To be invited to write a history of the Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra - a set of highly dedicated musicians who have provided me with so much enjoyment - is an assignment which has given me much pleasure.

Music is an important part of our national heritage and its history is a fascinating study, so too is the development of music in our town, in which the Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra (previously the Basingstoke Orchestral Society) has played such a major part. In recent years it has gone from strength to strength and as Basingstoke has grown, both in numbers and stature, so too, has the Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra. With more and more musicians in the town, many of whom are accomplished players, it is no exaggeration to say that the Orchestra today has reached a very high standard of performance and much commendation for that goes to the present Conductor, Stephen Scotchmer. But in analysing the present status of the Orchestra one has to realise that it is the pioneers who have gone before, both players and conductors, who have paved the way.

Looking through the 'Gazette' files, there are references to concerts presented by local musicians as far back as the 1880's and just when the Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra was formed is a matter for conjecture. It does seem however that 1930 may have been the year when the old Basingstoke Orchestral Society got under way. At that time, there were a number of highly competent musicians including members of the family of Mr. Vernon Griffiths, proprietor of a furniture store in Church Street. Vernon Griffiths formed his own orchestra, which I heard playing at an exhibition in the old Sarum Hill Drill Hall in the mid 1920's. The cellist, Ivor, was ever present with the Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra until recent years.

Another cellist, still remembered by many, was Bill Woodcock, who played with the Symphony Orchestra until shortly before his death in 1978. He was also a member of a musical family, the younger members of which formed the Orpheus Concert Party in 1913. A year earlier, Bill Woodcock had played at his Wesleyan Methodist Church in Church Street on the occasion of the memorial service to the victims of the Titanic disaster.

The Orpheus Concert Party broke up during the First World War but reformed in the 1920's at a time when the Vicar of Basingstoke, Canon H. W. Boustead - a fine violinist - played a leading part in the town's music. His augmented orchestra, which played at Garden Fetes, is still often referred to. One of his players was Dr. Leslie Housden, not only a highly respected local practitioner but `Uncle Leslie' of Children's Hour on the radio.Going back to earlier times - the days of the reign of King Edward VII, members of the Bird family, connected with the Basingstoke Gazette, formed themselves into trios/quartets and joined forces on occasions with the Woodcock family.

Towards the end of the reign of King Edward, a very fine musician - Mr. W. H. Knight - came to the town, an orchestra was formed, and it is true to say, that this was the foundation of Basingstoke's first orchestra. Some of the members played in it for many years and eventually became founder members of the 1931 Basingstoke Orchestral Society.

On 28th February, 1931 the Basingstoke Orchestral Society gave a concert in St. John's School. The Pavilion, as the old Sarum Hill Drill Hall was called, could not be used owing to structural repairs - within a comparatively short time it became the Plaza cinema. At the concert Dr. Leslie Housden said "If only we had a large concert hall in this town, I am certain it would be very well used. There are many things we could do if we had an ample hall." We now have the Anvil, one of the best music venues in the country. The Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra is rightly proud to perform in it and is well worthy of such an honour.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Orchestra ceased to meet regularly, although occasional concerts of light music were given. Then in 1942, against considerable odds, weekly rehearsals were resumed under Dr. Cecil Williams from Southampton University and regular concerts were given in the new Queen Mary's School hall in Vyne Road. Programmes were ambitious and included major works from the 19th century symphonic repertoire. One memorable occasion was a performance of Merrie England in May 1945, to mark the end of the war with Germany. A choir was formed for the occasion, and from this nucleus of singers grew the Basingstoke Choral Society.

At this time also, Gilbert & Sullivan performances were resumed in Basingstoke under the baton first of Roy Dacre and then of Frank Banwell, who succeeded Cecil Williams as conductor of the Orchestra. For several years it was tough going with a shortage of players and a shortage of cash. The financial crisis was eventually solved by the sacrificial generosity of the players.

By the 1970's the orchestra built up a fine following under the Conductorship of Mr. Peter Marchbank, who had a post with the BBC, with both the Haymarket Theatre and Queen Mary's College used as venues. The average attendance was around 400. With the departure of Mr. Marchbank, after holding office for 14 years, the Orchestra was fortunate in finding Mr. Andrew Forbes as a replacement.And so to the present with Stephen Scotchmer, who has conducted the orchestra since 1980. Blessed with an influx of new and talented players, he has lifted the Orchestra to its present very high standard. The programmes in recent years have included well loved classics and many difficult comparatively unknown compositions, challenging works to the players and often a musical education to those of us in the stalls.

With such a fine Orchestra and so many dedicated musicians, a solid foundation, so firmly rooted, will enable those now entrusted with maintaining such a high standard of performance to face the 21st century with every confidence.


by the late Arthur Attwood, Basingstoke town historian

Upcoming Concerts

Rory McAllister Hosts 'Cinema in Symphony' Saturday, June 16, 2018 - 19:30

Williams       Star Wars, Harry Potter, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Shore           The Lord of the Rings
Morricone    Gabriel's Oboe (The Mission)
Barry            Out of Africa
Beethoven   The King's Speech (from Symphony No..7)