Thomas Albert Bollen: A forgotten champion

Murray Bollen ©


Tom Bollen

Tom Bollen was born in Broken Hill in 1905, to Herbert Bollen and Elsie Pennels-Bollen. He was the elder brother to another Broken Hill identity, Alice Cornwell.

Tom attended North Broken Hill Primary School, which was just around the corner from the family home in Brazil Street. In 1919 Tom was Dux of that school and was awarded a Bursary to Broken Hill High School by the State Government’s Education Department.

Tom had already shown musical ability at a very early age, demonstrated when he joined the Broken Hill High School Orchestra as cornet soloist.


Broken Hill High School Orchestra circa 1920, with Tom Bollen, centre, back row

Tom also played as cornet soloist in the Salvation Army band (North), at the age of 13. His father, Herbert, played tuba in the same band.


Salvation Army Band (North) 1918 with Tom Bollen middle row, second from left, Herbert Bollen bottom row, far right, and both in ‘Salvo’ uniforms

Herbert was a miner employed in the Junction Mine. It was a tumultuous time in the early 1900s and miners’ strikes were not uncommon. In 1917 Herbert was believed to be the victim of an explosion targeting him personally, according to articles in the Barrier Miner. It is unclear why. Later he had gone to Mount Mulligan, west of Cairns in North Queensland, along with several other Broken Hill miners, to work in the coal mines. In 1921, he was tragically killed when an underground gas explosion took the lives of 75 miners.

Tom was just 16 years of age at the time.

There are some newspaper reports that state Tom then ran away from home to South Australia, but this story was believed to be a product of journalistic licence. He did, however, go to Adelaide.

In June 1922, Tom would win the following high accolades (under the sponsorship of Mr W May Jr of the Adelaide Model Band):

  • the South Australian Championship Cornet Solo
  • the Boys Under 18 Champion Cornet Solo
  • the Open Amateur Cornet Solo, as well as, with others
  • the Duet and Quartet awards.

This had never been achieved before, and a young lad of just 17 years of age had turned the Band Competition on its head.

In 1923, because of his age, now 18, he was only eligible to enter the Open Champion Cornet Solo, which he won.

In 1924 he would again win the Open Championship Cornet Solo.

He was then offered a position with Holden’s Silver Band. (Holden were the forerunner to General Motors Holden.) There, he was appointed Band Secretary. He arranged for uniforms and musical instruments from the leading supplier, Boosey and Hawkes.


Holden’s Silver Band

During 1924, Tom would work with Malvern Tramways Band and he would go on to win the Australian Open Championship Cornet Solo in Ballarat in 1925. In this same period, he would become the Conductor of the 10th Armoured Brigade in Adelaide, the forerunner to the Civilian Military Force and comprising young men eligible for military service. He led them to victory in the Adelaide Military Bands Competition in 1924. He was still just 19 years of age.


Tom Bollen wearing Championship Medals, aged 20 in 1925

As a young man, and at a still tender 20 years of age, Tom had reached the pinnacle of his career as a competitive musician, and broader horizons awaited.

In 1926 he was recruited by Mr Albert Baile, who was in the process of forming the Australian National (Commonwealth) Band for the upcoming tour of North America and Europe, and was its Musical Director. Tom would be joined by another Broken Hill lad in Clarrie (Clarinet) Collins.


The Australian National Band on tour

They sailed from Sydney on the 5th May, 1927 to arrive in Vancouver, British Columbia on the 27th May, 1927. The Band would lead the Calgary Stampede Grand Parade through the streets of Calgary, but not a lot else is known about their schedule. Tom would tour across Canada with the Band, and is documented in Salem, New York in that same year. In the USA, there were allegedly problems with the various Musicians Unions about not employing Americans, and consequently the Band moved on.


The World Tour National Band soloists, with Tom Bollen front row, second from right

Tom would leave this band and return to Calgary, and then move onto Edmonton, where he took up the position of Bandmaster of the Edmonton Newsboys Band.


The Edmonton Newsboys Band, July 1st 1927, with Tom Bollen conducting

In 1928, Tom would also marry a local girl, Violet Skinner, and have a son, Thomas. Sadly, the marriage did not last and they separated in 1931 (and later divorced in 1942, long after Tom had left Canada). His wife would remarry and Thomas, the son, would adopt his stepfather’s family name, and remain in contact with Tom’s second wife, but contact was lost with the many moves after Tom’s death in 1961.

During this period, Tom also had programs on radio stations WBEN and CNRO (the Canadian National Railways Organisation). He was later employed at various venues in Canada.

In1930 he travelled to New York to appear with the Paul Whiteman Band in a massively expensive movie musical production of Kings of Jazz.


The Paul Whiteman Band playing in the movie Kings of Jazz, 1930, with Tom Bollen rear left

Stars of this production were George Gershwin, playing his famous ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, and Bing Crosby, making one of his early debut performances.

Tom can be seen in this You Tube video clip  restored under the Kings of Jazz title (and Tom appears at 1.57 minutes on the clip).


Tom replaced Bix Biederbecke, one of the legends of the band movement in the US at the time. Much has been written about Bix’s talents and it was an honour for Tom to be auditioned and accepted as his replacement. There were also rumours of an affair with actress Frances Langford, but there is nothing to support that rumour as she was West Coast-based and Tom spent his time in Canada and the eastern United States.

Tom would continue commuting across the border between Canada and the USA, until again, during the Great Depression, the unions clamped down on foreigners. So, Tom worked around Toronto and other Canadian venues as Director of the Canadian Club Orchestra. In 1933 he contested and won the World Cornet Solo Championship at Waterloo in Ontario. Research has yet to confirm this fact, but he was awarded the beautifully engraved Gold Champions Trumpet which, it is said, was buried with him when he died in 1961.

During these tumultuous years of the depression and unionism, lack of venues and opportunities, Tom travelled in 1935 to London and decided to form his own band—‘Tom Bollen and his Anglo Canadians’. The band worked various venues around England and morphed into ‘Tom Bollen and His London Band’, finally securing a prize appointment to the Fountainbridge Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was here Tom secured the Royal Patronage of King Edward VIII, who was a fan of dance and Tom’s style of playing. This gave the band security through to mid-1936, when Edward abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. Tom’s relationship with the King ended, and with the growing threat of war in Europe, and the royal scandals, Tom’s health suffered. During this phase of his life playing private parties for the upper echelon of society took its toll, causing him to have a nervous breakdown.

Tom sailed back to Australia, arriving in late 1936. He then travelled back to his hometown of Broken Hill, where he formed the Zinc Corporation Orchestra under then Mine Manager Mr AJ Keast. He set about putting together the show Tivoli Thrills of 1938, which he repeated in 1939.


This photo from the Zinc Corporation magazine The Conveyor shows various local identities under Tom’s tutelage, including four members of the Keenan Family

Tom left Broken Hill again in 1939 and first took up an appointment as Bandmaster of Bexley North High School Band, then with Auburn Boys Band and then on to the Katoomba Boys Band, which achieved great success during 1940 and 1941 in band competitions in Gosford and other competition venues.

With the breakout of war in the Pacific, Tom enlisted in the Army in 1942, prompted by his old friend from the Australian National Band Tour of 1927, Albert Baile. He was given the rank of Warrant Officer Class 2 and made 2IC of all the Australian Military Bands, finishing up in Southport Queensland with the 4th Armoured Brigade, from where he was de-mobbed back to Sydney in 1946, and discharged at the end of the war.

It was here he met Vera Folder and the couple married the same year. They travelled to Tamworth in 1947, where Tom took on the role of Bandmaster of the Tamworth City Band, and their son (Ian) was born. In 1948, he would take on the role of Musical Director for the Broken Hill Associated Smelters (BHAS) Excelsior Band in Port Pirie, South Australia and would stay there for several years, adding three more children (Keith, Murray and Vicki) to the family.


Broken Hill Associated Smelters (BHAS) Excelsior Band in Port Pirie with Tom Bollen, Musical Director, in the middle of the front row above the drums

Tom, with family in tow, would take on several engagements around South Australia and Victoria before finally returning to Broken Hill in 1953, where he worked as a salesman at Middleton’s.


The BIU Band, the 1954 Ballarat ‘A Grade’ competition winners

He then joined the Barrier Industrial Union (BIU) Band travelling to Ballarat in 1954 and winning the Australian Band Championships.

This picture still hangs proudly in the BIU Band Hall foyer in Beryl Street, Broken Hill, as do many of the other photographs of Tom Bollen.

This was to be his last-known formal competition, and although he played solo performances at the Broken Hill Races, the Last Post on Anzac Day, at funerals and other charitable events, and tutored some of the aspiring cornet players at the Police Citizens Boys Club, he settled into life as a businessman for a time.

Tom and Vera opened a music store in the old Grand Hotel in Oxide Street, and then moved it to 303 Argent Street.


Tom Bollen with wife Vera on the left, and a casual employee on the right, in Tom’s shop on Argent Street, next to what was the Bank of NSW, now Westpac Bank

Tom died in his sleep on the 24th May 1961 on the Forbes mail train taking his two eldest sons back to Sydney to continue their education.

He had an amazing career, but it is little known to the majority of current-day townsfolk in Broken Hill. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Anglican section of the Broken Hill cemetery, where his sister Alice is also buried. After his death, his wife and children left Broken Hill, bankrupted, for Vera’s home town of Sydney, assisted by the Salvation Army.

In 1993, Tom’s grave was restored by family, with a boundary and headstone; otherwise there would be little by which to remember Tom Bollen’s great achievements.

There is now a book of Tom’s career available for public viewing at both the Broken Hill Family History Society offices at Crystal Street Station and at the Broken Hill Historical Society, at the Synagogue of the Outback Museum in Wolfram Street.

And you can listen here to Tom playing ‘The Song that Reached My Heart‘, and Valse Brilliant, recorded as demonstration tapes in 1929.

Footnote: A story

Dad beat Charles Court from Western Australia (WA) every year they competed against each other in the Australian Cornet Solo Championships. Charles won in 1926 or 1927, but only when Dad had left the country. Charles would later become Sir Charles and Premier of Western Australia into the 1960s and 1970s.

I met him briefly after he retired from politics, and while I was managing the Blina Oilfield discovery in the 1980s, in the Kimberley Region of WA. We were introduced out in the bush, and my surname piqued his interest.

‘How do you spell your surname?’, he asked.

‘B-O-L-L-E-N’, I told him (knowing the story about the professional jealousy that existed during his and my father’s competitive years).

‘Any relation to Tom Bollen?’, he asked.

‘Yes Sir Charles, he was my Father.’

You could have heard a pin drop as the lights in his eyes flared once again, some 60 years on. Being the consummate politician he was, this was his parting comment: ‘Damned fine musician your father.’

I later read Sir Charles’ autobiography, but there was nary a word about Dad in there, only about Sir Charles winning the Australian Cornet Solo Championship. Funny that!


Tom Bollen circa 1950

About the author: Murray Bollen is a BHHSoc member. He is the third son of Tom and Vera Bollen. Murray only lived in Broken Hill a short while until Tom passed away when he was 10 years old. Murray then left for Sydney with his family. He is now retired after a 50-year career in the oil and gas exploration industry.

He has travelled extensively, living in Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Balikpapan and Jakarta, Perth, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, Bangkok in Thailand, Adelaide, and finally spending the last 13 years in Mandurah, where he commuted the final 10 years of his career to Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands. He has been married to Su-Hsia for 46 years, has two sons and three grandchildren. He still considers he ‘comes from Broken Hill’, and not from ‘away’.