The revival of the century old Holmfirth Sing

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The Holmfirth Sing was a tradition that lasted for more than a century and now it is being revived as part of the town’s arts festival. Chris Bond finds out more.

In the late 19th century, before the days of TV and radio and when the internet wasn’t even a distant twinkle in its inventor’s eye, community singing was a popular form of entertainment.

It was also a way of bringing people together and in 1873 the Longwood Sing was born when Jabez Iredale, then secretary of the Longwood Working Men’s Club, met with a group of friends to sing outside.

They enjoyed it so much they decided to repeat this the following year, meeting early one Sunday morning so that it didn’t interfere with their work, or church attendance.

Word soon spread and other ‘Sings’ sprang up across the Holme Valley, including the Holmfirth Sing which was first held in 1882.

At the height of their popularity a couple of hundred singers would take part, accompanied by dozens of orchestral musicians belting out traditional hymns and choruses that echoed across the verdant valley.

By the late 20th century, though, most of these events fizzled out with the last Holmfirth Sing held in 1990, since when it has slipped into memory.

At least until now, that is. This month Sing Holmfirth is being held in the West Yorkshire town as part of the Holmfirth Arts Festival in a bid to revive the ‘Feast Sing’ that was held every year in Victoria Park for more than a century.

Local composer Barry Russell has been working with local choirs and singers to recreate this traditional singing event. He has teamed up with the Holme Valley Orchestra, while archivist Heather Norris Nicholson and oral history expert Charlie Wells have been talking to locals about their memories of these Sings.

Geoffrey Lockwood, a retired local teacher from New Mill, took part in many of these events over the years. “I went to my first one when I was about 10. I was singing as a boy chorister and I remember there was a huge crowd and a platform was built on the hillside that could accommodate at least a couple of hundred singers,” he says.

“For the first Holmfirth Sing in 1882 they apparently printed 3,000 programmes, so they were very big events.

“The Sings were always accompanied by local orchestral players, of which there were plenty around in those days and they would travel around to all them.”

These communal singing events were held outside if the weather was kind, though this being Yorkshire it often wasn’t.

“If it was raining the event would take place in the local church,” says Geoffrey, 67. “At Longwood a platform was created on the hillside. It faced the Colne Valley and on one occasion we could see a storm brewing.

“It was black and it was coming our way and it was obvious there was going to be a downpour but nobody did anything. I think the hope was we’d get to the end before the rain came, but we were about halfway through when the heavens opened and everyone got absolutely sodden.”

By the 1970s and 80s, though, the Sings were on the wane. “Social habits changed, fewer people went to church so there were fewer choirs and singers around.”

Geoffrey was conductor of the Holmfirth Sing when it was brought to a close. “The decision to call it a day was made because there weren’t enough orchestral players turning up and the number of singers was down to about 20.”

There have been attempts to revive the Holmfirth Sing since but none on the scale of this month’s planned performance. More than 250 people, including choirs from local schools, are taking part and Barry Russell, a composer and former teacher at Holmfirth High School, believes there’s a real appetite for this kind of communal gathering.

“A couple of years ago we did an event in a park singing pop songs and it was hugely popular so we decided this year we’d try and reintroduce the notion of a valley Sing.”

Part of the project has been to delve into their heritage and track down some of the people involved. This has unearthed a raft of old programmes, photographs and other memorabilia. “We’ve had oral historians interviewing people and writing down memories. I spoke to a gentleman the other evening and he said couldn’t remember much except that the best place to listen was from Cliff Road and that you could hear it right across the valley. So there are people who remember hearing the thrill of the valley ringing with voices.”

The plan is for the Holme Valley Orchestra, which consists of 45 musicians, to be accompanied by a mass choir of locals singing newly-written and traditional songs.

“As word of what’s happening has spread I’ve had more and more people ringing me up asking if they can take part,” says Barry.

“I’ve just been to see a singing group in Honley who heard about it and are getting involved. The more the merrier as far as I’m concerned.”

Schoolchildren have been learning about the heritage of the Sings, while locals have contributed to the lyrics of the songs, which cover everything from brass bands to the Grand Depart.

The end result is half an hour of songs that Barry says will be sung with gusto. “We’ll make a big noise and we’ll sing these songs and I’m hoping the valley will come together and make this a great big celebration of singing. We know that singing is good for our health and this is also a way of celebrating the Holme Valley.

“The whole piece starts with a big fanfare I’ve written which starts with On Ilkla’ Moor Baht ‘At and morphs into Pratty Flowers, which is the Holmfirth anthem, and then there’s an opening song called Follow the Swallow.”

The songs reflect the valley’s past and present. “There’s a song about Bamforth’s postcards 
which is quite saucy, as were the postcards, and one about the River Holme, among others.”

The singing will be punctuated by recordings of people talking about their memories of Sings from the past, that will be broadcast as part of the performance.

A lot of time and effort has gone into organising this and Barry hopes it will spark renewed interest in what is a piece of heritage that unites successive generations of families.

“It can’t just be a one-off,” he says. “We’re trying to re-establish the tradition which is why we don’t just want to remember it and then say ‘bye bye’, I’m hoping we can have this every year.”

As well bringing people together for a good old fashioned sing-along, he believes it can help promote creativity by getting locals involved in writing lyrics or music.

Some people might say times, and indeed people, have moved on and that traditions like these died out for a reason, but Barry disagrees.

“There is still a community spirit here and this is an attempt to harness it. In Holmfirth we’ve got people who go around picking up litter in their spare time, or repainting the street furniture and whenever I’ve been working away and I come back here it always feels like a nice, warm hug of a place.

“People here want Holmfirth to succeed and they want it to be a wonderful place to live and this is just providing an opportunity to show that... I think it’s going to be damn good.”

The Holmfirth Sing takes place on June 17, at 3pm in the town’s Victoria Park. For more information go to www.holmfirthartsfestival.co.uk