Academic journal article Alberta History

William Scollen: Alberta Pioneer School Band Teacher

Academic journal article Alberta History

William Scollen: Alberta Pioneer School Band Teacher

Article excerpt

While accounts of Alberta school band programs and their directors from the 1920s and 1930s are readily found in local history books, comparatively little has been written about earlier school band programs in the pre-provincial North-West Territories of Canada, and especially the teachers of those programs. (1) It is known that brass band programs existed at several federal industrial schools for Native children during the late 1800s and early 1900s. (2) In addition to acting as a means of "civilizing," (3) extra-curricular brass band programs were an aid in the recruitment and retention of students, (4) as attendance was problematic from the inception of the non-compulsory industrial schools. (5)

William Scollen came to the Calgary area in the 1870s to settle and later established a school band at St. Joseph's Industrial School, near High River. His family originated in Ireland, but after the Irish potato famine of 1845-49, it relocated to Leeds, England, where William's father, Patrick, worked for a time in the silk mills, and later as a coal miner in County Durham. William, one of eight children, was born in either 1854 or 1855. By the time he was sixteen, he was working in the mines alongside his father.

Brass bands were a tradition established in many British collieries. The bands were a source of entertainment and leisure occupation as well as a means of maintaining and enhancing worker camaraderie. The Scollens had a passion and talent for music, and it is possible that William played in a colliery brass band. (6)

The Scollens were a close-knit family and devout Roman Catholics. Patrick's eldest child and William's half-brother, Constantine (1841-1902), was educated by the Oblates at Sicklinghall near Leeds and became an important missionary priest in the Canadian North-West. (7) Although Constantine had left the family for Canada, he kept in touch via mail, and was distressed to learn that William was indulging bad habits, such as excessive drinking and carousing. In May of 1877, Constantine wrote his parents, beseeching them to send William to him in the Canadian North-West. (8)


The journey from England to the Canadian North-West was expensive, and a friend of Constantine lent William money for the long and arduous journey. Constantine again wrote his parents, 18 July 1877 from Fort Macleod, "I am waiting anxiously for brother William to come to me and stay in this country. A kind friend of mine lent him some money to help him out. I hope he has received it and is now on the road. My kind love to all." (9)

William arrived in New York, 23 July 1877 aboard the SS City of Richmond from Liverpool, England. (10) By 15 September

1877, he had made his way to Fort Benton, to Fort Macleod, and to Blackfoot Crossing, sixty miles east of Fort Calgary. Most of the journey was through the United States, where a transcontinental railway existed from 1869. From Fort Benton to Fort Macleod travelled the infamous "Whoop-up Trail" with a group of mule drivers, living off the land and sleeping under the open sky. In a letter to his parents, William reveals wonderment, challenge, and resolute courage as he experienced the North-West:

   It came quite strange to me to roll myself
   in a buffalo rug and blanket and lie down
   on the prairie with no other cover than
   the blue sky. I had a taste of buffalo meat
   it is splendid meat when it is young....
   the mule drivers that I came out with
   would catch fish in the rivers as we came
   along.... I did not make a child of myself
   there were many things came strange to
   me. The extreme heat of the sun and the
   very coarse food of the prairie men ...
   but I am not the worst in the world....
   Anyone travelling on the prairies does
   not want to be very particular about
   what he eats or who cooks it for all is
   not sunshine travelling over 250 miles of
   prairie land. … 
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