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).



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