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