Rex Mortimer

When your father is the Bandmaster of the finest brass band in the world; when your eldest brother is the renowned Principal Cornet of the same Band; when your other brother is the almost equally renowned Solo Euphonium, what tactics do you employ to get yourself a chair in that same ensemble? 

Maybe you look across the family dining room table and say “Dad, do you think …..?  Or maybe you have a quiet word in your mother’s ear and she volunteers “Father, (she always addressed him as such) our Rex has decided that now is the right time for him to join the Band.”  We shall never know, but those are my best suggestions.  

Father was Fred Mortimer, Bandmaster of Foden's Motor Works Band; his eldest brother was Harry Mortimer and older brother was Alex Mortimer; revered company indeed, and the enquirer was simply the seventeen years old third son Rex Mortimer.

Maybe he was welcomed with open arms; maybe there was a reflective period; whatever the fact remains that young Rex Mortimer attended his first Foden's Band rehearsal on 12th March 1928, sitting as second euphonium next to his brother Alex; he was seventeen years of age.

Rex had been born at Luton in 1911, where his father was Bandmaster, so from birth Rex was  brought up in the brass band world.

When he was fourteen, his family moved to Elworth, a mile or so outside of Sandbach in South Chehire. and he continued his education at Sandbach Foundation School, equivalent to a Grammar School. 

Euphonium lessons were free as they came from his father , no mean cornet player, and his brother Alex, whom Harry described as the finest euphonium player he ever heard.

His timing to join Foden's could not have been better. In 1926, and again in 1927, Foden's had won what we now call the British Open at Belle Vue, Manchester, so were on course for a hat trick. Rex’s first rehearsal was on 12th March 1928, conveniently just after Don Stokes had ‘left’ on 9th February. Did Don jump, or was he pushed; we may never know. Rex’s first engagement was at Kidsgrove on 1st April where the Band received a fee agreed at 50% plus extras plus coach; it amounted to £18 – 11 shillings – 6 pence.

1928 proved to be a busy year for the Band when there were over sixty engagements. It was no wonder that the various workshop foremen tried to avoid having bandsmen on their payroll, and yes – the Band did win at Belle Vue , so Rex started off with a hat trick performance. But Fred Mortimer was not a happy man as he felt there was too much hullabaloo from the noisy Bob’s Racers, just outside the entrance door to King’s Hall at Belle Vue, Manchester, so he vowed Foden's would never go to the contest again, whether conducted by him or by professional conductor William Halliwell, and they didn’t.

It was at this stage that the Foden Company management decided that William Halliwell’s tenure at Foden's Band had run its course, so father Fred was put in sole charge; Bandmaster and Music Director all rolled into one.

Rex must have thought this banding game was easy as, in the next eight National Championship Finals, Foden's Band, conducted by Fred, won seven out of the eight. 

Each of these wins was significant in it’s own way, but many years later Rex told me that the 1933 performance of Prometheus Unbound was Foden's at their finest.

The run of successes ended with Epic Symphony, in 1938, and with it Rex’s time on the contest stage as a player. World War 2 had intervened. As a player he had won eight top notch medals and he was not yet thirty years old.

Outside of banding, Rex was a Pattern Maker, shaping in wood the patterns for the Foundry Moulders to use to produce the castings for Foden Military Vehicles and Crusader Battle Tanks. He once confided in me that he might have been happier had he remained as a Pattern Maker. 

After the Second World War, Rex was afflicted with ‘stick itch’, and cut his conducting teeth at Middlewich Centenary Band and Foden's Quartet, in which role he led them to four National titles, those of 1950, 1951, 1953 and 1956. The 1953 Quartet was exceptional as it comprised four trombones.

In the latter part of 1952, Fred Mortimer’s health was beginning to flag, and he could no longer carry out effectively the hundreds of jobs needed to be done by the Director of Music.Thus it fell to Rex to take over all the administrative work, aided by secretary Sheila Turnock, who, that same year, had been married to twenty one years old Colin. Then tragedy struck.

On 8th October 1952, the Perth to London express train, pulled by Coronation Class engine City of Glasgow, was involved in the worst domestic rail crash ever to occur in peacetime; 112 people were killed, including fireman Colin Turnock.

More than fifty years later, Elizabeth, Rex’s wife, told me that for years after, Rex was moved to tears when recalling the tragedy.

At the beginning of 1953, father Fred Mortimer was suffering from ever poorer health, so with Harry now working mainly in London, Rex was gradually called upon more and more to take Foden's Band. 

But he needed to extend his conducting skills so variously trained other bands for contests, including Excelsior Rope Works, Cory, Chester Blue Coats, Clydebank Borough, Cresswell Colliery, John Thompson Works, Markham Main Colliery, Crossley Carpets and most notably Cammell Laird Shipyard.

Why do I say most notably? Well, in 1964, Cammell Laird Band were prepared for the North West Regional Contest by their bandmaster, James Scott, but it was Rex who fronted them for the contest.

Rex gained second prize with Foden's, but gained first prize with Cammell Laird. Enough was enough, and the Foden management bluntly told Rex that he must never again compete against Foden's.

In June 1953, Fred Mortimer passed away, whereupon Rex was appointed Bandmaster, and Harry Director of Music. Rex’s first job was to prepare the Band for Harry to challenge for the National Championships the following October on Diadem of Gold, after all it was Coronation Year. It proved to be another first prize for Foden's Band.

Only two more years were to pass before Harry announced that he was standing down from conducting at contests. He became Musical Advisor at Foden's and Rex became Director of Music; it was 1956.

The main job was now in the hands of Rex, and in the next four years he secured in his own right at the National Championships 5th, 4th, 1st on Variations on the Shining River, and 3rd.

Banding had taken Rex all over Europe and to South Africa, but 1961 saw a new experience when he went to Canada as Associate Conductor to brother Harry when, together with the Fairey Band and Morris Motors, his Foden's Band accepted an invitation to feature at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. 

Two concerts every day for three weeks gave Rex plenty of opportunity to wield his share of the baton in front of this great brass orchestra, with Harry and Leonard Lamb.

1962 brought for Rex perhaps the highest individual honour that brasss banding could bestow. It came from the Worshipful Company of Musicians, and is known in banding circles as The Iles Medal. Having been funded by the family of the late John Henry Iles, contest and concert promoter extraordinary. Rex now made up a quartet as he followed in the wake of his father and two brothers in receiving this award.

Now Rex was about to achieve something which had proved elusive for his father and his brothers. By 1958 he had already won the National Championships in London, and now, in 1964, he was to achieve the Double by winning the British Open at Belle Vue, Manchester, playing Lorenzo.

Rex was not short of awards, and as a player collected one British Open medal, and seven National Championship medal; some haul.

Then there were the major awards as a conductor. He won 5 prizes at the British Open, and 7 prizes at the National Championships. Few conductors can equal that record. 

Away from the contest stage, one day in 1972 Rex received a telephone call in his office; the caller was from Annabel’s Nightclub in Berkeley Square, Mayfair, London.  Would his famous band like to fulfil an engagement at London’s Premier Night Club?

Now hold on; Foden’s favourite venue in London was the Royal Albert Hall, but Rex had no knowledge of any night club, let alone one called Annabels. He listened with scepticism. These days he would take a look on Google, but that was then not available to him, so there was only one thing for it, a train trip to London. 

The proposed venue was all that the enquirer boasted it would be, with autographed photographs on the walls of previous performers like Frank Sinatra, and Tommy Steele. Rex was convinced and signed up for a one night stand for £500 when typical concert fees were £80 to £100. It was the most memorable of the year’s fifty six engagements.

It went down well; so well in fact that the Band received a second invitation for the following year, when a more worldly Rex Mortimer charged £825 !

While things went well for Rex and the Band, things did not go quite so well for Foden's Ltd, the Truckmakers. Towards the end of 1974, the Directors realised that a major cut in overheads was vital, and gave me, as Head of Personnel, an instruction to effect 290 redundancies. If there was one saving grace, it was that all employees aged over 65, there was no compulsory retirement age then, would be affected. Also those aged around 64 would be automatically made redundant or at the very least, ‘leaned on’. Rex Mortimer fell into this category. 

I recall that Rex needed little leaning on, as it was a very long time since he had made his debut as a player in March 1928. Hundreds of engagements, and thousands of rehearsals had taken their toll, and he was ready to lay down the baton.

It was at this point that that Rex discontinued and kept for himself, the two registers; one for engagements and one for rehearsal attendances, which covered the whole fifty years that the Mortimers, father and three sons, had been associated with Foden's Motor Works Band. It was only many years later that I discovered that, in his last days, Rex had passed these to the Band’s former cornet player and Librarian, Jimmie Charles. What gems they are. 

In 1974 the Band made an LP recording titled ‘A Christmas Offering’ which alsp featured the Northwich Choir whose Musical Advisor was one John Golland, an accomplished composer and arranger.

Even so, it was something of a surprise when it was announced that he would be taking over from Rex Mortimer as Music Director of Foden's Motor Works Band. Things then moved very quickly.

First I had a visit from Joint Managing Director, J E (Ted) Foden, to tell me that, at a Board Meeting that morning, he had advised his fellow Directors that he was about to retire. That, he said, left the issue of who would look after the Band. He said ‘I told them you would’. I hardly knew a baritone from a euphonium; couldn’t read music or play an lnstrument.

A couple of weeks later, after I had attended a few rehearsals, I received a deputation from the Band, comprising Alan Brotherston, Principal Cornet, Colin Cranson, Solo Euphonium and Alex English, Solo Trombone.  Their message to me was quite clear; appoint a top quality Director of Music or pack the Band up altogether. The latter was quite unthinkable so, as a total novice, I had to act.

I called a meeting of the players and got unanimous approval, actually more of an instruction, to act. John Golland’s association with the Band ended the next day.

By now Rex Mortimer was totally relaxed and retired at his home in the village, but having dismissed the man he had appointed to head up the Band, I was hardly his favourite person. More than that, I got the distinct impression that Rex would not mind if Foden's Band faded away after 50 years of tenure by the Mortimers. So I knew that if I asked him to come back, however temporarily, I would receive short shrift, so I had to broaden my thinking.

I got in touch with him and told him I had been confronted, not altogether true, with a players rebellion, and that Ted Foden had suggested I ask him to return, however briefly. Again not actually true. But it worked, and Rex returned for a about three weeks, his only demand being that I would have to chauffeur him to the engagements. The next month I appointed James Scott as Director of Music.

Thereafter, Rex and I had a cool relationship for some time until one day I had a telephone call from Bob Mulholland, owner editor of Brass Band World Magazine. Would I write a piece about Rex for his next edition. When I answered in the affirmative, he asked me if I needed Rex’s address. I did not, as I explained that I could write what I needed without visiting him. Quite frankly I didn’t think Rex would allow me through his door.

On the day of the magazine’s publication, I received an unexpected telephone call from a voice I instantly recognised. The caller said ‘You know who this is, don’t you. I just want to say Thank You Very Much for the Article’, whereupon he put the telephone down. I was pleased that the ice was broken and we were friends once more.

The last time we chatted was on the occasion of his last birthday. We reminisced for some time.

Rex Mortimer died in a local Care Home in 1999; he was 88.

His father and his two brothers had had remarkable careers in brass banding. Who could have imagined that a fourth member of the family would be able to hold his own in such exalted company.

Allan Littlemore    Sandbach  April 2018


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