A TALE OF PERSEVERANCE - Mareika Gray - the story of an unlikely musical journey

Issue 6006

ON THE BEAT - The first in a new series by Gavin Pritchard discussing all things percussion

PRODUCING A RECORDING - Adam Goldsmith reveals the secrets to a successful recording

A Double Century from Besses

Wednesday 14 February, 2018

Establishing the exact year that a band was formed can be a challenge and it becomes harder the older the band appears to be. As David Kaye succinctly summed it up in his social history of the Wingates Band (From Bible Class to World Class, 2013): ‘Very few founding fathers of organisations destined for great longevity - and, we might also say, legendary status - could have thought that their doings would one day fascinate subsequent generations, anxious to know the hows, whys, and whens? Consequently, so little was written down and saved.’

In the case of the Besses o’ th’ Barn Band, around 1892, a man named Joseph Hampson wrote a book titled Origins, History and Achievements of the Besses o’ th’ Barn Band. Although I have been unable to trace a copy of this book, I have found material sourced from it in a thesis undertaken by a student and in various published books. This clarifies the formation of a reed band in 1818 by three men, John, James and Joseph Clegg, cotton manufacturers in the village of Besses o’ th’ Barn, of which they bore all costs and expenses. This is considered to be the first instance of an amateur band being supported by the owners of a local works or mill. Originally the band was known as Clegg’s Reed Band, with John Clegg playing keyed bugle. Its instrumentation in 1818 was a piccolo, three clarinets, a keyed bugle, a trumpet, two French horns, a trombone, two bass horns and a bass drum. For the time this instrumentation was not unusual. The valve had yet to be invented so the brass instruments would have been quite primitive.

How did this quaint village come to have such an unusual name? Various legends exist of how the name came about, including one involving Dick Turpin and his horse, ‘Black Bess’. The most reasonable sounding tale is of a local pub which looked like a barn and was run by a lady called Bess. The local invitation to a drink would be, “let’s go and see Bessie at th’ barn”. Later, as houses were built around, the name came to mean the whole village, not just the pub. It is now an area of Whitefield, within the Metropolitan Borough of Bury in Greater Manchester.

By 1821, the band had been renamed as Besses o’ th’ Barn and entered a competition that year marking the coronation of George lV. The circumstances are worth recounting. Apparently, it was a spontaneous gesture on the part of a William Johnson, ‘a very prominent leader of bands at that time,’ who drew Besses and the ‘numerous other bands’ together, and in order ‘to while away the time during the marshalling of the people,’ made up a subscription list to award a prize to the ‘band that should play best a piece of its own selection.’ Besses sensibly chose God Save the King, and was successful. In 1853, Besses became an all brass band and went on to compete at the first Belle Vue contest in Manchester that September with just nine players - four cornets, two tenor horns, a tenor trombone, a bass trombone and an ophicleide (a keyed brass instrument similar to a tuba).

An early picture of the band from 1860 shows that the instrumentation had developed to one D flat clarinet, six A flat cornets, two tenor horns, two baritones, a tenor trombone, a bass trombone, an E flat bombardon, an ophicleide and two drums.


As the 19th century drew to a close, Besses had become firmly established as not only a major brass band, but also one of the country’s leading musical ensembles, whether amateur or professional. From a banding perspective it won the first of its seven Belle Vue (British Open) titles in 1892, conducted by Alex Owen (who won again with Besses in 1894), with the test piece Zaar and Zimmermann by Albert Lortzing. This would have been a selection arranged from the three-act comic opera which dates from 1837. Hamilton Clark, one of the adjudicators, said, “There is not a band in the whole of Her Majesty’s service that could equal the standard of excellence that particular band displayed.” Another judge, Carl Kiefert said, “Not even in Berlin could we get together a combination of instrumentalists to give a performance equal to it.”

Owen (1851-1920) had joined the band on 24 February 1884 aged just 33 years and conducted there until his death. He had been appointed professional conductor at Black Dyke Mills in 1880 and continued to conduct both bands until 1888, when he severed ties with ‘Dyke’. He was allowed to conduct both bands in a contest, but could not play cornet with both. As playing cornet and conducting was the custom, he was forced to make a choice and opted for Besses, which gives some indication of its standing as Black Dyke had already won at Belle Vue six times by then. Owen was pivotal to the success of Besses and as well as being a great conductor was, like several of his contemporaries, well known for his arrangements. Besses played one of his early arrangements made in 1882, Rossini’s Works, at 29 contests, winning 21 of them. During 1887 the rules at a contest at Norland, near Halifax were framed in such a way it could not play it, because it had won so many prizes with it. Undeterred, Besses played Owen’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Works and still finished joint first! It is quite remarkable how Owen, and others, were able to access orchestral music and make these intricate arrangements which exemplified the type of test-piece being played by the finest bands well into the 20th century.

The turn of the century saw Besses at the height of its success, starting with its only win at the National Championship at the Crystal Palace, in 1903. Having won this, it embarked on a complete change of direction. John Henry Iles, whose life I explored in January’s British Bandsman, became a focal point for the band. He wanted to broaden the appeal of brass bands beyond the contest platform and promoted the band on an extensive tour of England, Scotland and Wales in 1904, undertaking nearly one hundred engagements culminating in a week of concerts in London. That was nothing, however, compared to what was to follow. In May 1905, it went again on tour and then, in June, performed at Windsor Castle before the Royal family.

This was followed by an 11-day tour of France to raise funds for various French charities. Iles’s main reason for this was to strengthen the entente cordiale by creating a link between the working people of the two countries. This had the support of Arthur Balfour, the Prime Minister. After the first concert in Paris, Alexander Owen, who was conducting, was decorated Officier de ‘Instruction Publique by the Under-Secretary of Fine Arts. The Besses players, on the invitation of President Loubet, took part, with various French bands, in a function held in the Tuileries Garden. They performed a lengthy programme, which was received with great enthusiasm. During the course of a banquet given in honour of the visitors - at the Pavilion Chinois, Champs-Elysées - it was announced that the decoration awarded to Alexander Owen had also been conferred on John Henry Iles. The band also visited Marseilles, Lyons and Dieppe before returning to England. But it didn’t end there as Besses then embarked on another mammoth UK tour, ending the year having given 193 performances. Thus, in the early years of the century, the band’s players were effectively making a living touring the country giving concerts.

Even more ambitious was a world tour. It came about through a major exhibition planned for Christchurch, New Zealand. A service band was intended to provide the music, but the military authorities would not permit a regimental band to play and Iles was approached. Thus, in July 1906, Besses, led by Owen, sailed for New York and after playing in several American cities went into Canada and then to Honolulu and Fiji, reaching New Zealand in December. The band arrived in Sydney, Australia in May 1907 - playing to 25,000 at the famous cricket ground - and eventually returned to England in the December. The tour was at one stage at risk of falling through. Owen had asked for an advance fee of £300 from John Henry Iles, as tour organiser. Iles agreed to pay only £150 and at this point the tour only proceeded after a legal agreement was drawn up whereby Iles advanced the further £150 in return for the documents of title to the bandroom - the band had been a limited company since 1887. Iles held these documents until the end of the tour. Owen’s fee in today’s money was almost £35,000.

In 1909, Besses set out again on another world tour, this time also taking in South Africa. Not surprisingly, although diaries were kept by players on these tours, described as “quiet and modest memorials to stupendous achievements” details of some of the internal difficulties are more scant. We do know though that the players had to contend with long and tediously slow sea journeys and seemingly never-ending train journeys. During the first trip to New Zealand donkeys had to be used on one occasion as the railway had yet to be completed over an especially difficult stretch of mountainous terrain. Matters were made worse by the fact the players travelled third-class on the train; needless to say Iles and Owen went first-class! On the second tour, when they were in South Africa, there was a near riot when third-class sleepers were broadly similar to wooden cattle trucks. How were players able to undertake such massive tours? Again, details are few and far between. The history on the band’s website indicates there were stories of players leaving home, ostensibly going to a regular band practice, and arriving back home 18 months later. It is understood that such tales contain more than a grain of truth.

Owen wrote his own form of tribute to these amazing tours in the shape of two marches. One was called World Tour, the title speaking for itself. The other, written on the second tour at New Zealand, was named after a famous porpoise, known to seafarers as Pelorus Jack. One of the diaries kept by the players records the ship as the SS Pateena when the idea came about. Owen’s score includes a triangle part, said to be an imitation of the dinner gong which rang to summon the players to their meal just as he finished writing it.

In August 1920, three weeks before the Belle Vue contest, Alex Owen had a stroke and died, aged 69. His successor was William Wood, who had worked his way up on cornet and ended up at Black Dyke Mills. Just before the World War I he had played for Owen’s professional band in Southport. As the band members readied themselves on stage at Belle Vue that year, Wood pointed to his baton and quietly said to the players, “I’m not conducting you today - Mr Owen is. This is his stick guiding us all. He is going to be conducting you today!” Later he related that “it was really very, very strange. I’m sure he was there you know, looking down on us all. Anyway, there it was. We played and we won. And no one had given us - given me - a chance.” Wood went on to win with Besses again in 1937 and 1959, with William Halliwell being triumphant in 1931.

The band’s third major tour started from Liverpool on 13 August 1932. This time it went to Canada and the National Exhibition followed by ten weeks in North America. James Scott’s father played for Besses, walking eight miles from Farnworth to Besses village for rehearsals. “One of my earliest memories is of sitting on a skip in Besses bandroom, listening to them rehearse all day Sunday for their Canadian tour”, he said. Bert Sullivan, most well-known as solo euphonium of Munn and Felton’s, also went on that tour. He commented: “We played one concert with a choir of 1,000 people - we played Hiawatha’s Feast. Fantastic. I was playing four solos a day in Canada. I was on every programme, you see. Going across on the boat, we used to rehearse and I think the most amazing brass sound I ever heard in my life was the four Besses bass players, playing together on the deck, nothing but empty sea rolling all around them.”

After World War II Besses undertook an Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) tour, but was not in a healthy state with few engagements in the diary. Rehearsals were sparse due to the cost of paying William Wood and the band closed down in the summer months. However, Besses Boys Band, formed in 1943, provided a supply of players from the 1950s and it survived on the reputation of its concert work. William Wood retired in 1963 and was replaced by Frank Bryce, who had played with the band but was originally a product of the Boys Band. Bryce was an arranger of some flair resulting in popular concerts, but he had little success on the contest platform. An ‘Area’ win in 1972 resulted in a National Finals appearance, but after that Bryce wanted less commitment and, in something of a coup, on the recommendation of Bram Gay, the band engaged the legendary French horn player, Ifor James, as professional conductor.

His contest results suggest he had little interest in this area of activity; in fact, Bryce led at the Open in 1974 and 1977, James but was spectacularly successful in increasing the range and quality of the band’s concert work. Frank Johnson, Besses’ Secretary at the time, later related: “It was a change of attitude for us. We’d been, I suppose, like most other bands. The repertoire was the march, the waltz, the overture. The only other band that was doing anything else was Grimethorpe, with Elgar Howarth. Ifor opened up the door to new music.” Besses began performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and at music festivals instead of the school hall. Stuck with the brass band classics, Ifor also commissioned new music including Paul Patterson’s Chromoscope, Roger Payne’s The Ages of Anxiety, Edward Gregson’s Concerto for Tuba and John McCabe’s Images. It was during this period that André Previn and a team from the BBC TV series Omnibus filmed the band as part of a documentary. Previn was present during a rehearsal for the premiére of Gregson’s Concerto for Tuba with John Fletcher as soloist, which the composer conducted.

Roy Newsome took over as Musical Director in 1978 and during his tenure made several significant recordings, including one of Alex Owen arrangements in recognition of the 60th anniversary of his death. A subsequent LP featured the Gregson Concerto for Tuba and the Concerto for French Horn, plus a Cornet Concerto by Gordon Langford, performed by John Fletcher (tuba), Ifor James (horn) and James Watson (cornet) respectively with Newsome conducting. Roy’s major contest success was winning the British Open for the seventh time in the band’s history in 1982. In his autobiography, (The Best of Brass, Kirklees, 2010) Roy wrote of a deteriorating relationship at Besses with his desire to bring in fresh faces resisted. He was also doing concert work with Fairey. He wrote, ‘So, yet more eventful years, even if some of the glamour was going out of the Besses o’ th’ Barn job. This was underlined by the engagement at Fairey, which made it clear to me that at Besses I did not now have really top-quality material. Though my years there had been happy, the band had passed its peak and was on the slippery downward slope which, to date, has not really stopped.” By the end of 1985 Roy Newsome had accepted the role as Professional Conductor of Fairey Engineering Band and resigned from Besses.

Sadly, Roy’s words contained more truth than he would have wanted. A glorious and illustrious past carries no weight or guarantees of success, or even continuation in the demanding and fast-changing world in which we now live. Just over ten years ago, Besses lost its Championship Section status having also fallen out of the British Open in 2003. By 2015 it was down to the 3rd Section, but it was back in the 2nd Section last year. So, it is on the up competitively and, more importantly, survives when many bands with equally successful pasts have long since fallen by the way side and no longer exist. Congratulations on 200 years!