Parklife: Victorian Bands and their Role in Parks, ‘The Green Lungs of the City’

Parklife: Victorian Bands and their Role in Parks: A historical response to the Heritage Lottery Fund closing its Parks for People funding programme

Dr Stephen Etheridge, GLCM, MA, PhD

One of the ‘Recreation Grounds’ in Bury

My attention was drawn to an open letter in the Guardian, ‘In austerity Britain, people need parks’. The authors write in their opening paragraph that:

The quietly announced news that the Heritage Lottery Fund is closing its Parks for People funding programme comes as a shock. It should be a matter of huge concern, not only to the 90% of families with children who visit their local park at least once a month, but to all who care about the wellbeing of our towns and cities. Since it was set up in 1996, the programme has transformed hundreds of urban parks from no-go areas to thriving community assets, paying not just for repairs to bandstands, lakes, paths, gates and other features but also for new cafes, toilets, play areas and funding for new staff.

This is my response to this disappointing news. It is a great loss, not least for many community brass bands that enjoy playing in the parks in the summer, often in refurbished bandstands. Indeed, brass bands have been a part of life in public parks since their inception. Many bands that play in parks now have a history of park performances that go back to the beginnings of the brass band movement.  To lose them from ‘the green lungs of the city’ would be a denial of our shared Victorian heritage, and a further eroding of the work done to bring parks back to their former glory and civic use.

Victorian Funding and Contemporary Funding

Contemporary bands are living musical history. They are a direct link to the civic identity of Victorian public parks. Indeed, many of the Victorian  values, such as donations to charity, are still practiced by modern bands.

The rhetoric of the Parks for People Programme mined ideas of Victorian philanthropy in their funding guidelines. They wrote:

Local residents will have a better quality of life and overall the area will be more attractive. As a result of improving the appearance of heritage sites or of the opportunities you have provided for local people to visit, use, get involved with, and enjoy heritage, residents will report that they feel greater pride in the local area and/or have a stronger sense of belonging.

Community is difficult to define. Joanna Bourke has argued elsewhere that the term itself has 94 different definitions, and is mostly viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, ignoring the rougher elements of community life. Yet, in-spite of interpretive problems, the notion of community is important in funding. The point is that even though Victorian funding came from a different source the overall values were similar to the values found in contemporary funding sources.

The Victorian Example of Bury’s Recreation Grounds

Summer was when brass bands gained most public exposure. From May to the end of September local bands played in the public parks.[1] They played an eclectic mix of summer events: balls, flower shows, Grammar School and police sports days and charity events. Park concerts were the most regulated.

The Public Park Movement started in the 1830s, developing from a desire to improve the health of the Victorian towns and cities’ populations. Parks became symbols of civic pride, providing locals with fresh air and attractive surroundings. Parks were places to encourage rational recreation and attractions included music, sports facilities and horticultural displays. Often the park was linked with a museum or art gallery.[2] Parks, together with the town hall, library, museum and art gallery, articulated a particular sense of identity and civic pride. They were important places for the bands to play, resulting in a top down control from the Town Clerk’s Office.

Bury, for example, had three ‘recreation grounds’, and Mr J. Haslam, the Town Clerk, held control over  which bands played in them. Two of the most important things to Haslam and his committee were what programme the bands played and where the money made from the performances went. Park Concert programmes had a formal structure; the bands would play two programmes, one from 3 pm to 5 pm, and another from 7 pm until dusk.[3] The programmes usually had the same order. They started with a March then followed with an Overture. The overtures were usually Italian opera, including the ubiquitous William Tell, but Beethoven’s Egmont and Mozart’s Don Giovanni were also popular. There was then a number of waltz tunes. These were followed by lengthier arrangements of selections of the Master’s works, usually arranged for brass band by Edwin Swift, John Gladney or Alexander Owen, again Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and Weber were popular. After these there would be a cornet or euphonium solo. Cornet polkas and Theme and Variations arrangements for euphonium were common. These pieces were followed by a selection of ‘show’ music – Gilbert and Sullivan gaining ascendancy from 1903, and ending with another March.[4] Standardisation was important to the Town Clerk’s office but it also gave the bands commonality of performance in a public arena.

In April 1899, J. Hulton, the Secretary of Bury and District Bands Organisation, wrote to the Town Clerk about Sunday concerts writing, ’on behalf of the Bury and District Band Organisation, I have been instructed to apply to you in respect to giving Sunday Concerts at the Recreation Grounds Bury, in aid of the Infirmary.’[5] The bands in this organisation were linking themselves with charitable work and hence respectability together with ensuring that health care in the area was supported. The joint fund-raising power of the bands meant that groups of working-class bandsmen came together to form their own philanthropic gesture. Through these bands’ financial contributions, larger community concerns could be supported by working-class people as well as wealthier philanthropists.

Moreover, this was used as a lever to gain exposure in the parks. Haslam replied that, ‘your letter was considered […]. Resolved that the matter should stand over for one month, enquiries: how many bands, in what grounds, on what dates, and what amounts are to be handed over to the infirmary authorities? Please supply details’.[6] Hulton replied, ‘there will be four bands a fortnight between each concert. A turn in each piece of the recreation grounds, say Heap Bridge at Rochdale Road and so on. After the advertising in the Bury Times, and paying carriage for bands, the surplus goes to the infirmary funds.’[7]

Haslam replied on 7 July 1899, and granted the request, but only provisionally; the committee had not yet approved the musical programme and the performance times.[8] It had taken over two months to get this far and the process was still not completed. Every band supplied their performance times and programme, and how the proceeds of the concert were to be distributed, all were subject to approval by the committee before the band played. In the park the bands had to adhere to the times they were booked to play; if they did not a reprimand was swift. In a letter to the secretary of Walshaw Brass Band, Haslam wrote:

There is complaint that your band leaves the recreation ground at 8’o’clock. As you will be aware your band tendered to play from six till dusk, I must ask you in future to observe these conditions and not leave the recreation grounds until dusk.[9]

The secretary of Walshaw Brass Band agreed to make sure the band stayed until dusk in the future. Warth Brass Band were not so fortunate, they wrote to the Town Clerk explaining that they left the grounds early on Saturday because they had another appointment.[10] Haslam responded vigorously writing, ‘they had chosen the date they wanted, and they did not attend.’[11] Haslam cancelled all Warth Band’s future engagements. Warth Band replied offering to play for two evenings free of charge, and said ‘it was a first offence, and we hope you will overlook it.’[12] The committee did overlook it but fined them one guinea.[13]

Bury Town Council expected high standards from the bands that performed in the recreation grounds. The visiting bands were considered temporary employees of the Council. During their time in the grounds they were not only an expression of their own communities but they were also the public face of Bury Council. Thousands of people could attend these concerts; it was usual to see crowds of five thousand and more there to watch and listen to the band.[14] In the public gaze, the parks were where bands matured the notion that music was an improving use of working-class leisure time.

The Sunday promenade concerts were a prop in sustaining the respectable image of a working-class day out. The bands were reminded repeatedly that a Sunday park performance should contain two things: a contribution to a charity, and that they wear their uniforms, something that the superintendent of Farnworth Park in Bolton received regular reports about, telling him exactly how many bandsmen were in uniform, how many people attended and the approximate amount of money had been raised for charity.[15] These were staples in the support of working-class respectability. For the promenader, Sunday did not last forever and the temporary respectability of the park was no protection against the lure of the pub. For some of the working class the Sunday suit could be surrendered to the pawnbroker on Monday morning without shame.[16] As Robert Roberts suggested, ‘the possession of Sunday best clearly became an important ongoing test of status and identity’.[17]

The brass bands did not go to the pawnbroker on Monday morning. Their uniforms were their ‘Sunday best’, bought and paid for, and were in constant use. Warth Brass Band’s letterhead proclaimed that they were available for ‘concerts, fetes, garden parties, athletic sports, flower shows, demonstrations, friendly societies etc, they have a divine selection of classical, dance and other music, twenty-four performers, uniform dark blue navy, with silver facings.’[18] The bands could transfer the respectability of the park concert to any day of the week. Bands, made up of working-class members, were a highly visible agency in showing the respectability that could be achieved through music as a rational recreation.

The contemporary brass band concert will reflect many of these themes, a contribution to charity, a pastime that is considered educational and respectable, and, perhaps most importantly of all, bands provide a backdrop for communal life in an important civic space. Many bands that play in pubic parks wish to contribute to their local communities. To be in a position to lose these things is a nonsense.

Notes and References:

 Copyright Stephen Etheridge 

[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.

[3] Music in Greenhead Park Concert Programmes (1903 -1922).

[4] Music in Greenhead Park Concert Programmes, also see, Bury Archive Service, Correspondence re Bury Recreation Grounds, ref,  ABU2/3/7/1 (1895 -1905).

[5] Bury Archive Service, Correspondence re Bury Recreation Grounds (24 April, 1899), ref 23/7/1.

[6] Bury Archive Service (2 June, 1899).

[7] Bury Archive Service (7 June, 1899).

[8] Bury Archive Service (7 July,1899).

[9] Bury Archive Service, Correspondence re Bury Recreation Grounds (17 July , 1895), ref ,ABU 2/3/7/1.

[10] Bury Archive Service (25 July, 1895).

[11] Bury Archive Service (27 July, 1895).

[12] Bury Archive Service (31 July, 1895).

[13] Bury Archive Service (31 July, 1895).

[14] Bolton Archive Service, Superintendents Reports on Bands, (31 July, 1913), ref, AF/6/125/2.

[15] Bolton Archive Service, Superintendents Reports on Bands (30 May, 1912-31July,1913).

[16] Gareth Steadman Jones, ‘Working-Class Culture and Working-Class Politics in London, 1879-1900: Notes on the Remaking of the Working Class’, Journal of Social History, 7 (1974), p. 47.

[17] Robert Roberts, The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century (Harmondsworth, 1973), pp. 22-24.

[18] Bury Archive Service, Correspondence re Bury Recreation Grounds (26 June, 1895).



Merry Christmas All: Here’s a Victorian Bandsman’s Yorkshire Tale

Birstall Brass Band, 1911, mentioned as ‘Burstal’ in the Tale


Mungoe’s Christmas Adventures’: A Brassy Victorian Seasonal Tale (From the Cornet, 15 January, 1900, p. 3.)

This time a vaary owd friend ov mine, Billy Blowtop, came to spend a few days with us. Billy ewst to play t’ cornopean in t’ band in t’owd days,when ahh yewst to play t’ buzzoon.  He turned up this time reight enuff at Kersmas Eve. We gav him a warm welcome, en after we’d hed a good meeal en toosted wer knees in t’front ov t’fire en tawked aboot t’owd times oover a glass ov toddy, we tewk a walk into t’taan. We called at two or three haases, en Billy met a few own friends that he hedn’t seen for many a year. Ov course we’d to hev a glass with ’em all, en there wor soa much to talk abaat wol it wor turnin’ aght time afore we fairly knew where we wor….

We wor up in good time in t’morning, en when t’band came to play at Aah’r haase we wor sittin comfortable in front of a good fire; we were feet on t’fender, wer glasses ov toddy at t’side on us, an we woor smookin real Have Hannahs. They played us a few nice tewnes, en Billy seemed sewted wol his een fair dazzen led….

After t’ dinner we made it up to hev a walk en hear some of t’other bands in t’district, soa we made wer way to Burstal, where we fan em in good form, en knockin on en makin brass fast. We had a liquor up with em en then wemade wer way to Drighlington, en we walked abaat a good bit, but could hear nowt of t’band, soa we called at a pub to mak enquiries….(More drinking with bandsmen.)

After another haar or two of fun t’ landlord came in and said he’d a conveyance at t’door ready for us. There was a flat spring cart covered wi straw en plenty ov rugs to lap us with, so we gat on an laid daan en covered us en we must have fallen asleep…. [When we got home] Just then t’door opened, en t’wife came en said, “Helloa, what  hav we here?” but t’driver jumped on his cart, an hes he wor drivin off he shaated, “You’ll find ’em all theer, missis, sooart ’em aght for yorsen.”

Merry Christmas to my followers and friends. 





Brass Band Contests and Railway Travel: Mobility, Audience Support and Sporting Comparisons

The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway track, closed in 1964

Dr Stephen Etheridge

Monday found me on a walk on the closed Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, a line that was used to transport bands to contests in Manchester in the 1850s. It made me think about the link between the growth of railways and the growth of the brass band movement, particularly in the North and the links with the annual Belle Vue Contest.

Enderby Jackson, Brass Band Contest Promotion and the Use of the Railway

In March 1837, The Musical World recommended that to improve the standard of playing in bands, ‘prizes for competition should be given, as they did in France.’ Sir Clifford Constable arranged the famous brass band competition at Burton Constable in 1845, after his sister-in-laws had seen a competition in the south of France.[1] The Burton Constable Contest was part of a rural Magdalen Feast; it featured falconry displays, archery contests and a grand mythological costume ball. Sir Clifford Constable’s bandmaster, George Leng, offered a twelve-pound prize for the best band, and drew up a set of rules, he appointed Richard Hall, an organist from Hull, the job of adjudicator.[2]

The importance of the Burton Constable competition was its influence on Enderby Jackson, an eighteen-year-old flute player, in one of quadrille bands, booked to play in the evening dances.[3] Enderby Jackson was born in 1827, in Mytongate, Kingston upon Hull, the son of John Jackson, a tallow chandler soap-boiler.[4] He distinguished himself at Hull Grammar School; nevertheless, they did not teach music at the school, so he had to take private lessons. He became fluent on flute, French horn, piano and in singing.[5] He soon became a professional musician playing in bands touring northern towns.[6]

Jackson was to become an entrepreneur and impresario, mostly making his mark on brass band competitions.[7] Jackson met James Melling, from Stockport, and Tallis Trimnell, from Chesterfield, in 1851, at the Great Exhibition.[8] Jackson noted that they were ‘both noted Midland young musicians, full of ardent zeal in spreading the love of music broadly amongst the operatives and miners surrounding their central districts’.[9] After discussing the popularity of fairs and carnivals in the East Riding, and the popularity of giving out cash prizes, they decided that:

[As] rail facilities were rapidly progressing, it would be wise for deputations from the bands to visit the railway managers, seeking their co-operation in bringing distant bands to a suitable centre, by arranging convenient times and fares. Also, that the bandmasters assist by drawing up a stringent code for the bands’ guidance in preparing for and during their attendance at competitions: so widening the area for bands available for bands meeting…. Creating wide circles on the successful lines adopted in East Yorkshire. Mr. Melling undertook to visit Mr. R Jenninson, of Belle Vue Gardens, Manchester, and talk the subject over with him, on moneymaking principles. I [Jackson] undertook to personally visit the railway managers, seeking from them concessions on mutual terms for the Midland, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Towns; and Mr.Trimnell promised assistance in doing his best to work up efficiency amongst his district bands.[10]

In later life Jackson probably over stressed his influence on the start of the Belle Vue contests.[11] There was a lot of circumstantial evidence that Jenninson, of Belle Vue, and Melling, were more active in providing Jackson with ideas.[12] His biographical writings were full of self-confidence and self-opinion.[13]. He was ambitious in trying to add an international aspect to the brass band contest; visiting many European countries, attending musical festivals and congresses, however, he never fully developed his vision of a ‘Music Unity of Nations.’[14]

The Belle Vue Gardens opened in 1837, and as early as Whitsuntide 1850, was advertising, ‘ amongst its attractions, three efficient brass bands in order that dancing may continue during the day, without interruption.’[15] In 1852, encouraged by Melling, Jenninson arranged a competition at Belle Vue, for drum and fife bands to see how popular a band competition would be: the experiment proved a success.[16] The next year, on the 5 September, the beginning of the Gorton Wakes week, Jenninson advertised, ‘A Grand Musical Contest with Eight Brass Bands.’[17] The logistics of the day were not a success, many supporters arriving late, because of problems with late running trains, nevertheless, the event itself was popular. In all, around sixteen-thousand people attended the contest.[18]

Travelling Supporters 

Large numbers of people travelled from their towns and villages by train to support their bands. By 1850 Wales, Scotland, the north, the midlands, and the east of England, Devon and Cornwall, together with the south coast of England were all linked by rail with London.[19] A fully-formed railway network helped the brass band movement grow and become popular. The railways brought large numbers of working-class people together, magnifying the rituals, habits and customs of the working class.  Rail travel gave thousands of band supporters’ mobility within the north and beyond. A clear example of this mobility was when a large proportion of east Lancashire’s Rossendale Valley travelled to the 1857 Belle Vue Contest to support Bacup Band. The trains stopped at each station along the Rossendale Valley and took on significant numbers of passengers. Isaac Leach wrote:

The excitement of the neighbourhood was intense, and for days before the contest the fate of the band at Belle Vue was almost the sole topic of conversation. The practice of the band in the mill yard at Broudclough, on the Sunday previous to the fateful day, was attended by thousands of persons. On the morning of the contest, the Belle Vue excursions from Bacup were packed with people, and most of the mills were obliged to stop. Two special trains were run, the local bookings being as follows: Bacup 1093, Stacksteads 200, Newchurch 519, and Rawtenstall 323.[20]

Hugh Cunningham argues that ‘brass band contests […] were possible only because of cheap rail fares; by 1888 there were 50 excursion trains for the Belle Vue contest in Manchester.’ [21] It is perhaps the journal, the Yorkshireman that has the last word to say on the mobility that brass bands gained from the railway. As with many working-class excursions developing in the railway age a ‘day trip’ was a festive event, a holiday that should be enjoyed, the train journey itself being part of the day’s festivities. An observer commented on a contest train passing by in 1878, they wrote:

I was at a railway station the other day as a festive train passed through. A brass band occupied one of the carriages, and the trombonist, not having room for his motions inside performed the sliding operations of his instrument out of the window. I never saw an instrumentalist so “played out” before.[22]

Band Contests and Sporting Imagery

Supporting a band was, as Jack Williams has argued about cup finals, ‘an expression of a town identity, an association with others from the town that asserted a collective geographical allegiance.’[23] As with sport the band contest gave a sense of class and cultural uniformity. The same rules and organisation that were carried forward to different areas meant that supporting a town band ‘reinvigorated town identities, and expressed a source of social differentiation between towns.’ This, like sport, led to town bands becoming a source of community pride, like sport, local dignitaries were keen to herald the success of the town band in band contests, enhancing the reputation of a town within the North.

Horwich RMI Brass Band, with Crystal Palace Trophy, 1922

The notion of community identity can be brought together with the success of the Horwich Railway Mechanics Institute Band’s win at the National Contest at Crystal palace in 1922.  Writing  in September 1922, the Bolton Journal saw the railway station as a gathering point, a terminus of success. The railway had transported the image of a northern community to the South and brought the North back triumphant, they wrote:

As the time for the bands arrival from London approached, the streets became alive with people, and soon dense crowds had gathered outside the station and lined the approach to the platform. It appeared that the whole of Horwich had had turned out en-masse to give the champion band a rousing reception. The band was met and entertained to tea in Manchester by Mr George Hughes C.B.E. Chief Mechanical Engineer of The London and North Western Railway. The train…was gaily decorated with bunting and evergreens, and on the front of the engine was the device’ welcome home.’ Loud cheers were given, fog signals were exploded on the line, and The Horwich Old Band played a lively air as the train steamed into the station.

Headed by Horwich Old Band, and loco workers carrying torch lights, the band drove in a charabanc passing cheering spectators…cries of ‘Bravo Horwich’ could be heard above the din… Mr Bath said ‘It is only possible for men who have music in their souls to play like that.’

The railway, then, not only transported bands and their supporters around the country, but also increased the working-class attendance at contests. In this way largely middle-class commentators on this new ‘banding’ phenomenon drew comparisons with sporting contests in their analysis of working-class leisure and culture.

Notes and References:

Some of this came from my PhD thesis, as always, cite me when quoting:

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[1] Arthur R. Taylor, Brass Bands, p. 33.

[2] Arthur R. Taylor, Brass Bands, p. 33

[3] Arthur R. Taylor, Brass Bands, p. 33.

[4] Trevor Herbert, ‘John Enderby Jackson (1827-1903)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, 2004), <> accessed 7 December 2009, p. 1.

[5] Trevor Herbert, ‘John Enderby Jackson (1827-1903)’, p. 1.

[6] Trevor Herbert, ‘John Enderby Jackson (1827-1903)’, p. 1.

[7] Trevor Herbert, ‘John Enderby Jackson (1827-1903)’, p. 1.

[8] Enderby Jackson, ‘Origin and Promotion of Brass Band Contests,’ Musical Opinion and Trade Review, 20/232, (January 1897), p. 232.

[9] Enderby Jackson, ‘Origin and Promotion of Brass Band Contests,’ p. 232.

[10] Enderby Jackson, ‘Origin and Promotion of Brass Band Contests, ’p. 232.

[11] Arthur R. Taylor, Brass Bands, pp. 36-37.

[12] Arthur R. Taylor, Brass Bands, p. 37.

[13] Trevor Herbert, ‘John Enderby Jackson (1827-1903)’, p. 2.

[14] Trevor Herbert, ‘John Enderby Jackson (1827-1903)’, p. 1.

[15] Arthur R. Taylor, Brass Bands, p. 37.

[16] Arthur R. Taylor, Brass Bands, p. 37.

[17] Arthur R. Taylor, Brass Bands, p. 38.

[18] Arthur R. Taylor, Brass Bands, p. 38.

[19] Charles Moore, The Industrial Age: Economy and Society in Britain, 1750-1995 (London, 1997), p. 419.

[20] Duncan Bythell, Water, A Village Band 1866-1991 (Water Band, Rossendale, Lancashire, 1991), pp. 6-7.

[21] Hugh Cunningham, Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, (London, 1980), p.159.

[22] Yorkshireman, Volume 16, No. 126 (14 December, 1878), p. 371.

[23] Williams Jack, ‘One Could Literally Have Walked On The Heads of The People Congregated There.’ Sport the Town and Identity, from, Leybourn Keith, Ed, Social Conditions Status and Community, 1860-c.1920. p.123


‘To Encourage Kindness between All Classes of the Community’: The Philanthropic Links between Bramley Brass Band and the Bramley District Nursing Association, 1907-08

Dr Stephen Etheridge 

Bramley Prize Band

Today was a cold day and on my way to work I had an hour to spare. I was drawn to the Local History room at Leeds Central Library. One of the joys of this local history collection is that much of the material is catalogued by towns that surround Leeds. As such, and in my hunt for material for Bramley Brass Band, I came across a volume of the 1907-1921 Annual Reports of the Bramley District Nursing Association.[1]

The archival evidence shows that two pillars of community life had a synchronous relationship that centered around a belief in philanthropy. Paraphrasing the Oxford English Dictionary the Nursing Association and the Bramley Band were practitioners of a ‘practical benevolence’ that was ‘charity on a large scale’.  What is of interest here is the similarities and differences between the band’s working-class wish to do good in the larger community and middle-class philanthropic compassion found in the Nursing Association, not least in the way, as Elaine Denny has argued, that middle-class women used voluntary nursing as a way to escape the cult of domesticity and work towards a ‘calling’.[2] In other words the band had many reasons to raise money for a labouring population; not least for the band’s own needs. The band had roots in their own their own working-class environment. The Nursing Association was focused on providing relief for the poor from a top-down perspective. They had an external view of the working class. Where did these causes conjoin in an industrial community, and was the  working-class philanthropy of a brass band that far away from middle-class values of benevolence?

Bramley the (Philanthropic) Industrial Community

Bramley is five miles to the West of Leeds in West Yorkshire. The East of the area still contains much nineteenth-century housing and architecture. Bramley is listed in the 1086 Domesday Book as Brameleia and Bramelie. The heart of the village was most likely sited at Stocks Hill, and it developed in a linear fashion along today’s Town Street. [3] As with many towns and villages in the North of England the population expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century due to industrialisation. The initial increase was due to the woollen textile industry, but boot making and engineering soon followed. By 1871 the population of Bramley was 9,882 mirroring the population numbers found in other industrial settlements in the North of England.[4]

As an industrial community the population of Bramley was well-placed to practice communal generosity. We have the benevolence of the large employer, but we also have groups such as the band and the Association that operated within benevolence, or ‘gift giving’.  In the industrial heartlands, industrialists often wanted to be seen to be supplying support for a worthy cause. The large employer’s influence was generated in the factory, its locale and magnified in the arena of the town.[5] Most employers conceived their economic duty solely in terms of supplying employment to alleviate a core of endemic poverty found in the towns and cities. Nevertheless, after mid-century, the large employers’ view of themselves as the creators and custodians of urban civilisation became sufficiently grandiose to permit a considerable involvement in the control of urban poverty.[6] It was reflected in the foundation of orphanages, almshouses, homes for the aged and Ragged and Industrial Schools that sprang up in this period.[7]

A Subscription Ethos

 By 1907 it was noted that the Association had published its 14th report, meaning they were formed in 1891.[8] The Nursing Association and the Bramley Brass Band both relied on subscriptions to meet their day-to-day expenses. Both the band and the Nursing Association shared the commonality that they had to prove their commitment to helping the community to attract– and be morally worthy of –receiving financial assistance from the public.

The Nursing Association’s and the Band’s Commitment, and Moral Duty, to Public Good

As a philanthropic group the Nursing Association’s Governors  clearly spelled out their commitment and moral worth to the community in the Association’s rules, writing:

As the object of this Association is to provide as many skilled nurses as be required for the efficient nursing of the sick poor of Bramley Parish in their own homes, and thus by the example, teaching, nursing, and general influence of the nurses, raise the standard of nursing and encourage sympathy and mutual kindness between all classes of the community […]. [9]

As a subscription band Bramley Band was also under a similar ethical contract in order to receive public subscriptions. The band was formed as a brass and reed band in 1828, by 1836 they were a Temperance band and by 1859 they were regularly taking part in contests in the North.[10] In 1860, a year when The Times referred to brass bands as a movement, they entered London’s Crystal Palace Contest.[11] The link between rational recreation and musical performance is well documented elsewhere on this blog, and it was an ethos  that bands such as Bramley relied upon when they appealed to the public for funds. Such moral contracts inferred that the bands should be part of charitable community events. Writing in 1895, Algernon Rose published Talks With Bandsmen: A Popular Handbook for Brass Instrumentalists (London, 1895). In this book was a guide on how subscription bands should apply for funds. One of the answers is telling:

Why [is a band] desirable[for the town]?

  • Because there are a number of young men who wish to become musicians
  • Because there are many of our neighbours who would welcome outdoor music in this town
  • Because the existence of such a band would be invaluable by affording help at charitable and local entertainments[12] 

There is  evidence that Bramley Band used this ethos when they asked for funds .Sadly, the date of the citation is unknown. They wrote:

The band would be grateful for subscriptions to the band fund, which is upheld by voluntary subscriptions and proceeds from entertainments etc [….] Many can help one when one cannot help many.[13]

Working-Class Philanthropy?

 Subscription bands, then, were in competition for public subscriptions with other groups. Yet Bramley Band became one of the key contributors to the Association’s funds. They had a special committee that arranged fundraising concerts. This suggests that the respectable working class of Bramley, represented here  by the band, were raising money for parts of the population that had less than themselves. By 1908, and together with other high profile contributors – the Bramley Board of Guardians (£10.00) and the Leeds Workpeople’s Hospital Fund (£50.00) – they had raised Sixteen pounds, seven shillings and four pence.[14] What is more significant is that the band organised benefit concerts by other musicians to raise funds. They are mentioned in the Association’s Annual reports as a ‘special performance arranged by the Bramley Band Performance Committee’.[15] These concerts often featured military bands such as the Guards’ Regiments.  These contributory patterns remain the same until 1921 when the Association’s record ends. It does indeed seem that Bramley Band did believe that ‘many can help one when one cannot help many.’

There is more research needed, and this blog is an outline of themes to explore. However, a working-class band that relied upon public subscriptions was in a position to be a significant contributor to an organisation based in top-down philanthropy. Philanthropy, then, as a desire to promote the welfare of others, especially by generous donations of money to a good cause, crossed class boundaries. Being working class did not mean to be always on the receiving end of benevolence. Moreover, top-down philanthropy relied on working-class contributions.

Notes and References:

[1] Bramley District Nursing Association, In Affiliation With The Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute for Nursing the Sick and the Poor in their Own Homes, Annual Reports, 1907-1921 (Leeds) Leeds Family and Local History Department, Leeds Central Library, Catalogue Ref: LBRA36Z   

[2] Elaine Denny, The Emergence of the Occupation of District Nursing in Nineteenth-Century England (PhD Thesis, University of Nottingham, 1999), p. 6.

[3] Wikipedia<,_Leeds >accessed 8 December, 2017

[4] The Bramley Almanac and Historical Year Book for 1878 (Leeds, 1878) In 1851, for example, Bacup, in East Lancashire, had a population of 10, 315 (Source: Official Census)

[5] Patrick Joyce, Work, Society and Politics: The Culture of the Factory in Later Victorian England (Brighton, 1980, this edition, London, 1982), p. 168.

[6] Joyce, p. 168.

[7] Joyce, Work Society and Politics, p. 168.

[8] Annual Report, 31 March, 1907, p.2

[9] Ibid, p. 22

[10] The development of the brass band is too lengthy for this blog. Bands emerged from the 1820s from a mix of woodwind and brass instruments, influenced by military bands, through a number of phases, to, by the 1870s, the standard band instrumentation seen today. Key stages were the invention of the keyed bugle (1820s); the invention of the piston valve (invented no later than 1814 and was developed through 1827-1850). The development of the saxhorn, invented by Adolph Sax in the 1840s and 1850s, was also significant. The saxhorn was later promoted by the Distin Family whose popular concerts showed it to be a melodious instrument. Key texts for the development of brass bands are T. Herbert, ed.The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History (Oxford, 2000); E. Mitroulia, ‘Adolphe Sax’s Brasswind Production With a Focus on Saxhorns and Related Instruments’ (unpub. Ph.D. Thesis, Edinburgh Univ. 2011) and A. Myers, ‘Instruments and Instrumentation of British Brass Bands’, in, Herbert, ed. The British Brass Band, pp.155-186.

[11] J.E. Hesling-White, A Short History of Bramley Band from Its First Inception to the Present Time, with Glimpses of Old-Time Life and Doings in Bramley (Bramley, 1906), pp. 5-8.

[12] Algernon J. Rose, Talks With Bandsmen: A Popular Handbook for Brass Instrumentalists (London, 1895), pp. 309-311. The fact that this author wrote a guide on ‘how to’ ask for money from both employers and subscribers suggests that bands were using the rational recreation ethos to their own ends.

[13]  Hesling-White, A Short History, Inner Cover of Volume

[14] Annual Reports, 13 March, 1908, p. 5.

[15] Ibid, p.5.

Reflections on Brass Bands and Christmas Carols: A Continuation of Victorian ‘Banding’ Traditions

Water Prize Brass Band, picture taken in Rossendale before a trip to Southport in 1880 (Rossendale Free Press, 14 May, 1916)



As Christmas approaches the streets are alive with the sound of brass bands playing Christmas carols. Indeed, a friend from my days in the Staffordshire Youth Brass Band, who is now playing with the Co-op Funeralcare Band, said that they had ‘done 2 [caroling] sessions, and had 14 more to go.’ A Cursory glance at any band’s website shows that outside the contest season caroling is possibly the bands’ busiest of times.

It is accepted that the ‘golden age of brass bands’ dated from 1860-1900. In this period brass bands expressed a highly visible working-class pursuit. It was a period when brass band contests attracted crowds in their thousands, and park concerts were key events in the communities where bands thrived. Bands were an important presence at many civic events, such as the opening of Mechanics’ Institutes, Sunday Schools and libraries.  Christmas caroling was an important year-end event for Victorian and Edwardian bands that added to their presence  in the community.  A glance at this period shows us that contemporary bands are carrying on a tradition of playing Christmas carols that is as old as bands themselves.

Finance and caroling

The archival evidence in this blog comes from the Southern Pennines, a region that was well-known for the density of bands in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, one defining element that united bands on a national level was the need to raise money for the day-to-day running of bands, and especially the need to buy uniforms, instruments and music. Much finance came from employers and, in the case of subscription bands, the local community. This finance, however, was mostly in the form of unsecured loans. Many bands spent much of their time raising money to repay these loans. Christmas was a time when bands could secure a significant amount of income. In 1898, for example, Shipley Brass Band collected their bandsmens’ subscription fees of £2 for the year after the Christmas money had been collected.




Writing in 1892 it was the Magazine of Music who highlighted the community nature of caroling, writing, ‘at Christmas the bands turn out in great force to go the round of their subscribers; and we hear that in spite of the intense cold last Christmas, some bands played before the houses of over a hundred […] members, notwithstanding benumbed fingers and frozen valves […].[1]  The bands’ subscribers would often give the players money for playing carols, which would not only assist the bands in their day-to-day expenses, enable them to give a contribution to charity, but also give the bandsmen a source of extra cash at Christmas.

On December 3, 1888, for example, the committee of Cleckheaton Christian Bretheren Brass Band agreed ‘that we go out during the night at Christmas; busking with collectors. That half the money be given to the band and the other half to be equally divided [between the players].[2] By 1892 the band were looking to raise money for uniforms, asking bandsmen to contribute money from their Christmas takings. The committee wrote ‘That if we can get J Beever of Huddersfield to get us a new uniform ready for Christmas. That each member of the band shall leave 10 shillings out of the Christmas money. If not each member shall leave five shillings each. That suits shall be like Batley Temperance.[3]

 A few words on money and working-class independence

Together with other seasonal and occasional payments Christmas money gave bandsmen an element of security when a man’s independence depended on how much spending money – or ‘spends’ – he had for himself. As Dave Russell has argued elsewhere bandsmen were, in spite of varying levels of income, the respectable working class. The economy of the working-class household was rooted in the collective earnings of father, mother and children. Jose Harris has highlighted the importance of the financial contribution of the wives and children to the household, as social surveys of the period recognized that how much the man contributed from his wages could vary wildly. Indeed, the management of the household fell to the wife, and in what were considered the more respectable households the man would hand his wages over and the wife would often give the husband his ‘spends’ after the essential items – food, bills and so on – had been budgeted for.  In spite of observers disagreeing about the significance of the amounts the husband gave, one thing that all observers agreed on was that it was the wife’s skill, or ineptitude, in making ends meet that determined the comfort or neglect of working-class homes.[4]  

Bramley Brass Band, known locally as the Bramley Beer and Bacca’ Band


Christmas was a time when bandsmen could have a significant amount of disposable income. As working men this income increased their independence after essential bills had been paid. They had ‘spends’ for beer and tobacco. Some of this is shown in how Bramley Old Band would ‘do the rounds of the better-class houses in Bramley at Christmas, and be rewarded with food, beer and tobacco. This caroling gave Bramley Band the nickname the Bramley Beer and Bacca Band.’ (Recollections of Bramla’ Band: Pauline Kirk, Ed. p. 6)

Caroling as a social event

At Christmas Victorians and Edwardian bands were not unknown to play for long periods of time, and this often including playing throughout the night of Christmas Eve into Christmas Day.  James Law Cropper (1864-1974), remembered ‘going out’ as a teenager at Christmas time with Water Prize Band (Rossendale):

We covered the whole neighbourhood. We’d meet at the Commercial on Christmas Eve, at twelve o’clock the Church bells used to ring out. We always blasted off with Old Glory, then up the road as far as Culvert, we played about every three houses, and they all came out to listen to us, and treat us, they used to bring beer out to pass round, and cups of tea or coffee. We used to do the front, back and cellar dwellings of Culvert, and it would take us until four o’ clock in the morning to get back to Water and go home. We’d turn out again at about nine o’clock on Christmas morning going round Dean and Water. We played Christmas Carols […]. All the old ‘Laycock’ tunes, always the old tunes they’d had for generations. As a rule, our music that we played for Christmas was hand written.[5]

It’s interesting to note that this band was using hand-written arrangements, that were most likely bespoke for the instruments they had in the band.

Cropper did allude that bandsmen drank during caroling, writing Folks from Dean, although they were mainly Baptists, took an interest in the Band, and the right old ones didn’t seem to have anything against the Band, and of course, we played their tunes at Christmas… but as it became very strong anti -drink, the Baptists and the Band did not mix. Eden didn’t connect so much with the anti-drink, dancing and gambling lot. [6]

This sounds quite romantic: Bandsmen playing carols for the community and socialising with tea, cakes and beer. Yet, these sessions had their detractors and critics. It was caroling, and the disturbance it caused, that created comment, one member of the public venting their spleen to the Yorkshireman, in 1881:

If we have not had sufficient music this Christmas, I am no judge of it. From midnight on Christmas Eve to the dawn of Christmas Morn, I lay on my downy bed, a long-suffering Christian …. A monstre double bass would begin business with a grand bang that nearly smashed the windows, and completely awoke every living thing in the house. I like sacred music, but I object to it strongly, when there is an obbligato of howls from old Towser, and, a series of cadenzas from that ancient Thomas, in the next back- yard mingled with it. It would take St Cecilia all her time to draw an angel down with such music as I heard, and when the angel did appear, I am sure it would not be able to stay long amidst such a hubbub.[7]

In the final analysis bands relied upon caroling to raise funds to run the bands, contribute to charity, and to supply extra income for bandsmen. Yet, the social side of caroling should not be underestimated. It brought communities together in one Christmas event. When contemporary bands ‘go out’ at Christmas it is an expression of a tradition that started with nineteenth-century brass bands.


[1] Magazine of Music, 9/4, (April, 1892), pp. 62-63.

[2] Minute Book of The Christian Bretheren Temperance Brass Band; Cleckheaton. West Yorkshire Archive Service Kirklees ref KC131

[3]  Ibid

[4] Jose Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870–1914 (London: Penguin: London, 1994), 72–3. For a wider discussion on working-class masculinity see,  Stephen Etheridge, ‘Music as A Lifelong Pursuit for Bandsmen in the Southern Pennines, c. 1840-1914: Reflections on Working-Class Masculinity ‘in,  Catherine Haworth and Lisa Colton (Eds.) Gender, Age and Musical Creativity (Ashgate, 2015)

[5] James Law Cropper, Memories, typewritten transcription of interviews (n.d.) Rawtenstall Local Studies Library, ref RC942WAT,   29-30.

[6]Cropper, Memories,   28-29.

[7] The Yorkshireman, January (1881), 4.