Back to the Future: Digitising the Nowra Town Band

When I undertook this project, I immediately knew I wanted to work with the Nowra Town Band. With 140 years of history and some incredible resources that the Band has rarely had the means to collate and preserve, it seemed the perfect organisation to work with. My personal connection to the Band helped; I grew up playing cornet with them, and over the years my entire family has been dragged into playing a part, whether in the Band itself or providing vital assistance at band events.

I decided on the project itself while during preliminary research online, for the precise reason that I was able to find very little. In an age where the internet is one of the primary resources for finding information, this felt like something that I could address. I attended the Annual General Meeting to raise the idea of building a website with both a fleshed-out history section and, just as vitally, information about joining the band. The band committee agreed, and from this, the official Nowra Town Band website was formed.

Part of the reason this project is the right step for the Band is because of membership. While the Band is still thriving 140 years on from its inception, its numbers are dwindling and many of the players are older members of the community. A simple and accessible website broadens the avenues through which people are able to learn about and get involved. Ease of use was one of the main priorities due to the predominance of older people both currently in the Band and that show interest in getting involved- seasoned players who have recently moved or retired to Nowra make up a decent amount of the new additions. A website opens up an extra and very important avenue through which people are able to find out about the Band, its history, and its upcoming events.

Through the website, I aimed to highlight the community nature of the Band in order to create a welcoming atmosphere for potential new members that mirrors the welcoming nature of the Band itself. Throughout its 140-year history, the Band has never been an elitist organisation; many of its members have been beginners or self-taught, with little professional tutelage. This ties in with the accessibility of the site, as it makes it available to the widest range of people possible. An alternative form of presentation would have been increasing its social media reach through sites such as Instagram or YouTube, however without the basis of a simple website, these would have the potential to alienate the people most interested in joining or accessing the history of the Band. These may be a future endeavour for the Band, however they also require more frequent updates than a website which needs only to be updated with upcoming events.

The History section of the website is also a vital part of the project. The internet has become incredibly pertinent in the preservation and presentation of stories. In the process of writing it up, I showed my partner’s mother who grew up in Nowra one of the sources I was using. She read through it, pointing out the families she recognised and the members she went to school with or was taught by, and in an incredible coincidence, we figured out that she was distantly related to the man who had written the book she was reading. It is little moments like these that signify the importance of this project; not only for the future of the Band, but in increasing the visibility of its past and allowing these connections to be made. In small towns like Nowra, the personal connections to community run deep, and the preservation of local stories in easily accessible ways can be incredibly meaningful even to those who are not personally involved.

Nowra Town Band, 1980. Nowra Town Band Archives.

As part of the digitisation work, I scanned a variety of documents and photographs that have been stored in the Band Hall for decades. Many of them are falling apart, fading, or otherwise showing the test of time, and it is for this reason that taking advantage of digitisation technologies is important for organisations like the Nowra Town Band, whose resources for document preservation are limited by money and space. Digitisation requires resources of its own, which is why the Band’s archives had only been partially scanned prior to my involvement. The efforts which had already been undertaken were impressive, however the time-consuming nature of the work has meant that they have not yet been completed. This is something I hope to continue with in the future; working with the Band on this project has been an incredible experience, and it would be a privilege to continue this work with them.

Passion Project: 140 Years of the Nowra Town Band

Community history is personal history. All history is made up of stories, but the stories of communities, whether they be physical or imagined, occupy a different space than academic books and essays. There is something of a heart to it, to the connections between people that come through far more than the bare facts and statistics.

The Nowra Town Band is one of Australia’s longest continually playing brass bands, coming up on its 140th anniversary in 2020. It’s something I’ve been involved with since childhood; I joined the program that was run at my primary school at the age of 8 and have been playing with them since. The band is open to anyone, regardless of skill level, and is a staple of many local events around the Shoalhaven.

The Nowra Town Band at Nowra’s Anzac Day March, 2014

Much of the band’s history is preserved in photographs, newspaper scraps, and two plastic storage boxes full of miscellaneous documents found on top of a filing cabinet in the storeroom. It’s not that no one wants to preserve the history; there’s just a limited amount of time and resources that can be put towards it. The efforts that have gone into the preservation and organisation of these have been impressive, but are reliant on members using their free time to do so. This has resulted in some great work, done by people out of passion rather than obligation, but there’s only so much that can be done.

When visiting home over the break, I used that time to drop in to the band and work out what we wanted to do. I was shown the boxes of records, containing all sorts of things from 1925 onwards- attendance records, building plans, trustee declarations, a mish-mash of records that one of the members had cleaned out and made sure were stored somewhere carefully. She asked if I could start by scanning them, pointing out that if the hall were to burn down, that nearly one hundred years of records would be lost with it.

As we progress further and further into the digital age, it’s becoming easier to preserve these things, but for small volunteer organisations such as the band it can be hard to find the time and resources to do so.

I was also given a copy of a book put together for the centenary in 1980: Nowra Town Band in the City of Shoalhaven. It’s only short, 60 pages, but it goes through the history of the band from the earliest mention in 1880 through to 1980. It gives a timeline of the band, of major events, competitions, rises and falls in membership, but what made it particularly notable to me was how personal it is. The dates and facts are intertwined with anecdotes from members and photographs, not only professional group shots but candids, infusing it with a sense of compassion that is rare in more academic works.

The “Hula Girls”- a group of bandsmen in the 1950s who “enlivened many of the Band’s Concerts”

This is what makes working with the band so important to me. It’s personal to me, of course, having basically grown up in the band, but the nature of the community that has formed over the past 140 years is what makes up the essence of its story. The Nowra Town Band is a 140-year passion project that wouldn’t exist without its members and their families going above and beyond, and that’s what makes it special.