William Fowler: Early Orchestra Leader in an Innocent Age

Crop of Mil P183 – William Fowler’s Orchestra at the 1st Annual Ball of F. Company 6th Regiment, D.C.O.R. at Lester Hall (1205 Granville). Note: The orchestra is in the orchestra gallery at the back of the hall. I’m not sure which of the men is Fowler. Vancouver, B.C. Dec 15 1911. Bullen & Lamb photo.

William Fowler (1875-1936) was the leader of Fowler’s Orchestra from ca1902 to ca1915. He was the eldest son of James Fowler and Jane Youngson. His sole sibling was his younger brother, Peter. The Fowlers came to Vancouver from England in 1891.

The first gig of Fowler’s Orchestra seems to have been the grand opening in 1902 of the Colonial Hotel. The Colonial Hotel still stands today, however these days it is known by a different name: the Yale Hotel (1300 Granville).

In 1907, at age 32, Fowler married Ellen Elizabeth Horsfield (age 21) in Vancouver. Like William, Ellen (1885-1952) had been born in England (although she was a much more recent arrival; she came in 1904). William and Ellen would have one child, Jane.

Fowler’s Orchestra played many Masonic [1] events. I assume this was partly because Masonic lodges were in such abundance and had a substantial membership at the time; also partly because Fowler was a Mason. But I should point out that Fowler didn’t seem to discriminate against other groups. For example, he took on jobs for Roman Catholic groups (e.g. the Knights of Columbus ball, and the opening of St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church hall in 1911 in Kitsilano).

Among the many news accounts of the events at which Fowler’s orchestra played, I’ve chosen the one shown below. It is a good example of period language and of the mood and priorities that seemed to prevail in the city prior to WWI.

The second ball of the series given by the Girls’ auxiliary [this seems to have been a group which was fundraising for VGH] in Lester hall last night proved a most delightful affair. The gaily decorated hall presented an almost fairylike scene. The walls and galleries were almost entirely hidden from view by a profusion of delicate paper flowers and blossoms, while from the gold and red draperies festooned from corner to corner overhead, large imitation roses were suspended by fine wire giving them the appearance of having fallen and being caught in mid-air. The hall was comfortably filled for dancing, about 250 guests being present, while the music played by Fowler’s orchestra was excellent. Amongst those present were . . .[a list of what appears to have been most of the ladies present, along with a description of what each was wearing! For example:] . . . Mrs. C. S. Douglas, gowned with white net over satin . . . Mrs. S. S. Taylor, vieux rose satin with handsome steel bugle trimming . . . . [etc.]

The Province. 5 February 1910.

Other groups that Fowler’s orchestra played for included the Sons of Ireland, the Lancashire Old Boys (which typically met in O’Brien’s Hall on Hastings near Homer), Sons of St. George, Sons of England, the Cooks and Waiters of Vancouver (a trade union group), the Jolly Club (!), Musicians Mutual Protective Union (of which Fowler was a life member), and the British Isles Public Schools Association (which seems to have been composed of ‘old boys’ who had attended ‘public schools’ in Britain — what we’d call ‘private schools’ in North America; their wives were welcome at dancing events).

The admission charge (presumably to cover the cost of the orchestra and catering of ‘dainty’ sandwiches) for dances of the sort that Fowler’s Orchestra played during this period tended to be less than $1 per person. There were different rates for different genders: typically at Fowler events it was 50 cents for gents and 25 cents for ladies. I’m not sure why the gender differentiation. Perhaps it was due to there being more guys than gals in the city and the organizers wanting to encourage attendance by ladies so that there would be enough dancing partners to go around.

World. 17 December 1915.

One of the final events that Fowler’s Orchestra played was for the Vancouver General Hospital’s New Year’s reception in 1915. VGH had officially opened in 1906, but the first nurses’ residence wasn’t opened until 1915. Fowler et al set up in the dining room of the nurses’ buildings.

At the end of 1915, it was announced that William Fowler would take on the managerial reigns of the Ross Music Store (334 West Hastings). He didn’t seem to keep this job very long, however; perhaps a single year. After that, it seems, he retired. Despite being a popular early orchestra leader in the city Fowler, it seems, was not well known — at least not by members of the Fourth Estate. In his 1936 obituary, the writer seemed to be at such a loss at what to write about the band leader that he devoted a whole paragraph of the four-paragraph obituary to pointing out that William was the son of James Fowler, who had superintended construction of several CPR Empress steamships.

Little did the citizens of Vancouver then realize that the relatively carefree days that preceded the 1914-18 war would not return. It was inconceivable that the war would claim some 60,000 Canadian lives and that many more would suffer mental and physical disabilities as a consequence.

By 1918 and beyond, the party was definitely over.


[1] Some of the Masonic groups were known by names that are still recognizable, such as the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), and some that are not, such as the “Sons of Hermann” and “Lodge Merrie England”!

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