Music of discipline and reform – the bands of children’s orphanages, industrial schools and asylums

elFrom the early 17th century through to WW2, at least, large numbers of institutions were established to provide for various segments of society which did not fit into “normal” life. These included orphans, the sick, criminals the destitute, paupers, and those, that today, we would refer to as physically and mentally handicapped.

Through various local and national initiatives and laws the workhouses, poor law unions, asylums and prisons were established to house and, hopefully, reform or rehabilitate their inmates.

Workhouses, prisons, lunatic asylums, orphanages, and “industrial schools” were just some of these institutions. Some were operated by the state, others by local organisations established by or sanctioned by the state in some cases. Charitable, philanthropic and religious organisations also set up home for orphans and the poor. They were variously funded by local taxes, parent organisations (e.g. the Church), rich sponsors, grants and their own fund raising.

Some elements of treatment and/or education were undertaken to prepare the inmates for their eventual release either back into society or, in the case of children, to make their own way in the adult world.

Brass and other bands were often set up to help educate the children (mainly boys it has to be said), to provide another aspect of discipline, recreation and also, potentially, to give access to a musical career once they left the school. A useful by product at times were fees collected by performances of the bands, which helped the homes’ finances. Other such institutions which had bands included Training Ships, Industrial Homes, Ragged Schools and Reformatory Schools. These catered for “delinquents” as well as orphans.

Similarly, bands were established in some of the adult institutions, to help with discipline, provide entertainment and raise some funds for the institution.

Bandmasters held salaried appointments at the institutions, often responsible for other duties as well as the musical tuition and training. These duties could include teaching (appropriate subjects for the children in “care”), fund raising, maintenance of the buildings and more. On occasions the institution engaged an external musical tutor, instead of a full time in-house bandmaster, usually one with a connection to other bands in the locality.

A descriptive list of such bands is provided in my article “Music of discipline and reform” available from:

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Climb every mountain …

In August 1858, 12 men, including 7 members of the Yreka Brass Band (John Murray, leader; I.G. Murray, W.I. Mayfield, John Garner, A.J. Starling and Louis Detarre) walked to (50 miles or so) and then ascended Mt Shasta, California, with their instruments, playing “Hail Columbia” and other patriotic tunes on the summit at a height of 16,700 feet. The trip, there and back, took three days. Not something the bands of today would take on easily! The picture below is of another, unknown, mountaineering band, c.1870 on Lookout Mountain (a mere 2,389 feet high) on the Georgia/Tennessee border.

For the full story, see: Ascent of the Butte [Chronicling America]


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Unknown bandsmen

There are thousands of photographs of bandsmen, and the occasional bandswoman, that are sadly totally anonymous. Most have no identifying features, either on their uniforms, instruments or the backgrounds, and only a chance comparison with another known picture can give a name. Sometimes a cap badge or other detail gives a clue, but even then it is usually not sufficient to identify the individual. Very few bands (current or extinct) have lists of their historical players to assist in this process, even should you be able to name the band. Here is a selection of British bandsmen, covering most areas of the brass band, and all unknown apart from the last one – Edward Taylor of Barton Hall Band – in a photo that dates from the late 1940’s.





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Bum Notes – a look at some brassy raspberries

I came across the first of these images “Our Prize Band” many years ago, and largely dismissed it as a humorous postcard, poking fun at bands, since then I have seen two other versions, in French and German, so the original image was clearly re-purposed for at least two alternative markets. Then came the series of French “brass-windy” satirical postcards from the Russo-Japanese war, poking fun mainly at the Japanese troops, but also not above ridiculing their allies, the Russians. The article below goes into more detail about these and some others.

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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:


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