The story behind brass bands and why they are still going strong today

It is 25 years since Brassed Off, starring Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald and Ewan McGregor, became a box office hit.

Archivist Michaela Senkova with some of the collection. (Simon Hulme).
Archivist Michaela Senkova with some of the collection. (Simon Hulme).

The film’s success propelled the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, which provided the soundtrack, to global fame. But if you want to know more about the real story of brass bands, the archives held by Brass Band England (BBE) is the place to go. The National Brass Band Archive contains an array of instruments, uniforms, and trophies, and more than 8,000 sets of music, including every piece of music played at the British Open since it began in 1853.

Born out of the collection of North-West bandsman Walter Ainscough, it was previously housed above a funeral director’s business in Wigan. It came into BBE’s custodianship three years ago when it was moved to Barnsley and is now in the process of being transferred to a permanent home at the University of Huddersfield where members of the public will be able to access it.

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Archivist Michaela Senkova has been recording and collating the material ahead of the move. Among the memorabilia she discovered were old adverts and articles from bands appealing for musicians to join them. “Back at the beginning of the 20th century there were adverts looking for good bandsmen. It was men only, there were no women, and they had to be of ‘good character’ and a certain age, about 30,” she says.

The Yorkshire Brass Band Championships held at St George's Hall, Bradford, in 2016. (James Hardisty).

These days that kind of sexism thankfully doesn’t exist. “A great example of the change within brass bands is the way that women now take part,” says Alex Parker, relationship and partnership development manager at BBE. “There’s a competition called UniBrass that I’m involved with, which is an inter-university band competition, and more than half of those taking part are women, and that shows things have changed.”

Among the cups held in the archive is the Oswald Mosley Trophy – donated by the infamous British fascist and his party, for brass bands across England.

“They would have put in money to make up a prize and it’s part of what this collection is about. It reflects that cultural history that brass bands sit alongside,” says Alex.

The story of what are regarded as “proper” brass bands started in the mid-19th century. “Before then you had military bands, but the first true brass bands started in the 1840s,” says Kenny Crookston, BBE’s chief executive. “The M62 corridor, as we recognise it today, would have been the centre of the brass band universe for more than a hundred years.”

The brass band archive has an impressive collection of music sets, instruments, uniforms and programmes. (Simon Hulme).

Brass bands have become synonymous with Northern industrial towns, but it wasn’t only coal-mining communities where they played an important role in people’s lives. “Yes, coal mining bands are the most famous, but there were also mills, aviation works and coach builders. They all had them,” says Alex.

The instruments themselves were cleverly designed. “All the instruments are either in an E-flat or a B-flat key which means that as you go through them you’re always reading the same notes so people can transfer instruments relatively easily. So if you don’t have a tuba player in your village someone can move onto that instrument and pick it up quite quickly. It became a flexible way of making music. Which is what it’s all about – making music as a community.”

In the early years, brass band competitions between towns and villages were the musical equivalent of local derbies with the victor winning the bragging rights.

It was the growth of the railways, though, that really saw competitions between bands take off. “Brass bands were the first groups to have special railway excursions to competitions in London or Manchester,” says Kenny.

“It was a big day out because this was before you had organised football. If your village or town had the champion band it was seen as a great honour.”

Many of the factory and big business owners quickly cottoned on to the benefits of sponsoring, or creating, a brass band for their workers.

“When you think of the working conditions that a lot of people endured in this part of the world, a lot of mills, factories and coal mines, they were pretty horrible,” says Kenny. “So it was good to have something that helped their breathing, plus it kept them out of the pubs and gave them a bit of culture in their lives.”

A few bands have gone on to become famous through their success in competitions, and Yorkshire is home to several whose names are recognised around the world – including the Black Dyke Band and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.

Some of the great composers of their day, the likes of Edward Elgar, Percy Fletcher and Vaughan Williams, wrote music for brass bands. “In the early days it was the popular music of its time,” says Kenny.

By the 1980s, though, the colliery bands had begun to wane as the pits started closing and it was a similar story with other traditional industries. “They no longer had the resources to put into a brass band and a lot of the bands folded. There was a period of decline, but if you ask people in the community now they are excited by the future,” Alex says.

When people think of brass bands they tend to think of the music from the old Hovis adverts, but it’s an outdated image. “It’s one of the most versatile forms of music. I’ve played acid house music at a rock festival in France in a brass band,” says Kenny. “You can start out playing in a brass band in Bradford and end up playing with the Royal Philharmonic, as has happened.”

Around 30,000 people are either playing in, or involved with, brass bands in Britain today. “The numbers are growing and in areas where you might not think, like London and the South-East, not the traditional brass band areas,” says Alex. Internationally they are on the rise, too. “Brass bands are actually one of our great British exports and are being picked up in countries that are developing brass band cultures.”

During the pandemic BBE launched Brass Foundations, part of the Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund, with a small team of brass band music specialists visiting schools to help them connect with local community groups and also teach youngsters how to play an instrument. “Getting kids to engage with this will have so many positives,” adds Alex.

So why are brass bands still important? “You make friends and you’re doing something that occupies your time and gives you something you can realistically achieve.”

Kenny agrees. “It’s the life skills it gives you. You meet every type of person and there have been scientific studies at Sheffield University that show that being in a brass band is good for your mental health.”

It’s the opportunities it can offer, too. “People like myself, who grew up in a working class family in a former mining village, can find themselves playing in the Royal Albert Hall more times than Frank Sinatra, or playing The Last Post in front of the Cenotaph. There are very few other pastimes that can match that.”

To find out more about brass bands go to https://www.bbe.org.uk/