Soldier playing salpinx (bronze trumpet)
There are, says Keats in Endymion, “those who lord it o’er their fellow-men”, and do so to the “fierce intoxicating tones/ Of trumpets … and belabour’d drums”. In each of his 25 poetic references to brass instruments, Keats has in mind military trumpets rather than civilian cornets, euphoniums and basses – and given that he preferred “ditties of no tones” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”), we perhaps shouldn’t in any case pay too much heed to his sense of that instrument’s “fraught” joys (“Calidore”).
The group with one of the strongest claims to the title of world’s first brass band is the Stalybridge Old Band, formed in Manchester in 1809. Soon renamed the New Band, they rehearsed under the baton of Thomas Avison in a cellar behind the Golden Fleece inn. In 1819, its members became involved in one of the defining political actions of the Romantic period, engaged to play at the event that became known as the “Peterloo Massacre”.
"fierce intoxicating tones/ Of trumpets ..." (John Keats)
Contemporary engraving of Peterloo Massacre
On 16th August 1819, in a huge assembly that marked the culmination of a season of marches across the North of England, workers and political groups gathered on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, demanding parliamentary reform and the repeal of the corn laws. Notorious radicals such as Richard Carlile, John Cartwright and Henry “Orator” Hunt were engaged to address the crowd, swelled in numbers to between 60,000 and 80,000. Those who turned out that day stood beneath fluttering banners calling for “Universal Suffrage”, “Annual Parliaments”, “No Corn Laws” and “Vote By Ballot”. Many held aloft red liberty caps, an incendiary symbol linked to the French Revolution.
"The cry went up among the Yeomanry ... Have at their flags!" (Peterloo eyewitness account)
The authorities responded by sending in the mounted Manchester Yeomanry, who unleashed indiscriminate violence. Sabres unsheathed, the mounted troops charged into the panicked ranks of men, women and children, killing fifteen and injuring many dozens. Newspapers and pamphlets were filled with eyewitness accounts of the brutality, fuelling national outrage. Poems written soon after the event by Romantic poets Percy Shelley (“Ode to the West Wind”), John Keats (“To Autumn”) and Barry Cornwall (“Autumn”) appear to allude to the chaotic energies of that day.
As for Stalybridge Old Band, there's some uncertainty whether the players made it to St Peter's Fields. It's likely that the authorities, having got wind of their planned involvement, detained them at a nearby pub.
BBC footage: click image for source
My own experience with brass banding began at the age of nine. In 1979, I joined Abergavenny Borough Band, playing cornet (badly) for ten years until I left Wales for the North of England myself to begin a degree in English Literature at Leeds University. My banding career coincided with the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, one of the most socially divisive periods in recent British history, when Margaret Thatcher’s determination to force pit closures and confront union power sparked almost a year of bitter industrial action. Memories of those years – marked by regular and to a fourteen-year-old boy shocking TV footage of large-scale confrontations between miners and police – are back in the public consciousness this week with the former Prime Minister’s death and funeral.
Over 11,000 arrests made during the Miners' Strike
Click image for source
Many of the striking collieries had brass bands associated with them, each with proud traditions. Abergavenny Borough Band regularly competed against these bands in hotly disputed contests up and down the South Wales valleys. When the strikes finally ended – extreme poverty, intimidation and hardship on families having taken its toll – many of the miners marched back to the pits behind their brass bands in desperately moving “loyalty parades”. One of the most heart-rending, dignified scenes from that period is the sight of the Maerdy miners holding their union banners aloft, being led back to work by the colliery band, its numbers severely depleted, to the strains of “Slaidburn” on the cold morning of 5th March 1985.
I spent this weekend up in Manchester supporting Aberystwyth Youth Band at the National Youth Brass Band Championships. The contest was held at the Royal Northern College of Music, less than a mile away from the site of the Peterloo Massacre.