A Musical Prize Fight at Loftus, 1859

In September 1859 a “Grand Village Band Contest” was held in Loftus, a village on the North Yorkshire coast. John Hollingshead reported the event in “All the Year Round” later that year. A transcription of the report, together with some pen & ink drawings illustrating the characters, provided the basis for a couple to get married in 1978. The tale, told by their son Bob Nicholson, is recounted together with report and the illustrations, in the Digital Victorianist –



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Comic Bands – Kazoo and Zobo

During the 1890s and early parts of the 20th century a type of band arose using kazoo-type instruments as an alternative to the more expensive (and harder to play) brass instruments. Zobo instruments, based on kazoo principles, were invented and developed in the USA in the early 1890s, rapidly becoming a new craze for a while. When the instruments spread to the UK the bands that were formed using them were largely “comic” bands, created ad hoc for galas and festivals, occasionally mixing in brass instruments, to entertain the public and raise money for charity. The article below gives a brief introduction to these bands and some examples, mainly from England.


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Otley Splisham Splashem Splushum Comic Band

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Tissue paper commemorative programmes & napkins

I spent a fascinating few hours with Steve Hughes last week, discussing and examining the wealth of Besses o’ th’ Barn historical material he is working on. During that time I came across something I had not seen before – programmes for Besses’ concerts printed on a square of thin tissue paper. There were three example of these commemorative “tissue paper” programmes (about 14″ square), very fragile, looking like the sort of thing you sometimes got in restaurants as place mats. They dated from 1906, 1909 & 1937, and I’ve since found a few other examples – one of the Garde Republicaine visiting London in 190? and another celebrating the 58th anniversary of the Salvation Army in 1923. Further research showed they were a not uncommon “souvenir” for occasions, though their fragile nature means very few have survived. For more details, see: https://www.academia.edu/39728632/Tissue_paper_commemorative_programmes_and_napkins


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Brass Band Archive Recordings

Brass Band Archive Recordings – a brief guide to recordings of brass bands in libraries, museums and other archives

Brass bands are, of course, musical organisations first and foremost, and the bulk of their heritage is bound up in the hundreds of thousands of concerts, marches, contests and other performances they have provided their audiences with over the years. Very few of these live performances were ever recorded, at least until recent years, and we must depend on the formal studio recorded performances to enjoy the music of the bands of the past. Many such recordings still exist in personal collections, music libraries, archives, the bands themselves and, more recently, digital archives which have digitised recordings from older media, cleaned up the sound and preserved them in digital audio files. This paper gives an outline of various sources and resources for archived vintage (and not so vintage) recordings in physical repositories and on-line databases. See: https://www.academia.edu/39632492/Brass_Band_Archive_Recordings_-_a_brief_guide_to_recordings_of_brass_bands_in_libraries_museums_and_other_archives



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Morpeth Band Festival 1895 – almost the end of a great tradition

The discovery of a letter, requesting the use of a field for a band festival in 1895, led me to recall details I had read of the Morpeth Monstre Band Festivals of the 1860s and 1870s. A non-competitive event with between 8 and 15 bands, it featured massed band performances as well as those of the individual bands. A revival of the Festival in the 1890s was not so successful, being largely affected by adverse weather. See the following article for further details:



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Explain masculine & feminine rhythms

65393194_10156289923341961_6582377714328535040_nWhat is a “climax”? What is often the cause of sticky valves? Explain masculine and feminine rhythms? Name a common fault with trombone players?

No – these aren’t elements of a Cosmopolitan agony aunt’s page, but four of the 340 questions that make up “Viva Voce Questions for Brass Band Candidates”. This is a booklet produced by Alfred Ashpole in 1936 to assist those preparing to sit theory exams on brass bands. A companion booklet “Model Answers to Viva Voce Questions” provides the suggested responses to each question.

In case you are wondering the answers to the above are:

  • “The moment when the greatest intensity of sound effect is produced”
  • “Pushing them out of alignment by faulty fingering”
  • “A feminine rhythm starts on an unaccented beat, whilst a masculine rhythm starts on an accented beat”
  • “They often try to make the mouth and slide do what should be done by the tongue, also the movement of the slide from one position to another is often too sluggish”

See the full set of questions here: http://www.ibew.org.uk/VivaVoceQuestions.pdf

and the answers: http://www.ibew.org.uk/VivaVoceMAnswers.pdf

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Alternatives to marching & hazardous journeys

As it is the marching season – with Whit Friday, various march contests, Durham Miners’ Gala, local parades, walking days etc. I’m sure that many players (especially bass players) would like to revert to the old days when bands processed in their bandwagons, which were quite often brightly decorated – especially those involved with circuses and travelling shows. There are historical precedents for some alternatives in the absence of a wagon – roller skates or bicycles! Of course these would probably be even worse for the teeth going over cobbles, but it would certainly save on the shoe leather. Perhaps we could have Chris Froome or Bradley Wiggins as deportment judges for the “marches”…


Dunfermline Skating Rink Band


The perils of roller-skating while playing


Christchurch (New Zealand) Cycle Band c.1895


unknown Dutch band c.1910


unknown penny-farthing band


another “cycle” band


who needs two wheels ?


Stephen Hughes provided the above picture of Besses o’ th’ Barn Band preparing to travel in a charabanc to a concert at the BBC c. 1924.


Not all such trips are successful, as evidenced by the above picture of the Bristol (Connecticut) Band’s bus when it ran off the road into the river.

There are many accounts of mishaps occurring to bands as they went about their business – a couple of examples are:

Forth Brass Band (Lanarkshire) – In 1893 a brake containing the members of the band met with an accident while passing through Motherwell, the vehicle split in two spilling the passengers to the ground – the back portion were left while the horse took fright and bolted down the street with the other portion. Several members of the band were injured and the horse ran down two children before being brought to a standstill.

Suckley Excelsior Band (Worcestershire) – On one occasion the band was returning from an engagement at Broadwas Court, and had to cross the River Teme, and when the whole band stepped onto the ferry boat it sank. The bandsmen grabbed the cords on the side of the big drum and sailed across under their own efforts, reaching the bank damp but undaunted.

While we are on a morbid note – the Canadian Territorial Staff Band of the Salvation Army, formed in 1907, consisted of around 40 members. In the early hours of May 29, 1914, while on its way to the Army’s International Congress in London, the ship on which they were travelling – The Empress of Ireland – was struck by the Norwegian collier Storstad and sank in 14 minutes. Only eight bandsmen survived. 1,012 people perished in the accident, which remains the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history.



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