When the Dagenham Girl Pipers were founded in 1930 they were the first female pipe band in the world. The band's founder, the Reverend Joseph Waddington Graves, was born in 1881 at Deal in Kent. His father was a chemist and druggist, the young Joseph also worked in a chemist's shop before emigrating to Canada in 1906. He later became a clergyman, and served as an Army Padre with the Canadian forces during the First World War (1914-1918). Mr Graves spent ten years as Warden of Browning Hall in Walworth, before being appointed of 1930.
At that stage Mr Graves ran a Sunday school from a wooden hut. He later wrote that 'During all of my life that I can recall, bagpipes have fascinated me'. He chose 12 girls from his Sunday school, average age just 11, and hired G. Douglas Taylor, a former Pipe Major to the King's Own Scottish Borderers, to teach them piping, drumming, marching and Highland dancing. The first practice took place on 4 October 1930. Mr Graves remembered 'Twelve small girls, all giggles, seated in a semi-circle around the kilted Pipe-Major. Something really big happened in that Thameside town that morning the Dagenham Girl Pipers was born!'
After 18 months of intensive training, the pipers gave their first public concert to an audience of journalists on an outdoor stage behind Osborne Hall. They wore dashing uniforms of Royal Stuart Tartan: kilts, tartan socks, velvet jackets and tam-o'shanters. They were enthusiastically received, and bookings were soon pouring in. By 1933 some of the band members reached the school-leaving age, which was then 14. This, added to the great demand for performances, led Mr Graves to make the band a full-time organisation with the girls as paid employees and himself as manager. Mr Graves imposed strict rules, including no smoking, no drinking, and no make-up.
By 1937 Dagenham Girl Pipers were fulfilling 400 engagements a year, and at busy times had four complete bands all doing separate tours. Two original members, Edith Turnbull (1919-2001) and Peggy Iris (b. 1919), had been appointed Senior Pipe-Major and Assistant Pipe-Major. The band now toured the world, and in 1937 appeared in Berlin before Adolf Hitler, who told Mr Graves he wished Germany had a similar band. As war loomed in 1939, one unit was performing at the World Fair in New York, while another was touring southern Germany.
During the Second World War (1939-1945), the band's full-time activities had to be curtailed. Under the call-up legislation, some girls joined the Armed Forces, Fire, Ambulance or Nursing services, while others had to work in factories or the land. This allowed band members when not on duty or working to continue to give concerts at the evenings and weekends, especially at Forces camps. Some girls worked in Entertainments National Service Association shows [ENSA], and two members of the band, Peggy Iris and Margaret Fraser, were for three years part of an ENSA concert party entertaining troops in Africa. They gave over 1000 separate shows, and were afterwards awarded the Africa Star.
When the War ended, band members returned to 'Civvy Street' and the Dagenham Girl Pipers resumed their professional status. They were as popular as ever. In 1951, for example, they appeared in over 150 Festival of Britain engagements. This was their own 21st birthday year, and Dagenham Borough Council presented them with a set of silver drums to mark the occasion. In October 1955 the band celebrated their Silver Jubilee by marching through the City of London to attend a Thanksgiving Service in St Paul's Cathedral. Mr Graves had retired as their manager in 1948, to be succeeded by David Land, who ran a theatrical agency in Broad Street, Dagenham, and had already been associated with the band for some years. Mr Graves retired with his wife May to his native county of Kent, where he died aged 81, in 1962. As the 1960s wore on, maintaining a professional troupe of some 70 pipers became more and more expensive, and in 1968 the band reverted to amateur status. In 1980 they celebrated their 50th anniversary with a concert at the Barking Assembly Hall, and in 1991 performed at the Royal Command Performance for the first time since 1963. David Land, their manager, who had also nurtured the careers of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, died on Christmas Eve 1995 aged 77.
The David Land Agency still manages the Dagenham Girl Pipers (2011) and holds records for the organisation. The Pipers own collection of marching orders, leopard skins, uniforms and and ceremonial memorabilia was damaged due to vandals, with medals and trophies stolen during a break-in to their storage facility in the 1991.
When former Pipe Major Edith Turnbull came over on a visit from the USA in 1994, some 12 members of the pre-War band got together and talked of setting up an Association for former band members. This brought about the formation of the Dagenham Girl Pipers Veterans' Association in 1998. Back in 1938, the girls had made a pledge to meet at noon on 1 January 2000 at Dagenham Civic Centre, and the Association took on the responsibility of organising this. Accordingly more than 100 veteran pipers, some in their 80s, gathered on the steps on Millennium Day. They included Pipe-Major Peggy Iris, who served with the band for 57 years before retiring in the late 1980s. The reunion was broadcast live on television. The Veterans were joined by the present band, who paraded and piped on the forecourt of the Civic Centre. The pipers then attended a service at Osborne Hall before going on to a party at the Dagenham Royal British Legion. In March 2001 a plaque commemorating Mr Graves was unveiled at the Dagenham Civic Centre.
The Veterans' Association meets annually for a Commemorative Reunion as close to the foundation date as possible normally the first weekend in October.