Captain James Reilly, RMSM

Captain J. Reilly, R.M.S.M. (1886-1956)

Copyright – David Reilly

Captain Reilly was a conductor and taught trumpet at The Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, London. Immediately after WW1, he moved to Canada to become the bandmaster of the 153rd Wellington Battalion Band that was stationed in Guelph. His son, Tommy Reilly, was born there in 1919. He set up a jazz and concert band for the military and then he took charge of the Elgin County Military band. In the late 1920s, James Reilly moved to the Elmdale Public School in St Thomas, Ontario. He was very successful and his orchestra, accordion and harmonica bands won many prizes – more here.

In the early 1930s, Captain Reilly wrote to Dr Meyer, who was head of Hohner (UK), asking if he could bring the Elmdale School harmonica band to play concerts in England. Unfortunately this was not possible.

Later, when Dr Meyer and Charles Millard were discussing setting up an organisation for harmonica players in the UK, which became “Harmonica Song Band League”, they realised that they needed a good musician who could write the necessary tutors, arrangements for bands, and supervise the training of groups which were being formed by Mr. Millard. They approached Captain Reilly about their plans for forming the National Harmonica Song Band League (HSB) and it was agreed that he was the man who could develop the musical side of it. History proved them right.

James Riley - The Right Way to Play Book

Capt. Reilly returned to the UK with his family and helped to get the new Hohner organisation going. He helped to arrange the music published by Francis Day & Hunter, he wrote the HSB Tutors, and arranged new pieces for the growing number of harmonica bands in the UK. Initially tremolo based bands but later chromatic harmonica bands. See end.

His son, Tommy Reilly, started playing harmonicaprofessionally aged 16 years.

When the British College of Accordionists (BCA) was started soon afterwards, he took a lively interest in this it too, building on his experience teaching the accordion in Canada. He also took on the training of the Junior Band of the B.C A. which very soon reached a remarkably high standard under his conductorship.

Captain James also wrote several highly successful elementary pieces like “Windsor March,” “Searchlight Tattoo.” etc., which found a ready sale amongst the many elementary bands springing up throughout the country.

When the B.C.A. set up examinations, they opened a number of Examination Centres, and Captain Reilly was appointed as one of the College Examiners, a role he carried out for many years.

After WW2, Captain Reilly was also appointed Sales Manager of the Hohner Musk Department. He persuaded a number of new composers to write for the accordion and the harmonica, and built up the largest Accordion and Harmonica Music Catalogue in this country.

As the popularity of the harmonica and accordion grew, he was much in demand as an adjudicator for Music Festivals all over the country. He also contributed a lot to the smooth running of the competition section of the annual “Accordion Day” festival.

In the early 1950s he started a Harmonica Staff Band for the Hohner Organisation He developed this into a successful orchestral group which gave many successful demonstrations and concerts.

Captain Reilly retired from Hohner in 1954, when he was a Vice President of the National Harmonica League (formerly the HSB). He died a year later.

He was probably responsible for teaching the majority of the harmonica players in the UK over his time with the HSB/NHL through the many tutors he wrote, the guidance he provided and the music he published.


This is based on an appreciation by Dr. O. Meyer, the MD of Hohner (UK), when Captain Reilly retired in 1955.


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