Motorbikes and marching girls

Salute! Allan Rodgers joins the Matua Majors and Bluebelles for drill. Photo: Sharnae Hope.

It’s an adventure story, a marching story and a love story.

It all started in Belfast 65 years ago when an enterprising young Northern Irishman called Allan Rodgers spotted Dunedin’s Blair Atholl marching team on a promotional tour.

And it took a delightful turn this week when a brass band struck up on the sound system at the CHT Bernadette Home and Hospital in Bayfair. And Allan, with the suited-up Matua Majors and Bluebelles leisure marching teams, executed a spontaneous drill in the lounge and through the corridors.

The music, marching and smell of sausage rolls wafting around all added up to Allan’s 90th birthday surprise. “I was quite excited when I heard the girls were coming,” says Allan. “I really looked forward to it.”

Marching began here in the 1930s as a means of keeping the nation’s young women fit and healthy. And the Blair Atholl team tried to take that ethos to the UK, Northern Ireland and Belfast.  

The press called them the “kilted cuties” and suggested they were “as sweet as the mutton chops and butter of their own happy land.”

Allan Rodger in Belfast obviously thought so. He introduced himself to each and every one of the 13 Blair Atholl girls and shook them by the hand – including one special one called Audrey. “He didn’t choose me on the dot,” says Audrey. “Not at that moment.”

But maybe he did.

“Because after meeting her I thought I better get out to New Zealand pretty quick and follow things up.”

Audrey’s sister told her mother there was now a boyfriend in the picture and it wasn’t a pleasant picture. The sister described Allan being dressed up in his motorbike outfit – “Big great coat and beret and he looked like nothing else,” says Audrey. And apparently, he couldn’t even speak the Queen’s English. The lilt is still very much part of the man.

When Allan arrived in Dunedin months later he followed up, and he followed through by marrying the marcher Audrey. And there began a lifelong association with marching for Allan Rodgers. Motorbikes and marching girls. What was marching’s attraction for the Northern Irishman? “The girls of course,” he laughs. “It made me appreciate my wife even more.”

Audrey became a leisure marcher – as opposed to a competitive marcher – and is credited with starting the movement. “Fun, fitness and friendship,” says Audrey. There are 100 teams and 1000 marches apparently. “It’s really strong and will stay that way because there are a lot of new marchers coming through.”

And Allan coached marching. “A Bluebelles team,” he says.

Audrey was knocking 80 when she was forced into retirement. “Silly legs,” she explains. And the birthday boy gave away coaching in 2002 after a huge contribution to the sport.

The Bernadettes residents may have been out of marching for a few years but it only took a scratchy old brass band recording and the sight of a uniform to stir the passions again.