Fred Dambman was a lifelong member of the (Amalgamated) Musicians’ Union, having already served in a number of positions before being elected General Secretary in 1931.
His seventeen years in charge were largely a struggle for survival as the Union firstly suffered a huge drop in membership (and income) with the mass unemployment of the 1930s before, when a revival began, finding many of its members being called up to serve in World War II.
However, by the end of his tenure, however, there were signs that Union had been able to begin re-establishing itself as a powerful negotiator on behalf of musicians, with demand for musicians outstripping supply for the first time in over twenty years.
Dambman was born in Edinburgh in 1880 and joined the Union in 1902, while he was working as a viola and violin player in Glasgow and Edinburgh. As the Union expanded and began employing full time officials, he became Secretary of the Manchester Branch, although his period of office was interrupted by his own service during the First World War. This provided a power base for his ambitions within the Union, and after being defeated in the ballot for Williams’ successor in 1925, Dambman was appointed as Assistant General Secretary in 1925.
Playing an important role during Teale’s incumbency because of his ill-health, Dambman nevertheless had to defeat a number of other significant players in the Union, including the London branch secretary, William Batten, who came second. Tellingly, the votes cast for Dambman came mainly from outside London; Batten’s support was pre-dominantly in the capital.
Cutbacks meant that Dambman’s salary of £8 a week was initially lower than his predecessors and circumstances combined to make his task as Union leader more difficult than that of his predecessors. The Union’s precarious financial position may have been to the fore throughout the 1930s, but he was still able to put in place many agreements – not least with the BBC and PPL – which were to provide lasting employment and income for its members.
Dambman also oversaw the revival of the Union’s political fund and its affiliation with the Labour Party, while unsuccessfully appealing to the Ministry of Labour in the early stages of World War II to defer the enlistment of musicians.
He retired in 1948, and died in August 1952 aged 53. A tribute in The Musician (February 1953) described him as “philosophical, pipe smoking and friendly” as well as noting that he was:
“of a quiet disposition, but he brought to his responsible task a prodigious capacity for methodological administrative work that is unlikely to be equalled, and his tenacity in argument won the admiration of even those against whom it was directed.”
Nevertheless, it is a measure of Dambman’s success as General Secretary that despite being facing existential problems, he managed to leave the Union in a stronger position than he inherited it.