Thursday, 31 December 2015

Prologue: Henry Harris "Harry" Murray & the 85th Battalion Band

On November 1, 1915, Henry Harris “Harry” Murray formally attested for overseas service with the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) at Stellarton, NS. On January 1, 1916, he commenced entries in a soldier’s diary, perhaps a recently received Christmas gift. Harry faithfully recorded his activities daily, for almost three months. The fact that he was a member of the 85th’s band makes the entries of particular interest. During that time, Harry and his musical colleagues participated in a recruiting tour of the province’s mainland in the spring of 1916.

Harry’s diary entries will be posted on this blog daily, one hundred years to the day after he wrote them. His comments provide a glimpse into a soldier’s training routine and chronicle his early experiences with one of the best known battalion bands of the First World War.


Henry Harris “Harry” Murray was born at Stellarton, NS on April 21, 1884. His father, James Roderick, a Halifax native, operated a local grocery store and barber shop in Harry’s home community. James and his first wife, Hannah MacKay, had three sons—Willard (1873), James H. (1875) and Joseph R. (c. 1877)—before Hannah passed away at a young age. Harry was the oldest of three children born to James’ second wife, Christena McLellan, a native of McLellan’s Mountain. A daughter, Mary Ann “Mamie”, joined the family in 1887, followed by a second son, John Munroe “Rowe”, in 1893.

Henry Harris "Harry" Murray in Europe, 1919
Harry and Willard worked at the family business during their early years, while James found employment as a telegraph operator. The family also displayed a keen interest in music. Patriarch James Roderick played the violin, while Willard played the piano, often accompanying his father at local dances. Mamie later became an accomplished concert violinist and music teacher.

With such a background, it is not surprising that Harry became involved in the arts and entertainment world, managing a local “silent film” theatre in the years immediately before the war and performing in community stage productions. Harry also became a percussionist and vocalist with the Stellarton Band, a community group with a lengthy history and notable reputation throughout the Maritimes. In fact, Harry’s band membership led to his enlistment for military service.


Stellarton’s accomplished band had its origins in the community’s coal mining roots. In 1828, the General Mining Association (GMA) brought colliers from the villages of northern England and the Scottish Lowlands to Albion Mines, as the community of Stellarton was initially known. Among their personal possessions, the miners brought wind and percussion instruments to their new homes and were soon performing at community events. Historical records indicate that a band performed alongside pipers and fiddlers at the official opening of GMA’s Stellarton to Abercrombie rail line in 1838.

The Mooney name had deep connections to the Albion Mines band, family sources stating that its patriarch, John Sr., established the group in the late 1840s. In subsequent years, his son, John Jr., assumed the role of conductor and was succeeded in turn by his son, Daniel, who began playing cornet with the band at age nine.

Stellarton Band (no date) - Nova Scotia Archives Photo
While neighbouring Pictou County mining communities boasted similar organizations, the Albion Mines Band operated without interruption throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, performing at such community events as garden parties, parades, picnics, skating carnivals and exhibitions. When its home community changed its name to Stellarton in 1870, the band followed suit, travelling to Charlottetown, Truro, Antigonish and Halifax for performances as its musical reputation spread.

In 1905, the Stellarton Band officially affiliated with the 78th Pictou Highlanders, a local militia regiment, and was referred to as the “78th Band” until the group established an official connection with the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) in 1915. Band members wore British highland soldier red doublets, Seaforth (Clan Mackenzie) kilts, brass-topped horsehair sporrans, red-diced hose tops and glengarry, and white gaiters throughout their time with the 78th.

Dan Mooney continued to direct the band throughout this period, although membership expanded to incorporate individuals from Pictou, Westville and New Glasgow after the group’s affiliation with the 78th. The band played at the farewell parade for the first 78th recruits who departed for Camp Valcartier, QC in September 1914. As recruitment efforts intensified, band members contemplated enlistment, a decision complicated by the fact that a considerable number were approaching middle age, several married with children.

On September 29, 1915, all but two of the 78th’s band members enlisted as a group for overseas service with the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). The new recruits numbered 24 in total, their complement increased to 35 through the addition of bandsmen from other parts of the province. As might be expected, Stellarton contributed the largest number (13), followed by Westville (five), New Glasgow and Pictou (three each). Dan Mooney received a commission as Lieutenant and assumed the role of bandmaster.

Harry Murray was among the new recruits, formally attesting for overseas service at Stellarton on November 1, 1915. Shortly afterward, he and his band mates relocated to the 85th’s barracks at Halifax. Despite their unique role, the musicians were expected to participate in drill, guard duty, fatigues (work parties) and weapons training, in addition to daily band practice.

85th Battalion Band, Halifax Armouries (no date)
While the 85th was authorized on September 14, 1915 and mobilized at Halifax one month later 200 men “over strength,” a January 1916 decision to recruit an entire “Nova Scotian Highland Brigade” delayed its overseas departure. As a result, the 85th’s recruits spent the winter of 1915-16 in Halifax, during which time Harry Murray commenced daily entries in a “soldier’s diary” on January 1, 1916.



Information on the history of the Albion Mines/Stellarton band obtained from “Stellarton, the birthplace of First World War’s 85th Band”, a “Your Yesteryears” article written by James M. Cameron and published in the New Glasgow Evening News (no date).

Photograph of Henry Harris "Harry" Murray and 85th band newspaper clipping courtesy of his son, Robert Murray, Antigonish, NS.