This Whit-Friday found me in the pretty Southern Pennine village of Diggle, near Oldham. The one defining element of the brass band movement is tradition. Perhaps this is shown in the persistence of the brass band contest from the earliest days of the movement. In my opinion the best and most traditional of these is the Whit-Friday Contests, often billed as ‘the greatest free show on Earth’, where over one-hundred bands descend on the Southern Pennines, and the towns and villages around Saddleworth, to compete. One Guardian commentator described the ‘annual brass band battle, fought in villages on old Lancashire-Yorkshire border, [as] part Wacky Races and part Brassed Off .’
The earliest recorded contest was in 1884, together with contests in Mossley and Uppermill. These contests reflected the popularity of brass bands in the region. The Southern Pennines were readily associated with choral groups and brass bands. Many reasons were given for the high quality of musicianship in this area. One argument that became popular from the late nineteenth century, to the first decades of the twentieth, was that because the area was hilly, and because of the physical exercise involved in walking around the area, northern musicians were fitter, had better lung capacity and, therefore, a better quality of tone for singing and playing in brass bands. From 1900 onwards this argument gained currency in the brass band journals to explain why brass bands from the Pennines should be more successful than bands from other parts of the country, in particular, London, the midlands, and the south. In 1914 the British Bandsman reflected that ‘it cannot be denied that the home of the brass band is on the slopes of the Pennine chain.’
However tempting it is to subscribe to these arguments – and there is indeed a substantial area of research to be undertaken around this theme to understand the similarities, differences, regional attitudes, friendships, and antipathies between Pennine bands and bands in other areas, most notably London, and the home counties – Dave Russell rightly argues that they were somewhat fanciful, and that the real reason the area was renowned for its musical prowess was that ‘an inter-relationship of several factors operating in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries generated a climate propitious to musical endeavour.’ What were these factors? Firstly, Methodism was a powerful influence in the area, and the influence of Methodists on music is well known. Nevertheless, Methodists did not dominate local musical activity and Anglicans were also influential in the area’s early choral groups. Roman Catholic influence should also be acknowledged as, in the mid-nineteenth century, St Patrick’s church was a well-known musical centre in Huddersfield. Additionally, often under the ethos of rational recreation, the local elite supported local working-class musical groups. Music was arguably the best of all rational recreations, many Victorians believing that the performance and appreciation of music could lead to social harmony and have a refining influence upon people. Finally, as Russell argues, the development of musical life in the Pennines was helped by the flexible working patterns of people in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Textile workers largely had control over their working environment to allow for rehearsal time. The final, and perhaps most powerful elements in terms of Whit-Friday, in the growth of the popularity of music were the rivalries and competition that grew between musical groups, often expressed through competitions, in an effort to match the excellence of ‘rival’ towns. The point, however, was that by the start of the First World War the myth of the musical North had been well-established in the popular imagination.
In the months preceding the outbreak of hostilities the Whit-Friday contests were popular. The Mossley Contest attracted ‘thousands of people, who gathered around the Manchester Road to witness the bands march past’. Amongst others the contest attracted bands from the key manufacturing districts of the region: Thornhill, Ossett, Gawthorpe, Holme, Linthwaite, Saddleworth and Black Dyke were present. These bands could often be found playing in the parks and gardens in Manchester and, of course, at the annual Belle Vue Contest. (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser – Saturday 06 June 1914)
In 2016 the contests followed the same format that they had always done, and many of the bands that played could trace their history back to the nineteenth century. The bands started with a street march followed by a march played in front of an adjudicator. Many of these marches, and the bands that played them, existed in the war years. Stacksteads, Lindley, Diggle, Delph, York Railway, Slaithwaite and Marsden were all bands active in the Manchester area. These names, amongst many others, are a roll call of cultural identity throughout the long-nineteenth century.
For me, then, reflecting on the Whit-Friday contests almost a hundred years since the Mossley contest, represents a continuation of tradition that brought the industrial communities that surrounded Manchester together for a day of celebration and leisure. In terms of the music played, the crowds that attended, and the carnivalesque atmosphere of the day, little has changed since the First World War. These contests are, indeed, living history: a centre of musical performance that anchors the past with the present.