didn't sing - there weren't vocalists in bands in them days.  And if we had a signature tune it was John Peel and then straight into the Posthorn Gallop.  If we got a new player that was the first thing they'd have to learn.”

Billy's memories of the family firm are legion: “I remember the end of the war, when I was about 9 year old: they'd announced the end of the war, and I think my sister got me up out of bed and said "Come on, the war's over."  And when I got outside, there was my father and Florrie with accordions marching through Cockermouth main street with virtually the whole town behind them, literally leading everybody up the street.  In those days beside the monument, there were two air raid shelters, and they hoisted my father and Florrie up on to the air raid shelters and that's where they played - and everybody danced.  That was VE night in 1945.”

So when did Bill join the celebrated band?  “Oh, even as early as 1949-1950 I was going out playing with them, although I was only about 12 or 13 and still at school.  They needed a drummer and so I was put on to drums.  However, I went in the Navy from 1954-56 to do my national service - and naturally I played with the ship's dance band.  Funnily enough, when I first went down to Portsmouth, the officer interviewing us looked at me and said "Billy Bowman?" (I was actually christened Billy, not William).  "Billy Bowman?  Does your father have a dance band?" Hell, I thought, somebody down here knows the old man.  "Yes", I says, "he does.  Do you know him?"  "No", says the officer, "It just sounds like that sort of name!" That was strange now, wasn't it!"

“When I finished I went away to work for two years but then came back, and then in the 1960s I introduced a guitarist - who happened to be my auntie's son, my cousin John.  There were four of us then: my father and Florrie, and me and my cousin, and we could do all the pop stuff too.  That's where we scored really, because when pop groups came in, a lot of bands like ourselves fell by the wayside, but we could do the pop as well.  I resuscitated the band, if you like, being the younger end of it.”

Things certainly began to change in the 1960s.  For one thing, village hall pianos became a big problem: they were unfashionable and so becoming neglected.  This was a problem, since any instrument that was at a fixed pitch, an accordion for example, would have sounded awful with an out of tune piano.  However, the indomitable Florrie never let a little thing like that worry her: she would just transpose the tunes by a semitone without batting an eyelid.  She was even capable of playing a little electric keyboard with her left hand in one, and transposing into a different key on the piano with her right hand, at the same time!

A few village hall pianos were particularly memorable.  Billy takes up the tale: “At Kirklinton one time, it proved impossible to get a note out of the piano.  There was some lads standing about, so I says "Does the piano not get used?"  "Oh we use it," they said, "we keep our bowling sticks in it."  Now what the heck bowling sticks were, I don't know - must have been some sort of game - but when we opened the lid there's all these big long sticks inside.  We took them out, but the piano still wouldn't play.  On another occasion, at Morland, the band were met by the committee who proudly said: "We've a new piano for you this time, Florrie."  "Oh," I thought, "here we go again."  Someone had donated an old piano, must have polished it for years because it was like a mirror - you could have shaved in it.  But when we tried it you couldn't get a scale out of it.  So we asked, "What have you done with the old piano?"  "Oh we're going to throw that one out."  "Where is it now?"  "It's just behind that curtain there."  "Right, you can just get it out again, we said!”

By the 1960s Billy Bowman senior had been playing almost 50 years, and one night finally decided that he couldn't do it any longer.  Billy junior went round to his Aunt Florrie's the next day to break the news.  Florrie relates what happened next: “He announced "Dad's finished."  "What do you mean, he's finished?"  "He's finished with the band", Billy said.  So I said "That's me finished as well then.  I always said, we started together and we'll finish together." Billy was indignant: "What about me with all the bookings?" And my husband was sitting there, so I asked him what he thought, and he said "Well, I think you always helped your brother, and I think you should help his son."  "Oh", I says, "I'm back to square one then!"  However, when I was 67 I gave him three years notice.  I says, "Billy, when I'm 70 I'm going to finish."  "Oh well", he says "I'll be 40 then - so we'll finish together!"  We had a great night playing in a marquee for our finishing do, but before long he was back in the clubs with another partner.  He's never given up!”

And the new ….

“Once again,” says Billy “I got on on the road, this time with a lad called James Garner as a musical comedy duo called Double Trouble.  I did stand-up comedy - various routines, including Frank Spencer and a vicar.  But people kept asking us for dances - so we did Dashing White Sergeant, Canadian Threestep, Gay Gordons - we did the lot, just with guitar and drums, no backing tapes or anything.  And we used to sing too.  In the end we had to go back to being the Billy Bowman Band, because we found people weren't putting Double Trouble on the tickets, they were putting Billy Bowman!  I even had Florrie back in the band briefly in the late seventies, when James came back from holiday with his leg in plaster.  We had two bookings lined up - at Seascale and Ullswater Hunt.  Florrie was then about 86 and hadn't played with us for years, but I rang her up and said "Florrie, can you help us out?" And all she said was "What time are you picking us up?"  And that was that: I took a digital piano out of the shop (his own music shop) and we did the two bookings, Florrie and me.

“In recent years I found myself playing for a lot of silver weddings, of people whose actual weddings I'd played for, and then the weddings of their children too! In the end I decided to retire from taking bookings on Millennium Eve - I'd been playing about 50 years by then.  However, I still play baritone sax with Music Masters, a local big band, and I've got on to button accordion - the sort my uncle Jack played - and drums with Dearham Brass Band.  I just play for pure pleasure now."

There's no doubt that music runs deep in the Bowman veins, and Billy's as passionate about his music shop in Cockermouth as he is about playing music.  “It was always my ambition to have a music shop - although for a lot of years I had a travelling shop, selling fruit and veg.  In my mind I wanted a shop to replace Jimmy Dias's old place in Carlisle, where my father and I had bought most of our instruments.  And now I've got what I call a proper music shop, with violins, trumpets and woodwind.  We're not just a guitar, amplifier and organ shop.  I also teach one or two kids, just really as a favour (I don't charge very much).  I'm very lucky to be doing what I do, being involved with music all my life and having the support of my wife Margaret, who has worked alongside me all for 43 years.”

So it remains to be seen if that really is the last of the Bowman Band.  However, when a man who admits that he's already had more farewells than Frank Sinatra says he's giving it all up, can you really believe that will be the end?  Somehow, I don't think we've heard the last of the Billy Bowman Band, especially when Billy starts telling me proudly that one of his grandchildren is already showing talent for music - a young lad by the name of William …

Sue Allan - April 2002

Article MT224

Article originally published in Cumbria Life magazine April 2002.  The Billy Bowman band were recorded by Peter Kennedy for the BBC in Folk Trax recordings FTX-117/ FTX-120 & FTX-307.  See archived Folk Trax website: for further details. Kennedy recorded these in the period 28 - 31 August 1959, when he was actually contracted by the BBC 'to undertake a tour of the North of England (West Yorkshire, Westmoreland [sic] and Cumberland) during the period 22nd August to 5th September 1959, for the purpose of collecting recordings of folk music for inclusion in the Corporation's Recorded Programmes Permanent Library'.

Top Home Page MT Records Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 15.9.09