John Kirkbride takes a look at the Whit Friday Band Contest in Saddleworth (illustrated with cartoons by the late Jack Kirkbride, former cartoonist for the Oldham Evening Chronicle)
If it was spelled differently, you could be forgiven for thinking that Whit Friday was some kind of annual contest for the best new joke.
But as most Saddleworthians will be fully aware, Whit Friday around here is all about brass. And I don’t mean the kind that comes with muck, but the kind that produces stirring music to march to, which is something we’ve been doing in Saddleworth for quite some time now.
Which leads me neatly to the question, where did it all start?
A brief history
It used to be called Whitsuntide when I was a nipper, but it’s also known as Pentecost. Whitsun (from White Sunday) is a moveable feast that falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter, which is why the date is different every year. It commemorates the day the Holy Spirit came to visit the disciples following the death of Jesus.
It is believed the first Pentecost marked the start of Christianity as an officially recognised movement, so Whitsun is generally considered to be its birthday. Celebrations differ slightly throughout the UK, but processions, morris dancing and music are commonplace.
When I was a youngster, back in medieval times, we were made to dress in our best on Whit Sunday and our grandparents gave us money for “new clothes”.
Since I was already wearing my new clothes I could never quite figure out how that was supposed to work. Nevertheless, on one particular Whit Sunday I was more than happy to receive my first ever ten bob note (ask your parents).
The first Friday after Pentecost is Whit Friday, and in the North West of England it’s on this day that the Whit Walks are traditionally held. However, for almost 150 years, the arrival of Whit Friday has held an extra special significance for the people of Saddleworth.
The birth of the band contest
In Stalybridge in 1809, Thomas Avison and Billy Hall formed a band, which become known as Stalybridge Old Band. The lead melody parts were originally played on flutes and ‘clarionets’, accompanied by a range of brass instruments including ‘natural’ trumpets, which were trumpets without valves.
One of the band’s darker claims to fame it that it performed at the infamous Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819.
On a lighter note, (pun intended), following the development of the valve cornet in 1815, the Stalybridge ensemble went on to become the first all brass band in Britain. (It could even have been the very first non-military brass band in the world)!
Other bands were forming in the surrounding towns and villages, and by 1870 an annual band competition was being held in Stalybridge on the day of the Whit Friday walks.
In June 1884, two additional events were held in Uppermill and Mossley, and thus it was that the tradition of Saddleworth’s Whit Friday Brass Band Contest was born.
21st century brass
Variously described as “the greatest free show on Earth” and “part Wacky Races, part Brassed Off”, the band contest on Whit Friday now attracts entrants from across the globe, not to mention a significant influx of visitors.
In 2019 there were bands from Norway, Sweden and Germany, along with the only brass band in Iceland. And when you see their faces light up at the response from the crowds lining the village streets, you can see why they make the journey.
The bands take the contest extremely seriously too, as reflected by the fact that some of the country’s top outfits come here to perform. World ranking bands like Brighouse and Rastrick, Foden’s and Fairey are regular visitors.
The trick seems to be to perform at as many of Saddleworth’s villages as possible over the course of the day, without drinking so much that you lose your cornet.
As teenagers, Whit Friday was a day we looked forward to with mounting anticipation. I seem to remember there was a time when the pubs in Saddleworth stayed open all day during the contest, (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong), but an invasion of lager-thirsty youths from outlying districts eventually put paid to that.
Nowadays many people take their own supplies of liquid refreshment. If nothing else, it means you don’t have to rely on one of those terrible plastic glasses, which is a bit like drinking out of a polythene bag. And if my own two sons are anything to go by, the occasion is looked forward to now just as eagerly as it ever was.
But Whit Friday isn’t about the drinking, of course. For those of a more spiritual frame of mind it’s about the walking and the marking of Pentecost. But for many of us, more than anything its about celebrating the joy of rousing and well-played brass band music and the pleasure of that shared experience.
It’s a day of happy chaos, of glittering (and often glistening) brass instruments, and unfeasibly large coaches shoe-horned into tiny country lanes.
It’s a day of sounds and sights and smiles, when the community comes together to show its appreciation for the hundreds of players who make the journey.
For the musicians, it’s an opportunity to show off their talents to one of the most appreciative crowds they’ll probably ever play to. It’s also an opportunity to win prize money to help support the bands themselves, and achieving an award at the Saddleworth contest is something to be genuinely proud of.
It’s become a tradition that we should be proud of, too. And with the 2021 contest sadly cancelled, I guess it’s up to us to make the 2022 event a day to remember.
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s there was a popular theory as to why many of the country’s most successful brass bands were located in and around the Pennines… According to this hypothesis, it was all due to the area being full of hills, and the physical exertion needed to walk up and down them. This additional exercise, it was suggested, gave the inhabitants superior respiratory control which made them better suited to playing wind instruments.
Even the illustrious British Bandsman magazine admitted in 1914 that: “It cannot be denied that the home of the brass band is on the slopes of the Pennine chain.” So now you know.