William H. Turpin

William Henry Turpin 1871-1911

Some information about Mr W.H. Turpin, London East Ender, a musician of genius whose compositions are still popular throughout the Drum and Flute World.

One could fill a book about the East End of London, then or now, but to set the scene for his birth and rise to musical prowess it would be wise to begin by describing the area and social affairs at his birth.

W.H. Turpin hailed from the hamlet of Ratcliffe, part of the Mile End old town. He was born at No.10 Dorset Street (now Pitsea St, E1) in the early part of 1871.

March “La Festive” by W.H. Turpin
Played by Corcrain Flute Band, Co. Armagh.

Mile End has a long history of fife and drum. It is recorded that when The Trained Bands of London later The Honourable Artillery Company, marched from Mile End to Westminster to receive their charter from King Henry VIII in 1537, each company of three hundred men had a drummer and a fifer.

March “For Flag and Empire” by W.H. Turpin
Played by Hamilton Flute Band, Londonderry.

In the period Turpin was growing up the East End was a hotbed of ferment. Just a today, a mass of immigrants were arriving, this time from Russia, Poland and other places East. The labour movement was beginning to agitate for reform and Christian missionaries began to do their bit for the poor benighted slum dwelling population. The dreadful conditions in the East End produced people like William Booth and the Salvation Army, Doctor Barnardo and his homes for destitute children and Lord Shaftsbury.

Churches were built by both Catholics, Protestants and others with faith and temperance to the fore. There was Men’s and Women’s Guilds and lots of things for children and it seems every place had a band.

Where did Turpin learn his music? We do not know but our band at St. Patrick’s, Wapping was founded in 1873, just two years after Turpin’s birth. The parish history of St. Patrick’s relates that their first outdoor procession in 1884 caused convention because of the number of bands that came along to take part. Just a few hundred yards from St. Patricks is St. Peter’s , an Anglican High Church who, with the help of the Oxford Movement Radley College had three bands.

March “Galanthia” by W.H. Turpin
Played by Boveva Flute Band, Co. Londonderry.

In those days there seems to have been a near total ban on these two great branches of faith mixing so we may assume that Turpin did not learn his music at St. Patrick’s. They were Catholic, very Irish and very insular and he was Church of England.

We can make a guess that Turpin may have learnt his music in a Cadet Company that was formed as part of a unit of The Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers. There were thirteen of these Corps of Volunteers, some 800 strong. At Mile End were 7th Tower Hamlets and it was reported in The Army and Navy Magazine of 1898 that they possessed the finest Drum and Fife Band in the British Army. This Cadet Company started at Mile End in 1892 but was disbanded in the mid 1890s.

March “Dinah’s Delight” by W.H. Turpin
Played by The Corps of Drums Northern Ireland.

The Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers eventually became part of The London Regiment, some Corps going to the Royal Fusiliers and the 3rd, 7th, 9th and 18th Custom House Rifles Volunteers going to form the new 17th London (Stepney and Poplar Ghurkas) based at Tredegar Road, then Parnall Row, Bow.

I have in my possession a hand written march card of Galanthia which has written at the bottom To the TH Vol 4/6/03. Unfortunately, these seems to be no records of these Militia units as it was not a requirement.

As part of my research I visited the Family Records Office to view the 1901 census and anything else that might lead to me to find Turpin. By a stroke of good fortune whilst floundering about at the said Family Centre, and having lost the scent I asked the man at the enquiries desk for help. Who was I looking for? I told him and he tapped into his computer and came up with the 1901 census. A WH Turpin lived at 64 Exmouth Street, head of the household, age 30, profession Musician. Exmouth Street is now gone, being a housing estate just off Commerical Road, E1.

The census of 1891 states the Turpin was living with his family and in-laws at the same address aged 20. Profession Drummer Smith. Now I’ve heard of tinsmiths, or blacksmith but a drummer smith is a new one on me.

To give an idea of how popular our music was, there was five drum makers residing and plying their trade in Bethnal Green alone. Turpin had sisters and a brother, Joseph Elkanah, born in Poplar High Street in 1873. He was also a musican. I am told that Turpin taught Joe Winter, the future and famous Drum Major of The Queen’s Royal Regiment. He was a great friend of Bill McGannon of Mercer and Wapping fame. Bill’s son Danny has told me that they performed together in every music hall in London.

March “The Coon’s Parade” W.H. Turpin
Played by Argyle Temperance Flute Band, Belfast.

Turpin seemed to have done well for himself because he moved South of the Thames to Stockwell, marrying a publican’s daughter Isabel Maud Hiller on 24th August 1907 at the Church of St. Andrews. They lived at 21 Sidney Road. Their first child was William Joseph (Wiry Wily) Turpin describes himself on the birth certificate as a musician drummer of 1 Hetherington Road, Bedford Road. Wiry Willy came into this world at the above address on 26th July 1908. Ina (a Potter March), a sister of Willy, came on to the scene on the 1st July 1901 and this time Turpin describes himself as an Orchestral Musician.

March “Roehampton” by W.H. Turpin
Played by The Combined Corps of Drums of the Household Division

Turpin died, very prematurely, on 24th February 1911 of TB at the Lambeth Infirmary, Brooke Street, Brixton. On the death certificated he was described as a Drummer at Theatre. Joseph Elkanah, his brother, also died of TB in 1918 aged 46 and Ina died in 1922 aged 11. A very sad ending to a short but by no means wasted life.

Compiled by Phil Williams.

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