The 1920s began with the Union in its strongest position to date. Demand for musical performances was high, fuelled by the popularity of the cinema, with many of them employing orchestras to accompany the silent films. This created a huge amount of employment for musicians, although organising the Union in the cinemas was more difficult than in many of the more established orchestras. The merger with the NOUPM meant that numerically the Union was also at its strongest and that some of the infighting within the profession ended.

However, two significant events were to have a lasting and near disastrous effect on the newly formed Musicians’ Union. Just three years after the merger, its founder and first General Secretary, JB Williams, had to retire on grounds of ill-health, leaving the Union without a charismatic and unifying figure. His successor, ES Teale, was older and ill for a large part of his period in charge. This coincided with the collapse in employment of musicians caused by the emergence of the “talkies” (resulting in cinemas dismissing their orchestras) and the economic problems of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

On a more positive note, the formation of the BBC and its creation of a number of orchestras, with which the Union managed to negotiate favourable terms, offered the possibility of some more secure positions for musicians in the future.


Technology and protecting jobs dominated the discussions within the Union. The advent of radio (and the beginnings of the growth of recorded music) was the first threat, but one which paled into insignificance when “mechanical music” began appearing in films. The union tried to raise these issues with government, Trades Councils and other Trade Unions but were largely helpless and treated with what was described as “amused tolerance” by their fellow trade unionists.

Given the lack of employment, the problem of foreign musicians getting work (especially in London) moved up the agenda with the London Branch Secretary, William Batten, at the centre of, and enjoying some success, in allowing the Union a chance to influence work permit applications.

The Union in Numbers

Between 1923 and 1927 more than 40 London theatres had been converted into cinemas. A survey of venues employing musicians in London revealed that there were 539 cinemas, 95 theatres and music halls, 178 hotels, cafes and skating rinks, 62 Concert Halls and Assembly rooms – making a total of 898 venues employing musicians.

During the decade the Union’s membership initially increased after the merger with the NOUPM to 22685 members in 1921 – but declined slowly until 1929. However it was a decline of 21% in the final year of the decade (as cinema orchestras were replaced) that resulted in the Union ending the decade with 16146 members.

Key Dates


The Musicians’ Union is formed after the members of both the AMU and National Orchestral Association (which by this point was known – briefly –as the National Orchestral Union of Professional Musicians) vote overwhelmingly in favour of merger.

JB Williams remains as General Secretary with Fort Greenwood (who was previously head of the NOUPM) becoming his assistant.

Williams calls for Unity and reassures members that “our ideals remain the same: our objective is to improve the status of the musical profession.” This plays well as West End theatre managers attempt to maintain the reductions in wages that were made during the War.

A farewell dinner to the AMU was hosted by Williams and his wife on 1st July 1921, where Williams was presented by the Executive Committee with “a beautiful silver fruit dish suitably inscribed as a token of their admiration and appreciation of the services rendered by him during his long period of office.”

The Union publishes the first edition of what is now called “The Musicians’ Journal” (previously the Musicians’ Report and Journal)

Emphasis of the newly merged Union is organising in the cinemas where many of the musicians are not Union members.


JB Williams becomes chairman of TUC General Council.

The British Broadcasting Company is set up by the major radio manufacturers. The first BBC radio broadcasts takes place later in the year.

Charles Jesson -a long time Union activist and Member of Parliament – intervenes to end a strike of London musicians against Charles Gulliver, the owner of the London Theatre of Variety.


JB Williams becomes Chairman of the TUC.

BBC is formed as the British Broadcasting Company – it is to become a major employer of musicians throughout the Union’s history.

The Union, along with the VAF, NATE (National Association of Theatrical Employees) and The Actors’ Association, oppose the opening of ‘The Plantation’ a show with an “all negro cast.” In a letter to London City Council they claim that there should be no “importation of coloured aliens” when 2000 musical hall workers are out of work and that “there is no demand for an all coloured performance.”

The Ministry of Labour allows a tour by the American musician, Paul Whiteman, to take place after the intervention of the Prince of Wales. A condition was put in the place that an equal number of British musicians (cf the visiting American ones) be employed. This became known as “The Whiteman Clause” and was used by the Union to barter in the subsequent, uneven application of the law. However, in the light of the Aliens Order, work permits for the increasing number of American musicians wishing to visit the UK were difficult to get and subject to a number of restrictions. Work permits were limited to eight weeks in duration and where an American band or musicians were employed by a ballroom a British band (or equal number of British musicians) had to be employed.


JB Williams retires as General Secretary on the grounds of ill-health and moves to his home in Veyrieres in France.

MU pressure results in an embargo on the proposed visit of a Viennese orchestra to Covent Garden.


ES Teale is elected as the second General Secretary of the MU, having previously served as Assistant General Secretary. Teale received 3228 votes, around 64% of the vote. There were seven candidates on the ballot paper.

The Union protests against the planned visit of a number of American bands to the Kit Kat club in London, but Ministry of Labour rules that these acts offer a form of entertainment that British bands cannot.


A General Strike closes much of British industry for nine days in May, though the Musicians’ Union was not called out alongside the other Unions.

Union action prevents the displacement of the resident orchestra at the Tivoli in London when American bandleader, Paul Whiteman, performs.

William Batten, The London Branch Secretary, wins £100 in a libel action against Variety magazine which suggested that he could use his position in the Union to arrange work permits for American musicians.


Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act is passed by the Conservative government in the wake of the General Strike of 1926, placing more restrictions on unions. It outlaws sympathetic strikes in which unions were not directly involved and general strikes, as well as making it against the law for Civil Servants to join TUC affiliated Unions. Contributions to political parties were changed to a system whereby members had to ‘opt in’ rather than opting out. This had a considerable impact on the income of the Labour Party.

The British Broadcasting Company is dissolved at the end of 1926 and the British Broadcasting Corporation is formed under a royal charter, giving it a broadcasting monopoly in the UK for ten years. It goes on to become one of the biggest employers of Union members as radio and television services develop over the coming years, needing music content to fill up their airtime and with very limited quantities of recordings available to play. Jennifer Doctor describes how “within a decade of its formation, the BBC not only became the most significant music disseminator in Britain, but also the foremost employer of British musicians” (1999:16)

A planned American tour by the British band leader Jack Hylton was cancelled after the threat of strike action by the American Federation of Musicians. The American union opposed the import of any foreign musicians.

A letter to The Billboard suggests changes in the Union since the departure of Williams. “Messrs. Batten and Greenwood of the London Section and Mr.Teale, the General Secretary in Manchester have shaken things up an are causing much trouble.”


First “talkies” are shown in British cinemas, one of a number of factors, which will have a devastating effect on the music profession.

The new BBC Symphony Orchestra offers some of the best working terms for musicians with some guaranteed 144 hours work every four weeks, with four weeks holiday a year and four weeks sick leave. BBC orchestras are also formed in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester within first ten years of BBC, generating more work for MU members, with a de facto closed shop in place.

Formation of the Musical Performers’ Protection Association, which members, particularly in London, are quick to join. The Association highlights both a fear of the technological changes (radio, the gramophone) but also the one of the first stated interest of Union members in matters relating to copyright. The Association claimed to be for those “interested or entitled to benefit in the copyright or performance of such works whether by mechanical reproduction or broadcast.”


JB Williams dies at his home in France on 3rd August at the age of 58. Tributes paid by fellow Unionists and Theatrical Owners’ Association.

Initial response to the “talkies” ranges between panic among those musicians losing their jobs and the sense that they will be a short lived phenomenon. Hardie Ratcliffe –at that time the Scottish Organiser – talks of “an outbreak of the talkies in Glasgow” in the Musicians’ Journal of April 1929. While acknowledging the success of ‘The Singing Fool,’ the Journal quotes American film director, Stuart Paton, as saying “The talking film will never oust the silent film. When the hysteria has died down the public will clamour for interesting, well-made silent film.”

By the end of the year, over 4000 MU members (mainly in London) have joined the MPPA.

The Birmingham branch of the Union writes to the Ministry of Labour about “the abnormal amount of unemployment among British musicians created through the introduction of mechanical music,” while the Bristol branch asks for an investigation of “the menace confronting musicians by the introduction of sound films and mechanical music.”

William Batten and Fort Greenwood write to the Ministry of Labour on 29th May on the “Talking Film Menace.”

MU (along with Trades Councils and the TUC) lobbies the Ministry of Labour to tighten up on the activities of American musicians visiting the UK – accusing them of taking on extra work over and above their concert performances. Ministry is initially reluctant to intervene. (Parsonage, 2005: 219)

Jack Hylton and band offered shows at the Roxy and Paramount in New York, but these were called off after threat of strike by AFM.

Union is disappointed by its treatment at the TUC Congress in Belfast where its motions on service bands, aliens and mechanical music were treated with “scant attention” and “amused tolerance.” However, faced with a declining membership and income after with the demise of the cinema orchestras, the MU can no longer afford the affiliation fees to the Trade Union Congress.

The Union also stops paying affiliation fees to the TUC shortly thereafter.

Illness limits the involvement of ES Teale in Union activities.

Launch of the Musicians’ Journal – first issues contains a cover urging membership of the Musical Performers’ Protection Association.