The North of England: An Outline of a Musical Region


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On the 29 May 2015, Saddleworth hosted the annual Whit Friday Brass Band Contest. Perhaps no other musical festival contains so much clichéd ‘Northernness’. Images of flat caps, whippets and pies abound. It is worth considering that the North of England, particularly the industrial North, has always been considered a musical region.

In its August 1907 editorial the British Bandsman argued that the brass band contest had developed elements of education, musical performance and musical democracy that had ‘removed from us the stigma of being accredited an unmusical nation, and has stimulated unusual musical activity on every hand.’[1] To argue that the brass band movement was the overpowering element in creating a musical nation was an audacious statement. Nevertheless, this boldness was not without some justification.

The periodical’s defensive tone was understandable. European and particularly German reporting of England being Das Land Ohne Musik was something that British Victorian and Edwardian music lovers had worried about for decades. The roots of this reputation lay in the reports of the poet and satirist Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) when he travelled through England in 1827. In 1840, he told a French newspaper that, ‘these people [the English] have no ear, neither for the beat nor indeed for music in any form, and their unnatural passion for piano-playing and singing is all the more disgusting. There is […] nothing on earth so terrible as English musical composition, except English painting.’[2] This theme was expanded by the German organist and music scholar Carl Engel (1818-1882), a friend of Friedrich Engels. In 1866, Engel published a monograph called An Introduction to the Study of National Music (London, 1866), which was a loose survey of folk-song collections from around the world, scattered with his own observations. The English, he asserted, had developed their notable folk-songs by borrowing themes from other countries, the English were more likely to adopt a foreign tune as their own than the Germans. He wrote, ‘the rural population of England appear to sing less than those of most other European countries.’[3] He did concede that his information had been gathered from insignificant sources, and that towns a long way from the large urban centres must have preserved songs that had been passed down over the generations, he also noted that these melodies had not been collected by outsiders.[4] The notion that the country was unmusical became engrained in the musical consciousness of the English in 1904 when the German philosopher Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz published his treatise on English social problems called Das Land Ohne Musik (1904). For Schmitz the unmusicality of the English was a subtext for more perceived basic social deficiencies: their unimaginative personalities; their selfishness and their lack of empathy, which, he argued, made them such good imperialists.[5]

How was it that England had developed this dismal musical reputation? By the eighteenth century, London had become an international centre for credit, trade and commerce.[6] The capital attracted major composers and performers that Richard Taruskin argues had a crushing impact on domestic, and more pointedly, provincial talent.[7] In the eighteenth century there was Handel, whose Messiah became perhaps the defining performance piece of the amateur choral society in the nineteenth century, followed by Johann Christian Bach. In the nineteenth century there were other musical visitors including Weber and Mendelssohn. In this way, London became a centre for international talent and, as a result, it was not surprising that English composers felt their skills were ineffective against such international reputations. By the end of the nineteenth century the main composers influencing the English were Brahms, Dvořák, Liszt and Wagner. It has been argued that Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) could not compete with non-English composers because their amateur status as gentlemen left them musically unadventurous. It was not until the emergence of Edward Elgar (1857-1934) that English music was perceived to halt its terminal decline.[8]

Therefore, when the British Bandsman argued that it was the brass band movement that had made the nation musical they were contemplating the mainly amateur musicianship of brass bands. This amateur music-making also existed in strength amongst choirs, wind and military bands and orchestras, together with more esoteric groups such as hand-bell ringers and accordion bands. Some commentators felt that it was provincial amateur musicians that helped construct musical reputations, and that they were the main defence the country had against these barbs of being unmusical. The Times argued, in 1885, that the bands and choirs that performed at the International Inventions Exhibition proved that, ‘as a nation, we were musically superior, at least in terms of amateur performances, to the French and Germans, in particular, the terrible visitation which the country of Beethoven sends to our shores in the shape of the typical German band.’[9] This chapter, then, explores music making in the north of England not only as an illustration of its regional strength but also its contribution to national music-making.

The Musical North

The north is an astonishing jumble of ill-defined geographical and imaginary borders. Defining these borders has stimulated academic debate.[10] Within this debate the Southern Pennines became central in the definition of the working-class bandsman and brass band. The bandsmen of this area became highly visible representations of the town that was a culmination of a long northern musical tradition. Martin Stokes draws our attention to how we need, when constructing musical identity, ‘to be able to question how music is used by social actors in specific local situations, to erect boundaries, to maintain distinctions between us and them’.[11] The north contained all classes and cultures, nevertheless, as industrialisation progressed, working-class musicianship began to gain ascendancy and become noticed as a cultural identity, this identity became fixed in the manufacturing districts of the Southern Pennines.

The east Lancashire town of Bacup, for example, is typical of the number of musical groups that could coexist in a small area.[12] From 1840 onwards the town had a brass band, a choral society, a hand-bell ringing group and an orchestral society.[13] In addition Bacup was the headquarters of the Rossendale Branch of the Lancashire Association of Campanologists.[14] Like Bacup, Slaithwaite, in the Colne Valley, was an example of the musical life replicated throughout the Pennines, and was indicative of music’s popularity in that region. In 1819, Slaithwaite Old Band formed and was active until 1822.[15] In the 1850s, surviving members of the Slaithwaite Old Band were playing with the Slaithwaite Union Band.[16] Slaithwaite Victoria Band was a brass and reed band formed in 1840; they were active between 1856 and 1872.[17] Prominent from 1898 was Upper Slaithwaite Brass Band.’[18] More tellingly, it is revealed that at a local level some musicians were growing tired of the restricted nature of choral music in the area. The Slaithwaite Guardian and Colne Valley News wrote, ‘why not form a philharmonic orchestra – musicians are tired of Messiah – it is like the poor, always with us.’[19] By 1900, however, such calls were ineffective, choral music being the most popular musical activity for the town. Slaithwaite boasted four choral societies, a brass band and an amateur orchestra.[20] In this way, throughout the Southern Pennines, amateur musicians constructed musical identities that were not centred on the professional networks found in London. Towns such as Bacup and Slaithwaite were typical of the communities in the Southern Pennines where brass bands thrived. Edward Elgar, for example, recognised this strength of amateur musicianship outside London, when he wrote a flattering letter to the organiser of Morecambe Music Festival, in 1903, that ‘someday the press will awake to the fact, already known abroad, and to some few of us, that the living centre of music in Great Britain is not London, but somewhat farther north.’[21]

An Area of Varied Musical Activity: Singing

Singing was one of the earliest forms of music making, part-singing being common in the north of England since at least the thirteenth century. Writing in the Musical Herald, in 1918, Henry Coward highlighted the cathedrals and minsters of the north in establishing early musical traditions. He wrote, ‘It is known that for centuries Yorkshire has kept the flame of high and holy song brightly burning by means of her grand sacred fanes – York, Ripon, Selby [and] Beverley.[22] For the purposes of this thesis we need only be aware that with the beginnings of industrialisation there developed a musical trait amongst labouring people that was noticed by commentators who took an active interest in reporting on the lives of working people. This early musicianship fixed Southern Pennine brass bands at the end of a long tradition of music- making in the area. Writing in 1850, Charles Dickens noticed this long musical tradition, writing that:

In some of the northern counties, particularly Yorkshire and Lancashire, the inhabitants have from time immemorial been remarkable for skill in vocal harmony, and for their knowledge of the old part-music of the English school. As these districts have gradually become the seats of manufacturers, the same musical habits have been kept up; among the growing population; and so salutary have these habits been found – so conducive to order; temperance and industry – that many great manufacturers have encouraged them by furnishing to their work people the means of musical instruction.[23]

Music was part of an education that was an autodidactic tradition for working people from the beginning of industrialisation. E. P. Thompson argued that, ‘every weaving district had its weaver poets, biologists, mathematicians, musicians, geologists and botanists.’[24] J. Marshall Mather noticed this trait in 1844, writing in his Rossendale Rambles about his ‘Half an Hour With a Factory Botanist’. He clearly had a pre-conceived impression of the autodidact that developed from the images portrayed by novelists and poets:

Factory life in Lancashire seems in some few cases to have quickened the instincts of the operative for the beautiful. Occasionally in my wanderings I have met with those who, while mostly shut up in their mills, spend most of their spare moments shut up in the cloughs and up on the moors, in search of plants, or fern, and other botanical specimens. Long before my residence in Rossendale, I was familiar with these characters on paper and in books. Mrs. Gaskell and Edwin Waugh had introduced them to me.[25]

Accounts, reminiscences and early articles about music-making in this area lean naturally towards the rose-tinted and sentimental. Nevertheless, as Roger Elbourne maintained, these accounts shed light onto an area where extended accounts of musical life in handloom weaving communities are rare.[26] Moreover, music and weaving begin to link the nostalgia of musical performance with the nostalgia often found with early industrial work. E. P. Thompson saw the problem behind these recollections, writing, ‘If we set up the ninepin of a golden age it is not difficult to knock it down: weaving was a national occupation, but the memories of better times remain and are strongest in Lancashire and Yorkshire.’[27] Importantly, for the development of musical performance, it was noticed that amateurs copied each other’s musical habits. An early example of this can be found when, writing in 1829, about the education and amusements of the lower classes, the Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction listed three elements in workers’ lives where amateurs copied each other. Music was part of a wide selection of leisure pursuits for working people, yet, early in the industrial era; it was the manufacturing districts that could claim to be the most musical area. The journal highlighted ‘the taste for flowers among the Paisley weavers, for gooseberry-growing at Manchester, and for music among the Lancashire or Yorkshire clothiers, that originally sprang up from imitation of one or two amateurs of each pursuit.’[28]

Writing in 1844, Samuel Bamford (1788-1882), a Manchester radical, journalist and author, pointed out that musical performance was emerging as a trait that defined the cultural lives of the area.[29] He wrote that the working people of South Lancashire were:

The greatest of readers, can show the greatest numbers of good writers, the greatest numbers of sensible and considerate public speakers. They can show a great number of botanists; a great number of horticulturalists; a great number who are acquainted with the […] sciences; the greatest number of poets, and greater number of musicians, whether choral or instrumental.[30]

Before industrialisation it was accepted that the countryside had a folk culture that depended upon oral transmission of culture.[31] Writing in 1831 the Bolton Chronicle argued that oral traditions were still strong in rural areas of Lancashire, writing, ‘sentiment is now propagated amongst the agricultural population by viva-voce communication from farm-to-farm, from parish-to-parish on their daily or Sunday meetings, in the same manner as better the invention of printing’.[32] Every village had an oral collection of well-known songs, many never printed. Singing was the pastime of the weaver at work, particularly the weaver working from home. Moses Heap (1824-1913) was a textile worker, historian and commentator on life in the Rossendale Valley. He wrote about weavers in the 1820s that ‘many of [his family’s] friends were so fond of singing and fiddling that their looms would be idle until about Tuesday night, then they would work day and night to get their allotted work finished by Saturday.’[33] When weavers took their cloth to market, evidence, however sentimental, suggested that these people practiced singing not only to improve their vocal technique, but also to perfect instrumental skills. Also evident was that workers had an acquaintance with the orchestral repertoire. J. Marshal Mather wrote:

The click of the shuttle from the open windows of chambers where hand-looms stood was accompanied by quaint trolls of song […]. With bent form the old weaver might be seen creeping towards Bacup with his piece across his shoulders, leaning heavily upon his stout staff, or returning with lighter step and lighter heart, with warps and wage, humming out some tune or overture which in his spare moments he sought to master on his instrument or with his voice.[34]

As industrialisation developed it brought people together in more permanent workplaces leading to group singing. In the Yorkshire woollen districts women workers were said to alternate between gossiping and singing hymns whilst working in the burling sheds.[35] Another place to sing was the home. Reginald Nettel maintained that it was the Pennine weavers’ harsh living conditions that brought people together because they needed to save money on candles and fuel for heating. This, he argued, that led to people meeting in each other’s houses, taking single song lines and turning them into harmonised pieces.[36] When handloom weaving declined the weavers did struggle but Nettel read too much into the hardship of weaving life.[37] Nettel’s view does not sit with the early prosperity of weaving communities, people would come together just for the pleasure and sociability of making music. Writing in 1838, for example, W. Gardiner saw that, ‘he [the weaver] had a week-day suit of clothes and one for Sundays and plenty of leisure.’[38]

The social interaction that Nettel highlighted led to people coming together in more public venues to sing together. Alfred Peel recognised that at Goodshawfold in the Rossendale Valley, long before the Goodshawfold Brass Band was formed, in 1867 that singing in public at an informal social occasion was a common practice. He wrote:

The young men of the village would gather together on the bridge spanning the river Lummey or Limey and on a fine summer evening you could see five or six couples sitting aside the bridge parapets busily engaged in the game of draughts, having cut squares into the top stones using cinders and small clinkers for pegs […].They would play until darkness came then they would gather together and sing old fashioned glees and the old hymn tunes and songs which sounded grand on a quiet summer night.[39]

Nationally a formal choral tradition established itself quickly. The formal expression of this was the Three Choirs Festival, based in turn at the cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford. The early origins of the festival are unclear. In 1713, the Worcester Postman reported a special service of ‘Mr. Purcell’s great Te Deum, with the Symphonies and instrumental parts, on violins and Hautboys.’ By 1719, it was seen, in the same newspaper, that the festival was a ‘yearly musical assembly’.[40] This early choral tradition developed in the Southern Pennine town of Halifax, which held a triennial music festival from 1796 to1830. The Halifax Choral Society, formed in 1817, is believed to be the oldest choral society in the country, formed fifteen years before the York Choral Society and twenty years before the Huddersfield Choral Society. The Society’s debut concert was on the 9 February 1819, when it performed Haydn’s Creation.[41] Therefore the choral tradition was established in the Southern Pennines in the early nineteenth century.

Choral societies were popular among people from a wide range of backgrounds. As the nineteenth century progressed they clearly attracted a working-class membership. By the later nineteenth century choirs belonged to every conceivable working-class organisation.[42]

It is worth examining the Mossley Vocal Society as a case study of singing groups in the late nineteenth century. The town is useful as a representation of singing in the north because before it became a borough in 1885 it straddled the boundaries of Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire and Cheshire. In 1895, the Musical Herald noticed that the population of Mossley reflected the population of other towns in the Southern Pennines in terms of population size and employment.[43] Mossley was typical of industry in the area, since weaving was originally carried out in cottages, and then moved to mills and factories as industry grew. It had transportation links with the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and later the railway.[44] As with many Southern Pennine towns it also had a number of musical groups, including the Mossley Brass Band, which took part in contests and civic functions, such as the opening of the Mossley Mechanics Institute in 1859.[45]

The Mossley Vocal Society was formed in 1884, and one of the founders, John Shaw, was also the conductor.[46] In 1891, the society began to train for contests and quickly became successful; by 1894 they had won three first prizes in contests in Leeds and Manchester. In November 1895 they were planning to hold a contest in their home town.[47] There were sixty members, although for contests they were only allowed to enter thirty five. As a general rule they met to practice once a week but in the contest season would meet twice a week. Their practice room was a large space in what was once a weaver’s cottage, where they kept a library of around sixty part-songs. The repertoire was indicative of the repertoire of brass bands at this time and contained the standard larger pieces for choral societies. There was, for example, Birch’s Robin Hood, Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl, together with the ever-present pieces by Handel: Elijah, Judas Maccabaeus and Messiah. Almost all the members of the society were employed in the town’s wool or cotton mills. [48]

Although Mossley Vocal Society was composed entirely of working-class members, from the 1820s onwards, as choirs grew in popularity, they could contain members of both the working class and the middle class. Clearly the larger the town the wider social networks there were to call upon for membership of musical societies. Bradford Musical Friendly Society and the Bradford Philharmonic had members whose occupations were the owner of a vitriol works, the manager of a textile factory, an artist, an attorney’s clerk, an architect and Bradford’s Inspector of Weights and Measures.[49]

In this way, the choral societies became a popular pastime for working people in the north, which culminated in large prominent concerts in the key cities. In the 1840s, for example, Manchester Choral Society gave approximately eight concerts of choral music throughout the season. The membership, numbering seventy people, was just over size of Mossley Vocal Union.[50] Its repertoire was narrow, the singing was enthusiastic and skilled, if only in terms of volume and accuracy, and for some commentators part-singing was attractive because it did not require any expenditure on instruments. In 1896 the Manchester Guardian wrote:

If we turn to the working class of Manchester, and the surrounding districts, we find an abundant love of music, and a fairly advanced culture. It is limited in range; it knows not Wagner, and Handel is its supreme object of worship. One is struck, too, with a similar limitation in direction […]. Handel’s “Messiah” is the favorite work. To hear a good Lancashire choir go through some of Handel’s choruses, or Mozart’s masses, the sopranos ringing out, as though they would take the roof off, and the different parts coming in at their ‘leads’ like the crack of a rifle, is a thing not soon to be forgotten[…]. Only Yorkshire can show such clear trumpet-like sopranos, such deep strong basses, and such full-throated contraltos as Lancashire […].There is no kind of music so admirably adapted for the poor man’s home as part-singing. Orchestral instruments are expensive: the voice costs nothing, and part-music is cheap.[51]


Music as an Accessible Pastime

Singing was the cheapest way to perform music but with the development of production-line techniques instruments became affordable and durable. This led to many of the working-class population of the Southern Pennines having access to instruments. In Huddersfield, in 1896, for example, there were forty-six music retailers and in Halifax there were eighteen.[52] The rise in the popularity of the piano further helped make music popular and as the retail price of the piano decreased it made the instrument accessible to people of all classes.[53]

As early as 1845, for example, the British Minstrel and Musical and Literary Miscellany was reporting on the publication of a compendium of sheet music called: Hamilton’s Cabinet of Music for Piano-Forte and Organ.[54] According to the journal this collection would bring music within reach of the working class, claiming that it would ‘be eminently useful in spreading abroad, at a cheap rate, music of a kind that the working classes had no way of procuring.’[55] The volume was in two parts, ‘one of which will contain selections from the oratorios, and other sacred compositions, with piano and organ accompaniment.’[56] The second section would contain standard classic songs and duets.[57] It is not known whether the collection sold well. Nevertheless, the editors were confident enough to publish, suggesting that enough working-class people had access to a piano to perform the music and a number of these pianos would be in homes where music was a popular pastime.

By 1865, the piano had a dominant role in middle-class drawing room music.[58] In 1872 the Monthly Musical Record reflected that, ‘at no time, probably, in the history of music has the piano been so popular as at the present day.’[59] They said, ‘modern improvements in the processes of manufacture have enabled the makers to produce really respectable instruments at comparatively very low prices; so that except among the poor, it is almost the exception rather than the rule to find a house without a piano.’[60] This production of pianos coincided with a peak in economic prosperity for the working class. Eric Hobsbawm argued that in the boom of 1872-1873, ‘some workers actually earned enough to afford for a brief moment the luxuries which employers regarded as their right, indignation [at this prosperity] was sincere and heartfelt. What business had coal-miners with grand pianos and champagne?’[61]

Three things affected the material conditions of the working class: from 1873-1896, the fall in the cost of living, the rise of the domestic mass market for factory-produced goods, and, after 1875, the expansion and development of rows of terraced housing: a result of the so-called ‘by-law housing’ (under section 157 of the public health act).[62] As Eric Hobsbawm argued, ‘all implied or were based on the modest, patchy but plainly undeniable improvement in the standard of life of British workers.’[63]

In spite of Hobsbawm’s observation that the coal-miners’ prosperity resulted in antipathy from some of the middle classes, the overriding aspect was that the working class benefited from the self-improving nature of music. In 1873, the Manchester Guardian reported on the relative prosperity and home life of colliers in Wigan. The piece reflected that the competition for labour in the area had increased the wages for the colliers in south-west Lancashire above the norm, reporting that skilled colliers could earn ten shillings for an eight-hour day.[64] The average wages for skilled workers at the time were five and six shillings a day, a good collier could earn three-pounds a week.[65] There was some discussion that the negligent worker would spend this money on alcohol, resulting in neglect of the home; nevertheless, the paper also recognised that there were a significant number of respectable colliers who took pride in their homes. The paper’s correspondent wrote:

Easy chairs and pianos speak of more than ordinary refinement in several colliers’ homes […]. Collier lads are the best customers of the local music sellers for concertinas, flutinas, and violins. Even the tip-girls, their uncouth garb removed, and dressed as becomes modest women, buy sheet music.[66]

Moreover, the piano could be paid for in instalments. One Wigan innkeeper was known for buying pianos at trade prices and then accepting monthly payments from colliers. The Manchester Guardian summed up by saying, ‘is it not better that a man should buy a piano than spend his money in drink, or on ‘dawgs’, or in betting on horse races?’[67]

The spread of the piano in working-class homes and communal spaces outlived the boom of 1872-73. By the late nineteenth century pianos were common in prosperous working-class homes. Writing in 1893 the Musical Herald said the West Riding of Yorkshire was where ‘the people are notoriously attached to music.’[68] They reported that:

Very few homes are without some kind of instrument. Pianos, harmoniums and American organs are as common as washing machines; the instruments, as a rule, are very costly and of a first-class make. You would be surprised when passing the humble dwellings of the miners, the quarrymen, or the factory hands, to hear the intelligent rendering given to the works of our grand old masters. [69]

In the north of England the music trade press noticed that Blackpool had a demand for pianos, and other musical instruments, on which to perform popular tunes in communal areas. For pianos this demand was driven by the number of boarding houses in the area, suggesting that music was a popular pastime for holiday makers when in lodgings. Writing in 1901, the Musical Opinion and Trade Review noticed that:

Blackpool is quiet during the winter months. The piano and organ business is, however, one of the few businesses, which manage to maintain an air of vitality during the winter months[…].There is a respectable working population, which is interested in music[…].They buy pianos and organs, mandolins and banjos, and boarding houses have a considerable demand for rental pianos.[70]

Therefore, elements of affordability, access and popularity meant that musical performance on instruments became commonplace and was even found in the outlying farms of the Pennines. Moses Heap’s commentary shows us that music was played not just on the piano, but also there was a selection of musical instruments in houses. He wrote:

In my young days, I spent many a pleasant hour at a farmhouse named ‘New Laithe’, about a mile beyond Loveclough, there lived there the family of Hudson, generations of which had been in the forefront of anything musical in the surrounding districts […]. The house was a musical depot […]. He George Hudson was a great lover of music and had various kinds of musical instruments. There I could hear two pianos played at the same time, also one or two violins […]. I was truly pleased to hear the son, George, playing the piano on one side of the house and Sister Esther playing on the other side[71]

This piece also showed that music-making was not confined to the brass bands and choral groups. Throughout 1883, William Millington wrote pieces in the Eccles and Patricroft Journal, called Sketches of Local Musicians and Musical Societies later published as a book.[72] Richard Berry, for example, of Walkden, was an apprentice shoemaker and learned to play not only the violin, but also the viola.[73] Players like Berry would have played in chapel bands, which were important groups in educating local instrumentalists before the bands began to decline after mid century.[74] William Millington saw chapel bands as schools of music, not only developing instrumental and vocal technique, but also music theory, he wrote:

The chapel choir, with its excellent small band formed a very good school for the study of both vocal and instrumental music. Many of its members were handloom weavers who made music a special study. Many of them were very good copyists, and by this means, and constant practice, became good performers, and had a large experience and knowledge of Handel’s music[…].Thirty six had some connection with weaving – one treble, four counter-tenor, three alto, six tenor, one baritone and nine bass voices. There were six violinists, four viola players, three cellists, two clarinettists, five bassoonists and one French horn player.[75]

Even though chapel bands declined, the working-class membership of orchestras that developed later in the century should not be underestimated. Brass bands and choirs dominated the area but orchestras had a notable presence in the region. In October 1896, the Orchestral Times and Bandsmen, devoted considerable space to the Rothwell Orchestral Society, centred on a pit village in the south-east of Leeds, which included thirteen miners (four violins, viola, cello, double bass, two cornets, two horns, two trombones) and a quarryman (first violin).[76] Elsewhere in the industrial heartlands the formation of orchestras was following the same pattern. The Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestral Society, for example, was formed in 1891, initially from a small group of working-class members that had an ambition to form an ‘orchestral band.’[77] In 1869, Todmorden Harmonic Society and Todmorden Musical Union amalgamated to form the Todmorden Musical Society, and became Todmorden Orchestra in 1915.[78]

The environment provided by amateur orchestras produced local musicians who were not only accomplished performers, but also composers, arrangers, charity fundraisers and musical directors. Thomas Parkinson of Dixon Green was a collier who played the violin. He wrote several pieces of music performed by Farnworth Orchestra.[79] Rodger Farnworth of Worsley was said to be a clever trade warper, well read in history, literature and biography. He also learned to play the violin, viola and cello and became a choirmaster at Montop Chapel.[80] George Minshull, of Pendlebury, a collier, who was a cellist with Pendlebury Philharmonic Society, was described as ‘a civil and well-mannered man who was always ready to render assistance at concerts and other musical events in aid of charity.’[81] Amateur orchestras, then, had no lack of support from educated, socially aware and urbane working-class members. At the 1903 Morecambe Musical Festival, the Musical Times reported that, ‘Nelson and Colne Orchestras held their own against all comers […] the standard of orchestral playing could be considered high, when one remembered that the performers were mostly working men from Lancashire.’[82] Amateur players, then, could command musical respect.

In spite of these working-class orchestral players’ successes local orchestras had to rely on professional players to bolster their ranks when large performances occurred. In the north this would often involve players from the Hallé Orchestra.[83] Despite the rhetoric, locally, without professionals to support them, the quality of orchestral musical performance could be patchy and attracted negative comment from observers.

The final arbiters of musical performance were the listening public: what did the public in the industrial towns think of local music making? The very nature of music is to be performed, and, for many communal groups the final result of practice was to perform a concert in public, often relying upon ticket sales, or contributions, to meet the day-to-day expenses of running a group. Sometimes local people had a different view of these orchestras when professional players did not bolster the ranks. The journal the Yorkshireman hinted at the public attitude towards amateur players with this sketch:

Percy Gaiters and Mabel Sixbuttons are just leaving an amateur concert:

She: ‘Oh hasn’t it been charming Percy? Such a lovely concert!’

He:   ‘Ye-es; but there has been – er – rather a lot of it you know.

She: ‘Oh Fi! Which did you like best the duet, or the violin solo, or the piano?

He: No-neither

She: What then Percy?

He: The intervals of course. [84]

Orchestras were sometimes organised by local choral societies for their larger performances. When they performed together then there was some criticism, the Yorkshireman wrote:

Twang! Bang! Go the fifes and the fiddles, and crash! Go the cymbals and drums, and tenors, and altos, and basses, start up with their screams and their howls. The air is filled with their chantings, their scrapings of catgut and such, their pipings, and whistling and mouthings, which may mean little or much.[85]

Three things may have been responsible for these poor performances. The first is a lack of balance between the sections of orchestras. The abundance of school violin lessons in the early twentieth century meant there were a large number of violinists: other sections had shortages, there were particular shortages in woodwind sections.[86] The second problem was that a number of private music teachers had questionable skills. The Slaithwaite Guardian and Colne Valley News pointed out that:

It is essential that the musical public in West Yorkshire should be warned about the number of bogus musical institutions, examinations, and certificates, which have sprung into being in late years. In many cases, they are conducted by men of little, or no, musical status, and in every case the primary goal is money making.[87]

The third problem was repertoire. Shortages of sheet music restricted what orchestras could play, resulting in a great variety of standards of performance. Many orchestras never graduated beyond polkas, waltzes, and, perhaps, attempting an early Haydn symphony.[88] Finally, finance was an issue: orchestras did not attract the same support as brass bands. Local commentators saw that northern people had a taste for both the consumption and performance of classical music but were reluctant to pay the money to support it.[89] Few amateur orchestras survived the media ‘revolution’ of 1920s and 1930s when the gramophone, radio and cinema changed how people spent their leisure time.[90] The brass bands and choral societies co-existed with the new media because, being amateur institutions, they had no professional rivals. Orchestras, however talented, could not compete with the professional broadcasts and records produced with the invention of the gramophone and radio.

As Dave Russell maintains, it was the success of bands in the contest arena that was the most potent influence for most of this era. Local victories could mirror sporting victories in their extravagance.[91] Russell argues that, ‘as in sport, formulaic press coverage of these often featured imagery, that, undoubtedly, captured cross-class sentiment.’[92] J. Hill argued that that these sporting wins ‘suggested a magical resolution of the many internal tensions and conflicts that in fact beset the communities […] offering an idealised vision of society.’[93] These victories could cancel out any negative behaviour with which bandsmen became involved.

The most powerful image of the musical north was displayed when the choirs and bands came together in competition. The images are of the homogenous working-class striving to represent the community. The north was the area where regional contests thrived. The Yorkshireman was gushing about bands when they were in a formal setting. The journal highlighted how good music was for working people and the good of the community:

The time will soon come when Bowling [Park, Bradford] will claim as well part in the musical moments, when big foundry-men will join in the game as well, and study crescendo and cadence and shake: when neath Bolling Hall the people will gad about, and hear the sweet music that Bradford goes mad about, when o’er the hillside in joy they will go, and bound like the deer, the gazelle, or the doe.[94]

This poem, about the Bradford Peel Park Contest, on 6 August 1881 further expresses the importance of the contest in asserting musical prowess:

The bandsmen are all gathering on this Augustian Saturday,

To strain cheeks and eyes, in playing for prize,

For brass wins brass this latter day.

Yes, brass, brass, brass, my players for brass with brass contesting,

An example show in each puff and blow,

All other thoughts divesting […].

This contest that’s so playful,

So brassy and pleasant,

Cannot fail to attract the crowd, how’er packed,

So mind you are present.[95]

Northern communities were, therefore, musical communities which recognised and were proud of their own musicianship. They made music in a wide variety of ways – the formal and informal, in choirs and choral societies, in bands and orchestras, in the park and in the home. These communities stressed the beneficial influences of music making: self-improvement, rational recreation, sobriety and communal bonding.

(Copyright Stephen Etheridge)

[1] British Bandsman, XX / 283 (3 August, 1907), p. 301.

[2] Pariser Berichte (29 July, 1840), cited in, Richard Taruskin, ‘The Symphony Goes (Inter)National’, The Oxford History of Western Music (Online Edition) <> accessed, 15 May, 2012.

[3] Carl Engel, An Introduction to the Study of National Music, Comprising Researches into Popular Songs, Traditions and Customs (London, 1866), p. 176.

[4] Engel, An Introduction to the Study of National Music, p. 176.

[5] Oscar A. H. Schmitz, Das Land Ohne Musik:: Englische Gesellschaftprobleme (Munich 1904, this edition 1914) p. 30, cited in, Richard Taruskin, ‘The Symphony Goes (Inter)National’.

[6] See, for example, Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven: London), pp. 56-70.

[7] Taruskin, ‘The Symphony Goes (Inter)National’.

[8] Taruskin, ‘The Symphony Goes (Inter)National’.

[9] The Times (17 February 1885). The ‘German Band’ was a nineteenth-century term that described a group of buskers, whose ensemble was largely a mixture of brass and woodwind instruments, that played in the streets of most large cities, but were most noticeable in London. The antipathy that The Times expressed was part of a larger dislike of street music throughout the capital. In London Labour and the London Poor (1861) Henry Mayhew noticed that the German Band was made up of German brass players, but, importantly, he estimated that there were upward of one-thousand street musicians of many nationalities plying their trade in the capital, including English violin-players, French hurdy-gurdy players, Italian street entertainers and many English percussionists and minstrels-singers, as well as musicians from India and the United States. The German Band came to represent, for many commentators, a larger problem with the seemingly constant cacophony of noise that was street music. Writing in 1898, The Minim: A Musical Magazine for Everybody, summed up the situation of street music thus, ‘unknown to the medical faculty […] there are at the present time two contagious “diseases” rampant of the most virulent type. I may describe them respectively as The Bazaar Fever and the Barrel Organ and German Band Mania.’ [Source The Minim: A Musical Magazine for Everybody, 5/52 (January 1898), p. 97.

[10] For academic debate about the borders of the north see Helen Jewell, The North-South Divide. The Origins of Northern Consciousness in England (Manchester, 1994); Dave Russell, Looking North: Northern England and The National Imagination (Manchester,2000); Stuart Rawnsley, ‘Constructing “The North”: space and a sense of place,’ in, Neville Kirk (Ed.), Northern Identities, Historical Interpretations of ‘The North’ and Northernness (Aldershot, 2000); Graham Turner, The North Country (London, 1967) and Katie Wales, Northern English: A Social and Cultural History (Cambridge, 2006).

[11] Martin Stokes (Ed.), ‘Introduction’, in, Ethnicity and Identity: The Musical Construction of Place (Oxford, 1994), p. 6.

[12] In 1851, Bacup had a population of, 10,315; 1861, 10,935; 1871, 17,199; 1881, 25,034 and 1891, 23,498. (Source: Official Census, cited in, Jeanette Edwards, Ordinary People: A Study of Factors Affecting Communication in the Provision of Services. (PhD Thesis, University of Manchester, 1990), p. 22.

[13] Kenneth F. Bowden (Ed.), A Bacup Miscellany (Bacup, 1972), p. 207.

[14] Campanology (16 September 1896), p. 5.

[15] Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser (14 June, 1851).

[16] Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser (14 June, 1851).

[17] Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser (6 February, 1856-11 May, 1872).

[18] Slaithwaite Guardian and Colne Valley News (17 April, 1898).

[19] Slaithwaite Guardian and Colne Valley News, (21 January, 1898).

[20] Dave Russell, Popular Music in England 1840-1914 (Manchester, 1987, this edition, 1991), p. 208.

[21] Letter to the organiser of the Morecambe Music Festival, Canon Gorton, quoted in Musical Times, July 1903, cited in, Russell, Looking North, p. 207.

[22] Henry Coward, ‘Yorkshire and Music: A New Assessment of The Divine Art’, Musical Herald, (April, 1918), p. 332.

[23] Charles Dickens, ‘Music in Humble Life’, Household Words, 1/7 (11 May, 1850), p. 161.

[24] E .P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963, this edition 1980), pp. 297-298.

[25] J. Marshall Mather, Rambles around Rossendale (Darwen, 1844, this edition, 1850), p. 155.

[26] Roger Elbourne, Music and Tradition in Early Industrial Lancashire (Woodbridge, 1980), p. 28.

[27] Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, pp. 297-298.

[28] Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, 13/168 (2 May, 1829), p. 303.

[29] See Peter Spence, ‘Bamford Samuel (1788-1882)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography(Oxford),2004, online edition, (2009)<, accessed 16 January 2013 >

[30] Samuel Bamford, Walks in South Lancashire, On its Borders with Letters, Descriptions Narratives and Observations, Current and Incidental (Manchester, 1844), pp.13-14.

[31] M. Sanderson, ‘Social Change and Elementary Education in Industrial Lancashire, 1780-1840’, Northern History, 3 (1968), pp. 130-154.

[32] Bolton Chronicle (26 February, 1861).

[33] Moses Heap, An Old Man’s Memories n.d. (typescript Rawtenstall Library, 1970), p. 4.

[34] J. Marshall Mather, Rossendale Rambles, p. 39.

[35] J. Lawson, Letters to the Young on Progress in Pudsey During the Last Sixty Years (Stanningley, 1887), pp. 33-34, cited in, Hugh Mcleod, Religion and Society in England, 1850-1914 (Basingstoke, 1996), p. 105.

[36] Reginald Nettel, ‘The influence of the Industrial Revolution on English Music’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, seventy-second session, 1945 -1946, p. 25.

[37] Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, pp. 313-323.

[38] W. Gardiner, Music and Friends (London, 1838), p. 43, cited in, Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p. 297.

[39] Alfred Peel, Crawshawbooth and District (Rawtenstall, 1960), p. 95.

[40] Watkins Shaw and John C. Phillips, ‘Three Choirs Festival’, Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online <>, p. 1.

[41] Rachel Cowgill, ‘“The Most Musical Spot for its Size in the Kingdom”: Music in Georgian Halifax’, Early Music, 28 (2000) p. 357.

[42] Russell, Popular Music in England 1840-1914, p. 173.

[43] Musical Herald, 572 (1 November, 1895), p. 328.

[44] <> accessed, 10 May, 2012.

[45] Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser (30 April, 1859).

[46] Musical Herald, pp. 328-329. All chronological history about The Mossley Vocal Society comes from this article.

[47] In June the same year Mossley Brass Band hosted a local competition that had entrants from Rawtenstall, Denton and Saddleworth, source: Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser (29 June, 1895)

[48] Musical Herald, p. 328.

[49] William Cudworth, Music in Bradford (Bradford, 1885), pp. 7-16.

[50] Horace Heartwell, ‘Characteristics of Manchester’, The North of England Magazine and Bradshaw’s Journal of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, 2/13 (February, 1843), p. 233.

[51] Manchester Guardian (1 May, 1896).

[52] Adrian Smith, An Improbable Centenary: The Life and Times of The Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra, 1891-1900 (Huddersfield, 1990), p. 9.

[53] Peter C. Patrikis, Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life With the Piano (Yale, 1999), p. 151.

[54] British Minstrel and Musical and Literary Miscellany, 3/81 (January, 1845), p. 153.

[55] British Minstrel and Musical and Literary Miscellany, p. 153.

[56] British Minstrel and Musical and Literary Miscellany, p. 154.

[57] British Minstrel and Musical and Literary Miscellany, p. 154.

[58] Derek. B. Scott, ‘Music and Social Class in Victorian London’, Urban History, 29/1 (2002), p. 62.

[59] Monthly Musical Record (1 July, 1872), p. 93.

[60] The Monthly Musical Record estimated that 23,000 pianos a year were produced in London alone and that the publication of sheet music was incalculable, p. 93.

[61] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 (London, 1977, this edition, 1980), p. 256.

[62] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Making of the Working Class, 1870-1914’, in, Eric Hobsbawm, Uncommon People Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz (London,1998, this edition, 1999), p. 85.

[63] Hobsbawm, ‘The Making of the Working Class, 1870-1914’, p. 85.

[64] Manchester Guardian (18 April, 1873).

[65] Manchester Guardian (18 April, 1873).

[66] Manchester Guardian (18 April, 1873).

[67] Manchester Guardian (18 April, 1873).

[68] Musical Herald (2 October, 1893), Vol 547, p. 293.

[69] Musical Herald, p. 293.

[70] ‘Music Trade in Northern England’, Musical Opinion and Trade Review, 24/282 (March, 1901), p. 429.

[71] Moses Heap of Rossendale, My Life and Times (1824-1913), transcribed, in 1961, by Jon Elliot, held in Rawtenstall Community History Library (n.p.).

[72] William Millington, Sketches of Local Musicians and Musical Societies (Pendlebury, 1884).

[73] Millington, in, the Eccles and Patricroft Journal (28 September, 1883).

[74] A guide to church music in the immediate pre-industrial period is, Christopher Dearnley, English Church Music, 1650-1750 (Oxford, 1970).

[75] Eccles and Patricroft Journal (19 October, 1883).

[76] Russell, Popular Music in England, p. 197.

[77] Smith, An Improbable Centenary, pp. 1-2.

[78]Todmorden Orchestra <> accessed, 1 October, 2011.

[79] Millington, in, The Eccles and Patricroft Journal (21 December, 1883).

[80] Eccles and Patricroft Journal (21 December, 1883).

[81] Eccles and Patricroft Journal (21 December, 1883).

[82] Musical Times (1 June, 1903), p. 403.

[83] David Russell, The Popular Music Societies of the Yorkshire Textile District, 1850-1914: A Study of the Relationship between Music and Society (PhD Thesis, University of York, 1979), p.182.

[84] Yorkshireman, 19/195 (10 April, 1880), p.1.

[85] Yorkshireman, 15/352 (14 April, 1883), p.1.

[86] Russell, Popular Music in England, p. 197.

[87] Slaithwaite Guardian and Colne Valley News (30 September, 1898).

[88] Russell, Popular Music in England, p. 197.

[89] Yorkshireman, 9/184 (24 January, 1880), p. 4. The Leeds Music Festivals were examples of a response to this; nevertheless, amateur orchestras could never match the amount of money available to brass bands.

[90] Russell, Popular Music in England, p. 198.

[91] Russell, Looking North, p. 221.

[92] Russell, Looking North, p. 221.

[93] J Hill, ‘Rites of Spring: Cup Finals and Community in the North of England’, in, J. Hill and J. Williams (Eds), Sport and Identity in the North of England (Keele, 1996), pp 106-08, cited in, Russell, Looking North, p. 221.

[94] Yorkshireman, 6/108 (6 July, 1878), p. 1.

[95] Yorkshireman, 112/264 (6 August, 1881), p. 1.


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