John Robert Fielden: Soldier, Bandsman or Quarryman? Questions of Working-Class Identity in the Rossendale Valley

John Robert Fielden: Soldier, Bandsman or Quarryman? Questions of Working-Class Identity in the Rossendale Valley

Dr Stephen Etheridge

Private John Robert Fielden (1882-1916) S/13191 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders




John Robert Fielden was born in 1882 in Blackwood, near Stacksteads, in East Lancashire’s Rossendale Valley. He was the only son of James and Eliza Fielden[1] He was a pupil at Waterbarn Baptist School, where he took an interest in music.[2] Being interested in instrumental music he was for a long time associated with the Bacup Change Brass Band, and for some years held the post of secretary. He was employed as a quarryman at Rakehead Quarries in Rossendale up to October 1915. In 1908; he married Clara Wood, from Bacup, and lived at Queen’s Terrace. In 1915 he was one of the last employees to leave the quarries of Messers Lovick and Sons, and, via various regimental transfers, he served as a signaller with the 1st Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. In 1916 they took part in the Actions of The Bluff and St Eloi Craters then moved to The Somme for The Battle of Albert. He died of leg-wounds inflicted from machine gun fire on the 26 August, 1916 and is buried at Abbeville Communal Cemetery (Reg V.A. 17) [3]

Outside his burial details that is the basic obituary that was printed in the Rossendale Free Press. Yet there is more to this Baptist, bandsman, quarryman and soldier who, up to his enlistment in the armed forces, lived his life in the Rossendale Valley. The newspaper obituary opens up questions of class and status. An examination of Fielden’s life lets us understand the nature of the working-class bandsmen that came in their hundreds to take part in the Belle Vue Brass Band Contests in Manchester.Dave Russell considers that, ‘the brass band represents one of the most remarkable working-class cultural achievements in European history.’ When we understand the working-class nature of Fielden’s networks then we begin to understand something of the nature of brass bands and the roots of this cultural achievement. Moreover, we glimpse that men like Fielden cannot just be classed as Sunday school scholars, quarrymen, bandsmen or soldiers. Their working-class lives were more subtle and nuanced than any single categorisation of class can define.

The Town of Bacup: A ‘Classic’ Industrial Community

Fielden spent his adult life in Bacup. Bacup lies in East Lancashire’s Rossendale Valley, close to the border with the West Riding of Yorkshire. In this era it was typical of the Southern Pennine towns that grew with industrialisation. In 1851 Bacup had a population of, 10,315; in 1861, 10,935; in 1871, 17,199; in 1881, 25,034 and, in 1891, the population was 23,498.[4] Cotton weaving was the dominant industry in Lancashire, but the hills around Bacup and Haslingden had a considerable number of coal and lead mines together with numerous quarrying concerns. In addition employers who specialised in footwear production and brick making had an important presence in the Rossendale Valley.[5] The stone from Rossendale Quarries was used to pave many of the larger cities. Between Bury and Rawtenstall, for example, there were thirty working quarries.[6]

The town had all the institutions that made a community: churches, chapels, sports teams, pubs, political clubs and schools, as well as a significant number of musical groups that were common to most towns in the region. From 1840 onwards Bacup had a brass band, a choral society, a hand-bell ringing group and an orchestral society.[7] In addition Bacup was the headquarters of the Rossendale Branch of the Lancashire Association of Campanologists.[8]

There should be a warning, though, before launching into notions of industrial communities. The term ‘community’ can used to overemphasise certain aspects of normal day-to-day existence. The social commentator Beartrice Webb’s visits to Bacup, for example, highlighted that community life could be edited to reflect the commentator’s view of what they thought a community should be. Webb’s first visit in 1883 was followed by visits in 1886 and 1889.[9] She felt that Bacup was still part of an old and traditional world, she wrote:

It knows nothing of the complexities of modern life […] its daily existence likens the handloom village of a century ago. They are content with the doings of their little town-and say that even in Manchester they feel oppressed and not ‘homely like’. [10]

Webb’s homely descriptions of Bacup are its weakness. She visited the town with preconceived notions that working-class life revolved around the pivotal points of factory, Co-op and chapel.[11] Webb did not comment on the proletarian culture of Bacup. In 1887 Rossendale had 212 public houses, and twelve of these were close to her lodgings. The month when she first visited saw six cases of drunk and disorderly, two cases of public brawling, an alleged assault on a publican, and one case of drunk in charge of a horse brought before the Police Court.[12] Neighbourhoods, then, held conflicting images of respectability and roughness, tensions often spilling over into violence that reached the court.[13] Historians should be prudent about reminiscences about the positive and rose-tinted recollections that surround certain aspects of community life.

Nevertheless, this was the town where Fielden lived his days. Bacup was what many commentators felt was the ‘classic’ industrial town. As Patrick Joyce has argued ‘the manufacturing districts of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire were the cradle of factory production, and it is to them that posterity has looked in seeking to discern the nature of the class structure to which the new system of manufacture gave rise.’[14] As Joyce explains, ‘the now unsmoking chimneys of the factory towns had dominated not only the physical but the mental landscape [of Fielden’s] years to an extent that is now difficult to realise.’[15] In other words, in spite of the subtle and elusive class networks that made up a community, the networks in which Fielden existed were unquestionably working class.

Fielden’s Baptist Education

Fielden was a scholar at Waterbarn Baptist School. In 1838 a preaching room was opened at Waterbarn, by the year 1846 it was decided to build a chapel at Waterbarn, £500 being promised at one meeting held at Irwell Terrace Baptist Chapel for the purpose. The total cost of the chapel was £1,900 and in 1848 the Orchard Hill Chapel was opened. For eight years the Orchard Hill Church congregation worshiped in the one storey meeting house. At the beginning there was just a handful of people and only 40 children in the Sunday school. Once a fortnight Thomas Dawson came from Bacup to conduct a service. The alternate week being filled by a prayer meeting and on Sundays they held a school in the morning and afternoon, and a service in the evening. It became an urgent matter to enlarge the site as the meetings were regularly oversubscribed. The total cost of improvement and expansion was close to £2,000 and the first services in the new building were held on Christmas Day 1847.[16]

James Cox was a printer and book seller who came to Stacksteads from Haddenham in Cambridge around 1848. Cox believed in education for poor people.  He started a day school at Waterbarn which lasted for twenty-five years. Cox was also a superintendent in the Sunday school, and for thirty years he was secretary of the Rossendale Sunday School Union, and an ardent Temperance Reformer. In 1857 Waterbarn broke away from its mother church, Irwell Baptist, and, in 1868, a new enlarged chapel was opened; with a large two storied school having been built behind the church. John Howe’s successor was the Reverend S.R. Aldridge, who had just concluded his ministry at West Street, Rochdale. Aldridge resigned in 1894 and the church was without a minister until 1897, when the Reverend  Alfred Stock was appointed. During his ministry the church continued with 317 members and 650 pupils in the Sunday school taught by sixty-four teachers taking lessons in turn. The day school was taken over by the Bacup School Board in 1893. In 1898 the Sunday school was graded into three departments Primary, Junior and Senior. [17]

E. P Thompson was critical of the role of Sunday schools in the early industrial era. Thompson thought they ‘indoctrinated the child’ ‘The evangelical Sunday schools’ Thompson wrote, ‘were ever-active, although it is difficult to know how far their activities may be rightly designated as ‘educational’’.[18] After lengthy arguments surrounding discipline and indoctrination Thompson writes ‘despite all the platitudes repeated in most textbooks as to the ‘educational initiatives’ of the Churches at this time, the Sunday schools were a dreadful exchange for the village dame’s schools’.[19] Ever the advocate for the ‘weaver poet’ Thompson saw Sunday schools as replacing a patchy but useful and somewhat natural history based education with an evangelical function to rescue the children of the poor. Thompson argued that ‘the child […] was subject to the worst kind of emotional bullying to confess his sins and come to a sense of salvation.’[20]

Yet, in the later Victorian period, when Fielden would have attended Waterbarn, Patrick Joyce has argued that the schools were ‘rightly called the working-class part of religion in this period.’[21]  When we consider that Fielden ‘took an interest in instrumental music’ and later became a bandsman the nature of the school becomes central in the debates surrounding the provision of rational recreations to the working classes in this period. From the 1860s onwards the towns in the Southern Pennines had high numbers of children that attended Sunday schools. Significantly the Sunday school was inexorably linked with work. A correspondent in the Morning Chronicle in mid-century considered the factory to be the ‘soil of the Sunday school system’.[22] Regional employers viewed Sunday schools as ‘the grand moving cause of the improved moral and religious condition of the people [….]  And does not the experience of every manufacturer testify to the truth of this eulogy […] Those workmen and workwomen who are the  most sober, steady respectable and intelligent either have been, or still are, connected  with the Sunday schools.[23]

As Joyce highlights the most ‘sober’ and ‘respectable’ products of these schools were most likely the teachers, the bible class members and perhaps some of the upper-class members. Sobriety and respectability were at the heart of the schools’ ideological rationale: ‘Which’, as Joyce states, ‘was anyway more theological than moral’.[24] For the great majority, and most likely for Fielden, the school worked in a different fashion; and that was one of sociability, with a result of increasing and developing working-class social networks.

In the later nineteenth century the schools became genuinely popular institutions. Joyce maintains that attachment to the school would have ‘formed part of the nexus of allegiance defining the feeling of local community.’[25] Sunday school marches regularly passed by the houses of local notables and employers. School treats often involved visits to the employers’ houses for picnics, teas and the like. ‘The rich feeding the poor when you come down to it.’ Finally, there were many excursions to the countryside and places of [educational] interest.[26] The schools added to a sense of industrialised neighbourhood. Fielden’s childhood school not only developed his musical interests, but also gave him a sense of place, if not a place in the world.

Fielden the Quarryman

The sociological dilemmas behind the notion of class are not easily solved. Yet if one accepts that social class is determined largely by occupation, and that the working class may be identified by its dependence upon manual labour, then, in 1851, some thirty years before Fielden’s birth, the working-class population of Britain was 16.2 million, out of a population of 20.9 million.  In the 1870s the number was 20.3 million, out of a total population of 26.2 million.[27] When Fielden was working it was accepted that nearly four-fifths of the population engaged in, or supported, by manual labour.[28] In its simplest terms Fielden was part of an expanding working class that defined themselves by their labour.

It could be argued that as a quarryman, and outside of mining, Fielden was the epitome of the labouring class who did heavy labour. He was employed at the Rakehead Quarry above Stacksteads. It is unclear if he was skilled or unskilled. In spite of this the newspaper notes that he was a long-serving employee. The quarries of Rossendale employed around 3,000 workers. Their jackets and trousers were made of heavy corduroy or moleskin and their boots, and often clogs, were shod with iron. They worked with hand tools in the open moorland with no safety equipment, using only hammers, picks, crow bars and sledge hammers forcing the stone from the rock beds, because of the way rock was hoisted it was also a dangerous environment with many accidents, some fatal. Silicosis was also common[29]

Workers were paid by how many yards they could produce and they worked in all weathers. It was only during the coldest winters when they couldn’t work because the rock was difficult to get and shape they received no pay. Whether you worked as a Navvie, a rock getter, a mason, steam engine driver, crane driver or blacksmith, once the snow had fallen, work was suspended until it thawed and this would often lead to hardship for the families of quarrymen. In 1907, a year before Fielden married, soup kitchens at the Liberal and Beaconsfield clubs were set up to distribute soup and hot dinners to the out of work quarrymen and their families. The men had been unable to work because of the frost for six weeks. [30]

Many quarrymen were known to be tough and coarse, and were renowned as heavy drinkers. In spite of any inherent roughness in Fielden’s working conditions, and employment networks, his activities as a bandsman suggest he was, at least on his own terms, respectable.

Fielden the Bandsman

Fielden was a long-time bandsman with Bacup Change Brass Band. This, as the Rossendale Free Press stated was a direct result of his ‘interest in instrumental music at school’. It is unknown what instrument he played but again the Rossendale Free Press gives us a clue when they wrote that he was ‘a strongly built young man.’ This suggests that he played one of the ‘heavy brass.’ Great attention was paid to the health of bandsmen and much  was written on the importance of physical strength and fitness. The larger the instrument the more ‘puff’ was required. This requirement was commented on by journals and magazines in the later nineteenth century as brass band contests became popular. A correspondent for the Boys Own Paper, for example, writing in June 1888, advised a young man that if he had weak lungs he should not learn the cornet without permission from a doctor. [31] These notions always held currency in the brass band press. In 1909, for example, S. Cope wrote an article in the British Bandsman in his column, ‘The Bandsman’s Aid Chat and Counsel’ that stressed the importance of staying healthy in order to play. He talked about the ‘physical culture of the body, which [made] bandsmen better men, and therefore more useful bandsmen.’[32] Equally, he argued that better general fitness meant being better able to cope with the physical demands of playing brass instruments. In other words, it makes sense that Fielden played one of the larger instruments.

Little is known about Bacup Change Band. They were also known as Change Brass Band and Change Amateur Brass Band.[33] They were active from at least 1874-1921.[34] They entered Belle Vue in 1890, 1891 and 1893 but never came in the top three. They were most active in local brass band contests within Rossendale. They were regular contestants at Rawtenstall, Goodshaw, Stacksteads, Crawshawbooth and Bacup. They were a local band at the centre of local life. The renowned trainer and conductor Alexander Owen led them on at least nineteen occasions.[35] Many bands would raise funds to employ a top trainer just before a contest in the hopes of a prize. This all shows that they were not without ambition, but they were not a ‘crack’ band. It is reasonable to say that Fielden would have been a competent player.

It is this local activity that further sheds light on Fielden’s working-class identity. In 1892, the music journal, Magazine of Music featured an article that placed an emphasis on the importance of northern brass bands’ social networks. As a band secretary he would have been fully engaged in not only arranging contests and local concerts but also fundraising for the band.The band was one of the key elements in community life, and, as secretary, Fielden would have been a key member of the band. This all shows that Fielden was literate, organised and a competent negotiator. The journal wrote:

Contests, however, are by no means the only objects, as everybody knows, for which bands exist. There is scarcely a public function of any kind at which there is not a band to dispense sweet harmonies. As one looks through the record of a month’s work, one sees social gatherings of all kinds – teas, suppers, dances, cricket or football matches, presentations, festivals, demonstrations, camp meetings and anniversaries. It would seem as if nothing human were complete without a band, for this week, a band has to play at a marriage and a funeral. At Christmas the bands turn out in great force to go the round of their subscribers; and we hear that in spite of the intense cold last Christmas, some bands played before the houses of over a hundred[…]members, notwithstanding benumbed fingers and frozen valves […].[36]

Indeed, in 1901, Bacup Change Band showed the nature of their fundraising activities in the town. They needed uniforms tuition and instruments. These three elements  resulted in a need for money that motivated all bands, from the novice to the ‘crack’ bands, in the Southern Pennines. They 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.’[37] The bazaar stalls, of which there were at least eleven, according to the Rossendale Free Press, ‘were laden with a variety of useful and fancy goods, tastefully arranged.’[38]

Writing in 1899 the editors of Wright  and Wround’s Amateur Band Teacher’s Guide and Bandsman’s Adviser– a tutor book compiled from columns in the Brass Band News – were in  no doubt of the role the secretary played in making any brass band successful.[p.71] They wrote:

The band secretary. What is he? In a great many cases, the band secretary is the band. [Their emphasis] He is a man who got tired of seeing the band do all the things they did in the most half-hearted  manner. He  then got the secretaryship. He worked hard to get the band in good funds. He got the band plenty of engagements. He made the band popular. He made the band the one idea of his life for the time being. [He is]….An organiser. A business leader, if not a music leader[….] All honour to the secretary. He is the true music lover, the true amateur.

For Fielden being in a brass band was the main way he spent his leisure time. From the performance of music to the extended networks built in the town by the band he played a role. As band secretary he was  the first point of contact the band had with the outside world. It was a position of responsibility,and with that responsibility he had status. This world was to come to an end in 1915 when he joined the military.

Fielden the Soldier

We know that Fielden was one of the last to leave his firm to join the colours. He joined up in October, 1915. Does this show a reluctance to do so? We do know that there was a rush to the colours from 1914 and, by 6 May, 1915 The Times was arguing that ‘the voluntary system has its limits and we are fast approaching them.’[39] In short, men were needed, and the result was the Derby Scheme. Lord Derby’s Pals Battalions had proved such a boon to recruiting that Derby really wanted to continue with volunteerism. Nevertheless, in spite of hesitation, under Derby’s scheme, men between the ages of 18 and 41 were attested to a willingness to volunteer, on the understanding that the youngest men would be taken first and the unmarried before the married. Fielden was married and in his thirties. It would be logical to say he left last because he was older and married.

It has been argued that workers’ willingness to volunteer was the promise of adventure and a relief from the ennui and dirt of manual labour. But, as the workers well knew, in civilian life they had little risk of being shot.The reasons for joining the military are elusive. I have written elsewhere on this site that Jay Winter argued popular sentiments of  the defence of home, town, country and empire had substance in the minds of ordinary people. De Groot has pointed out that working-class letters and diaries were as full of words like duty and honour as middle-class writing. This puzzled some pacifists as the workers were defending a social system that had not treated them well and, given the significant amount of industrial unrest in the pre-war years, one might expect widespread reluctance to enlist. The British working class, however, were an intensely patriotic group. As DeGroot has argued, ‘one profound, but often discounted, element of British working-class consciousness is a love  for Britain and a willingness to defend her.’ (See DeGroot Blighty, pp.47-49)

Then, after a short furlough in Bacup, in July 1915, Fielden was dead. Killed on the 26 August,1916. His name is  inscribed on the Stacksteads War Memorial, in Stacksteads Peace Garden,on the memorial in Bacup’s Old Age and Disability Centre, and, significantly, on the Waterbarn Baptist Church Scholars’ Memorial.

Fielden the Working-Class Soldier-Musician

What is striking is that the Rossendale Free Press called him a soldier-musician. Fielden’s short military service had been his end. He was, though, in the eyes of the community, and through memorialisation, one of the ‘glourious dead’. A soldier first, who had fought for his country and paid the ultimate price. Fielden was then seen as a bandsman: a man of the community, who gained that musicianship through education. He was also viewed as a reliable worker. In the final analysis his working-class life was defined by status that grew from a working-class leisure pursuit. He was of course a Baptist scholar, a quarryman, a bandsman, and a soldier. Yet he was also John Robert Fielden, an individual shaped by and because of his environment. The amalgamation of all these things made him a working-class person. Fielden represents many bandsmen that played at Belle Vue. Bandsmen, workers and soldiers.


[1] Rossendale Free Press (30 August, 1916) Unless otherwise mentioned, all biographical details come from this source

[2] Waterbarn Baptist Church was built in 1847 with the first services taking place on Christmas Day. The building was enlarged in 1868 with a 2 storied school being built at the back. Source:<> accessed 12.09.2016

[3] <,%20JOHN%20ROBERT> accessed, 18.9.16

[4] Official Census, cited in, Jeanette Edwards, Ordinary People: A Study of Factors Affecting Communication in the Provision of Services. (PhD Thesis, University of Manchester, 1990), p. 22.

[5] Arthur Baldwin, Miles Crompton, Ian Hargreaves, John Simpson and Gary Taylor, The Changing Faces of Rossendale: Production Lines (Halifax, n.d.), pp. 19-25.

[6] John Simpson, A History of Edenfield and District (Edenfield Local History Society, 2003), p. 116.

[7] Kenneth F. Bowden (Ed.), A Bacup Miscellany (Bacup, 1972), p. 207.

[8] Campanology (16 September 1896), p. 5.

[9] Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship (London, 1926, this edition, 1971), pp. 167-185.

[10] Webb, My Apprenticeship, p. 177.

[11] Stuart Walsh, ‘Beatrice Webb and Bacup’, Manchester Region History Review, 3/2, (Autumn-Winter), p. 12. See also, Webb, My Apprenticeship, p. 176.

[12] Bacup Times, November 1883, cited in, Walsh, Beatrice Webb and Bacup’, p. 13.

[13] Shani D’Cruz, ‘Sex Violence and Local Courts: Working-Class Respectability In a Mid-Nineteenth-Century Lancashire Town’, British Journal of Criminology, 39/1, 1999, p .40.

[14] Patrick Joyce, Work, Society & Politics: The Culture of the Factory in Later Victorian England (London, 1980), p. xiii

[15] Joyce, p. Xiii.

[16] Anon Waterbarn Baptist accessed 18.9.16

[17] Anon Waterbarn Baptist

[18] E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963, this edition, 1991), p. 412.

[19] Thompson, p. 414.

[20] Thompson, p.415.

[21] Joyce, Work, Society & Politics, p. 178.

[22] Joyce, p. 178.

[23] J Baynes ‘Two Lectures’ cited in Joyce, p. 179.

[24] Joyce, Work, Society & Politics, p. 179.

[25] Joyce, p. 179.

[26] Joyce, p. 179.

[27] Source: Calculated from P. Deane and W. A. Cole, British Economic Growth 1688-1959: Trends and Structure (Cambridge), 1969, p. 8, cited in, John Benson, Working Class in Britain, 1850-1930 (London and New York, 1989), p. 4.

[28] Benson, Working Class in Britain, p. 4.

[29] ‘Life as A Quarryman accessed 19.09.16

[30] ‘Life as A Quarryman accessed 19.09.16

[31] Boys Own Paper (16 June, 1888), p. 608.

[32] British Bandsman (19 June, 1909), p. 683.

[33] Gavin Holman, <> accessed, 19.09.16

[34] Brass Band Results <; accessed 1 .09.16

[35] Brass Band Results

[36] Magazine of Music, 9/4, (April, 1892), pp. 62-63. Cited in Stephen Etheridge,’ Slate-Grey Rain and Polished Euphoniums’: Brass Bands, the Working Class and the North (PhD Thesis,  University of Huddersfield, 2015), p. 21.

[37] Rossendale Free Press  (28 September, 1901). Cited in Etheridge, p. 221.

[38] Rossendale Free Press

[39] The Times (6 May, 1915)

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