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Bedford Town Band
The band can trace its history back to a Council Meeting on 9th September 1893 when an item on the agenda was "Bands and Street Music". The person responsible for this appears to have been the Mayor, Mr F.A. Blades, who felt that it would be a good thing to have a Town Band. After much discussion the item was allowed "... to stand over for a year."
This appears to be the first mention of a Town Band but it was still some time before there was any action.
Late in 1893 Mr William Tyrer appeared on the scene offering £100 to a local string band. However, on finding that this group had political affiliations he moved his interest to the existing Wesleyan Mission Band, members of which he frequently entertained to supper at the Coffee Tavern in Harpur Street.
It was at one of these gatherings on 13th April 1894 that the reformation and future management of the Wesleyan Band was discussed. Other interested parties were present and many advanced money to support the Band. At this time only 15 instruments were owned by the Band. A Committee was formed and the name was changed to "The Bedford Town Band".
The newly formed band's first engagement was on the 4th May 1894 (Whit Monday) at a Grand Fete in Cardington Road under the baton of Mr William Taylor who had been the conductor of the Wesleyan Mission Band. Members of this formed the nucleus of the new band. The performance received favourable comment. It was reported that the Band played with "... much taste and expression with selections of an elevating class and understanding of the people."
On the 18th August 1894 the Band entered its first contest at the Athletic Ground in Luton under the baton of Mr Ogden of the Luton Red Cross Band. Success was quick in coming and the Band won two contests, the first for the playing of a quick step with a prize of 15s and the second for the competition proper for which the test piece was 'Elixir of Love'. The first prize for this was £4 and a cornet to the value of £9 9s. A silver medal was also awarded to the best player. An auspicious start for the new Bedford Town Band.
Band History: the early years
After early success in competition and performances at a range of festivities the Band played an important part in the town's celebrations to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria on 22nd June 1897. The stage for this was a raft moored near the Suspension Bridge, and upwards of 2000 people were present, no doubt encouraged by the portions of "mouth watering roasted Jubilee Ox" which were given away.
At this time there was only one bandstand in the town which had been erected in 1888 in Bedford Park, where it still stands today. This site was not greatly favoured by bands as "collections did not yield satisfactory results." This led to suggestions for a bandstand by the river to complement the one in Bedford Park, but the idea was not formally considered by the Council until the following year.
The Band continued their summer seasons of Sunday concerts in Bedford Park and Mill Meadows, but the question of entertainment on the Sabbath was raised at a Council Meeting. At the same meeting one particular Alderman stated that "... if he had his way, he would have prevented the bands playing at all on Sundays since the bands playing in Mill Meadows, particularly, caused scenes of rowdyism and ruffianism which were a positive disgrace and a curse in the town. There were many present at the concerts who would otherwise be in a place of worship and as to the argument that some people were kept away from the public houses he would contend it was better to let such people stay in the public houses than that the youth of the town should be demoralized in the way that they were at the concerts in Mill Meadows. He had frequently been obliged to go a longer way home from church on a Sunday evening because he would not take his children past such scenes of ruffianism as were to be witnessed." It was agreed however that the rowdyism was not the fault of the Band, even though they were the main reason for the people being there.
Despite this 'picturesque' description of Sunday afternoons in Mill Meadows the Council again discussed the subject of a bandstand and compromised by instructing the Borough Engineer to accept a tender of £48 15s for the "... raising of the existing platform with the provision of a fence, hand rail, also proper footpaths."
It may well have been that these 'improvements' were carried out because 1902 saw the Coronation of Edward VII and one of the proposed festivities was a grand procession headed by the Band.
Band History: 1900-1920
From 1903 to 1906 the Band gave regular concerts in Bedford Park and Mill Meadows with further engagements at Woburn Flower Show and the Liberal Party Picnic at Southill Park.
The first photograph of the Band was taken in 1903 to commemorate the success at a contest at the Langford Show. There were similar successes in 1904 and 1907. On this latter occasion there was some difficulty regaining possession of the cup, which was only achieved after action was taken at Kettering County Court, the other party being Burton Latimer Britannia Band.
During the early 1900s river concerts were given by the Band on the Dame Alice Barge. In 1907 a floating bandstand, built by Messrs Chetham Sons and Biffen, was in use but unfortunately this developed dry rot and during the 1914/18 War it broke up and went over the weir.
In 1909 the Band was fortunate enough to obtain the services of Mr C.A. Vine, retired Chief Bandmaster of the Royal Navy, as conductor. He was obviously a man of many talents, having taught for ten years at Harrow School, who offered tuition in piano, violin, cello, mandolin and banjo as well as all woodwind and brass instruments. Such was his rapport with the Band that a series of concerts followed which culminated in the presentation of a set of tubular bells by local shop owner and dignitary, Mr E.P. Rose. Unfortunately Mr Vine died later that year.
With the support of ten local businessmen, who agreed to act as trustees, the Band was able to promote a concert by the then famous Besses o' th' Barn Band, who had already made two World tours. This concert took place in front of an enthusiastic audience at the Corn Exchange with 'hundreds of other people' listening from the adjacent Saracen's Yard.
July 1912 saw the first mention of the Band playing at the Bedford Regatta: "Whilst the Band were providing a feast of music, starters with magaphones, and the one hundred and one aiders and abettors of noise and commotion were doing their powerful best to drown its strain." (T'was ever thus!)
With the coming of the Great War many members of the Band enlisted in the armed services. However, concerts for the troops were held at the Empire Cinema in Midland Road, the Picturedrome (now the Moat House Hotel), the Corn Exchange and at recruiting rallies in Russell Park.
It was during the first year of the war that the Band's association with the famous Mortimer family began, as members received tuition form Mr Fred Mortimer of the Luton Red Cross Band. Several years later, in 1921, his even more famous son, Harry, appeared as soloist with the Band at the Corn Exchange playing 'The Lost Chord' and 'Les Follies'.
Band History: between the Wars
On 12th December 1920, at a grand concert at the Corn Exchange, Master Reginald Crane (then aged 13) gave a performance on his cornet of 'Alice Where Art Though?'. Over the next 50 years 'Reg' Crane was to play a key role in the continuity and development of brass banding in the town.
Whilst the Corn Exchange and the former Empire and Plaza cinemas were ideal venues for indoor concerts, the 'platform' in Mill Meadows was still felt by many to be far from suitable. In response to this dilemma the Band agreed to build a raft, but only on the condition that the Council would take over the maintenance and make it available to anyone. The raft was to be made up of three punts supporting a playing platform one foot (!) above the level of the water. Many are the stories told of the day the raft 'sank' and the following is one account that appeared in a local newspaper under the heading 'The Band's Adventure':
"Thousands of Bedfordians and visitors had gathered on the Embankment on Whit Monday 1923 on a day that had improved with keeping and the riverside was attractive at eventide, to which was to be added the dulcet strains of silver instruments played in harmony. With an air of expectancy the crowd waited, soon to be heightened, while the silver instruments and the hopeful instrumentalists shipped aboard the floating bandstand from the Mill Meadows End. Eight or nine of the bandsmen congregated at the outward end of the bandstand, just as it pushed off from the shore and were soon vastly perturbed to discover that their edge was sinking in the deep. Their hurried movements threw the Band into confusion and the motion that ensued aboard the craft did not improve the situation. The edge was soon awash and feet were getting wet. Three of them then dived into the stream and swam ashore. One of these 'heroes' who had not swum for many years, said 'He wasn't going to wait to be drowned'. The craft was evacuated and the instruments and music were rescued intact, the incident being put down to indiscriminate distribution of weight."
Following this incident the raft was dismantled with the intention of adding further floats.
On 10th April 1926 a new bandstand was opened by the Mayor, Alderman G.H. Barford, in St Mary's Gardens. In an effort to avoid any possible jealousy between the three bands in the town (Town, Trades and Military) the Council invited the Luton Red Cross Band, one of the finest in the country at that time, to play at the official opening. There was no animosity between the rival bands who, indeed, had proposed a massed performance for charity. However, it was felt by some members of the respective bands that it was something of an insult to invite a rival band from a different part of the County to be the first to perform on the new bandstand.
Such was the strength of feeling on the issue that a protest march was held on 16th April 1926, (in the pouring rain), involving the Town, Trades and Military bands, beginning at the Midland Road Station, with each band playing in turn as they proceeded to the Market Hill. A public meeting then took place at which a reported crowd of 4000 passed the following resolution:
"That the public meeting unanimously resents the action of the municipal authorities in permitting the official opening of the new bandstand in St Mary's to be performed by a band outside the Borough and it is the opinion of the meeting that the authorities' decision deprived the citizens and ratepayers of their legitimate rights.
On the 16th November 1930 the Town Band played before a gathering of some 6000 to 7000 people at a memorial service held in the Number 2 Airship Shed at Cardington Camp for those who lost their lives when the R101 Airship crashed in Beauvais, France.
Over the next few years the Band continued to appear at the usual fetes, on the bandstand and on the redesigned river raft, but sadly without attracting much apparent publicity. This might well have been an indication of the beginnings of a shift in popular attitudes towards banding and a response to significant developments in radio and the cinema.
Band History: The Second World War
On 22nd October 1939 Charlie Chamberlain, the Band conductor for many years, was knocked off his bicycle whilst on his way home from band practice by an RAF vehicle on the Town Bridge, and was fatally injured.
The 'Holidays at Home' programmed was devised by the Government in early 1940 and to facilitate this Local Authorities were provided with funds to increase and improve recreational amenities. Consequently the bandstand was moved at a cost of £187 19s from St Mary's Gardens where it had become something of a white elephant to a more favourable site in Mill Meadows, where it remains to this day. The 'raft' was moved to Russell Park where it was used as a stage until it was eventually vandalised for firewood.
Following the Second World War the Band had some difficulty re-establishing itself and, in response to a request for financial assistance, the Council agreed to contribute £2 10s towards the expenses for each concert given at the Mill Meadows, up to a maximum of £150 for the season. Prior to this the Band had been dependent upon public collections at the outdoor concerts and an annual house-to-house collection.
Band History: 1945-1970
In 1948 Mr Reg Crane was appointed bandmaster and the following year, under his direction, the Band won a shield at the Northants Association Contest at Rushden, the first trophy in 44 years.
1950 was also a particularly good year for the Band; they gave 35 concerts with never less than 28 players, and held 93 rehearsals with an average attendance of 25 members. In the same year they qualified for the National Finals at Belle Vue, Manchester.
Mr Crane, with the undoubted assistance of Messrs Bromfield, Dilley, Keech, Rose and 'Spike' Taylor to name but a few carried the Band over the ensuing years with tireless enthusiasm, and devotion to a policy of teaching youngsters.
In any organisation there has to be someone 'behind the scenes', and in the case of the Bedford Town Band this was Mr Arthur Ball. Having been appointed Secretary in 1903 he guided the Band for over 50 years, arranging hundreds of concerts and even sponsoring the Band at some contests. Upon his retirement in 1952 he received a letter from Mr Fred Mortimer declaring "... I don't know how the Band will fill your place. You should be honoured in some way by the Brass Band World, let's hope so." Sadly national recognition was not forthcoming.
Arthur Ball would have have been pleased to have known that in October 1966 Mander College was the venue for the first contest in the town for over 45 years. Some 700 people were in attendance with over 200 bandsmen and women. The contest followed the format of an entertainment contest and was so succesful that it was repeated the following year.
In October 1969 following three years hard work 18 new instruments were purchased at a cost of £1400. This allowed the older ones they replaced, some of which were 50 years old to be used to form a Junior Band. This had a number of engagements in its own right, including one at the Granada Cinema before the showing of "The Railway Children".
Reg Crane had a particular gift for inspiring and teaching young players and encouraged them to enter contests and local festivals with some success. Such was the enthusiasm of those clamouring to joing that one lad of 13 cycled seven miles to rehearse three times a week. When asked why he did it he replied, "I like it."
Band History: the 1970s
The Band's first opportunity to play in front of royalty occurred in July 1973 when the Queen of Lesotho opened a fete in aid of "The Save the Children Fund" at Bedford School. There was some difficulty in obtaining the Lesotho National Anthem which was eventually forwarded by their Embassy in London.
Shortly after this prestigious event Mr Crane died in hospital, and the Band lost a man who had given 50 years of his life to banding in and around Bedford. The Band was then taken over by Reg Dilley, another long serving member until late 1974 when Terry Hext was appointed as Musical Director and Ralph Fawthrop as Band Manager.
The Band was indeed fortunate to secure the services of Terry Hext who had a wealth of experience as a trombone player with the Coldstream Guards, the Luton Band and GUS. As well as his playing experience Terry was a peripatetic brass teacher within the County and later became Head of Brass teaching for Bedfordshire.
Such was his patience as a teacher and his ability to bring out the best in players that there was soon a marked improvement in the Band's fortunes. After only a short period under his direction the Band was performing consistently well and was promoted from the Fourth to the Championship Section in consecutive years (an achievement which few unsponsored bands have managed.) During this period the Band won the Fourth, Third and Second Sections of the London and Southern Counties Annual Contests with the average age of the members being 23 and with 14 being under 18 years of age.
At the time of Terry Hext's appointment the principal cornet was Andrew Culshaw, then 15 years of age, who later on was to become a founder member of the Fine Arts Brass Ensemble who have gone on to undertake regular tours throughout the World.
Another success story within the Band was that of Michael Hext who in 1978, at the age of 17, won the first "BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition". Both he and his younger brother, David (a percussionist), went on to pursue successful careers and professional musicians in National Orchestras.
On 29th September 1979, following the Band's continuing progress under the direction of Terry Hext, and influenced by the success of his son, Michael, the Band recorded the first of several BBC Radio broadcasts.
Band History: the 1980s
February 1980 was a particularly good month for the Band in that thery were placed second at the Winter Contest and Festival of Light Music at the Wembley Conference Centre and won the Championship Section at the Milton Keynes Entertainment Contest. In March the Band was promoted to the Championship Section after winning the Second Section Area Championship.
These successes brought further rewards in the form of a joint concert with the Cambridge Co-op Band at the Bedford Corn Exchange. As part of this concert Harry Mortimer, who had last appeared with the Band as a guest soloist in 1920, conducted Michael Hext as he played 'Rhapsody for Trombone' by Gordon Langford.
Towards the end of 1980 the Band recorded two sessions for the BBC's 'Listen to the Band' and 'Bandstand' programmes. A later session for 'Among Your Souvenirs' meant that the Band had broadcast on all the National BBC programmes featuring brass bands. Indeed, 1983 was the fifth consecutive year in which the Band were invited by the BBC to record a programme. At the time of the first of these the Band was still in the Second Section.
A great deal of the credit for the Band's achievements during this 'purple' period must go to Ralph Fawthrop who was the Band's Manager and Chairman. In addition, the Junior Band, under the capable direction of Marion Hext (wife of the Musical Director), provided a vital source of new talent.
In early 1988 Terry Hext left the Band and Roy Turner, a local peripatetic teacher, took charge at the Area Contest.
In July of this year the Band was invited to play at a 'Victorian Weekend' to celebrate the Centenary of Bedford Park, where they had played on many occasions in the past. Unfortunately the bandstand had fallen into disrepair by this time.
At this time new uniforms were purchased with a generous grant from the Borough Council, and were worn for the first time at the Milton Keynes Contest in February 1989 where Michael Statham (flugel) won the prize for the best soloist in the Second Section, playing 'Concerto d'Aranjeuz' by Rodrigo.
When Roy Turner left the Band in March 1989 to take up a position at the Royal Worcester Grammar School the Band came under the capable direction of another local peripatetic, Michael Lock, who was assisted by visiting conductors, Len Jenkins and David Twitchings with Jim Hibbert taking the baton at the annual Christmas Concert at the Corn Exchange.
Band History: the 1990s
In December 1990 Kevin Prince was appointed as Musical Director, and he brought with him several players from his previous band, Sundon Park/Farrs of Luton. These talents greatly strengthened the Band.
The beginning of the 90s and the run up to the Band's Centenary saw a change of rehearsal venue from the Bedford Trades Club to the Southfields Centre, Kempston, and an improvement in the Band's fortunes at contests.
These results are an indication of an improving band with a very competent resident conductor, David Twitchings, who, as well as being a good cornet player, was an exceedingly skilled arranger of brass band music. It was under his direction that the appropriately entitled cassette 'Centenary' was recorded in September 1992.
During these years a 'B' Band was established, comprising a number of younger players who have reached a good standard, ably reinforced by several adults. This band, as well as grooming players for the senior band, also gave concerts in its own right under the enthusiastic direction of Roger Nicholls.