Bandsmen & the Rush to the Colours: September, 1914

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Horwich Old Prize Band, who took part at Belle Vue in 1914, pictured in 1916.

Bandsmen and the ‘Rush to the Colours’: The First Month of World War One: Convergences of Tradition, Class and Gender.

By Dr Stephen Etheridge, GLCM, MA, PhD

 From 1914-1915 there was a swift and unparalleled expansion of Britain’s land forces. As Peter Simkins has written, this ‘was a gigantic act of national improvisation which helped to create not only Britain’s first-ever mass citizen army but also the biggest single organisation in British history up to that time.[1] These first months of recruitment and mobilisation are the subject of this blog and the ones that follow. They describe how the editors and correspondents of band periodicals reacted to civilian bandsmen becoming soldiers. How did bandsmen react to the ‘rush to the colours’ that gripped the nation? How did the bands and bandsmen in and around Manchester react to a conflict that, due to enlistment, could have destroyed a well-established working-class cultural tradition? Answering these questions not only reflects the national picture of the brass band movement but also embraces older Victorian values that illuminate aspects of tradition, class and gender found in the brass bands of the Manchester region.

The day after Britain declared war on Germany (5 August, 1914) Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener – a national hero of the South African and Sudan campaigns – accepted the vacant post of Secretary of State for War.[2] Kitchener was one of the few people that recognised it would be a long and costly war. Kitchener argued that the existing British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of six infantry divisions and four cavalry brigades would be far too small to play an influential part in a major European conflict. He therefore decided to raise, by traditional voluntary means, a series of ‘New Armies’, each duplicating the original BEF. His first appeal for volunteers was issued on 7 August. He also permitted the part-time Territorial Force – originally intended primarily for home defence – to expand and to volunteer for active service overseas[3].

Britain in the years preceding the conflict was, despite its reputation for Liberal retrenchment in military matters, a remarkably militarised society. Joanna Bourke has noticed that at the start of the twentieth century 22 per cent of men between 17 and 40 years of age had some military service.[4] As such a belief in Empire, tradition, fair play, patriotism and service to King and country were engrained in all classes, and all these elements played their part in encouraging people to enlist.[5]. In addition, along with national pride, a vast reservoir of local solidarity could be tapped. It was the War Minister, Lord Derby, who was commonly credited with the creation of ‘Pals’ battalions, units formed of workers from a single workplace or location. Derby’s function was one of lending prestige to the battalions as the proposal was discussed in the War Office before his formal announcement on the 24 August, 1914. The effect was electric. Men joined because their ‘pals’ were joining and automatically felt a sense of belonging and identity with the battalion.[6] In all, 478,893 men joined the army between 4 August and 12 September, including 33,204 on 3 September alone – the highest daily total of the war and more than the average annual intake in the years immediately before 1914.[7] It is in this arena, in September, 1914, that we join the Manchester brass bands.

We Must Keep Going as a Movement


In September, 1914, ‘Pluto’[8] – the Manchester and District correspondent for the Brass Band News – was in a reflective mood about the future of the region’s brass bands during the coming ‘international crisis’. In spite of already losing many bandsmen to ‘the colours’; what was important was that the brass bands of the district should keep going. In many ways this call to continue was successful, as, throughout the war years, the annual ‘open’ Belle Vue contest continued, but the Crystal Palace contests did not.

The chatter in the band periodicals was the same as it had always been since the periodicals became more discursive, and not just collections of sheet music, from around the 1870s onwards. How to prepare the test piece, how to behave in public, the benefit of music to the working man and so on were  all common topics. On one hand the Brass Band News and the British Bandsman supported the war effort, on the other, and as I will explore in forthcoming blogs, these periodicals acted as an agency that anchored tradition around an annual musical event. The majority of bands in the September contest all came from the North of England, and most were from the manufacturing districts surrounding Manchester.  The Belle Vue contests, in other words, became a celebration of working-class music-making in a time of turmoil.

Belle Vue Contest Programme, 7 September, 1914. Permission from Salford University Special Collections.


The years preceding the war were what the brass band historian Arthur Taylor had called a ‘golden age for brass bands.’ [9] The years 1870-1914 were of fundamental importance in the formation of class identities through recreation and leisure. These years saw the fruition of previous trends and the emergence of a fully-formed working-class style of leisure. This period witnessed the evolution of small public houses into fully-fledged music halls, the professionalisation of sports, the emergence of the seaside holiday, and the growth of cinema.[10] In short, this era was the birth of the classic working-class leisure experience that embraced working-class attitudes and experiences.[11]It was these ‘invented’ traditions that the editorial rhetoric in band periodicals came to defend.

‘Pluto’ wrote:

Owing to the international crisis, my notes will have to be curtailed somewhat. Engagements in some cases had to be postponed, and contests also [….] several of my band acquaintances have been called to the colours, both reservists and territorials. Some of our bands have been hard hit by mobilisation, but those of us staying at home will have to see to it that the ball is kept rolling. We can help in various ways, and, in fact, we must […].[12]

Band Periodicals: Reflecting on Working-Class Masculinity and Older Traditions


In the same piece ‘Pluto’ maintained that bandsmen left behind should support the families of the men that had gone to war, writing:

As I have said and as every bandsman will know, there must be thousands of bandsmen who have gone to join their respective regiments, leaving behind wives and children. Now those of us who are left behind can perhaps do a little to help those who, for the time being, have lost the bread winner. Wherever a bandsman has gone and left his wife and kiddies his band chums may be able to guarantee a small sum towards their maintenance […]. There are hundreds and thousands whom we do not know, and to assist these bands all must parade, and often, and take collections en-route.[13]

Bandsmen were present in the respectable and the rough. For the majority of middle-class observers, bandsmen were perceived as part of the respectable working class.[14] Yet, through their use of taverns for rehearsals, playing in competitions that contained rough elements, and living and working in working-class communities they were not immune to rough behaviour. In spite of these disorderly elements- often expressed in the arena of the band contest- the bandsman in the years preceding the First World War was arguably a working man that reflected a working-class conservatism that was present in the rhetoric and comment of brass band periodicals.[15] When ‘Pluto’ refers to bandsmen as ‘chums’ the rhetoric reflects on how working-class men bonded not only in leisure activities, but also in the workplace. The editorial tone in periodicals meant this bonding had certain conditions. Bandsmen should undertake a ‘rational recreation’, they should behave well in private and in public, and they should be the respectable working class. The British Bandsman for example, wanted all bandsmen to be working-class gentlemen. when, on 1 January 1915, they reported:

It is good to be a working man, whatever the sphere of work-manual or menial; but it is not good to be only a working man. Why not be a working man and a gentleman? That is the noblest combination on earth.

When we unpack ‘Pluto’s comments what is revealed is that the editors in periodicals thought a bandsman valued his status as ‘breadwinner’ in the working-class home, moreover, it is inferred that it is a respectable home. Andrew Davies has argued that working-class masculinity in this period was defined by a man’s work, the pubs he drank in and the amount of spare money he had for himself. Bandsmen could command economic independence from the norms of factory work. If they lost their jobs they could earn money on the contest circuit.[16] Money, and the security and status it brought, was important in defining masculinity; moreover, it was important in defining a man’s ability to sustain a family life. When Black Dyke Mills toured America in 1906, it was written into the contract that the majority of their salary, which was two pounds a week, was given to their wives and partners, leaving the bandsmen with two shillings a week pocket money. This reflected a working-class experience for men of relying on their wives to manage the household.[17]

An examination of the financial records of Todmorden Old Band, in West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, reveals that they were able to supply work to bandsman and even assist when bandsmen were in financial distress. From 1899–1911 they paid R. Cunliffe a monthly salary of one pound and fifteen shillings to clean the bandroom and be the librarian.[18] In 1908, the committee paid ten shillings to a ‘distressed bandsman’.[19] These amounts paid to bandsmen were seasonal and one-off payments, and, on occasion, altruistic. They gave bandsmen an element of security when a man’s independence depended on how much spending money – or ‘spends’ – he had for himself. The economy of the working-class household was rooted in the collective earnings of father, mother and children. Jose Harris has highlighted the importance of the financial contribution of the wives and children to the household, as social surveys of the period recognised that how much the man contributed from his wages could vary wildly. Indeed, the management of the household fell to the wife, and in what were considered the more respectable households the man would hand his wages over and the wife would often give the husband his ‘spends’ after the essential items – food, bills and so on – had been budgeted for. In spite of observers disagreeing about the significance of the amounts the husband gave, one thing that all observers agreed on was that it was the wife’s skill, or ineptitude, in making ends meet that determined the comfort or neglect of working-class homes.[20]

The ‘chums, then, were expected to replace the income supplied by the respectable working man that had left to fight. Did this happen? I will write about the following months in upcoming blogs. The editors, however, wanted to defend a working-class respectability, that, in their eyes, they had created.

What is certain is that editorial rhetoric wanted the brass band movement to survive because the movement was something that had been built and ‘earned.’ It was one aspect of British life that Gerard J. DeGroot argues was a ‘restrictive cocoon of tradition’ that the British –especially the British working class- tried to defend against change.[21] Paraphrasing DeGroot, in the first months of the war, the editors of brass band periodicals felt the war would be worth fighting if it led not to a new brass band movement, but to something that was a reflection of a glorious working-class tradition worth defending.[22]


[1] Peter Simkins, ‘Voluntary Recruiting in Britain, 1914-1915’<>, accessed 6 May, 2016

[2] Simkins

[3] Simkins

[4] Joanna Bourke, Working-Class Cultures in Britain, Gender, Ethnicity and Class (London, 1994), pp. 176-177.

[5][5] For an outline of the Victorian values at play here see, Gerard J. DeGroot, Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War (Harlow, 1996), pp. 1-13.

[6] Paul Simkins, Kitchener’s Army: The Raising of New Armies, 1914-1916 (Manchester, 1988). p.86.

[7] Simkins, Voluntary Recruiting’’

[8] It is worth noting that band periodicals’ correspondents were usually editorial constructions, using made-up names. The British Bandsman had other correspondents who had pen-names such as ‘Midlandite’, ‘Shoddythorpe’ and ‘Slow Worm’.

[9] Arthur R. Taylor, Brass Bands (St Albans and London, 1979), p. 211.

[10] Martin Childs, Labour’s Apprentices: Working-Class Lads in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (Belfast, 1992), p. 143.

[11] See Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Making of the Working Class, 1870-1914’, in Eric Hobsbawm, Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz (London, 1998, this edition, 1999), pp. 78-99.

[12] Brass Band News (1 September, 1914), p. 4.

[13] Brass Band News, p. 4.

[14] Dave Russell argues that the popular music societies of the West Riding were conservative in nature, embracing self-respect and class collaboration; “The Popular Music Societies of the Yorkshire Textile District: A Study of the Relationship between Music and Society” (PhD diss., University of York, 1979),p. 5.

[15] For a longer discussion of the arguments surrounding this see, Stephen Etheridge, ‘Music as a Lifelong Pursuit for Bandsmen in the Southern Pennines, ca.1840–1914: Reflections on Working-Class Masculinity’, in Lisa Colton and Catherine Howarth (Eds.) Gender, Age and Musical Creativity (Farnham, 2015), pp.83-100.

[16] From the 1880s onwards there were a growing number of players, trainers and conductors linked with the ‘crack’ bands that were professional in all but name. This professionalisation should not be confused with the fact that the majority of bands were composed of working-class men that undertook ‘banding’ as a hobby.

[17] Queensbury Historical Society, Legal Agreement, regarding the Canadian and American tour of 1906 (1 June 1906),p. 2.

[18] Todmorden Old Brass Band Ledger Books (June 1897–March 1912), held by Todmorden Community Brass Band, Wellington Street, Todmorden.

[19] Todmorden Old Brass Band Ledger Books (9 June 1908).

[20] Jose Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870–1914 (London, 1994), pp. 72–3.

[21] DeGroot, Blighty, p.13.

[22] DeGroot, Blighty, p.13

3 thoughts on “Bandsmen & the Rush to the Colours: September, 1914

  1. Fantastic research …….. I will send you more content from the Besses archives in case it is something that you can use ………. especially the 1905 Entente Cordialle Tour of France

    Liked by 1 person

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