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Upper Weardale Brass Band
How the miners of Upper Weardale, in the hard-worked, health-destructive, poverty-stricken times of the 1830s, could have the energy and interest to form a brass band is something to be wondered at today. They broke the ordinary, if not monotonous routine of their lives in an entirely different way from that indulged in by many, namely drinking, fighting and blood-sports. However, the divine spirit of harmony will, in spite of obstacles, find expression in song and music, so these poor miners of varied ages and temperaments came from (heir scattered, high-lying homes, inspired by that impulse, and formed themselves into the first band. Through the loss of records, probably only tradition can tell who were the originators, who composed the first trust, how instruments were gathered together, who was the first leader and in whose house or barn they practiced before they had a hall. Nevertheless out of the hazy past emerged a band that ultimately took its place among the bands of the north and became a premier institution in the Dale. Interesting it would be to know their names, but we can guess fairly safely, as their descendants, the names of English, Milburn, Emmerson, Fairless and Peart, names that figured in the band sixty years later.
With courage and goodwill these men brought to the Dale in the 1890s the finest band in the country, Bessie's o' the Barn. No hall was large enough for it to be heard to advantage or to cope with the numbers required to pay expenses, so the concert was given in a field near St. John's Chapel on a Sunday afternoon. It was a perfect setting, hills and woodland around, the river flowing by, a lovely day and, as the strains of music wafted through the valley, every propect pleasing but the gathering itself. Whatever the reasons, and a few can be given not to the credit of the Dale, the pioneers responsible for bringing the first classical band faced their disappointment and losses as bravely as they faced the risk.
The time came when the Upper Weardale Band fell on evil days. Due to local casualties in the first World War, its later social upheavals, world slump, deaths, removals and lack of interest, it ceased to be.
Then before the second World War came its re-birth, truly an epic story in the history of bands. News filtered out that some of the most valuable instruments had been sold. Mr. Ernest E. Milner, of Westgate, was inspired to form a band in the village, hastily put forward his scheme, receiving the backing of prominent villagers, to secure, if possible, the remaining instruments. He hastened with another enthusiast to Cowshill to secure, if possible, the remaining instruments. He contacted some of the surviving trustees, put forward his scheme to re-form the band and asked for the instruments to be under the care of a new trust at Westgate, of which he would be secretary.
After an agreeable parley, consent was given and the pair, gathering together as many instruments as they could, brought them triumphantly home by bus. A stranger entering at St. John's Chapel. perhaps thinking they were dealers, casually asked if they had had a fair sale.
Instruments and fervour in themselves don't make a band, but twenty-four young men enrolled and, believe it or not, only two knew anything of music. Mr. Jack Woodhall of Stanhope took on the job of teacher and leader, and what a task, what patience, but the work went on week after week, practising in the Barrington School, never flagging, till at last they made their first public appearance in St. Andrew's Church with the playing of two or three tunes to a large audience.
Success had crowned their efforts, four cornets were purchased, uniforms were wanted but there was no money, and who would be guarantors? Seven young men and the secretary volunteered, and though they had fervour and faith they had no money, but faith is greater than money and £130 would soon be to hand. All sorts of schemes were quickly afoot. The secretary wrote pamphlets on bands in general and Weardale ones in particular, with other news; these were extensively sold. He also edited a monthly journal called "The Wear Valley Monthly Review" dealing with everything of interest in the life of the Dale. The profits of both these ventures went into the coffers of the band. Young ladies of the village raised a substantial sum by various means; these efforts, with musical ones by the band itself, cleared off all debts. What was the result'? Through the inspiration and patience of their leader they became a band worthy of all praise and once their ability was known they were much in demand in many inland towns and seaside resorts. Beyond the Pennine Range and in Lakeland they were heard.
To show the excellent progress the band made, five of its members were invited to assist the Stanhope Silver Band on the two occasions which competed and gained awards in the National Contests at Crystal Palace, more than that, one of the players, E. E. Milner, had the honour of broadcasting from Broadcasting House his impressions of the contests. The thrill is still remembered when the voice of a dales village lad came over the ether some years before the second world war, a unique experience for a young member from a newly formed band.
Amusing things occurred, for they had a jester among them as kings used to have. This was John Rostock, a born wit who strove to greet the official who received them on arrival, as at Ullswater Sports for example, saying in broad dialect, "En hoo er yer; er yer aaw reet at hiam." Once, at Hexham, between their two concerts about eight of the players wandered into a Methodist service. Seeing the red collars of their uniforms above the pew backs, the speaker thought they were of the Salvation Army and saying how he appreciated their presence he asked one of them to pray for them - an awkward situation but John stepped obligingly into the breach, at first to the relief and later to the amusement of all.
As war and depression played havoc with the old band, so was continued depression, with removals plus a second war, to seal the doom of the new. At the entrance to the legendary Arthurian cave, along with garter and sword lies a horn, to be blown by any mortal who stumbles upon it. This will awaken Arthur, his court and thirty couple of hounds, to their surprise and that of the world. So do the Weardale instruments lie awaiting the revival of the old spirit that blew them, that they may dispel the gloom of inertia that hangs like a heavy pall on youth today.
Turning from the grave to the ludicrous, I am reminded of the story of a very devoted follower of the old Weardale band; wherever they went he followed. Full of years he died, at least he dreamed so. Knocking at the heavenly gate for admission, he was met by Peter who demanded his passport. Just then his ear caught the strains of a band approaching from the infernal regions, and what music, wild, ravishing, irresistible ! Spellbound, as they swept passed he recognised his old band. "Come in, come in," said Peter. "No, never," he said defiantly, "I'm following the band."