The O'Donnell Family


Bertram Walton O'Donnell, Irish by birth, was one of three brothers who were all, at one time or another, service bandmasters. All of them in fact were in the Royal Marines. Percy S.G. O'Donnell (1882-1945), after service as an Army bandmaster with the Black Watch and the Royal Artillery in Gibraltar, was Director of Music at Plymouth (1916-28), then at Chatham (1928-37), then Senior Director of Music to the R.M. from 1937, and succeeded Walton as Conductor of the BBC Military Band in 1937, remaining with the BBC after the Band was dissolved in 1943. Rudolph, the third brother, was Bandmaster to the 7th Hussars, (in which the young Walton served for a short time), then after a time with the Marines at Portsmouth (1919-1931) went into the R.A.F. He is thought to be a unique example of bandmaster/musical director serving in all three services. Both Percy and Rudolph composed. As examples we may note the former's Empire Fanfare, for trumpet, cornet, two trombones and timpani, and the latter's waltz Celtic, plus a Fanfare on the R.A.F. March Past. But it was Walton who achieved most and who is remembered, albeit tenuously, today. Born in Madras in 1887 (his father was Bandmaster of the 2nd South Wales Borderers - interesting how military banding runs in families, one thinks of the Godfreys and the Winterbottoms and there were other examples). He trained at the Royal Academy of Music, one John Barbirolli being a contemporary there. His service in the Royal Marines after some time as an Army bandmaster, was as Director of Music at Portsmouth, from 1917 (he was commissioned in 1921); he moved to Deal in 1923, his band there accompanying the Prince of Wales on a tour of Africa with such success that its Director of Music was made a Member of the Victorian Order. (He taught the Prince to play the ukelele). He then retired from the Royal Marines went to the BBC and formed the Wireless Military Band (the "Wireless" was later dropped in favour of "BBC") in August 1927. This quickly became a fine ensemble (its opening concert was in September 1927) and it did much to raise standards in the military, or concert, band world. Its repertoire excluded musical comedy and other light selections and "novelty" items. It was exclusively a studio ensemble and apparently never appeared in public. O'Donnell was on record as saying that the microphone was the sternest possible taskmaster. Its basic strength of 26 players - which could be augmented as required - was the same and with the same instrumental distribution as "true military" bands of that day. A typical programme from December 1929 (programmes were usually an hour in length) comprised a fantasy from the ballet, Victoria and Merrie England (Sullivan), the suite from the opera The Miracle (Humperdinck), a selection from Turandot (Puccini), the Wedding Procession from Le Coq d'Or (Rimsky-Korsakov), Mock Morris (Grainger) and The Flight of the Bumble Bee (Rimsky-Korsakov), interlaced with vocal solos from Norman Allin and Kate Winter. The Band recorded over 40 separate 78 r.p.m. discs. - overtures, including less well-known examples like Suppé's The Jolly Robbers and Gounod's Mirella (the latter arranged by O'Donnell himself), marches, folk tunes and classical arrangements, brilliant, unique ones made specially for them. It inspired one of the finest works ever composed for military band, Holst's Prelude and Scherzo Hammersmith, first performed in 1930 (it was also orchestrated and was, I understand, originally tried out by the composer in a two piano version at St. Paul's Girls School, Hammersmith where he taught). Unfortunately, Hammersmith was not recorded by O'Donnell with the BBC Military Band, nor was any of his own music except (in 1935) the Crusader March. The Band's relations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra after the latter was formed in 1930 were excellent, to the extent that the same pieces were often - perhaps too often - broadcast within a short time of one another by both band and orchestra. However the Band's programmes were greatly admired and enjoyed, not least by King George V; Walton left it (and his professorship of harmony, composition and military music at the RAM) in 1937 to take up a position as head of the BBC's Northern Ireland Region which included the conductorship of the then Northern Ireland Orchestra. He was familiarly known at the BBC as "Bandy" and he took part in many Children's Hour programmes in the 1930s. Many regretted the Band's demise as a wartime economy measure in 1943. Walton was not there to see it, for he had died of pneumonia, aged only 52 on 20th August 1939.

Bertram O'Donnell composed considerably for the military band. One piece I heard again recently with renewed pleasure is his Three Humoresques, brilliantly inventive and incisive, harmonically adventurous (for its time) and superbly scored. Its three movements, Pride and Prejudice, Prevarication and Petulance and Persuasion, supposedly derived from the novels of Jane Austen. The RAF Central Band played it on a record issued in 1986 and it was also recorded in the 1980s by the Coldstream Guards Band. Theme and Variations, Two Irish Tone Sketches, Woodland Sketches and Songs of the Gael (an extended selection of Irish melodies, which has also been revived in Doncaster in recent years.) (The last three were also arranged for orchestra) were other band classics and the Royal Marines Band Service at Deal still have at least the first two in their library. But Walton by no means confined himself to writing for band, or even to writing for wind instruments. For piano he published Two Lyric Poems (When the Sun is Setting and Before the Dawn) and for violin and piano A Slumber Song. His orchestral output, apart from the works arranged from band originals, showed an understanding of stringed instruments to rival his virtuosity in writing for woodwind and brass. The very lively and quite astringent Miniature Suite, for strings, was popular for many years (I recall a Doncaster amateur orchestra courageously tackling it in 1966) and there were also The Irish Maiden, based on two Irish traditional airs, a Minuet and the Fragment for strings. It would be pleasant to revive these, especially the Miniature Suite, but perhaps we should remember Walton O'Donnell primarily for his attempts to raise the status of military band music. Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Vivian Dunn, in a private communication to the author, has no doubt that the BBC Band was the finest in the world at the time, made up of the best professional wind players in London. Sir Vivian goes on to recall Walton O'Donnell as "a kindly man, a good sportsman, a gentleman to his fingertips, a paragon among British musicians". He learned much from him both at the RAM and in being privileged to attend rehearsals of the BBC Military Band at Broadcasting House. He himself ranks Walton's music with that of Holst and Vaughan Williams, high praise indeed.


 Major Percy Sylvester George O'Donnell MVO, Mus Bac (Oxon), LRAM, RM

The fact that, for a number of years, the three senior Divisional Bands of the Corps had three brothers as their Directors of Music is probably well known. Many readers will also be aware that these three brothers were all very skilled musicians. Recently, some documents relating to the early service of the eldest of these three brothers have been examined and this article is partly based upon the information found within them.

Percy Sylvester George O'Donnell was born on 26th November 1882 at Cannonore, in the state of Madras, Southern India. His father, Peter O'Donnell, had served with the 67th Regiment of Foot (later the Royal Hampshire Regiment) in Afghanistan before training as an Army Bandmaster at Kneller Hall. In 1882 Peter was appointed Bandmaster of the 2nd Battalion, the South Wales Borderers, which was stationed in India. The Regiment served in India and Burma until 1892, then moved to Aden, returning to England in 1893.

Four years later, in February 1897, the Regiment was at Aldershot when the young Percy S G O'Donnell, aged only fourteen years and three months, enlisted for 12 years' service, into the same regiment as his father. His occupation was given as musician and the witness at his attestation was his father, who signed himself as 'Bandmaster'. During 1897 the young O'Donnell received his 2nd and 1st Class certificates of education. In 1899 the Regiment departed for Ireland and then South Africa leaving Percy in England to study at Kneller Hall where he was awarded the Certificate of Music. Having been 'appointed' Lance Corporal on the day he became eighteen, he was posted to the Regiment, at that time serving in South Africa, arriving there on the 10th September 1901. On the 4th December 1901 he was promoted Sergeant and appointed Band Sergeant. Following the end of the Boer War the Regiment returned to England, O'Donnell arriving home on 3rd July 1903. For service during the South Africa campaign he received the South African Medal with clasps for 'Cape Colony', 'Orange Free State', 'Natal' and 'Johannesburg'.

Father Peter Silvester O'Donnell was to serve as Bandmaster of the 2nd Bn South Wales Borderers until 1905 when he retired from active service and became Bandmaster at the Duke of York's Royal Military School. On 22nd September of the same year Percy transferred to The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) with the rank of Sgt, joining them in India on 9th October 1905 as their Bandmaster.

On 14th February 1907 Percy married Miss Annie Elizabeth Burrows in Karachi and exactly a year later he re-engaged with The Black Watch, extending his term of service to 21 years. In October of that year a daughter, Gladys Mary, was born. However this happy event was accompanied by tragedy since his wife died shortly after the birth. At that time the Regiment was part of the Sialkot Brigade which was based in the town of that name in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Jammu/Kashmir region. In mid-December, when the baby was 7 weeks' old, a Board of Medical Officers from the Sialkot Brigade examined the situation regarding the health and plight of the baby and recommended that Percy should be allowed to take her back to England where she could be brought up by her grandparents. Percy was given three months' leave to do this with instructions that his journey should take him via the Suez Canal and also that, whilst he was on board the troopship, "He is fit for duty with troops during the voyage".

In 1911 the Band of the Black Watch was one of the participating bands at the Delhi Durbar commemoration of the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary. The Royal couple travelled to the Indian continent on board HMS Medina with the Band of the Royal Marine Artillery in attendance. On 12th December, once the formalities had been observed, an enormous march past took place, led by the Naval Brigade playing 'A Life on the Ocean Wave'. The Battalions of Infantry followed with bands playing their regimental march as they approached the saluting battery. PSG and his band of The Black Watch would have been amongst them.

In 1912 Percy married again. His second wife was Eileen Mary McDonnell and the ceremony took place at Kurseong, to the east of Nepal and not far from the tea-plantations of Darjeeling. According to genealogy notes on the website of the Irish singer and entertainer Alison O'Donnell, a descendant of Percy, Eileen was an Irish Catholic violinist.

The Band of the Plymouth Division, Royal Marine Light Infantry, as the Resident Band for the first post-World War 1 Royal Tournament held at Olympia

From 5th August 1914, the first day that Britain was officially at war with Germany, until 20th of the same month, Percy was officially 'on campaign' in India. From then until 24th October 1914 the Band was traveling to Scotland where he was posted to the Depot at Perth as the Bandmaster. He appears to have remained there until October 1915. During September an event occurred that was to change the life of Percy - the Welsh Guards were formed. On 8th September 1915 Mr Andrew Harris of the Royal Garrison Artillery (Gibraltar) was appointed as the first Bandmaster of the Welsh Guards and PSG was appointed as Harris' replacement in Gibraltar, effective from 1st October 1915. Whilst the Royal Garrison Artillery (Gibraltar) Band was classed as a minor staff band it was an important move since it could become a stepping stone to better appointments. Its main role was to provide musical support to the garrison and, when required, to play ships in and out of harbour. In June 1916 another event occurred that provided an unexpected opportunity for Percy. Bandmaster John Newton of the Plymouth Division, RoyalMarine Light Infantry, died at the age of only 43, following a long illness. The officers of the Division selected, from many applicants, WO (Bandmaster) Percy O'Donnell for the appointment of Bandmaster, Plymouth Division Royal Marine Light Infantry, effective from 27th November 1916.

In 1917 Percy took the Plymouth Band to entertain the 63rd (RN) Division Reserves, probably at Blandford Camp. In June of the same year the Band joined the British Expeditionary Force in France where it remained for almost three months. PSG described the visit in a letter from 'somewhere in France'.

"We are under canvas in a very compact little place of our own - very comfortable and very happy. We were kept at our port of disembarkation (which we reached the morning after leaving England, experiencing a very rough crossing) for exactly a week. There we gave daily performances (sometimes two programmes a day) to the various hospitals and camps in the neighbourhood, including a couple of concerts to the Labour Corps of the Marines. Then a 24 hour journey by railway brought us to another rest camp, where we remained one night, proceeding the next morning in motor lorries to our first billets, which were reached after a journey of three hours or so. "We were fortunate enough to arrive at our present billet in time to provide a band for a review at which the King was present. Our Divisional General personally complimented me on the smart appearance of the band on that occasion. (I had borrowed steel helmets, as everybody else was wearing one, and we looked quite warlike). "The Band is very much appreciated wherever we go, judging by the applause we receive. And I was especially delighted when our General said to me last evening, 'Yours is a very young-looking band; they play with more enthusiasm than most bands I have heard. Tell them I thoroughly enjoyed their programme tonight'. In addition to our official performances I always take the opportunity when it presents itself of giving extra performances to the men, just anywhere and at any time, and I feel that these impromptu shows are very much enjoyed. "The men are all working excellently and behaving splendidly. They are all in good spirits and health, and determined to make our visit a successful one"

It was also in 1917 that his daughter died at the age of nine. In addition, some time between 1915 and the early 1920's, his wife left him on account of the cold British weather - returning to India.

In late 1918 Percy and the Plymouth Band went to Paris for a 10-day tour that included the recording of the music to the film, 'The British Navy in Wartime', as well as concerts at French-Canadian and French hospitals and the British Embassy. As a result of their high musical standard and efforts the Band was selected as the resident band at the first post-war Royal Tournament at Olympia in 1919. The Band's wartime service, together with the performances at the Royal Tournament resulted in them being selected to accompany The Prince of Wales on HMS Renown on his morale-raising tour of Canada in late 1919.

In preparation for this tour the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty approved of Percy being appointed Temporary Director of Music with the rank of Lieutenant whilst in charge of HMS Renown's Band. This was relinquished on the 3rd December 1919 following the return of HMS Renown from the 4-month tour. In January of the following year it was becoming apparent that the Band might be selected to accompany the Prince of Wales on his extended tour to Australia and the Pacific islands during the summer. The Adjutant General wrote to Commandant RMLI Plymouth stating that, should the Band be so selected, it would add greatly to their appearance if they were issued with their War Medal entitlement before they boarded the ship. A nominal was quickly drawn up and the medals to which individuals were entitled were noted. Naturally they all claimed the British War Medal and the Victory Medal but 4 men additionally claimed the 1914-1915 Star. They were WO1 Percy O'Donnell, Musns Blacker and Wood and Bugler Williams. In response to this, the Adjutant General asked for evidence in support of the claim to be submitted by these 4 men. The Drum Major, Plymouth RMLI Band made the case, through the Commanding Officer of the Plymouth Division, that when hostilities broke out WO1 Percy O'Donnell had been proceeding to rejoin the Black Watch in India, presumably following a period of leave. He disembarked at Port Said having received the news that the Regiment itself was embarked and making its way back to Egypt. He also made the point that from October 1915 until November 1916 he had been with the Royal Garrison Artillery in Gibraltar. Musician Blacker had served as a Bugler on board HMS Empress of Britain from August 1914 until March 1915 whilst Musn Wood had served as Bugler from August 1914 to April 1915 on HMS Diana. Bugler Williams had served on HMS Nottingham from August 1914 until August 1916. This information was sent on 3rd February 1920 and, the following day, the Band was officially informed that they had been selected for the forthcoming tour. A week later the disappointing news that the engraving of the 1914-1915 Star should take place during March but the other 2 medals were not yet available making it unlikely that any medals could be issued prior to HMS Renown leaving on the tour.

The Plymouth Band that accompanied the Prince of Wales on his tour of Australisia give a concert at Hobart on 19th July 1920

When the Band returned from this tour The Prince of Wales, in recognition of the service that they had performed during these two important tours, presented the Band with the Prince of Wales plumes to be worn as part of the Band cap badge and helmet-plate. In addition, King George V appointed WO1 Percy O'Donnell a Member of the Royal Victorian Order.

However, the story of the 1914/1915 Star was still not settled. In March of 1921 the Commandant twice wrote strongly worded letters insisting that it was about time that the medal was issued, adding the, false, intimation that Percy was about to leave the Corps or take-up a new appointment. Confirmation of Percy's account was again sought and then passed to the War Office with the result that, 18 months after the Adjutant General, RM, had thought that it would be a good idea for the Band to wear their World War I medals during the first tour, the War Office decreed that Percy was not entitled to the 1914/15 Star.

This particular part of the story ends on 1st August 1921 when Percy O'Donnell, together with his 2 brothers, were commissioned as a result of an Order-in-Council dated 10th June 1921 that allowed the Corps to increase its number of commissioned Directors of Music from 2 to 5. His musical and military career continued to develop, whilst his personal life became further complicated - but that is another story. brother of Walton and Rudolph, Percy, after service as an Army bandmaster with the Black Watch and the Royal Artillery in Gibraltar, was appointed Director of Music at Plymouth (1916-28), then at Chatham (1928-37), then Senior Director of Music to the R.M. from 1937, and succeeded Walton as Conductor of the BBC Military Band in 1937, remaining with the BBC after the Band was dissolved in 1943. Both Percy and Rudolph composed. Percy he married Nina Leigh, a London-based singer in 1928 and they went on to have four children. He died in 1945.

All three brothers were good sportsmen in a number of sports (cricket being a big one, but plenty of others). For instance, Rudolph was a very good footballer, playing for a short while for Fulham. There's less about Rudolph than the other two. Rudolph spent time at the helm of the RAF Central Band, with their celebrated tour of the U.S. and their playing at the Potsdam Conference. Also, he reached the rank of Wing Commander.

The BBC Military Band was disbanded in December 1942. Major P.S.G. O'Donnell remained with the Corporation to advise on military band matters and on music for the forces.


Acknowledgements to Captain Roy Swales at the Fleet Air Arm Museum

and also a special thanks to Alison O'Donnell, granddaughter to Percy O'Donnell.


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