Where there's brass there's beer
Stephanie Shuttleworth, on brass bands and brews
Saturday 14 January 2023
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“We only joined the band to get us supper,” joke Duncan and Dave, as they knock back a well-earned post-rehearsal pint.
We’re sat in the function room at my workplace; Diggle Band Club, Saddleworth. The venue is a generously-sized, Yorkshire stone building, dotted on the side of a moorland valley which stretches along the Greater Manchester patch of the Pennines hills. Our Band Club is home to two brass bands, Diggle Brass Band and the similarly named, but not to be confused with, Diggle Community Band.
Duncan Stevenson plays the tuba, the largest and lowest-pitched instrument in Diggle Brass Band, and Dave Richardson plays alongside him, but a few rows away, championing the cornet. But more importantly, to me anyway, they’re my bar’s regulars. They’re joking about signing up to the band to get fed, but they like most brass banders are deadly serious about music, and they happen to be seriously talented too.
In my opinion, having a beer with the band is almost as important as remembering to bring your instrument. Almost.
“Bandsmen like to have a drink,” Olwyn Smith tells me as we retire to the Club’s lounge. We’ve stepped away from the crowd as they finish talking shop and start to move onto the important topic of whose round it is.
Olwyn, and her husband Michael, first got involved with Diggle Brass Band and the Club in 1975. “We were ‘Steward with wife to assist’ and we ran the place, on our own. We ran it.”
When they first took over, they were serving beers from Bass Brewery; you can no longer see that iconic red triangle in the Club, but you’ll be sure to see Olwyn.
I’ve worked there for half a year and I only started learning the cornet in September, so on matters of brass and clubs, I defer to Olwyn. After 47 years, she’s an expert, so I decide to put my theory to her: “that lot in there, when they’re drinking together after rehearsal, is it helping to keep the whole lot going?”
“Personally, I think so,” she tells me. “They have a social evening after they’ve finished playing. They have a drink and a natter, then they go home.
“It’s a part of it, they like to have a drink, I’ve never met one yet that doesn’t — bandsmen and bandswomen.”
It’s not all down to the beer, but it helps.
Greater Manchester has the world's oldest and most interesting culture of brass banding. I know that’ll be contentious with the folks over the border in Yorkshire and in the coal fields of South Wales, but I’ve said it now.
We have the world-famous Saddleworth Whit Friday Band Contest. First held in 1884, it now attracts bands and spectators from around the world, including Iceland's only brass band, in 2019. It’s hard to describe the event, but each summer our local newspapers attempt to, printing phrases like “greatest show on earth” and “part Wacky Races, part Brassed Off”. They’re not far off; the contest was featured in the 1996 cult classic, Brassed Off, and I have personally seen Dick Dastardly marching down Uppermill High Street playing the euphonium.
Unfortunately, our long history of beer and brass started on a slightly grimmer, Georgian-era note, as antidotes to the tough conditions of early-1800s Lancashire, Cheshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, parts of which later became known as Greater Manchester.
Established in 1809, Stalybridge Old Band ditched instruments such as flutes and clarinets to become thefirst all-brass band in Britain. You can still find them above Judges Bar, on Corporation Street in the heart of the town centre, eight miles east of Manchester.
As well as forming the world's oldest band, Manchester introduced a competitive edge to the pastime. In 1853, we created the brass band contest, when the first British Open Championships were held in Belle Vue, a small suburb of east Manchester, sandwiched between Longsight and Openshaw, where the sound of brass bands bounces off the cobblestones. The winners were local lads: Mossley Temperance Band. They only had to transport themselves and their instruments 10 miles south to the competition ground, but they still managed to turn up late.
They may have argued their tardiness was due to the M60 not yet existing, but one thing they wouldn’t have claimed is that they were slowed down by drink. Usually, where there’s brass there’s beer, but not when it came to Temperance Bands.
It’s no coincidence the industrial revolution saw a boom in brass bands and urban drinking spots, as workers across the country were forced to uproot their rural lives to support the hurriedly developing metropoles. Greater Manchester was no different, with the city and surrounding towns sprouting what William Blake would have described as “dark satanic mills”. As the urban population ballooned, people needed new pursuits to bring a sliver of enjoyment to their impoverished lives.
But the British establishment had become obsessed with monitoring and controlling working-class alcohol consumption. They simply had to keep them out of the pub, and away from the Chartists and Socialists who met there. And so, in stepped the Temperance movement, flugelhorn in hand.
The higher-ups of Georgian, and then Victorian, society enlisted a range of tactics, but at least a couple of these came together to backfire spectacularly.
The first was the very creation of working men’s clubs, a staunch temperance project, created by wealthy teetotaler, Henry Solly. And the second was factory, church or philanthropist-sponsored bands, which offered entertainment and purpose, while also keeping working men and their families away from the beerhouse. Sometimes this motive was hidden, and sometimes it was manifest in its intention, through the creation of bands carrying ‘Temperance’ in their names.
It’s perhaps ironic then, given brass banding’s many dry roots, that the temperance movement failed in this instance. Although brass bands had their heyday in the Victorian period, the movement is still going strong and is often synonymous with older men and pints of ale.
What’s not so ironic, given our history, is that up here, we’ve perfected both: brass and beer.
Walking into an unknown social club is always a little bit daunting, but when I walked in and saw the man I’d come to see, holding court in front of a full band and audience, I knew I’d messed up.
I’d made the trip up the steep hill to Dobcross Brass Band Club, one village along from Diggle, to see John Holden, the Steward and Mace Bearer (the person who marches in front of the band) for Dobcross Silver Band. I thought my best bet was to catch him on a Sunday, just before tea time. A semi-rural club isn’t likely to be busy at 4:30pm, is it?
It was; the club was doing the can-can.
Or at least the band were playing it, while the audience clapped along with maximum enthusiasm. So I came back the following day.
“Brass bands have been a love of my life. My late father played for a number of bands — actually, he played for Dobcross”, John tells me as we sit in the club, now quiet on a Monday morning. His life has been filled with brass for 60 years, and he’s been the man responsible for keeping the Club going since becoming Steward 38 years ago.
With another expert sitting in front of me, I decided to re-test my hypothesis, asking; “do you think drinking together in places like this is a part of what’s keeping brass culture alive?”.
Nodding in firm agreement, he recounts the words he’s heard many times from visiting bands.
“Oh to have your own club like this! It must be great to just walk into here and get a drink.”
And thanks to John’s cracking cellermanship, the relationship between brass and beer is becoming even stronger.
“We get quite a few customers because we’ve won awards”; which wasn’t news to me, as the club is decorated with nearly as many CAMRA awards as brass banding trophies.
“We’ve just been nominated for the final of CAMRA Club of Great Britain,” he tells me. They have bands, and supporters, travelling from as far as Denmark, Switzerland, Australia, and even West Yorkshire, to play Dobcross and drink beers from Greater Manchester’s historic breweries.
“We keep on top of the beers, so it’s quality. Our longstanding brewery is J W Lees from Middleton, so we always have their Bitter on.”
Bitter, the one John so proudly informs me he pours, has been drunk around here for 194 years, almost at the opening bar of brass banding history. This perfectly illustrates how brass bands and beer are inextricably linked in Greater Manchester, and it doesn’t look like we’ll giving them up any time soon.
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