The Dagenham Girl Pipers - Kettering salutes

dgpby Peter Gordon

Allow me to introduce you to what I call The Dagenham Girl Pipers Theory Of Comedy (DaGiPiTOC). When people ask me “Hey you, what defines the Kettering-era of comedy?” I merely have to shout “DAGIPITOC!” in their face and I can see by the look of shock and horror in the eyes that I have dumbfounded them with my superior knowledge. With a flourish I turn away, secure in my victory. For it is my contention that it was in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when the new breed of young comedians eschewed jokes about tartan-clad female bagpipe players from Essex that something was irrevocably lost to British comedy and an era was over.

The Dagenham Girl Pipers became perhaps the longest running joke in comedy history. One could, it seems, slip them effortlessly into any line, joke or situation and be rewarded with instant laughs. From The Goon Show to The Two Ronnies, their name was invoked, sometimes hinting at some vague naughty behaviour. At other times random references to them were simply slotted into sentences meaning nothing every much of anything at all.

The myriad tributaries and rivulets flowing from the Dagenham Girl Pipers can be traced back to one original source joke, the rather disappointing “I’ve only been unfaithful twice – once with the barmaid from the Red Lion and once with the Dagenham Girl Pipers.” But from tiny acorns great trees will grow, and The Pipers were a national phenomenon, with a gruelling schedule of worldwide tours and television appearances. They even starred in a couple of movies, including the 1956 Benny Hill vehicle Who Done It?

What, then, is the history of this noble institution? For that we must travel back to Essex in 1930… Dagenham had only recently changed from being a sleepy country village to the bustling industrial London overspill that it is today. Into this town walked Congressionalist minister, the Reverend Joseph Waddington Graves. A Canadian, Graves had held previous jobs as a bronco-buster and a stage hypnotist’s medium, and had served in the Canadian air force before taking the call to ministry and being sent to England. Soon after his arrival he got to thinking about how he could make his mark on this the unimpressive new-town of Dagenham. Alfred H. Hayes takes up the story:

Girl pipers! It was as though the minister’s mind, normally cool and unflurried, had suddenly been frothed up into a foaming whirlpool. A bagpipe band composed entirely of girls! The idea was so startling that most people would have laughed it to scorn. More than that, it was revolutionary. Whoever had seen a bagpipe, that strange instrument which had preceded the marching Roman legions, being handled by women, let alone girls? […] It was a fantastic notion, one that could be burst by the merest prick of common sense.

An uncommon notion indeed! With nary a thought, Graves mounted his bike and rode at pace around the streets of Dagenham, searching all the while for young girls to aid him in his mad scheme. His first ever recruit, Edith Turnbull, was to become the first ever female Major Piper in the whole wide world. Within two years they were ready for the national stage and took the 1932 Lord Mayor Of London’s Show by storm. And don’t think Kettering is the first organ to raise a salutation to this noble band of female bagpipers, for The Leader newspaper wrote of their Lord Mayor’s Show appearance:

Girl Pipers of Dagenham, we salute you. Marching through the sanded streets of an historical city, taking part in a procession symbolical of age and tradition, you, perhaps, succeeded more forcibly than any other feature in portraying the changing spirit of the age […] Your bearing, your whole outlook, as you played your way into the hearts of the assembled multitude, showed us the weakness and uselessness of those things which are done only because it is customary to do them. You were like a fresh breeze from the mountains, you were in such overpowering contrast to your cigarette-smoking and cocktail-sipping sisters, who called themselves Bright Young People.

Thus was born a national (and soon to be international) phenomenon. The Pipers began a demanding tour schedule around the United Kingdom, the girls only too happy to be parted from their families, sleeping in church halls, schools or army billets as they made their way around these isles of ours. But how would the kilted Cockney sparrows be received in Scotland, the land where the bagpipe is held as local treasure? Yet the heart of even the most fearsome hairy Celt was melted by the sight of so many young girls travelling all the way to Caledonia to blow the Cock O’ The North with such gusto.

Fame across the seas came in 1936 when the girls played in Brussels over Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day to audiences that included that lover of the younger lady Maurice Chevalier. The following year and it was off to Berlin to play at a special concert for Adolf Hitler. The pint-sized dictator declared himself a firm fan of the Pipers, saying he only wished they had something like that in Germany. A gig at the New York World Fair in 1937 set them firmly on the world stage, and the rest is history.

World tours, a string of albums and appearances on The Generation Game followed until, like the popularity of jokes about them, the faded away from the public’s gaze at some vague point in the early 1980s. Happily, the DGP continues to this day albeit away from the scrutiny of the wider world. Like some dangerous underground cult dedicated to the pursuit of unfashionable wholesomeness, young ladies of Essex can still be seen in their matronly tartan and toothy grins, livening up many a civic function with the skirl of the pipes.

So if you’re out tonight, sharing a drink with friends, why not make a joke at the expense of some teenage girls who play the bagpipes rather poorly? And as you do so raise your glass, giving a silent salute with us to the glory of the Dagenham Girl Pipers.

This an edited version of an article which originally appeared in Kettering 3.

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