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.

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