Royal Artillery

Bandmaster James Lawson, 1826 - 1903

Lawson is a very important figure in RA band history. He presided over the emergence of the Royal Artillery Mounted band in 1877 having been a musician in the artillery since 1839. At this time the band was no more than fifes and drums. He rose to the rank of fife-major in 1853 and trumpet-major in 1856 when the band became the Royal Artillery Bugle Band. At this stage the band comprised 24 young buglars playing tunes on an instrument capable of playing only 5 notes. Lawson composed special marches that could be played on the bugle but found it very limiting so he persuaded Henry Distin, the instrument maker to supply him with a set of his recently (1855) patented, but not marketed, chromatic attachments for the bugle which gave the instument the same range as the cornet.

The band was transformed and further copper instruments were added. By 1863 brass instruments dominated the band. The band consisted of:

1 E flat soprano
1 B flat cornet
5 B flat bugles
5 Flugel horns
6 Tenor horns
3 Baritones or Althorns
2 Euphoniums
3 Bombardons

Lawson was still paid as a drum-major, a rank he had held since 1858 but he no longer wielded the mace and it was recognised, even by Horse Guards that 'Drum-major Lawson be henceforth styled Master of the R.A. Bugle Band.' (1865). On 14th May 1869 Woolwich orders decreed that the Bugle Band should be known as The Royal Artillery Brass Band. At this time the band consisted of:

1 Bandmaster
1 Sergeant
2 Corporals
3 Bombadiers
5 Acting bombadiers
37 Gunner-bandsmen

In 1871 they won 1st prize ('50) at the Crystal Palace Band Contest. The next great change occured in 1877 when they combined with the RHA band to become The Royal Artillery Mounted Band. They consisted of 60 performers , 42 of whom were mounted.

The controlling body of the Army based at Horse Guards made life difficult for Lawson and those in the RA that supported him. The problem stemmed from the reluctance of Horse Guards to recognise him as a bandmaster despite their letter of 1865. It took two years of correspondence in the late 1870s to get them to agree but they insisted that he submit to a test at Kneller Hall, where army musicians were trained. Lawson pleaded that at the age of 55 perhaps he could be excused. Finally, he obeyed and took the test, passing it of course. Two months later Horse Guards replied that they were unable to grant him Warrant rank that would give him the pay rise he sought because of his age. A year later, they put forward another objection: that he had never been appointed bandmaster . They finally gave in in 1884 two years before his retirement.

The medal worn by Lawson in the above photo was presented to him at the International Exhibition at Edinburgh in 1886 'as a souvenir of his visit and the great satisfaction his band had given'. It was a crowning moment for him in a mixed year that also saw the division of the band into two parts, one half being stationed at Woolwich and the other at Aldershot. He retired that year and died in 1903.

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by Stephen Luscombe