Bold as brass
Verwood Concert Brass is one of Dorset’s most successful brass bands. Tony Burton-Page went in search of the roots of that success and discovered a surprisingly long history.
Published in September ’09
Those who are not experts in brass bands, and I count myself among that number, have a tendency to associate them with the industrial north of England. Even ignoramuses like myself know that this is the homeland of the Black Dyke Mills Band, the Besses o’ th’ Barn Band and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Grimethorpe! The very name conjures up Blakean nightmares of dark Satanic mills.
There is indeed a certain amount of truth in the idea that there is a northern connection, as the brass band tradition started with the Industrial Revolution, much of which centred around the industrial hubs of the Pennines. It has been said that the brass bands were a growth of the medieval waits and that employers began to finance work bands to decrease the political activity which seemed to preoccupy the working classes during their leisure time.
So it is perhaps something of a surprise to discover that leafy Verwood is home to one of the south of England’s most successful brass bands, the Verwood Concert Brass. There are a dozen or so fully-fledged brass bands in Dorset (do not be misled by the fact that some are called ‘silver’ bands: the difference is only one of colour) but few of them can claim to have gone from the brass band equivalent of football’s League Division 4 to League Division 1, as Verwood Concert Brass are about to do.
A few words of explanation are necessary here for those who are not familiar with the brass band world. Competition between bands has been a feature of this world since the early days of its history: even by the 1840s, there was a thriving local contest circuit. The National Championship began on an occasional basis in 1856 and was firmly established by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1900. Since 1945 it has been split football-league-style into five sections – Championship, 1st, 2nd 3rd and 4th – and eight UK regions, including our own, the West of England. All bands start in Section 4 and over the years progress upwards (or not) according to how well they perform for the judges. Depending on the number of bands entered into each section in each region, the top two or three or sometimes four placed bands qualify for a place in the Finals, held in the autumn each year. While the Championship Finals are held in the Royal Albert Hall, the Finals for Sections 1 to 4 are held in Harrogate. In 2008 Verwood became West of England 3rd Section Champions, which promoted them to the 2nd Section for 2009. In this year’s West of England contest, they came second, which means that not only will they be representing the region at the National Championships in Harrogate but also that they will be promoted to the First Section in 2010 – for the first time in a history which goes back a century and a half.
The tradition in Verwood is that the band was started in 1864 by Jesse Shearing (one of whose descendants plays in the band today). Apparently a small group of musicians known as ‘Shearing’s band’ was busy in the area at that time, rehearsing in the Congregational Chapel schoolroom (now the library) and in the open air on Ferrett Green, when it was the old clay pit. The story goes that Jesse used to write their music sitting under a haystack. Haystacks in Verwood – how times change! But the first written report of the band comes in a description of the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887: a procession from Woodlands village green to the new Portland stone monument was headed by the Verwood Temperance Brass Band. The name shows that bands were founded not only by industrial chieftains; sometimes a church or temperance society, such as the Salvation Army, would be the impetus, in the belief that the discipline involved would keep the working man away from the temptation of the demon drink. In 1883, the Army’s journal, The Salvation War, declared: ‘The simple truth is that the band empties public houses far and near.’
This discipline extended to the wearing of a uniform. In the case of the Verwood band, it seems to have consisted of a pillbox hat, a military-style suit – and a satchel in which to keep the music. Written records from this era of the band’s history are scarce, but there are several photographs from the early years of the 20th century which have enabled some inhabitants of Verwood with long memories to identify some of the players. Ivy Fry identified her father, Frank, whose obituary reported that he was ‘a member of the Verwood Prize Band, joining in 1883. On many occasions he has been congratulated on his fine, clear notes and his fame as a cornet player has been carried into many counties.’ There was music in the family: his cousin, Fred, who worked at the Crossroads pottery, made a set of flower pots of different sizes and was famed for playing tunes on them.
By the 1920s, the Temperance Band had changed its name to the Verwood Prize Band, for the very good reason that it had started winning prizes in competitions. The archives in the care of the current president, Pam Reeks, contain many award certificates from this era, and the band seems to have been in great demand: the archive for 1925 mentions a procession to King Barrow on Whit Thursday, a whist drive and dance at Edmondsham, playing for an afternoon fete and evening dance for the Social Club, and the (by then) traditional parade for Hospital Sunday. This annual event started in 1859 with the intention of raising funds for charitable institutions for health care in the event of sickness or injury, there being no National Health Service until 1948, and bands all over the country turned out in support of it.
One of the players in the band at this time was Sidney Palmer, owner of Verwood Sandpits and manager of a local brickworks. In 1936 he donated a wooden hut in Moorlands Road to Toc H on condition that the band were allowed to use it for rehearsal twice a week. When Toc H closed down in Verwood, the band were given the premises outright. The hut was used right up until 1994, when, after ten years of fundraising, it was demolished to make way for the building of a brand new hall. The freehold belongs to Verwood Concert Brass, who are thus one of the few bands with their own band hall, giving them a huge financial advantage in these days of economic awkwardness. It means that the band can afford to own most of the instruments it uses, instead of the players having to fork out huge sums: last year the band was able to buy a B flat bass (most of us would call it a tuba), which cost a little under £5000.
The change of name to Verwood Concert Brass had come in 1976, to reflect a more modern image: there was a widespread sense that the brass band world (rather like the organ world) was a backwater that had been cut off from the current of musical life. Verwood Concert Brass still has a uniform, but it is smart and sleek, and although teetotallers are welcome, alcoholic abstinence is no longer a requirement. The band still marches at the Verwood Carnival, as it has done since 1929, but marching is not part of its staple diet these days. Instead, it gives concerts at the recently-opened Verwood Hub (six of them in 2009), plays at the Bournemouth Bandstand and entertains the crowds at Verwood’s annual Rustic Fayre.
And, of course, there is ‘the National’. Fundraising for this event has been so intense that three band members went so far as to enter the Three Peaks Challenge to that end, for it is an expensive outing. Two nights at a hotel in Harrogate, hiring a coach big enough to transport thirty band members and their instruments (including a sizeable array of percussion) – even the insurance quote is frightening. A ‘Blowathon’ earlier this year, in which band members played from 8am until 8pm with only a five-minute break every hour, raised more than £1000, but there is still some way to go to achieve the required amount. In view of the ever-increasing financial burden, it is small wonder that they are seeking corporate sponsorship and hoping to achieve charitable status.
Education looms large in the band’s ethos. There has been a training band since the early 1960s, and this year saw the birth of ‘Verwood B’, which will soon start to climb its way up the band ladder by competing in Section 4 at the Regionals. As the Musical Director, David Johnson, says: ‘We have many youngsters in the training band who would find it difficult to make the leap into the main band at First Section level. The steps we are taking can only be helpful for the future of up-and-coming youngsters – or adults! These are exciting times for the band.’
[For more information about Verwood Concert Brass and their new CD ‘Bells across the Meadow’, telephone the secretary, Sally Burrows, on 01202 813723.]