This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Irwell Springs Band

16 August 2013

What does it mean to be the best? In athletics you get a medal. For team sports like football there's always a trophy. Baseball, bowling, and even ballroom dancing have events to sort out the best from the rest. In music, solo instrumentalists like pianists and violinists regularly compete for prizes. But one of the oldest musical contests is a match between musical teams that contend for top honors as the best British Brass Band. This national competition dates back to 1853, and this postcard features the Irwell Springs Band of Bacup, Lancashire, who were the winners of the 1905, 1908 and 1913 national brass band contest at the Crystal Palace in London.

The British brass band tradition is a special heritage that continues to be an important part of British musical culture. Its arrangement of brass instruments and choice of music followed a different path than similar brass bands in America and Europe. In particular they are associated with the rise of industry and the British working class. The musicians of the Irwell Springs Band were not classically trained musicians, but instead men who worked at the cotton mills in Bacup. Their competitors came from similar industrial towns with names like the Foden Motor Works Band, the Spencer's Steel Works Band, the Perfection Soap Works Band, and the St. Hilda Colliery Band. One of the most celebrated was the Black Dyke Mills Band from Yorkshire which remains, since 1855, one of the best brass groups still performing.

However in 1913, they only took the third place medal to the Irwell Springs Band. There is a wonderful history of the Irwell Springs Band and their musical achievements at this website - the  Bacuptimes.

Written on the back of this postcard is a note:

This is a photograph of one of the bands which played in Vernon Park. Saturday
July 18, 1914
With Kindest Regards

Vernon Park is a public park in Stockport outside Manchester, England.

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Here we can see the bandstand where they played and the throngs of people surrounding it on that warm summer's day. Surely there are some picnic hampers but they are hard to see. The caption says Vernon Park (Musical Festival), Stockport and the attention of the hundreds if not thousands of spectators is focused on the small band stand.  It must have been a challenge to fit the 26 members of the Irwell Springs Band under that roof.

Written on the back is page two of another note that E.E. sent. Unfortunately page one is lost. 

Photograph of you that you gave to her, but she will not part with it.
If you have one of yourself to spare I should like to have it. Hoping you will not be offended at me for asking.

With best love, Edith Eastham
21 Park Street

Could Edith be in that photo?

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Sometime after I had acquired the two postcards, I bought this cdv photo of a British  bandsman. Dressed in a fancy embroidered uniform with a tall helmet and plume, he holds a cornet. There is no photographer's imprint but on the front someone has written a name - Walter Nuttall. The name is repeated on the back and Bacup is added twice for emphasis. My guess was that the photo dated from around 1885 to 1895. The uniform might indicate a military bandsman or possibly a policeman, but it was hard to be sure.

But my research showed that I already knew this face. The name Bacup referred to the original place name of the band, and when this photo was made Walter Nuttall was only a young cornet soloist. But he went on to become the band's leader. The same bandleader seated in the center of the prize winning Irwell Springs Band of 1913.

The confirmation comes from one of the best websites on the internet, the  which has an amazing amount of information on the history of brass bands. It keeps a catalog of thousands of historical images of bands from all around the world, and there are dozens of photos of the Irwell Springs Band. One postcard from 1913 included this note written on the back:

This is the photo of the Irwell Springs Band who have just got the cup which they won for the third time in September. It is a beauty. It is gold, studded all over with gems, & is valued at a 1,000 guineas (£1,050 or  5,250 dollars) The Bandsmen each received a gold medal & and the band about £150in money and instruments. The first time they won they got bronze & the second time silver medals. What they will get again if they win I don't know. J.R. Newell

Some historic bands are given a special page on the and the Irwell Springs Band has one with all its history. The band had its start in 1864, and one of the founding members was Walter's father. Born in 1867, Walter Nuttall proved to be a talented musician and capable leader. In 1886 the band acquired new uniforms, and posed for a photo which is found at the archives. I believe Walter Nuttall, age 19, is on the grass in the center, 2nd from right.

Irwell Springs Band 1886

Since Walter's small cdv photograph  was also taken outdoors in a park and in the same uniform as these bandsmen, I suspect that they were both taken on the same day by the same photographer. Perhaps this was a copy given to one of the other bandsmen.

Walter's regular employment was in the mills as a weaver or cotton spinner, but his true calling was as a bandleader. During his tenure as cornet and bandmaster, the Irwell Springs Band played many contests, but in this golden age of brass bands the competition was fierce, and it was no easy task to keep his musicians trained and prepared, men who needed to work in the mill for their living too. Musicians supported the band by paying a membership subscription. The instruments, uniforms, and music were owned by the band and loaned to each bandsman.

When the band won the gold medal in 1913, they played a test piece - music that all the bands had to play, called Labour and Love by Percy Fletcher. This was the first original music commissioned specifically for brass band, and it would go on to become a standard of brass band programs. Prior to this, brass band music consisted primarily of arrangements of orchestral or choral music, like Rossini's William Tell Overture or Wagner's Rienzi Overture.  Walter was leading his bandsmen in new and unfamiliar music, and it takes real musicianship to play such music with distinction.

The Irwell Springs Band came to an end in 1960. Walter, who had gone on to be mayor of Bacup and honored as a Freeman of the Borough, was still alive and by that time was the oldest member of the band.

As I have written before, I collect time machines, and these two postcards and the photo of Walter Nuttall, are again perfect examples. The gold medal, prize money, and trophy were won in September 1913. In July 1914, Walter and the Irwell Springs Band played a concert at Vernon Park and were riding high on well deserved celebrity and fame.

In less than a month, Germany would invade Belgium and France, and the world would be at war. Labour and Love would have a new meaning for these musicians in the dark years ahead.

I found this video on YouTube which is a compilation of old photos of Bacup, Lancashire in Bygone Days. The soundtrack uses music of a brass band to accompany this slide show of an English mill town and its inhabitants.

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Click the link for more stories on vintage photos.


The Silver Fox said...

I'm impressed. That's an excellent amount of research.

Brett Payne said...

I'm glad I'm not partial to old photographs of musicians, because I'll bet the competition on eBay for those is fierce. Walter wasn't much of a smiler, was he? Three quarters of a century is an impressive record of service, and your research and writing are a fitting and most entertaining tribute.

Rosie said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your pictures of the band plus the actual music, can't beat the sound of a big band, great post!

Little Nell said...

I really enjoyed the story of Walter and the trip in your time machine. The music fitted the old picture slide show perfectly. Let's believe that Edith was one of the ladies in the big hats in the foreground.

Liz Needle said...

Fascinating post. I love brass bands and we have band competitions here in Australia. What an absolutely amazing trophy they won - sure puts the Ashes urn to same. One which, by the way, we plan to win back this summer!!!!!

Alan Burnett said...

Another fabulous post Mike. But local honour requires me to give a mention to the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band which is based a couple of miles from here and is much better than that Black Dyke Band (which is based far away - well six miles away - in Queensbury.

anyjazz said...

I enjoyed following the thread connecting these photographs. What a find!

Postcardy said...

Great photos and research. It surprised me that so many bands were associated with places of work.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful post and a very moving video

Karen S. said...

You are the master of research hands down. It always amazes me too how these kinds of things an outdoor musical functions brought out so many folks! In the highest of heat days it didn't matter, there they enjoyed themselves melting or not! Devoted fans for sure.

Joan said...

Mike, what an interesting piece of work. Walter and his brass band will be in my mind as I lounge on the grass and listen to our own Music in the Park concerts. Although I dinna think they have competed, I do know that the band members come from all walks of like. thanks for the read and photos.

PattyF said...

Great post and a keen bit of research! And it's interesting to note that music festivals were as big a draw at the turn of the 20th century as they are today. A precursor of Glastonbury or Lollapalooza, perhaps?

Wendy said...

I enjoyed the brass concert while looking at the old photos.

In my family research I've been aware of the importance of baseball teams to the railroad shops, so the bands must have meant the same to the mills, etc. Somehow these organizations feel more important in their time than company softball teams today.

Tattered and Lost said...

It all looks so much more civilized than Woodstock, doesn't it. Oh my what this audience would have thought of the mud, rain, and nudity in 1969.

Wonderful video.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

I ended up in tears, listening to the band and looking at the pictures knowing the war was looming ahead. I also learned that a collier is a coal miner. Thanks for all the information and entertainment.

Bob Scotney said...

A tremendous post, Mike and a marvellous collection of photos in the video. That alone would grace any Sepia post. Now I'm off to check if I can find any modern Bacup pictures. There will be nothing to match the old trains.


Quaint little town,
home to many,
dear perhaps to some.
Loved the vid and the music.
Glad you could find the story behind that CdV. Must have been exciting for these workers to be the pride of their town.


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