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Brass Band History, background and current context

Many thanks to Russell Norman (our former Flugel player) for putting together this information on the history of the brass band movement.


Brass Bands have a direct connection with the medieval ‘waits’ formed over 500 years ago as watchmen for the walled towns and cities.  Aspects of their traditions, including the wearing of emblems, braid and uniforms date from Elizabethan decrees to wear badges identifying their patronage.

Whilst the waits were formally disbanded in 1835, many of their musicians had already made the transition into church bands, most notably after the Reformation (mid 1600s) when church organs had been destroyed.  However, the church bands themselves went into decline in the early nineteenth century as church organs regained their traditional hold. 

The influence of a militaristic tradition of banding provided further impetus to the musical tradition among the lower classes. This became focussed into bands in their own right and bands, based on the reed and brass orchestration, emerged which were soon to become household names in the banding world, e.g. Black Dyke (1816), Besses o’ th’ Barn (1818).  Brass Bands have an early association with social movements of the day, e.g. the temperance movement, industrial communities such as collieries and works bands, missions, the co-operative movement in the 1880s and, in the 1870s, the Salvation Army. 

Even in the early days, bands were present at key historic events, the Stalybridge band being present at the Peterlee massacre in 1819 and Yarm Town Band performing at the opening of the Stockton to Darlington railway line in 1825.  Many of these early bands were both brass and woodwind, it was only in the 1830’s that the traditional brass format emerged.   By the 1880s, the Brass Band News claimed the existence of 40,000 amateur bands in the United Kingdom.

Contesting was a feature of Brass Banding as far back as 1845 but it was the Great Exhibition in 1851 which spurred on both the movement and its contesting nature.  In 1860, the relocated Crystal Palace was used for the first contest in the South, covering two days with over 173 bands entering.  The audience exceeded 27,000 and was reported in the Times.

Whilst at times denegrated by “professional musicians” the Brass Band world has had many impressive supporters, Gustav Holst wrote a test piece for the Crystal Palace contest, Edward Elgar wrote a test piece in 1930.  Other supporters include John Ireland, Sir Adrian Boult, Vaughan Williams and Andre Previn.