Irish Warpipe

The Borough Pipe Band

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London's First Irish Pipe Band



Compiled  by George P Willis, calling extensively upon the 1989 audio interviews by the musicologist Reg Hall with Ailean & Allan Nicholson, Chris Burt, Joe Fogarty, George & Rose Willis, Pat O'Brien,

Jim & Rita Powell. Joe & Shelia Murphy, John & Vera Neary and Michael O'Malley.

These interviews can be heard on line from the British Library Sounds site


The story of the first Irish pipe band in London is inextricably linked to the long established Catholic community in the Borough, an area just south  of London Bridge. Historically, South of the Thames was outside the walls of the City of London and as late as 1889 was outside the legal administrative entity that was London. It was where the poorest lived and where Charles Dickens based many of his books.

    During “Penal Times”, priests secretly served the large Irish community in the Borough - one of the last priest to be sentenced to life imprisonment for saying Mass was a Father Maloney, who was arrested in the Borough in 1765. However the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 gave limited freedoms for Catholics in England to practice their religion and by 1787 the Borough had its own Mission in Bandy Leg Walk.

    With the advent of the industrial revolution and the associated railways (several of which were to cross the Borough), the population of the Borough was doubling every twenty years and the original Mission couldn't cope with its ever growing congregation. It firstly established, less than a mile away, St George's Chapel in 1829 which when rebuilt in 1848 was to become the first post Emancipation cathedral in England. Then in 1892, less than 100 yards from Bandy Leg Walk, the Borough Church of the Most Precious Blood was opened.

    From the outset, the Borough parish had a battalion of the League of the Cross (the temperance movement founded by Cardinal Manning in 1872) and an associated drum & fyfe band, playing Irish tunes, to lead its parades.

    In 1893 The Gaelic League was  established to encourage Irish culture and soon thereafter the Borough Band decided to  recreate the Irish warpipe tradition. But who was to teach them the technicalities of piping?

Irish warpipers (as opposed to Uilleann pipers) were all but non-existent? So the band enticed the Pipe Major McKenzie of The London Scottish to be their tutor: part of the deal being the payment of his handsome cab fare across London for each practice at the Borough. The Band played three droned Scottish Highland bagpipes like other Irish pipe bands being established at that time. [The Piping Club of the Gaelic League had yet to advocated just two drones for the pipes played by Irish bands to imitate the medieval illustrations of Irish warpipes.]

   The Band flourished in numbers and ability. In 1912 it played at the Dublin Feis and in 1920 it piped the body of Terence McSweeney (the Lord Mayor of Cork who had died on hunger strike) from Brixton Prison to St George's Cathedral prior to a requiem mass the next day before its return to Ireland for burial. [The pipers at the funeral itself were provided by the Pipers Club of the London Gaelic League.]

   The 1914-18 War did not affect  the Band's viability, as many of its members were too old to enlist. However those members who did serve and survived were unlikely to be teetotal on their return and when the post war parish priest sought to reintroduce the temperance pledge, a number left and formed the Tottenham Irish Pipe Band with a full Gaelic uniform.

   In contrast the Borough Band's uniform, for the first 45 years of it's existence, was simply a dark peaked forage army cap with a gilt band & braiding and a League of the Cross cap badge. However by 1937 the band had achieved such national prominence (having won the Gaelic League's pipe band competition in two successive years), it  was invited to perform at the prestigious St Patrick's Day Ball at the Royal Albert Hall. The Band felt pressurised into adopting full Irish pipe band regalia - green caubeen, jacket & socks and saffron kilt &  shawl. This caused some members to leave because they didn't want to wear a full uniform for fear of appearing to be members of too militaristic an organisation. These fears were justified as several band members soon had their lodgings searched for weapons by police investigating IRA activity in London.

    The Borough, like all areas near the Thames, was heavily blitzed by the Luftwaffe during 1939-45  and  uniforms not lost in bombed out buildings, were cut up for use as blankets in air raid shelters.

    The Band was revitalised after the War with army surplus pipes and suitably dyed khaki uniforms augmenting what had survived. Once again the Borough Band was viewed as the premier Irish pipe band in London and in 1958 it even established a junior band which was to perform throughout Europe.

    From 1970 onwards the Irish piping scene in London as affected by the situation in the North of Ireland and many bands fell dormant. However, the Borough Band was revived in the late 1980's and performed at  various events to mark the Parish's Centenary in 1992.     

   The Borough Pipe Band of the League of the Cross gave its last performance in 2002


THe band in 1935-no uniforms except the cap.


THe Band in 1937 with Irish uniform including caubeens with the League of the Cross cap badge. At this time only one two droned is seen in the photo being the right front piper. Notice the shoes are minus the typicle Irish buckle and use the tongue flap in the style of the Irish Guards Pipers.

I thank George P Willis for sending this article and photos.