The Dagenham Girl Pipers turn 80 this year

THE WORLD S first female pipe band and one of Dagenham s most famous exports turns 80-years-old in 2010. The Dagenham Girl Pipers was the brainchild of a somewhat eccentric pastor called Joseph Graves. Rev Graves arrived in Dagenham in March, 1930, afte

THE WORLD'S first female pipe band and one of Dagenham's most famous exports turns 80-years-old in 2010.

The Dagenham Girl Pipers was the brainchild of a somewhat eccentric pastor called Joseph Graves.

Rev Graves arrived in Dagenham in March, 1930, after some years living in Canada, to take on the role of Congregationalist Minister at Osborne Hall, on the newly built Becontree Estate.

The 50-year-old, who had held previous jobs as a bronco-buster and a psychic medium, had a life-long fascination for bagpipes, and decided he would form his very own pipe band.

He chose 12 girls from his Sunday school, all around the age of 11, and hired Pipe Major G. Douglas Taylor, of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, to teach them piping, drumming, and Highland dancing.

It is said Taylor that held the classes in secret because he thought teaching girls would damage his reputation.

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Rev Graves later recalled the first practice session: "Twelve small girls, all giggles, seated in a semi-circle around the kilted Pipe-Major...something really big happened in that Thameside town that morning - the Dagenham Girl Pipers was born!"

It was important that the girls looked the part, so Rev Graves' wife, May, got sewing and soon produced a set of tartan uniforms, complete with kilts, tartan socks, velvet jackets, and tam-o-shanters.

After 18 months intensive training, the pipers were ready to play their first concert.

Taking to an outdoor stage near the Osborne Hall, they performed to an audience of journalists. It wasn't long before bookings started to pour in.

In 1932 they took the Lord Mayor of London Show by storm. One newspaper wrote at the time: 'Girl Pipers of Dagenham, we salute you. Marching through the sanded streets of an historical city you succeeded more forcibly than any other feature in portraying the spirit of the age. You were like a fresh breeze from the mountains.'

The following year, as demand grew, Rev Graves resigned as pastor, and turned the band into a professional full-time organisation. He appointed himself as manager and made the girls, many who had now reached school leaving age, paid employees (with a wage of �5 a week.)

By 1936 the pipers, who were not allowed drink, smoke, or wear too much makeup, were fulfilling 400 engagements per year, and at busy times had four separate bands all doing separate tours.

In 1937 Rev Graves' first ever recruit, Edith Turnbull, became Pipe-Major, and another original member, Peggy Iris was appointed Assistant Pipe-Major.

In August that same year they headed to Berlin and played in front of Adolf Hitler, who declared that he wished Germany had a band just like them.

The pipers were touring Germany's Black Forest two weeks before World War II broke out.

During the trip Rev Graves noticed the band was surrounded by increasing numbers of storm-troopers and realised they could all be in imminent danger. He cut the tour short and took the girls back to England.

Shortly after their return he received a letter from their German hosts which read: 'Hopefully once this minor dispute is settled the pipers will be able to fulfil their contract.'

During the war, which turned out to be not such a minor one, the band played for war charities and entertained the troops, sometimes in war zones as far away as West Africa and the Middle East.

After the conflict came to an end, the girls, many of whom had left the group to help the war effort, re-formed.

Their popularity continued to soar. There were tours to America, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and Europe, and numerous television appearances.

Rev Graves retired in 1948, and was replaced by David Land, who ran a theatrical company in Broad Street, Dagenham (and was later known for nurturing the careers of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

He managed the pipers until his death in 1995.

As the band headed into the 1960s the costs of running a large company rose considerably, and it was decided that the group should revert back to amateur status.

From the 1980s onwards the Dagenham Girl Pipers struggled to attract the massive crowds they once enjoyed, but continue to play at functions and concerts around the country.

Today the band is still together and remain a much loved and respected part of the community.

If you want to book the Dagenham Girl Pipers for an event, or would like to join the group, call Karen Mahoney on (020) 7723 2456.