Pete Robinson (1888 - 1921)
In 2003, the New Statesmen chose Suzy Kester’s book Under My Own Colours as a Book of the Year. The book was interesting not just for detailing what life was like for a black child growing up in Britain before the Windrush but because it referred to a legendary jazz ensemble that had disappeared from the pages of British history: The Southern Syncopated Orchestra! But the importance of this band would soon become apparent because Kester’s book had resurrected memories of the pioneering ensemble at the transition from ragtime to music that would quickly become defined as jazz. For two years after World War 1919–1921, the SSO was arguably the most influential jazz band in the world. However, their most significant impact was felt in Britain and Europe, where they spent those years influencing the birth and popularization of this new music genre.
Then on the way to a booking, seemingly with the world at their fingertips, disaster struck. Midnight on 9th October 1921, a steamship named the Rowan was sailing through foggy waters just off Corsewall Point in the Irish Sea. Two larger vessels, the American cargo liner West Camak and the Clan liner Malcolm were in the distance. Moments later, they would be involved in a naval shipping disaster claiming 35 lives, nine of which belonged to members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Suzy Kester’s grandfather, the charismatic drummer and one of the band’s leaders, Pete Robinson, was among them. At the time, it made worldwide news and drew comparisons to the Titanic. Pete Robinson left a widow and three young children in London.
Since the publication of Under My Own Colours, interest in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra has inspired research from music historians to family descendants. Indeed, through the descendants, the SSO is alive still, reborn with so many stories waiting to be told.
The Nubian Jak Community Trust, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the estate agents Avrasons, are delighted to commemorate former Lambeth resident Pete Robinson with a blue heritage plaque at his former home off Brixton Road at 8 Crewdston Road, the Oval. SW9.
The Pete Robinson tribute was part of a Heritage Lottery Funded program called the London Schools Remembrance Project, where students research, then produce work on the Southern Syncopated Orchestra and another musical pioneer Samuel Coleridge - Taylor. The plaque was unveiled by Josephine and Pete Kester and David and Janet Savage, the grandchildren of Pete Robinson, in the presence of the Mayor of Lambeth, and other dignitaries, members of the public, press and media.
We are pleased to support Nubian Jak’s project, which will deliver workshops for 120 pupils exploring London’s diverse music heritage in the early 20th century. The unveiling of the plaque, dedicated to the Southern Syncopated Orchestra’s Pete Robinson, will increase awareness of this important but largely unknown history and preserve the site as an inspiration for future generations. Sue Bowers, Head of HLF London.
It is good to know that the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which had such an impact on British musicians and on jazz internationally, is finally being given public recognition. Howard Rye, British Historian and Jazz expert.
The SSO changed the music of Britain and its social and cultural landscape. Through their descendants, their voices are being heard by a new generation. NJCT
The Pete Robinson Tribute was the second of a 4-part plaque series honouring some of the illustrious musicians that played in the SSO. This included Frank Bates, Ellis Jackson, and Sidney Bechet. The plaque series, however, was only one component of a 6-month project called the London Schools Remembrance Project funded by the HLF and consisting of the following: School Workshops, Oral History Training for the unemployed, London-wide Libraries Exhibition, Performance Day (at the Royal Court Theatre), two eBooks, a Website, and an Awards Day! There are 4 schools and approximately 120 students taking part in the project. The students involved were in key stages 2 and 3.
Location: 8 Crewdson Road The Oval, London, SW9 0LJ