Women at Brass Band Contests in the First Year of World War One: Challenging a Traditional Homosocial Arena

Women at Brass Band Contests in the First Year of World War One: Challenging a Traditional Homosocial Arena[1]

Dr Stephen Etheridge: Follow me on Twitter, @DrGtrombone


Belle Vue Contest Programme, 1914: Permission, Salford University Archives & Special Collections


The brass band contest was a popular and male dominated working-class leisure pursuit. Contests were well-established in the industrial areas surrounding Manchester by the 1840s,[2] and, by the time of  the first Belle Vue Contests, they had become, in the bandsmens’ minds at least, a place where working-class men could push the boundaries of their (encouraged) respectability when taking part in music as ‘rational recreation’.

It was not uncommon for reporters to highlight the more bawdy and drink-fuelled elements of the brass band contest as an example of working-class leisure. As a result brass band periodical editors countered this reportage with denial; explaining that the rougher elements – who were always and without fail admonished by the editorial – were in the minority and middle-class editors were at pains to point out that the majority of working-class bandsmen were ‘gentlemen.’ Nevertheless, as Peter Bailey recognized, in this period the consumption of alcohol, with certain exceptions, became less of a total experience and more of a social lubricant.[3] Drinking and making noise seemed natural accompaniments to popular recreation and bandsmen were not immune to them.[4]

One of the first accounts of bandsmen drinking to excess in the Manchester brass band region comes from the Accrington Times in 1875. The paper featured a poem about the behaviour of bandsmen from Church Brass Band, near Accrington, after losing a contest at Rishton. Its tale of the whole band falling in the Leeds and Liverpool Canal because of drunkenness is probably an exaggeration but what the poem shows is that local contests were places where excess and working-class ‘roughness’ existed. Moreover, locally, these habits were a source of gentle humour and not condemnation, the poet wrote:

 Church Band, nowt, Oh! What a fall! For men at top o’th’ tree, un when they roll’d daon on to th’ floor, my word there were a spree, they hardly knew, mon, wheer they were. Aw, yeard a fellow tell […] as they were going home that neet, they tumbled in t’canal.[5]


This blog explores how women came to be significant agents in the support of the brass band and, by 1914-1915, had usurped the masculine-dominated environment of the contest. As always it is relevant to take account of the preceding war years to understand 1914 fully.  Women had been organizing themselves into significant groups for political change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jon Lawrence highlights the prominent role of The Women’s Labour League and the Cooperative Women’s Guild had in the support of the 1913 ‘bottom dog’ London dock strikes, by organizing food aid and rudimentary health care.[6] On the right, the Primrose League believed it had a special mission to defend the family, and in particular working-class families, from the unwarranted intrusions of an increasingly interventionist state. They formed in 1883 as the Conservative Party’s attempts to democratize the party by broadening its base of support and reforming its organization.[7] Significantly they encouraged the involvement of women. It is now accepted that, together with its counterpart, the Women’s Liberal Federation, they led the way for women to become involved in party politics when direct routes were closed.

Therefore, the strong role of women in these political organizations gave women the ability to form organizational groups in a masculine environment. Within these groups, notable roles were event management and fundraising. Not only did bands’ ladies’ committees organize and fundraise but also they changed the nature of masculinity by engaging with the stronghold of brass band masculinity: the contest. The arenas where bandsmen gathered were no longer wholly homosocial but became spaces where, through womens’ influence, the domestic, and thereby respectable, notion of the working-class man began to encroach on the rougher masculine space. Anna Clark has argued that it was the gendered construction of manhood and womanhood in the social arena that constructed an analysis of class.[8] Therefore, as women entered the homosocial sphere of bandsmen their masculinity contributed to an overall class identity.

Accounts of ladies’ committees are sparse, yet the accounts are significant.[9] Brass bands came with a wide range of expenses and raising money was always one of the main activities. The Brass Band News recognized women as being the best at selling tickets to raise funds, reporting on 1 December 1901:

Ask the ladies to organize a tea, and they will give what they can, and beg borrow or steal (figuratively speaking) all the rest. Moreover, they can sell tickets when a man would have no chance. A grocer in a Lancashire village once told us that in one of these ladies teas he gave a ham towards the feed, and then the lady he gave it to asked him to take half-a-dozen tickets, although she knew he could not go. Get the ladies interested in the band, and in what it wants and half the battle is over. Mr H. Clegg of Birstall Old Band [in the West Riding of Yorkshire] mentions their own band in point, he says, “the ladies gave a tea […], and the funds benefited by about £5.”

In September 1901, Bacup Change Band, in Lancashire’s Rossendale Valley, held a ‘British Empire Bazaar’. The Rossendale Free Press reported that ‘the object of [the bazaar was] to raise about £200 with which to pay for uniforms, and to form a nucleus for tuition and instruments’. The bazaar stalls ‘were laden with a variety of useful and fancy goods, tastefully arranged’. There were at least eleven stallholders. Fundraising committees demonstrated the extent of the support shown by the wives, partners and female relatives of the band members, but also, the women had become part of the band by organizing themselves into a ladies’ committee, a formal structure that represented the band outside musical performance. Ladies’ committees became essential in negotiating, arranging and supporting ways of raising finance for bands. Women, as The Cornet illustrated, could bring the band to the attention of the public in arenas to which bandsmen could not, or, as The Cornet (14 January 1899), pointed out would not want to have access.

By 1914, it was clear that women were an important element in the social networks of brass bands so much they had become the subject of columns in the British Bandsman, highlighting the difference in gender roles at this point in band history. In 1914, The British Bandsman featured a column called ‘A Little Gossip: written by a bandsman’s wife’. A fictional column written in a humorous style, it nevertheless shows the importance of bands’ support networks. Reflecting the needs of Bacup Change Brass Band, and others, the importance for these women was to raise funds for instruments. The character, Mrs Quickstep, said in the column dated 17 January 1914:

The band got a new set of instruments, and like everything else they could not pay for them […]. The members suggested they get up a bazaar […]. Twenty women promised to do all they could to make the bazaar a success. The things we made would have stocked the Co-operative store: mats, carpets shirts, blouses, fancy cushions, tea cosies […]. I couldn’t tell you one quarter of the work we did.

Moreover, what emerged was that women were not content with their roles as fundraisers but wanted more recognition as organizers. On 23 May 1914, in A Little Gossip, Mr Jones read aloud to his wife from a newspaper report that featured him being such a fine band secretary, saying he was ‘a born leader, a remarkable organizer, and was one who was untiring in his efforts on behalf of the band’. Mrs Jones replied to her husband that ‘it’s a good job for you that I’m not [in the band], or I’d let them in for a peep behind the scenes.’ When he asked what she meant? Mrs Jones said:

I mean those who think you do all the work. How long would you keep the position if I didn’t help you? You’d often be in arrears in your work, if you had to do it yourself. Who sold the most tickets for your concert? Who made the most articles for the bazaar? Who does all the work when you show your hospitality to the “roamers” who come here? Who mends the uniforms damaged by careless bandsmen? [Raising her voice] Who takes care of the instruments when bandsmen leave the band? Who canvassed the women-folk when you wanted their help? Who did the cooking for the band supper? Not the Secretary? Oh no. He gets all the honour but where would he be without his wife?

Nevertheless, the essential nature of the brass band movement was to perform music and it was the band contest that was prominent in the region. Naturally competitions attracted elements of the respectable, the romantic and the rough. In other words, the milieu of community life was concentrated in one relatively small space.[10] This aspect was illustrated by one trombone player’s experience with Shipley band, after a competition in 1882, when his trombone was stolen. Indeed, these were places not just for musical competition but where the bands’ larger social networks could begin. The band wrote to The Yorkshireman on 7 January 1882, saying:

One of our band chaps got fresh on Saturday night, and while he wor doing a bit of sly courting, he put his trombone on a wall, and a chap wor peeping, and when he wor telling woman how hard he loved her, this other chap ran off with his play. Please warn all pop shops not to pop it.

This mixed-sex environment meant that the bandsman moved away from purely homo-social environments and, as we have seen, became reliant on partners for support. It was inevitable that these new social networks would weaken the homosocial dominance of the bands’ environment. By 1914 some women were clearly expecting to be part of the contest day. In 1914 Mrs Quickstep and Mrs Newman felt the need to speak out about the male-dominated contests. What is shown was that the contest was not only a homosocial space but also a space that was defended by men. In a time when gender roles were changing, the brass band movement saw working men cling to traditional spaces where masculinity thrived. Mrs Quickstep said:

Women are not wanted at brass band contests; at least, that’s how I felt about it. There were only about a dozen women in the hall, and every one of them looked uncomfortable. When I went in several men stared at me as though I was in the wrong place, and although I felt as a fish out of water, I intended to hear the contest through.[11]

Mrs Newman replied:

It seems strange they don’t encourage women to go. It’s about the only musical organisation that squeezes us out[…].All other forms of art and amusement give us a welcome, but bandsmen seem so self-centred, they have no time to give a thought to women folk[…].Some men seem to think the only possible way to be a good bandsman is to neglect home and everything else. If they would visit the free libraries more often and give the pubs a miss, now and then, it would do them the power of good.[12]


One bandsman wrote to the British Bandsman saying: ‘“Missus” had been spouting again, now she wants to go to band contests – the very idea! Why the bandroom and the contest field were the only places on earth where a bandsman is comparatively safe from feminine interference.’ [13] The reply from the Bandsman’s Parliament in the British Bandsman sympathized. The reply revealed that bands had become not only reliant on networks of women but this reliance could improve the band movement’s status in the eyes of the world.[14] What was important was that the bandsmen were seen to be moving away from being rough working-class men. Hence, the editorial comment of the British Bandsman, and the beliefs of bandsmens’ peers, also strengthened the notion of the working-class man as at their best when under the influence of the wider social networks, which meant moderation, respectability and a level of sobriety. They wrote:

The member for Queensbury [Bradford] thought the honourable member was taking an extreme view on the matter. There was one thing he would always give the ladies credit for. He thought they were able to go to a contest and keep right in their heads, and that’s what a lot of band chaps couldn’t do. He thought they would keep sober, and their husbands too, probably […]. He thought their influence would refine us, and some of us could do with it, and be the means of elevating our social status in the eyes of the world.[15]

For the brass band movement, then, 1914 was a watershed year. The largely homosocial space of the brass band contest had become a place where bandsmen – if perhaps grudgingly – welcomed women. In the preceding years of World War One women had become vital members of brass bands support networks. By the outbreak of war they had strengthed their position as organizers and negotiators in a highly visible working-class leisure pursuit. Following blogs will reveal if they sustained this role.

References and Notes:

[1] Elements of this blog were first published in Stephen Etheridge, ‘Masculinity as a Lifelong Pursuit for Bandsmen in the Southern Pennines, c. 1840-1914: Reflections on Working-Class Masculinity in Lisa Colton and Catherine Haworth (Eds.) Gender, Age and Musical Creativity (Ashgate: Farnham, 2015) pp. 83-100.

[2] See, for example, reports of local contests in the Rossendale Free Press, c. 1840-1850. Writing in 1901, Good Words reported that [northern] ‘brass band contests evoked white-heat enthusiasm in local people; they were important factors in the social life of the people, thousands of people took the keenest interest in them.

[3] Peter Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England, Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830–1885 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 174.

 [5] Accrington Times (5 June, 1875)

[6] Jon Lawrence, Speaking for the People Party, Language and Popular Politics in England, 1867-1914 (Cambridge, 1998), p. 157.

[7] Chris Cook, The Routledge Companion to Britain in the Nineteenth Century, 1815-1914 (Abingdon, 2005), p. 301.

[8] Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches, Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (London, 1995), p. 2.

[9] One of the first accounts of women organizing themselves into a group dedicated to helping a band was in the industrial north, when the Ladies’ Committee of Upper Slaithwaite Brass Band arranged a cricket match between themselves and the Ladies Committee of Slaithwaite Cricket Club, where, during and after the match, the band supplied music, there was a tea, and dancing carried on late into the night (The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, 30 August 1899).

[10] On the morning of the 1893 Belle Vue Competition, train excursions from Bacup were packed with people and most of the mills were obliged to stop. Two special trains were run, with local bookings as follows: Bacup 1093, Stacksteads 200, Newchurch 519, Rawtenstall 323. Isaac Leech, Reminisces of The Bacup Old Band, Which Appeared in the Columns of the Bacup Times in 1893 (Bacup: L. J. Priestley, 1893), 59–60.

[11] British Bandsman (28 February, 1914), p. 178.

[12] British Bandsman (28 February, 1914), p. 178.

[13] British Bandsman (7 March, 1914), p. 206.

[14] The Bandsman’s Parliament was an occasional column that ran in the British Bandsman from 1912 onwards. It was a space where bandsmen could write in to a group of experts asking questions about all aspects of brass band life.

[15] British Bandsman (7 March, 1914), p. 206.

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