Kenneth J. Alford

Frederick Joseph Ricketts was born on 21 February 1881, the 4th child of Robert and Louisa (nee Alford) Ricketts in London's East End. (Only those born within sound of Bow Bells - the Church of St. Maryle Bow in Cheapside - deserve to be called a Cockney, and his London ancestry can be traced back to the 1700's!) His father died when he was seven and his mother when he was fourteen.

The pseudonym was built up from his eldest son's name "Kenneth", his own name (Joseph) and his mother's maiden name "Alford".

As a young lad living in the East End he would often have heard street musicians and bands, including German bands and the early Salvation Army bands, and he opted for a career in army music, lying about his age to gain entry - indeed throughout his military service, his date of birth was quoted as 05 March 1880!

His early musical training had been on piano and organ and as a church chorister - training that was to stand him in good stead because he was sufficiently proficient on the cornet in a few months to join the band. His first composition at the age of 15, not published, was "For Service Overseas".He first served with The Royal Irish Regiment (known at the time as The Namurs after their exploits with William of Orange at Namur in 1695), and his first posting was Limerick. His next posting was India, where he served at the same time as a young Winston Spencer Churchill, and he was very popular in the mess for his prowess on the piano. He used every opportunity to study and to learn the other instruments in the band, and he accepted any promotions that came along.

At the end of his seven years and at the unusually early age of 23, he was recommended by his Colonel for entry into The Royal school of Music at Kneller Hall for training as a Bandmaster. Kneller Hall was established to train army boys as musicians and there were two main reasons for setting it up:

1. At Scutari after the Crimean War at a march past of 16,000 troops on Queen Victoria's Birthday, the playing of the National Anthem was a disaster because the various bands were playing different arrangements and in some cases in different keys.

2. To discontinue the use of civilian bandmasters, often German, who tended to resign on the spot when the regiment was posted abroad, looking instead (usually successfully) for another home based assignment.Ricketts studied the usual topics: harmony, counterpoint, composition, instrumentation and scoring for different musical groups and for the various military band instruments. After his studies he was retained on the staff for a further two years as assistant to the Director of Music, and as school organist - which proved a great opportunity for arranging.In 1929 The Royal School of Music introduced an advanced certificate for bandmasters and it was retrospectively awarded to those who were deemed to have demonstrated achievement of the standard. Ricketts was one of those to receive the award, allowing him to use the letters "psm".

F.J. Ricketts’ next posting was in June 1908 to Bloemfontaine and his first task was to write a new march for the regiment (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders - still known colloquially as The 93rd Highlanders). The result was "The Thin Red Line" - an accolade* won by the regiment at Balaklava in 1854. The inspiration for the march was taken from two bars of the regiment's bugle call, and was dedicated to the 93rd Highlanders and not published for general use until 1925; by which time it was well and truly established as the regiment's march.

* The Times war correspondent had reported that nothing stood between the Russian cavalry mass and the defenceless base but the thin red streak tipped with a line of steel of the 93rd.

In the course of time the accolade became shortened to "The Thin Red Line".

His first march under the nom de plume of K.J. Alford was "Holyrood", the first part of which he sketched on the back of an envelope while killing time at a function in Edinburgh. It was later adopted as the official march of the RAF Regiment.

It was also while posted in Scotland that he wrote, in 1914, his most famous march, Colonel Bogey. He was a keen walker and often used the local golf club for his exercise. Apparently while on a golf course a member instead of calling "Fore!", whistled the two notes "Bb and G" to which Ricketts answered with another few notes; as the golf game proceeded, so did the whistling game and the march grew! It was to become a great favourite of the marching troops during both world wars, and by all reports F.J.R. was not enamoured by the choice of words added by the men! It was also adopted for the highly successful film "The Bridge On The River Kwai".

It was while posted in Scotland that FJR's interpretation of the National Anthem was first heard by King George V and Queen Mary, and the Queen subsequently fully endorsed his arrangement.

During the 1st world war Ricketts had a strong urge to compose marches and it was in this period that he wrote "The Great Little Army", "On The Quarter Deck", "The Middy" and "Voice of the Guns". For his outstanding services he was "Mentioned in Despatches", and in 1919 as a salute to the first 100,000 who made the supreme sacrifice he penned "The Vanished Army" - subtitled "They Never Die'.

He had also started the 1914-18 campaign with a bunch of young lads, yet earned the post war accolade of having the finest regimental band of the British Army.

Major Ricketts’ and the regiment - now officially The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders - second posting to Ireland almost ended in tragedy but he successfully talked himself out of assassination by the IRA - his would be assailant was later to introduce himself and even bought him a drink!

He spent two happy and memorable years in New Zealand with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and as a result of the name they made for themselves the new gramophone industry got in on the act, and the band made a "78" including "Colonel Bogey" and "The Great Little Army".

The following year Bandmaster Ricketts successfully applied for the post of MD of The Royal Marines. He was commissioned on 04 July 1927 as a Lieutenant and was to serve 17 years with the marines - first at Deal, on the South East coast, and then for almost 15 years in Plymouth; bringing that band, in the opinion of most, to the peak of musical perfection, and it was before and after the second world war that they made a series of "78" recordings of Alford marches - an LP was made from these in 1970 by EMI entitled "The British March King - Alford conducts Alford".

He was then to conduct the Band for 60 minute fortnightly programmes for BBC radio from 1935 until the outbreak of war in 1939, and he was promoted to Brevet Major on 31 December 1938

The workload at that time put a temporary end to his composing, but the call returned in time of war and he responded in 1941 with the slow march "By Land and Sea", "Army of the Nile", and "Eagle Squadron" followed in 1942.

He became full Major on 4 July 1942, he was now over 60 and had given almost 50 years distinguished service to the crown.

From 1907 until 1930 FJR never spent more than two years anywhere and this made his 14 year stay in Plymouth all the more pleasant, and he became well known and well liked as the leader of the Band of the Royal Marines.

His wife was his greatest fan and was used to stopping what she was doing (including sleeping) to play an idea on the piano for him or give an opinion on two options for a musical theme.

Alford's marches have been favourably compared to those of Sousa. They both had a thorough grounding in classical music, and the general feeling is that Alford's works were more original, had lovely bass lines and were typically British. He wrote many pieces other than marches, including hymns, fantasias, humoresques and xylophone solos/duets, and he liked to combine well known tunes with new composition or with each other.Kenneth J. Alford used the saxophone liberally and played his part in getting the instrument accepted in military bands; he is also credited with the first arrangements for bagpipes and military band. He tended to conduct concerts without a score which had the effect of keeping the band on its toes, and like Sousa he had a remarkable memory - he could look a player in the eye weeks after a small slip to remind him quietly to get it right this time!

He had the ear of top brass and could use it to protect the band, something which was much appreciated, and he had a great esprit de corps in the band - even a family atmosphere. He was very well liked, was very personable and always made himself available for conversation after concerts.

He retired due to ill health and died shortly afterwards - on 15 May 1945.

His life and works are remembered in many ways, not the least his timeless marches. A memorial book was presented by a colleague to the Regimental Museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders called "A Collection of the Works of F.J. Ricketts", and the Royal Marines principal training establishment at Lympstone, Devon is named "Ricketts Hall", and the centenary of his birth was marked by a series of concerts at the Albert Hall and in Plymouth - the latter triggering a three column article in the daily Telegraph.

Accepted as the king of British march composers his marches were reckoned to be great examples of the art: cheerful, instantly recognisable tunes; inspiring the impulse to march; originality...


Eagle Squadron

On the Quarter Deck

Army of the Nile