Brass Band Poems: Victorian Rhymes About Working-Class Culture


Postcard of Irwell Springs Brass Band, Bacup, 1905. (Author’s own collection)

In the course of my research I encountered a number of poems that highlighted several aspects of working-class culture. The poems fell into these broad areas: civic pride and rational recreation, working-class behaviour -either good or bad -,  class identity, and contest success. The authors of these poems were often unknown, but it is reasonable to say the authors would be local people. From park concerts, through drinking bandsmen, to contest success the attraction of these poems is that they highlight the working-class nature of bandsmen and their followers.


The Public Nature of Brass Bands

Summer was when brass bands gained most public exposure. From May to the end of September local bands played in the public parks as well as taking part in many local and national contests.[1]

The Yorkshireman journal poem was gushing about bands when they were in a formal setting. The journal highlighted how good music was for working people and the communities they played in:

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.[1]

This poem, about the Bradford Peel Park Contest, on 6 August 1881, further expressed the importance of the contest in asserting musical prowess, the elements of hard work and effort are shown. Any bad behaviour is ignored:

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.[2]

As such these verses about Bowling Park and Peel Park – both in Bradford – reflect the belief held by many middle-class Victorians that music was a pastime that could improve the morals and the soul.

The Bandman as the Worker

The next type of poem featured in newspapers, periodicals and journals. What emerged from musical writing in this period were observations of the brass band movement from a middle-class position; the writing was quasi-anthropological in nature, resulting in studies of working-class music-making that engaged with, and complemented, observations of the changing nature of working-class leisure in this period. For the press it was the brass band contest that became the central event in the representation of the emergence of working-class cultural identity.

By 1877, for example, the Musical World wrote a long poem about an upcoming brass band contest featuring the efforts of the fictitious northern Cleaster Brass Band to enter a regional contest. The ease with which bandsmen were perceived by this journal as being familiar with the standard canon of composers indicated that real bandsmen were more than familiar with celebrated composers. The Musical World wrote:

So soon as the factory bell told us to cease,

And we’d washed ourselves clear from the slubber and grease,

We’d meet again at the sign of “The Fox and The Geese”,

And sat in a ring around the table.

When Bumbly-foot Harry gave word from the start, we blew hard at Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart,

Until ev’ry man knew the lot off by heart,

And to play without music was able.[1]


Inherent in this verse is the working-class nature of the bandsmen and their involvement in skilled or manual labour. The word slubber, for example, comes from the word to describe the preparation of wool or cotton for spinning and included three working-class roles, from the labouring to the skilled, the Slubber Doffer, who removed the empty bobbins from the loom spindles, the Slubbing Frame Fitter, who installed and maintained the frame used in the preparation of the cloth, together with the Drawing Frame Slubber Hand who operated the machine used to prepare the cloth.[2]  To be in a brass band was to be of the working class.

Drinking and Rough Behaviour 

One of the first accounts of bandsmen drinking to excess comes from the Accrington Times in 1875. The paper featured a poem about the behaviour of bandsmen from Church Brass Band, near Accrington, after losing a contest at Rishton. Its tale of the whole band falling in the Leeds and Liverpool Canal because of drunkenness is probably an exaggeration but what the poem shows is that local contests were places where excess and working-class ‘roughness’ existed. Moreover, locally, these habits were a source of gentle humour and not condemnation, the poet wrote:

Church Band, nowt, Oh! What a fall! For men at top o’th’ tree, un when they roll’d daon on to th’ floor, my word there were a spree, they hardly knew, mon, wheer they were. Aw, yeard a fellow tell […] as they were going home that neet, they tumbled in t’canal.[1]

It is unknown if the contest at Rishton had alcohol on sale at the contest site, but by 1886 the sale of alcohol was allowed on the contest field. On 14 April that year Rawtenstall Police Court granted J. W. Brown, of the Rams Head Hotel, a temporary license to sell alcohol at the football field where the Rawtenstall Brass Band Contest was being held on the 24 April.[2] As Peter Bailey has argued by the late nineteenth century, ‘apart from certain gross exceptions, drink was becoming more of an incidental social lubricant and less of a total experience.’[3] For the working-class bandsman the contest represented a space where they could not only carry out their hobby, but also take part in perceived rougher working-class behaviour if they wished. Indeed, as became clear in the press in the early years of the twentieth century, for bandsmen this was behaviour that they did not consider rough, but behaviour that was an accepted commonality amongst the majority of bandsmen on a day out. The sociability of drinking became a marker that defined the working-class nature of the contest day.

Published in the press, poems became a highly effective literary tool to praise, identify and admonish the working-class members of a brass band.The local press was complicit in creating local heroes. The press would often lionise a local sporting team or sports person who had been successful. Hence, when a local brass band was successful in a contest, the writing mirrored this lionisation of sporting success. The choice of stories, the position taken and the language used, created legends about people and places. When poems are approached from this perspective an array of ideas about space, place and region emerge. As Jeff Hill has argued, ‘the press is not just a passive reflector of local life and thought, but an active source in creating local feeling.’[1] Local poets, then, created local heroes.

[1] Jeff Hill, ‘‘Rite of Spring’: Cup Finals and Community in the North of England’, in, Jeff Hill and Jack Williams (Eds.) Sport and Identity in the North of England (Keele, 1996), p. 86.

[1] Accrington Times (5 June, 1875)

[2] Rossendale Free Press,(17 April, 1886)

[3] Peter Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England, Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830-1855 (Toronto, 1978), p. 174.

[1] Musical World (7 April, 1877), p. 243.

[2] Hall Genealogy Website: Old Occupation Names <>, accessed, 1 January, 2014.


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

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

[1] See the Music in Greenhead Park Concert Programmes (1903 -1920), Huddersfield Local Studies Library.

[2] Harriet Jordan, ‘Public Parks, 1885-1914’, Garden History, 22/1 (Summer, 1994), p. 1.




‘Slate-Grey Rain and Polished Euphoniums’:Course Handbook


The course document for the upcoming short course at Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield can be downloaded here: Course Handbook

At the moment the course is fully booked, please use the email supplied in the handbook to reserve any places that may occur.

If mentioning the course on social media please use the hashtag #SlateGreyRain @Heritage_Quay

A Short Adult-Education Course: ‘Slate-Grey Rain and Polished Euphoniums: Brass Bands, The Working Class and the North, c. 1840-1914


In February 2016 I will be leading a short adult-education course at Heritage Quay – the archive department of Huddersfield University.  I am enthusiastic about this course as I will be exploring popular music as an expression of social history. Shown below is the course outline and session plans.

Course Outline:

Brass Bands have become a clichéd representation of northern working-class culture. Hence, in 1974, Peter Hennessy described a band contest at the Albert Hall:

A roll call of the bands is like an evocation of industrial history. From Wingates Temperance and Black Dyke Mills to more modern conglomerates […]. Grown men, old bandsmen say, have been known to cry at the beauty of it all […]. Of all the manifestations of working-class culture, nothing is more certain than a brass band to bring on an attack of the George Orwells. Even the most hardened bourgeois cannot resist romanticizing the proletariat a little when faced with one.1

1 The Times (11 October, 1974).

This stereotype, which emerged in the nineteenth century, generated the following questions that can be explored through three seminars held at Heritage Quay in Huddersfield. What musical and social elements in the performance of brass band music strengthened working-class cultural identity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? How did bands, which thrived in large numbers in the Southern Pennines, emerge as a musical and cultural metonym of the industrial landscape?

This series of three seminars examines internal and external reporting of elements of brass musicianship in brass bands that constructed working class and northern identities. From the archives the seminar participants will gain an understanding of why and how brass bands have become such a powerful metaphor for northern working-class identity. An outline of music-making in the north shows how the region supported bands’ development when they began to emerge from the 1830s. This highlights the many different types of music-making in the region and there will be an exploration of the reasons why the area was considered musical. Brass musicianship and musical performance strengthened working-class cultural identity. Explorations of musical performances, leisure, rational recreation, social networks, gender and region all combine to produce a fuller understanding of the northern working class between c.1840 and 1914

This short course is designed to appeal to wide range of adults who have an interest in local and regional history. I should point out that no musical knowledge is required for this course. The course will examine local documents and recourses to explore the history of the well-known brass band tradition of the region. As such the history of brass bands will give the participants the opportunity to examine local archive material that is not only often new to the historical record but also, until recently, neglected in social history and musicology. An exploration of brass band history adds to the understanding of the origins of stereotypes about working-class culture and northern identity that emerged, and came under scrutiny, from 1840-1914. As such the seminar participants gain a secure foundation with which to explore the social networks that emerge from musical groups if they wish to pursue their own archival research.

Seminar 1. (2 hours)

Music-Making in the North of England: An Overview of the Creation of a Musical Region

Learning Outcomes:

An outline of music-making in the north will show the participants that 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 in the industrial north. The participants will gain knowledge of how this happened.The participants will have an understanding of why brass instruments became so popular in this early period.

Seminar 2. (2 hours)

Working-Class Cultural Identity and Musical Performance: The Northern Brass Band and the Invention of Musical Traditions

Learning Outcomes:

The participants will examine archive material to explore how northern brass bands created an invented tradition of music-making.

Seminar 3. ( 2Hours)

Rational Recreation and Perceptions of Working-Class Respectability

The archives will give a background to the social networks that emerged in the contest arena, particularly homosocial and masculine groups.

The participants will have an understanding of how the brass band contest created an arena for not only working-class masculinity but also wider social networks to flourish.

The participants will understand how to interpret newspaper and periodical reports. (Who wrote it, why was it written and in what context?)

The participants will understand that even though the brass band was a national movement it was chiefly external and middle-class commentators that created the northern cliché.

The participants will understand that the themes of class, culture, community and gender are hidden within the archives of all musical groups and can be used to help understand the social and working lives of people from the past.