A Saint I Once Knew

Chris Whitehead
Mar 10 · 7 min read

Reg Davey’s funeral was on a weekday afternoon in Wombwell, an unassuming pit village near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. I was in my late 20s, a project manager for a civil engineering contractor. I took the afternoon off. Reg was someone I wanted to pay my respects to.

I arrived in plenty of time, but found myself squeezing my red Vauxhall Cavalier into the last available parking space. Glancing at the entrance I noticed a good number of people milling around outside. At least that’s what I thought they were doing. Once I drew closer it became apparent that they were the overspill to the service. The hall was packed to its capacity.

I managed to squeeze in to stand at the back of the auditorium. The Captain welcomed us. I recall him saying “We’re not here to mourn Reg, we are here to celebrate his life” but by the end of the first hymn the entire band was in tears and so were most of the congregation. I don’t remember much else about that service. I was overwhelmed with grief. I managed a word or two of each hymn before I was too choked to continue.

Cut to 20 years earlier, and I was a 9-year old at Coleridge Road Junior & Infants School, Rotherham. I lived with my dad, a gas fitter, and my mum, a housewife, on Eastwood View. Actually it wasn’t much of a view unless you count Thrybergh Bar Mill and the more distant slag heaps of Silverwood Colliery, but it was a tight-knit community punctuated only by occasional outbreaks of violence, most of them perpetrated by my paternal grandmother Lizzy, who famously in her eighties whacked one of her neighbours over the head with a frying pan. The Council was soon to demolish our Victorian terraced houses and replace them with Oakhill flats. This was one of their poorer decisions.

However, in that year of 1968 someone at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council made one of the Council’s better decisions and that was to start a schools music service. And so Reg Davey, an ex-RAF Wellington bomber navigator and Salvation Army cornet player, arrived at our school. He conducted some rudimentary aptitude tests. I took home a form requesting my parent’s permission for me to be given music lessons.

And a week later I arrived home dragging a euphonium case and its contents — a euphonium is a tenor tuba, somewhere in size between a tuba and a french horn. It is largely a brass and wind band instrument though some classical composers, including Wagner and Holst, also wrote for it. Anyhow, I’d had to swap hands every 100 yards in order to carry it home.

Reg was a peripatetic: he visited the school weekly in order to give a quartet of players — Stephen Hopkins, Robert Wright, Jacqueline Bramall and yours truly — a 30 minute lesson. After a year we were joined by a further four and then once we had graduated to secondary school we were to discover we were not alone. The programme had extended to other schools and a whole brass band — the Rotherham Schools Brass Band-had been brought into existence.

As I improved I came to recognise that Reg was not a brilliant cornet player, or at least his best days were behind him. He was a better conductor. But where he excelled was as a human being. His teaching was characterised by an unshakeable belief in his pupils, selfless intent and limitless patience. This latter quality came in particularly handy in my case — it was my chemistry teacher who wrote of me, in the days when you could do this without Ofsted descending on you from a height, “Whitehead is the most bloody-minded student I have ever taught.” (Ouch)

School became an interlude between band practices. Friday nights the Rotherham School Brass Band. Saturday mornings the Rotherham Schools Wind Band. Monday evenings the Oakwood Orchestra. Then whole Saturdays at the Yorkshire Schools Brass Band. I played in an octet with Duncan Beckley, who would later make a guest appearance as the conductor in the movie the Full Monty.

Some Fridays a group of us, led by Jim Whyte, would pack up after the Rotherham Schools Brass Band and take the bus to Rawmarsh to play in the Rawmarsh and Parkgate Youth Brass Band, a guilty pleasure. The band played over a pub behind the steelworks and we would go down to the bar at half-time. Two of the band — Paddy and Dubber — were skinheads and Frank, who sat next to me on bass, would chain smoke his way through the rehearsal. Jim later studied at Huddersfield School of Music and became a peripatetic in Reg’s footsteps (and also best man at my wedding.)

And so banding became my life. I played the odd game of hockey for Rotherham & Wickersley Colts, but largely it was music from dawn to dusk. My teenage rebellion consisted of bunking off at lunchtime across Oakwood’s playing fields to Boston Castle Terrace where Kevin Horner and I would play the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and Black Dyke Mills Band on his dad’s stereo. Kevin, another Salvationist, subsequently joined the Royal Marines Band on french horn.

Kevin and I once staged a walk-out from an Oakwood Orchestra rehearsal after Steven Bennett, a trombonist colleague, had been dismissed for talking in the 103-bars rest that is the lot of orchestral brass players. I remember the conductor, Peter Crowther, shouting “Whitehead, Horner. Where are you going?” I doubt that Kevin disclosed this when he interviewed for the Marines.

From time to time I had glimpses of Reg’s private life. He had a son and daughter and I think his son, Michael, had cerebral palsy. Occasionally he would bring him along to band on Saturdays. I don’t think it was all plain sailing for him at home, but maybe that was another factor, alongside his wartime experiences (never mentioned) and his faith, that had helped forge his indomitable character.

With Reg wielding the baton and accompanied by the then mayor of Rotherham, Jack Layden, the Wind Band toured France two years in succession. It was the first time I had left the UK and another example of how music broadened my horizons. By now Reg was no longer single-handed. He had a boss — David Ragsdale-and accomplices, such as Brian Lindsey and Godfrey Calcutt. I fell out with most/all of them on occasion for no good reason. They too were saints.

I passed RSM Grade VIII with distinction and, along with Janet Elston and Hilary Jones from Rotherham, played in the British Youth Wind Orchestra. After the concert at York University Hilary and I got hideously drunk. Janet went on to serve for 29 years as director and conductor of the Cornwall Youth Orchestra and the Cornwall Youth Wind Orchestra.

Music gave me a creative outlet and a social life, upgraded my interpersonal skills from hopeless to just about passable, brought me encounters with a number of gorgeous girls, improved my concentration and kept me off the streets.

Whilst playing did bolster my self-esteem, it also kept my ego in check. You can’t pretend you’re the world’s best euphonium player when you come in four bars early at Huddersfield Town Hall and the then conductor of the Yorkshire Schools Brass Band, Peter Kitson, fixes you with an icy stare. When the band played on BBC North in a programme called Brass Roots they brought back my predecessor as solo euphonium, Margaret Bruce. Let’s face it she was incomparably better than me.

My finest hour was playing a solo in a competition on Radio Sheffield after which the adjudicator, Geoffrey Whitham, offered me a job at Hammonds Sauce Works, who had a well-known band. But by then I had accepted a place at Trinity College, Cambridge to study engineering — an achievement that owed much to the changes that music had wrought in me — and this magical era of banding was almost at an end.

My encounter with Reg Davey helps remind me that while our politicians seem to be losing the plot, far beneath them is a quiet body of extraordinary ordinary people doing their best to make the world a better place. Reg Davey selflessly devoted his whole life to just that. He never showboated, hogged the limelight or even expected gratitude. In return and to my shame I never expressed adequately the debt that I owed him.

The hundreds of people huddled into Wombwell Salvation Army on that weekday afternoon bore testimony to the lives like mine that he had touched profoundly.

Incidentally afterwards I looked up Peter Crowther and went to thank him for his part in my musical life, and to apologise for my rudeness. I only say this by way of encouragement to the thousands of hardworking teachers out there who receive little by way of thanks. You can be confident that you are held in the hearts of your past students and revered more than you might imagine.

Five years later I attended another funeral, this time my father Sam Whitehead. The congregation wasn’t as numerous as at Reg’s but among them were four of dad’s apprentices, at that time in their thirties and forties. I recognised one of them, Tony, who had once bought me a birthday present as a child.

I realised then that there may have been a bit of Reg, a bit of sainthood, in my dad: a part of him that I had scarcely known had made its impression on these men that had learnt their trade from him in their own teenage years.

Chris Whitehead

Written by

Executive coach, podcaster, writer, and speaker, author of Compassionate Leadership

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