Page 1: Biography
Bandsman, labourer, carrier
This biography, written by A. L. Familton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Michael Henry Phelan was born in Swansea, Glamorganshire, Wales, probably in 1852, the son of John Phelan, a blacksmith, and his wife, Kate Morgan. As a teenager he became a violinist in an orchestra touring the Continent. Unfortunately, his wrists were damaged when a coach he was travelling in overturned and he was never again able to play a stringed instrument to his satisfaction. As a consequence, he began to specialise in playing brass instruments. When he married Sarah McCutcheon at Omagh, County Tyrone, Ireland, on 23 June 1874, he was working as a warden in an asylum. The couple were to have 10 sons (two of whom died in infancy) and three daughters.
In 1874 the Phelans sailed into Port Chalmers, New Zealand, on the Jessie Readman, and then travelled by sea to Oamaru. From 1876 they were known as Henry (Harry) and Sarah Pheloung. At first Harry worked as a labourer for the railways but he later established a carrying business. The family eventually settled in a large house in Parsons Road.
Meanwhile, Harry Pheloung began to play the cornet with various groups and ran classes in the playing of brass instruments. Soon after their arrival, he organised a band for the Oamaru Caledonian Society sports meeting and provided a group of musicians for a railway picnic. In November 1879 the Caledonian Society's band and the Oamaru Artillery Volunteers' band amalgamated to form the Oamaru Garrison Band, with Pheloung as their first conductor. Not long afterwards, he gave up this role to George Jones, owner of the Oamaru Mail, so that he could play the cornet and lead the band. He also gave technical instruction to other players.
Under the leadership of Jones and Pheloung, the band won first place in a string of competitions: the Invercargill Contest in 1883, Oamaru in 1884, the Wellington and Dunedin contests in 1885, Christchurch in 1889, Dunedin in 1891, and the Wellington Contest (first equal with the Christchurch Garrison Band) in 1892. A fellow bandsman wrote: 'Pheloung was a remarkable solo cornetist. His stamina was outstanding, and he carried the burden of a great programme, never missing nor mis-hitting a note throughout. His cadenza exhibitions enraptured his listeners, while his enthusiasm inspired us all, and we played all the better for his efforts.' A tall, strong man with a neatly trimmed beard and moustache, he was known by many as the bellbird of the band and it was often said that he had a 'rubber lip'.
In 1894 Harry Pheloung drew a 33-acre block in a ballot for the Ardgowan estate, four miles west of Oamaru. The family called the property Ardgowan and built a spacious bungalow from locally quarried limestone. Seven of Pheloung's sons played instruments together with him. Each Sunday morning long practices were held on a hill outside their home; people came for miles to listen and small children marched and beat their drums. Pheloung became conductor of the Oamaru Navals Band and retained this position when it was revived as the Oamaru Citizens Band. He was also a founder of the Endeavour Lodge of Druids and a member for 26 years.
Harry Pheloung died of stomach cancer at Ardgowan on 3 October 1909, survived by Sarah Pheloung, who died in 1918, eight sons and three daughters. His musical abilities had given much enjoyment to many over the years and his musical tradition was carried on by his descendants.