manx celtic music and dance

GAGGS, Oliver

The man who wrote the ‘Hi! Kelly!’ Polka

Born October 30th, 1840, Newton Heath, Manchester.

Died  March 31st, 1916, Stretford, Manchester.

Father: Henry Gaggs

Mother: Rosabella Hyde  

Married: Fanny Woof (1845-1921)

Issue: Thomas Harold Gaggs (b.1866); Ernest Gaggs (1867-1940); Joseph Woof Gaggs (1871-1929)

We first hear of Oliver Gaggs on the Isle of Man in July, 1873, when he is listed amongst the visitors to the Island in the Isle of Man Times visitors’ list,1 staying at Mr Robert Cubbon’s, 3, Hill Street, Douglas. The reason for his visit is not known; he may have been exploring the possibilities of furthering his career as a professional flautist - although there were few, if any, opportunities on the Island at this time - or he may simply have been on holiday. When the Falcon Cliff Ballroom opened nine years later in 1882, he could, like his contemporary, the young violinist Harry Wood,2 have secured engagements for the summer seasons, although there is no evidence that he did.

With the opening of the New Pavilion at the Derby Castle in 1886, more opportunities for musicians opened up in Douglas. Charles Reynolds, a highly-regarded oboist and conductor, and Edward de Jong, a concert flautist, piccolo player and conductor, both former Halle Orchestra members, became musical directors at the Derby Castle in 1886 and 1887 respectively. In March 1887, we learn from the Isle of Man Times3 that ‘Oliver Gaggs . . . has been appointed conductor of the Falcon Cliff Band for the forthcoming (Jubilee) season’. The Manx Sun visitors’ list4 for June confirms that Oliver Gaggs, his violinist son Joseph Woof Gaggs, Ambrose Lee, the leader of the Falcon Cliff Orchestra for the season, and Edward de Jong, were staying in Douglas and residing at 3, Falcon Cliff Terrace, Douglas, within sight of the looming Falcon Cliff Pavilion. The fruitful association of the popular musical director  - who became known affectionately as ‘Genial Oliver Gaggs’ - with the Isle of Man’s entertainment industry had begun very auspiciously.

In an interview with the Manx Sun in 1893,5 Oliver Gaggs revealed something of his background and early career. His father, Henry – a lawyer and amateur musician – his grandfather, and great-grandfather, had been born in Newton Heath6, and he was proud that his family had ‘farmed and worked the land for over two hundred years’. His reputation as a flautist and conductor was high in the Manchester area before he became associated with the Isle of Man, although his career had its share of highs and lows. For a period of time he had been a ‘dealer in provisions’ and the landlord of a public house; he had travelled with a circus band; was associated at various times with the old Queen’s Theatre, the Theatre Royal, the Manchester Comedy Theatre and the Prince’s Theatre, and played for one season – 1871-1871 – as second flute to Jean Brossa with the Halle Orchestra. He had been the conductor of an orchestra at the famous, but ill-fated, Royal Pomona Palace,7 was the ‘bandmaster’ for six years at the Swinton Schools8 and for eleven years was the musical arranger of the Minnehaha Amateur Minstrels,9 ‘as you know, far superior to many of the minstrels now in existence’. One aspect of his many-faceted career that would bear further investigation is his high reputation as an adjudicator at some two hundred brass band competitions throughout the North of England. The 1881 census indicates a very favourable turn in his families fortunes, as he was shown as living in a substantial property in Manchester, together with his wife, two sons and four servants.

An advertisement in the Manx Sun10 announcing the re-opening of the Falcon Cliff for the Whitsun Holidays in 1887, confirms that the popular format for entertainment expected by visitors to the Falcon Cliff, and indeed to the Palace, the Derby Castle and later the Marina Pavilion, was well-established under their respective musical directors. Oliver Gaggs’ ‘Renowned’ and sometimes ‘Magnificent’ orchestra of twenty players presented a Grand Promenade Concert each afternoon at 3.00pm, and the Mona’s Herald11 complimented the Falcon Cliff for its ‘efficient band’ and noted that Mr Oliver Gaggs ‘actually conducts his orchestra’ and that ‘improvements in the band’ could be heard almost daily.

Every evening at 7.30 there was dancing, and each season featured new dances - waltzes, polkas, galops and schottisches – composed by the musical director. In this way, Oliver Gaggs’ immensely popular vocal polka Hi! Kelly became the ‘especial favourite’ of the 1887 season, performed nightly at 9.40pm, and normally repeated by audience demand. As the catchy ‘trio’ section of the polka approached, those orchestral players not actually playing would call out lustily: Hi! Kelly! Hi! Kelly! and the dancers would then join in the refrain:

Hi! Kelly! Hi! Kelly! Hi! Kelly! bring your boat,

Hi! Kelly! Hi! Kelly! Let’s quickly get afloat,

Each fresh’ning breeze shall echo loud,

As we skim o’er the Bay,

Hi! Kelly! Hi! Kelly! the burden of our lay.

Why Hi! Kelly? In 1960, Richard Cain, the veteran founder of the World Manx Association, confirmed in an article in the Mona’s Herald that the ‘Kelly’ in the refrain was the Douglas boat owner R. H. Kelly, ‘who used to take for a sail every morning seventy years and more ago the late Mr Oliver Gaggs, the musical director of the Falcon Cliff and later at the Derby Castle’. This may suggest that Kelly and his boat acted as Gaggs’ water taxi, ferrying the musical director across Douglas Bay from the Victoria Pier to the Central Promenade at the foot of the Falcon Cliff.

The huge popularity of the Hi! Kelly Polka eventually initiated a wave ‘Kelly’ songs: Kelly, the Carman, Kelly’s Come Back, Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly, and Meet Me in Kelly Land, the last two songs popularised by Florrie Forde. Even songs without ‘Kelly’ in the title include the name, such as Flanagan and Lets Have a Song about the Isle of Man, also both sung to great acclaim by Florrie Forde. The cry of Hi! Kelly! was soon heard in Douglas as a call-signal used to attract the attention of landau and horse-drawn tram drivers, and even as late as the nineteen thirties, could still occasionally be heard by those hailing taxis in Douglas. Local businesses were happy to use the popular call in their advertising, such as the boot and shoe manufacturer Little & Cooper of Strand Street, whose Isle of Man Times advertising feature of September 1889, began with the words: ‘Hi! Kelly, look at my boots . . . ‘12

Oliver Gaggs’ popular new dances for the 1888 season included some of the most enduring of the era: the vocal waltz Sweet Mona13 – ‘the success of the season’ - the schottishe Manx Herrin’14 and the vocal polkas Kippers and The Falcon Cliff. In addition to conducting his orchestra, Oliver Gaggs also occasionally appeared as a piccolo soloist performing popular show-pieces and pot-pourris. The 1888 season ended with Oliver Gaggs benefit Concert on September 7th, and on the 27th, ‘the rotund Mr Gaggs’ captained the wind players of the Falcon Cliff Band, in a strings verses wind cricket match at Pulrose15.

For the seasons 1889-90 Oliver Gaggs was engaged by the Derby Castle to conduct the new, ‘choice and select’ orchestra, which, as usual, included musicians from the Manchester Theatres, the Carl Rosa Opera Company and the Halle and Liverpool orchestras. The dance successes of that year included the waltzes Mona Bouquet and The Scent Waltz, the schottishe Fair Lady Won and the King Orry Quadrilles, based on a selection of traditional Manx tunes. At the end of the season he was presented with ‘a handsome, silver-topped, ebony baton’ by the ‘Douglas Fossils’.

Oliver Gaggs was engaged by the Palace for the 1891-2 seasons, and his new waltz Sweet Isle of the Sea could be heard every evening at 9.15, along with an amusing, descriptive orchestral piece entitled A Trip to Manxland, and the gallop, The Lifeboat Rescue, during which the Douglas Lifeboat crew appeared in appropriate attire. The highlight of the season was the introduction of Shadow Dances ‘for the first time in Manxland,’ with a lime-light installation illuminating the dance floor, creating a ‘charming, fairy-like scene’. The vocal refrain included the evocative lines:

‘Shadows darken the distant green,

Moonlight guilds with silvery sheen;

Shadows everywhere are seen,

Shadows, fleeting shadows’.

softly sung by the dancing couples to the ‘splendid strains of Mr Oliver Gaggs’ pre-eminent orchestra’.

On 24th May, his Grand Orchestra took part in the first of a series of Sunday Scared Concerts at the Palace, with arias from the popular oratorios and other sacred music by Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn and Rossini. These concerts were well attended - the Sacred Concert on August 3rd attracted an audience of 4,000 people - and the basic format would later be adopted by Harry Wood for his own Sacred Concerts at the Palace Pavilion from 1896. On 25th July, the Marine Drive, Douglas, was opened, and that week Oliver Gaggs’ ‘easy going and melodious’ new waltz, The Marine Drive, delighted audiences at the Palace, together with the other ‘hit’ of the season, the waltz Estrella, which according to the established custom, was played nightly. In October, he was presented with ‘an exquisitely finished ivory baton and an inscribed gold plate’ to mark the end of a highly successful season.

Oliver Gaggs was not re-engaged at the Palace in 1893; possibly he resigned in the face of cut-backs and restrictions affecting the orchestra, the result of poor financial returns from the 1892 season.16 However, he had even more ambitious plans, for on Saturday 8th July, Douglas’ newest entertainment venue – the Marina Pavilion, later the Pavilion Theatre17 – was opened with dancing and entertainments18 ‘to entertain the public and annoy the croakers’, with Oliver Gaggs as acting Manager and Musical Director, assisted by his youngest son, Joseph Woof Gaggs as the orchestra’s leader, and his eldest son Thomas Harold Gaggs as the piano accompanist. The first Sunday Sacred Concert at the Marina took place on 9th July; later in the season these concerts included Rossini’s Stabat Mater, Gems of Devotional Songs and Gems of the Oratorio. The waltz sensation of the season, Gaggs’ The Marina,19 was performed each evening., from an entertainment point of view the first season was judged ‘a success despite early difficulties’ and some ‘underhand opposition’; however, the season made a financial loss, and by the end of September, Gaggs was suffering from over-work.

In January 1894, Oliver Gaggs was confirmed as the first musical director of the new Tower Grand Orchestra, Blackpool, and that year wrote The Tower Waltz, and later the Kiss Me, Darling waltz and the Klondyke Lancers among many others for the ballroom there. Although his close association with the Island was over, his place in the affections of all who had attended his concerts each summer endured. The mantle of Douglas’ most able musical director would pass to his younger contemporary Harry Wood, rapidly becoming a household name, and newly appointed as musical director of the Derby Castle Company.

During the summer of 1895, the Manx Sun reported that Oliver Gaggs was now in residence in Urmston, Manchester, but in June 1896, he was on the Island again for a few days, and was ‘heartily greeted’ by his many friends’ and congratulated on his success in Blackpool.20

An echo of the early ‘Kelly’ days was heard in 1909, when Florrie Forde sang Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly for the first time at the Derby Castle.

Maurice Powell, Andreas, June 2014.


1 Isle of Man Times and General Advertiser, Saturday July 12th, 1873.

2 See Maurice Powell, Master Harry Wood at the Falcon Cliff, Culture Vannin, KMJ, 2015, and

3 Isle of Man Times , March 19th, reprinted from the Manchester Chronicle.

4 Manx Sun, June 6th.

5 Manx Sun, June 17th, reprinted from the Magazine of Music, Ludgate Hill, London.

6 An agricultural area historically part of Lancashire, but after industrialisation in the mid-nineteenth century, noted for textile, soap, rope and glass manufacture, and now part of urban Greater Manchester. Its main claim to fame is that Manchester United Football Club was formed originally from the Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club.

7 The Royal Pomona Palace, pleasure grounds and pavilions, incorporating a zoological garden, botanical garden, camera obsura, circus and horse racing circuit, cafes, restaurants and dance halls, whose grand edifice was topped with a 100 ft clock tower, could accommodate some 30,000 people. It was severely damaged by two explosions from a nearby chemical factory in 1887, and closed the following year.

8 The Swinton Moral and Industrial Training Schools were visited by Charles Dickens in 1850.

9 He wrote the Minnehaha Lancers in their memory in 1889.

10 Manx Sun, May 28th.

11 The Mona’s Herald, June 22, 1886.

12 The reasons why the call of Hi! Kelly endured on the Island are still somewhat obscure though, and are the subject of on-going research by myself. Before Gaggs’ polka was written a ‘Hi! Kelly’ was the name given to a variety of lettered seaside rock popular on the Island. Furthermore, Charles Guard, in his notes to Part II of The Manx National Song Book (The Manx Experience, 2001), reports that in the final quarter of the nineteenth century ‘it was not uncommon to see young children doing cartwheels . . . and shouting ‘Hi! Kelly!’’ Perhaps Gaggs saw children cart-wheeling along the Douglas promenades and heard their cries of Hi! Kelly!  The activity does bear a striking resemblance to the trade mark on a T. Witherspoon’s advertisement for Isle of Man Rock and Hi! Kelly. (see Isle of Man Times, April 4th, 1885).

13 Whose vocal refrain began: ‘Sweet Mona, dear Mona, fairest Isle beneath the sky’.

14 Whose vocal refrain began: ‘Manx herrin’, Manx herrin’, they’re twenty for a shilling’.

15 Oliver Gaggs was ‘out’ for 0; the strings won by 1 run; Oliver Gaggs nevertheless performed a series of ‘victory’ cartwheels.

16 The Palace Directors Meeting of December 1892 reported that receipts were down by a third compared to the 1891 season. The innovation of keeping the complex open during the ‘slack weeks’ between the Whitsun Holiday and the start of the summer season, had failed, leaving in an ‘active season’ of only seven weeks. An anonymous letter to the editor of the Manx Sun in March 1893, accused the Palace Directors of ‘cheeseparing’ and ‘penny-pinching’ by allowing Oliver Gaggs to leave, thereby threatening the future of the afternoon concerts.

17 Set back on Marine Terrace on land adjacent to the grounds of the Villa Marina, where the Marina Arcade and Gaiety Theatre stand today.

18 The bizarre acts put on for the entertainment of visitors to the Marina Pavilion included: Apasinorum, a Donkey and Baboon animal act; Herr Grais, the great German eccentric chef, juggler and animal trainer, and the ‘entirely novel’ Dwarf Quaker Song and Dance.

19 A copy of the colourful front cover of this waltz hangs in the office of the Music Centre, Bemahague School, Onchan.

20 He apparently reported that on Whit Monday alone, 42,000 people had gained admission to the Tower complex.

 by Maurice Powell 2016