Durham Miners’ Gala

Having just been asked by my band’s librarian to identify the marches we use for the Durham Miners’ Gala (so she can get clean copies made for the 2020 event) it reminded me of some notes I’d made on the Gala and the bands that supported the miners’ lodges in the past. Sadly most of the colliery bands of County Durham have long since disappeared, but the music carries on – and the Gala continues from strength to strength, supported by the miners’ lodges, other trade unions, and bands from across the north of England. So here, in the article linked below, is a brief outline of the Gala and an homage to the bands and miners of the past.


Brass, coal, banners, marching and music: colliery bands and the Durham Miners’ Gala or “Big Meeting”

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Circus bands

I had some discussions earlier this year with some members of Windjammers – the US Historical Circus Music Society – seeking details of some of their articles on the history of circus bands in the USA. Their journal “Circus Fanfare” is a fascinating repository of information about music old and new and the players and bands of the past. The organisation is also actively involved in recreating and keeping alive the music of the travelling circus and sideshow bands. The photo below is of the Starnes Stock Company Band at St Petersburg, Florida – they were an under-canvas theatrical troupe that carried a band with them, based in Worthington, Indiana, active during the 1913 season.

As part of my research into the bands of the USA, I currently have details of nearly 80 such bands – and there would have been many more – supporting the various travelling entertainment shows. This list was shared with Windjammers.

For the circus bands list, see: http://www.ibew.org.uk/uscircusbands.pdf

For further details of Windjammers and Circus Fanfare, see: https://www.circusmusic.org


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Intemperance bands

Having produced an article on temperance bands last year (see link below), it is clear to me – and to most brass players – that abstinence from intoxicating liquids is not the norm for brass bands. Many bands had links with local breweries (formal or informal) or had their “band club” with bar and “refreshments”. Even some of the temperance bands slipped and had to excuse themselves from the anti-alcohol movement, or were sacked by their sponsors. I recently came across this image of “Besses Band McDuffs Society” membership card, which actively promotes the consumption of thirst-quenching drinks. Though headed “Besses Band” it appears to be a stock card from either another band’s society or a generic card, which has had the Besses title pasted on top. Nevertheless it is still a fascinating small piece of banding history.

Thirsty work – brass bands and the temperance movement in the 19th century


Most of the officers’ names are self-explanatory, giving away the spoof nature of the society. I wasn’t sure about the Chief Patrons, but a little bit of research established that Jane Cakebread was allegedly the “Drunkenest Woman in the World” – a record holder in the the Olympics of Disorderly Intoxication. That dubious distinction was based on at least 281 convictions in London for drunkenness or disorderly conduct.

Tottie Fay was another lady whose drunken outrages fascinated the public in the late 1880s – see the links below.


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Strange and head-scratching

fun10There are some pictures that make you wonder “Eh?” or “Huh?” or “WTF?” (whichever you prefer). For example, this European (possibly German) cornet player is holding a dead duck/chicken? What is the story behind this?






Following on, when our musical director states we are going to be guinea pigs for a new piece he wants to try out, you don’t immediately get a mental image like this below (or do you?). This is at the same time cute but macabre. Sadly the Victorians and Edwardians commonly placed stuffed animals in staged dioramas like this.


Similarly, when the same MD accuses the band of playing like a load of wooden-tops or robots, maybe he isn’t aware that a) researchers have been looking at automating the embouchure for brass instruments [see: “Artificial buzzing lips and brass instruments: Experimental results“], and b) automaton brass players do (or at least did) exist and might do a better job than the flesh and blood versions. Mr Maskelyne obviously made a living out of his two brass playing robots “Fanfare” and “Labial”.


There is always someone who has to go one better than everyone else. He has to have the newer car, the latest tech toys, and so on. In the brass world this manifests itself thus – though how he’s going to get that tuba into the back of a Mini….


I suspect this drum is not a marching drum – or perhaps it is? We are quite often reminded that Americans do things bigger & better (particularly in Texas) so perhaps this is for the use of one of their Texas students?


Finally, these last two defy description – clearly band members, but is it “dress down Friday”? Likely to be costumed for a carnival type event, one hopes this is not their normal appearance!





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Punishments for banding infractions were harsh in the 19th century. Rules were common, strict and often involved fines and other measures. These three cornet players had split notes during a contest, losing the band their first place. As you can see, the bandmaster is standing guard with his extended baton (shillelagh), while the local mill owner (and band sponsor) sits behind on a gravestone to ensure justice is done. Euphonium soloist George is in the background, enjoying the suffering of his colleagues who dashed his hopes of another winner’s medal for his collection.


Below is the band before the infamous split notes/stocks incident mentioned above. The band is waiting for the charabancs to convey them to the contest. As you can see, the bandmaster, in his ceremonial poncho, still wields his ritual baton (shillelagh).


[Sadly this is actually a picture of an unknown band, from an undated postcard – so if anyone recognises the location…?)

Seriously though, the first sentence above is only too true. I have previously posted about the Wylam Colliery Band, Stand Band and Dodworth’s Band School rules here, in June 2019, but I couldn’t resist this image and the “story” it conjured up!

There are many tales of bandsmen and their escapades and the resulting consequences, ranging from fines to expulsion to court cases (even death in one case when a brawl got out of hand). The rules were there to protect the band and its members (even from themselves) from inadvertent, careless or malicious acts. However I have not encountered any “punishment” meted out for bad playing!


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Oh, Listen to the Band – songs inspired by brass bands

wsAs brass bands gained in popularity, composers and arrangers naturally produced pieces to supply the ensembles with the music for their craft. It was not long before some of those pieces became arranged for solo or piano performance, sometimes with words attached. These first appeared in the 1870s through to the early 1900s.

A little later, songs were composed which featured bands, extolling the musicians’ abilities, the “sweetness” of the music, and other aspects of bands and their relation to the singer. These were particularly prevalent in the USA, mainly being produced by the talented songwriters of Tin Pan Alley in New York.

In some cases these were specifically written in relation to a particular band or band leader (e.g. the Ringgold Band, John Philip Sousa, and Helen May Butler), but in most cases they were sentimental or comic songs that found favour in the vaudeville theatres and, later, in the nation’s parlours as sheet music for piano.

Some examples from the golden age of Tin Pan Alley are given in the article below:


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Musical postcards – how to get a tune through the mail

phThe “golden age” of postcards is generally reckoned to be between 1895 and 1914. During that time their popularity increased and many different subjects were depicted on their fronts. These ranged from the purely topographical scenes of various places in Britain and overseas, to photographic representations of people, animals, events; paintings, drawings and cartoon, humorous and sentimental messages for any occasion and more. As time went on the manufacturers strove to innovate, moving from black & white to colour, from printed to photographic, using various mechanical devices to “animate” the card – e.g. having movable parts to show different parts of a picture or alternative text.

From a musical perspective there were many postcards showing various musicians, composers, singers, and musical ensembles – including brass bands – indeed in many cases these were used as promotional items by the organisations or individuals they depicted.

One type of card that appeared in the late 1890s were those that were printed with some music. This was usually a short musical phrase of a popular song or hymn with the appropriate notes and/or words. Some of these were related to brass bands, being tunes “associated” with specific bands. A few examples are given below.

A further musical card that appeared in the early 1900s in Germany, but did not become popular in Britain until the later 1920s, was the gramophone record postcard. This consisted of a single sided miniature disc record, made of celluloid, glued onto a postcard with centre hole punched through both the card and the disc. The disc material could be black, a brownish opaque or colourless translucent, and the discs originally played at 78rpm. The musical snippet recorded on the disc was usually a tune related to the broad subject of the card’s picture – e.g. “Bonnie Banks & Braes of Loch Lomond” with a picture of Pitlochry. A large number of these were produced, but few survive today.

A wide range of musical topics were included on these miniature gramophone records, but I have not found any evidence of brass bands being part of this particular musical offering, as yet!

Some examples I have found are shown in the article below:



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