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The Quirky Army – when the lasses banded together

The Salvation Army Austral Lasses band in 1906.

By the turn of the 20th century, The Salvation Army was in full swing around the world and breaking new ground with its spirited style of ministering to the masses.

One thing The Salvation Army was good at was attracting attention, with many of its soul-saving rallies being staged outdoors, accompanied by a brass band.

Brass bands throughout the 1800s were mostly comprised of men, but by the early 1900s, The Salvation Army was literally turning heads with all-female brass bands.

The Austral Lasses Band was one such band, paving the way for the formation of many other Salvation Army and community women’s bands in subsequent decades.

The Austral Lasses Band became so popular and proficient that they toured southern Australia and New Zealand – twice.

Major Ruby Strange, a band member, recorded many of the band’s touring experiences. The band, she wrote, “drew great crowds because it was unique in being all lassies”.

The band toured “the Commonwealth and New Zealand” and so successful was its odyssey that it was renamed ‘The Famous Austral Lassies Band’ for its second tour, according to Ruby.

Commencing at Yea, Victoria, on 20 August 1905, the women performed non-stop for two years, “covering something like 16,000 miles by rail, boat, horse-drawn coaches and on foot” with “many and varied experiences during that wonderful tour” including two earthquakes, being [sand]bar bound on the south coast of New Zealand for two days and being asked, “to play at the great Band Contest held in the Exhibition Building at Christchurch”. How’d the girls go? “The adjudicators classed our band as an A1 Organ Band; we were very thrilled,” wrote Ruby.

The Austral Lasses Band on tour in Tasmania.

It was a long way from their humble beginnings when they’d practise from 9am to 6pm under Major Will Gore in “the old Hamodava Tea Room upstairs the back of Headquarters, Bourke Street” in Melbourne. “At first came some weird sounds,” Ruby wrote. But the players from NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and New Zealand persevered for six weeks and “Will Gore soon brought about perfection”.

Ruby wrote that many of the women “became officers when the band disbanded”, and, most importantly, “many souls were won for Christ during that great tour”.

On 8 February 1906, the Barrier Miner newspaper in Broken Hill covered a visit of the Austral Lasses Band. The reporter wrote:

Some curiosity has been aroused by the advent in Broken Hill of a ladies’ brass band having for its name ‘The Austral’ and being comprised of 21 lady performers dressed in Salvation Army costume. As these bandswomen took the tram to the southern suburb last night, many observers speculated on what their bright faces must suffer when puffed up at the end of a bass instrument or when trying to sustain a long passage on the cornet.…“From the opening number, it was easy to see that the Austral Band is one that is worth listening to. The bandswomen do not stand when rendering a selection, but are seated in four rows, and seem to exert themselves no more than is absolutely necessary. The effect of the music in the piano passages is much sweeter and less masculine than a men’s band, while the forte portions of the selections are surprising in their volume of sound. The attention to time and harmony which was evinced in last night’s performance discloses the long training which the Austral Band must have been through under a good master.”

The Salvation Army continued its use of female brass bands throughout the first half of the 20th century, predominantly due to the absence of many men who had gone to war.

The Melbourne Ladies’ Salvation Army Band in 1945.

One of the more popular bands in the 1940s was the Melbourne Ladies’ Salvation Army band.

But not everyone was happy with the formation of all-female bands during this time, as one writer to Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper enthused:

“Sir, – Have Queensland women become utterly ridiculous? One can pass over extravagances in clothes, since the clever seamstress can design even a pair of men’s pants in such a way that they will appear attractive on female legs. One can forgive women’s baseball and women’s cricket in the sacred cause of sport. But this idea of a women’s band (a women’s brass band!) is beyond all limits. Your news item in today’s paper says that “no difficulties in playing the instruments – even the big bass – are likely to be encountered by the ladies”. The most adroit bandsman cannot avoid looking absurd when he plays the big bass, yet there are Brisbane women who apparently are willing to attempt it. Surely not – I am, sir, INCREDULOUS.”

As men returned from war and Salvation Army corps experienced a growth in membership, many all-female bands were largely disbanded. It became the norm that boys generally joined the band and girls played the timbrel, although over the past 20 years the number of girls playing in corps bands has again increased.


Some information sourced from and The Salvation Army Australia Museum assistant manager (Melbourne) Barry Gittins








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