Frank Bates [1889 - 1921]
In 2013 a blue heritage plaque was unveiled in Peckham Rye, Southwark, at the former home of one of the pioneers who brought Jazz to the UK after the first world war. Bajan-born Frank Bates was a singer in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a 36-piece orchestra made up of African American, Caribbean, and British born musicians of an African heritage. The orchestra included three women and two English musicians who liked the music so much they use to apply makeup to their appearance to play and publicly perform with the band.
The orchestra was invited to play at Buckingham Palace, and there is no doubt that between 1919 and 1921 they were the no.1 Jazz transition ensemble in Europe, and arguably the world. But at the height of their success, tragedy struck when they were involved in a naval shipping disaster that has since come to be referred to as the black Titanic.
On October 9th, 1921 the Southern syncopated Orchestra was on board the steamship Rowan from Glasgow to Dublin. Just after midnight a collision occurred in foggy waters between the Rowan and American cargo liner West Camak, off Corsewall Point. Initial panic soon turned to calm when it became obvious the Rowan was not seriously damaged and there was little chance of sinking. However, less than a quarter of an hour later, out of the fog and the night, suddenly came rushing the Clan liner, Malcolm, weighing 5,994 tons. It plundered into the side of the Rowan splitting the smaller steamship in two. Within two minutes the Rowan had disappeared into the sea, claiming 35 lives, nine belonging to the Southern Syncopated Orchestra and Frank Bates died at sea.
The disaster made worldwide news at the time coming nine years after the Titanic, and not least because of its illustrious passengers. However, the tragedy proved too much for the orchestra and within a year, they disbanded. As post-war Jazz began to evolve, the legend of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra began to fade. And there it would have remained, passed down as an oral history tradition among a few descendants of the orchestra, had if not been for a relentless jazz historian called Howard Rye and the granddaughter of Frank Bates, Juliet Jones. The two met and eventually approached the Nubian Jak Community Trust to place a commemorative plaque to the band. Such was the importance of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra to the history of British music that the Trust agreed to unveil plaques dedicated to them.
It is a privilege to be involved in honouring Frank Bates, a former resident of the borough who along with his band made such an important contribution to Britain. Thanks to Nubian Jak for awarding Frank Bates a blue plaque, and special thanks to the granddaughter of Frank Bates, Ms Juliet Jones for pursuing his history and allowing us to reach this very important occasion to celebrate the history of the SSO. Mayor of Southwark Cllr Althea Smith.
As the granddaughter of Frank Bates, I consider it an honour to share this story of forgotten heroes and heroines of jazz with the world. The past 10 years has been a fascinating voyage of discovery of the major contributions made by the African American jazz band the Southern Syncopated Orchestra to early jazz. Sharing the personal effect it’s had on my family and that of other descendants and widows and orphans affected by the disaster is already grabbing global attention. Enjoy! Granddaughter of Frank Bates Juliet Jone
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. British Historian and Jazz expert Howard Rye.
I am thrilled that Frank Bates is being remembered and honoured with a Nubian Jak Blue Plaque at his former home in Peckham Rye. He made an important contribution to British jazz music through his association with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, but his untimely death on the steamship Rowan in 1921 robbed the jazz world of a pioneer. Author, Historian and local campaigner Stephen Bourne.
- The Frank Bates Tribute was the first of a 4 part plaque series honouring some of the illustrious musicians that played in the SSO. This included Ellis Jackson, Pete Robinson and Sidney Bechet. The plaque series was only one component of a 6 month project called London Schools Remembrance Project funded by the HLF and consisting of the following: School Workshops, Oral History Training, 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 age range included students from years 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. The Frank Bates tribute was also supported by local dignitaries, councillors, members of the public, national and international press and media.
- Location: 19 Hichisson Road, Peckham Rye, London, SE15 3AN