Read his story
Henry Albert Victoria (‘Miller’) Peake (1897-1982) was a popular amateur bandleader, musician and sometime filmmaker based in Mount Barker. The Miller Peake Band, and others like it, played a vital role in the social lives of young people by animating Saturday night dances in small locales throughout the district. They also tirelessly supported charitable and patriotic events, and contributed immeasurably to the social fabric of their towns and regions.
The Peake family first came to South Australia when Robert ‘Matey’ Peake (1820-1903), from Penzance, Cornwall, arrived aboard the Princess Royal in 1846. Settling in Mount Barker, he carted wheat and flour for John Dunn’s mills. In 1855 he married Bridget Ann ‘Biddy’ Hart (1833-1879), who had emigrated from Galway in 1854, with whom he would father eight children. He continued his haulage operations, mainly carting goods between Mount Barker and Adelaide with bullock teams, until his retirement. The business was then carried on by his sons, including second son Robert ‘Jasper’ Peake (1866-1950). Jasper married Laura Sussanah Bayley (1862-1932), and the sixth of their ten children was Henry Albert Victoria ‘Miller’ Peake (1897-1982).
Miller Peake had a talent for music, and learnt piano as a boy. He also developed an enthusiasm for the brand new art of the motion picture. At the age of fifteen, he landed an occasional job with King’s Pictures, an outfit that toured silent movies around a circuit in the southern Hills every three months or so. Miller’s principal job was to provide transport, and he drove a two-horse wagon containing the the projectionist, the piano player and their equipment to the recreation halls of Mount Barker, Echunga, Macclesfield, Meadows and Nairne. He also made himself useful as a spool winder: the equipment had no take-up spool, so he wound the film manually onto a spool as it came through the projector.
Miller left school at the outbreak of World War I. When he enlisted in the Army in 1916 at the age of 19, he listed his occupation as ‘driver.’ His first assignment was to serve amongst a dozen or so soldiers who were charged with guarding the bridge at Murray Bridge against the possibility of foreign invasion. An item in the Courier of 18 August reported that “On Wednesday night a patriotic fancy dress ball was held in the Long Flat hall, and was a great success. The music was supplied by Messrs. Opie and Lane, and Privates Craig and Peake, and a dainty supper was provided by the ladies. Mr. L. Naylor, of Murray Bridge, proved an efficient M.C., and dancing was carried on till an early hour. . . A number of guards from the Bridge helped to make the evening lively.”
The war began in earnest for Miller in November when he left South Australia aboard the Afric, which was loaded with both men and horses, to fight with the 32nd battalion in Europe. He served on the battlefields of France from April 1917 to July 1918 without coming to grief, but he became caught up in the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic, for which he was hospitalised in London in March 1919 (see Clara May Stanley History Post). He finally arrived back in Australia in May, aboard the Orontes.
In 1921 Miller married Alma Blende Passfield (1891-1965), with whom he had four children. He had several day jobs throughout his career, including working for the railways, working for the Mount Barker Council and (principally) working on telephone lines for the PMG. He was, however, always a showman at heart.
Today Miller Peake is probably chiefly remembered for a feature-length silent movie that he wrote, directed, starred in and edited, shot in Mount Barker in 1925. The movie, titled The Rancher’s Daughter, was modelled on Hollywood westerns of the day and included action and stunt scenes, all filmed around the Mount Barker district using a 9.5 mm hand-cranked Pathé movie camera. All the actors and crew were local amateurs, and Miller himself learned the art of filmmaking – including writing his own title cards, and developing and printing his own movies in a darkroom that he built on the side of his verandah – largely by trial and error. In addition to The Rancher’s Daughter he shot a compilation documentary, showing scenes and events of interest around Mount Barker. The films were shown to enthusiastic crowds at the Mount Barker Institute (now the Town Hall) in 1927, but they were never registered and did not have a commercial release. Rather than accompanying the movies on the piano, Miller was more inclined to provide a running commentary, describing who the actors were, and talking about the stories behind the making of the movies.
Both movies still survive, although The Rancher’s Daughter is incomplete. When it was transferred to 16mm for preservation some of the scenes had faded and deteriorated to beyond recovery. What remains is nevertheless imbued with enthusiasm and local charm. The significance of the movies increases over time, as they act as time capsules both of Hollywood movie conventions (as interpreted by Australians), and of local people, infrastructure and landscapes captured and preserved by the camera. The films were not, however, central to Miller Peake’s contribution to the Mount Barker community. Much more important was the part he played as a band leader and musician.
Saturday night dances were the lifeblood of young people’s social lives through much of the earlier part of the twentieth century, but the hire of visiting dance bands could be prohibitively expensive for small venues. In 1932, when laid off from his job at the PMG due to the Depression, Miller Peake decided to put together a band of musicians from the Mount Barker area and charge accessible rates. At first his group was called the Scarlet Gaieties, then the Melody Makers, but eventually everyone referred to it as what it was: Miller Peake’s Band (or Miller Peake’s Orchestra). In the 1930s Miller also gave dance lessons – really an excuse for everyone to get up and have a go – at the von Doussa Club Hall in Cameron Street (see Louis von Doussa History Post). Many young people reportedly met their future marriage partners when attending either the classes or the dances themselves.
Miller Peake’s Band was a Saturday night fixture for dances around the district until the late fifties. The lineup changed according to the availability of musicians, but with much practice the standard remained, by all accounts, remarkably high. At full strength it could extend to piano, saxophone, cornet, violin and drums. Miller started off as pianist but later switched to drums. He was an accomplished vocalist and often acted as M.C., ‘calling’ the moves of the dances. He also provided and installed colourful decorations that transformed drab hall interiors into party venues.
The dedication of the band, and its importance to the district, can be judged by the locations beyond Mount Barker to which it travelled: Strathalbyn, Green Hills, Port Elliot, Meadows, Littlehampton, Langhorne Creek, Finniss, Macclesfield, Bull’s Creek, Milang, Woodside, Tailem Bend, Echunga, Callington, Sedan and Karoonda. For the musicians this often meant long journeys on uncertain roads when returning from dances in the middle of the night. In 1939 Miller broke his pelvis when his car overran an embankment at Cowan’s Corner, near Murray Bridge, after playing at Tailem Bend. Nevertheless, the band continued on the road for another two decades. Other local bands that were active in the district at this time included Jaensch’s Band, the Green and Gold Band, and Ron Nitschke’s orchestra.
Miller Peake’s Band often played for free in support of charitable events, especially during WWII when they worked tirelessly for the Red Cross and the Australian Comforts Fund, which supported and assisted Australian servicemen abroad. American servicemen based at Woodside often attended the dances. Miller and his pianist, Peggy Woodland, played in aid of the Comforts Fund every Friday night during the War; reputedly they raised over £600. On one occasion in 1946, when Miller was working as a line foreman in Meadows (during the relaying of the submarine cable to Kangaroo Island), he convinced Sid Hooper, the proprietor of his boarding-house, to stage a fundraising dance in aid of the troops: in the absence of his band he played the piano, called the dance, and even beat the drums himself with a mechanism rigged to the piano pedal. The Rancher’s Daughter was also dusted off for fundraising at this time, as the old Pathé camera functioned as a silent projector. Miller screened the movie in return for donations as he travelled down the Fleurieu Peninsula to Cape Jervis, and also arranged screenings at Flaxley, Macclesfield, and all along the Murray River to Mannum.
By 1957 Miller Peake was sixty years old, and youth culture was radically changing. Rather than retiring from performing he changed tack, forming the Happy Gang Variety Co., a concert group that performed in aid of charities. In the next year alone, in addition to other commitments, the company raised £2,200 for the benefit of the Mount Barker Institute.
He returned to playing the piano, and he and his drummer Rupert Fix continued to play at retirement homes, friendship clubs, senior citizens clubs and Sunshine Clubs around the district until the late 1970s. By the time he reached his 80th year, Miller could claim that he had played at 87 different towns in South Australia.
Miller died in 1982 and was interred at Mount Barker Cemetery, amongst many members of his extended family. The memory of his dance evenings is preserved in the pages of the Mount Barker Courier, which conscientiously recorded the social life of the district in reports such as this, from January 4 1935:
AN ENJOYABLE BALL
Waltzing Competition Finalized
At the von Doussa Club House on December 21st, Mr H.A. Peake conducted an enjoyable ball. There was a gratifying attendance and the evening was voted a great success. As usual the decorations were an item of interest, Mr. Peake laying himself out to make the hall look as attractive as possible. Looking in at the hall half-way through the dance the scene was a very gay one and everyone appeared to be having the time of their lives, although everything was conducted in a most orderly manner, Mr. Peake not standing for any nonsense at all. The music was provided by all local players and was quite as good as any imported talent according to those who should be in a position to judge — the dancers.
During the past few weeks a waltzing competition has been in progress, and the final was danced this night. After dancing off the event was finally won by Miss Rona Murphy and Mr. Arthur May. The Monte Carlo was won by Mr. and Mrs. P. Williams, and the lucky cap by Mr. Rex Miels and Miss Dorothy Jones.
The home-made supper was greatly appreciated, and after this had been partaken of dancing was carried on till after 1 am. Mrs. L. Walkom kindly relieved the band at intervals and Mr. Langman was M.C. He also controlled the lighting for the spotlight dances.
In the 1930s the von Doussa Club House was colloquially dubbed ‘Bar 20’ as a nod to a series of American Western novels written by Clarence Mulford, which were adapted for the screen as Hopalong Cassidy movies. As also shown by The Rancher’s Daughter, the very local, very Australian youth culture of Mount Barker in the 1920s and 1930s was already being inflected by global cultural trends, especially screen culture from the USA.
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