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Gwaun Cae Gurwen Band
We start our story in 1884 – the year of the "Cutting of the Clod" at the new Maerdy pit which was to bring new employment to the village. To celebrate the occasion, it is recorded that eight local instrumentalists – four cornets, tenor, trombone, euphonium, bass and the big drum played at the ceremony and what an occasion it must have been to have brass music at the birth of a new way of life. Anthracite coal mining had brought prosperity to other areas with friendly societies flourishing, each with its annual parade to flaunt its colourful banner. What better to lead a parade through the villages and small towns than your very own brass band. The conception had occurred, but it was eight years later before the inspired dream of a few locals became reality, when in 1892 a meeting was held to form a brass band in Gwaun Cae Gurwen. The records show that each founder member had to deposit £5 with Higham & Sons towards the £250 needed to purchase a set of second hand instruments. Furthermore, each band member had to contribute one shilling per week to help clear the balance owed.
As the band grew in strength, it was officially decreed on the 11th December 1883 that a society had been formed and henceforth be known as the Gwaun Cae Gurwen Brass Band.
The first conductor was David Benjamin Evans, a local man known for his fine vocal chords and his playing of the euphonium. No doubt he was locally known as "Dai Ben" as was the custom in those days and his family still reside in the village, his great grand daughter being Assembly Member Gwenda Thomas. He taught the players free of charge and progress was such that the band was competing in 1898 complete with a set of new instruments.
The start of the 20th century brought a Mr. Walter Exley from as far as Huddersfield to take over the baton and unfortunately no record or stories can explain this two hundred mile exodus to the land of song, nor how long the journey took. His leadership during his six year stay brought continued success and his successor a Mr Jones of Ferndale held office for just a short period before Jim Woodhead from Mansfield was appointed, he stayed with the band until 1909.
These early years had brought the band to an age of maturity, but little did people realise the success that was to follow as the age of steam and radio communication would spread their fame. The mining village of Gwaun Cae Gurwen was now becoming renowned as the village of "Band Y Waun".
The Silver Years
A period of stability befell the band upon the appointment of Mr T. J. Rees as conductor in 1909 and it was during the next 20 years that "Band Y Waun" became known throughout Great Britain. They annually competed at the famous Belle Vue Championship Contest in Manchester and between the years of 1921 and 1924 they were always in the prizes. What an experience it must have been then for local miner to travel to Manchester. The final rehearsal was often on the square prior to boarding the train.
The year 1925 saw the band invited to play at the Wembley National Exhibition Centre where they became the first brass band ever to broadcast outside a studio. Just imagine how the local people who had radios must have felt the pride of hearing their own band playing in London.
In 1926 the year of the great strike, Tal Morris who had previously been the band's solo cornetist and the son of one of the founders took over the baton. He was regarded as being one of the finest cornet players of his day and his success and talent led him to be offered the post of musical director of the Rhyl Band in North Wales, which he accepted in 1928 and held until his death in 1947. Fortunately Mr T. J. Rees was again at hand and he continued as conductor until 1932 when rather sadly the band ceased to function.
The twenties had been very successful years for a band from a small Welsh mining village and those times will always be cherished memories, but more than anything an important lesson had been learnt, up until then, no systematic method of training youngsters had applied, so the necessary new talent to maintain a top band was not forthcoming. Its survival was now back in the hands of the committee.
The Uncle Dan Years
In September 1933 the former double bass player Dan Lloyd who had joined the band in 1901 was invited to form a junior band assisted by a few of the former players. By Whitsun 1934 the newly formed young band was ready for its first contest, success soon followed with the band winning first prize. The same year they qualified to compete at the famous Crystal Palace in London when again the first prize in their section was brought home to Wales.
This was the start of a partnership which brought unrivalled success with the local band achieving 28 firsts, 3 seconds and one third prize in the first 32 contests attended between 1933 and 1939. This probably the greatest era in the history of brass bands and Gwaun Cae Gurwen competed against the best in the land, including such famous names as Black Dyke, Brighouse, Munn & Felton, Fairey Aviation to name just a few. As time elapses it is only befitting to put on record for posterity of how the name "Uncle Dan" came about, because everybody in the brass band world virtually thought of him as their uncle Dan. Being one of eleven children himself (brothers Ifan and Jim; sisters Annie, Bessie, Catherine, Deborah, Hettie, Maggie, Mary and Nellie) and as they all got married so did the number of nephews and nieces grew to form the great Lloyds of G.C.G. It is estimated that during his reign as conductor no less than eighteen nephews played under him, the most famous of these was Roland Jones (Annie's son) the celebrated euphonium player who went on to join Black Dyke and eventually joined the Sadler's Wells Opera Company where he became one of the country's leading tenors. As one can imagine with more than half the band calling him quite rightly "Uncle Dan" the name soon caught on and becoming synonymous with "Band Y Waun".
In 1945 they won for the first time the Daily Herald Welsh Area Championship and at the Royal Albert Hall finals shared 7th place with Black Dyke. During the late forties the band was again at their peak but sadly at their pinnacle, uncle Dan's health started to deteriorate and in 1948 another band player took over, this time their brilliant solo cornet player Mr Haydn Morris. The band continued their success under his leadership however the interest waned after 20 glorious years and the band disbanded in 1953. The lesson had still not been learnt as again there were insufficient juniors to keep the band alive.
The Years of Mixed Fortune
In 1955 interested local youngsters were gathered together and taught from scratch to play and understand music by Haydn Morris in an endeavour to start another band and by 1956 there was a full compliment aided by five former players.
That same year the newly formed band qualified in the Welsh Area Contest held at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea. This was the much needed incentive and success followed in 1959 when the band qualified for the London Championships where they remained until 1965.
In an endeavour to overcome earlier mistakes a junior band had also been formed under the baton of Mr. Ivor Davies. The year 1965 saw for the first time a championship band together with a junior band and later having qualified at Swansea, went on to win the National Youth Championship of Great Britain a great tribute to Ivor who had worked so diligently with the youngsters.
The relegation of the main band proved a difficult period and failure to encourage the best young players from the successful junior band to fill vacancies in the senior band caused its eventual collapse. What had started as a safeguard had conversely through its own success proved the main band's downfall.
Fortunately the village still had a band now in fourth section and this continued successfully again playing in the London finals of 1967 after which the bandmaster Mr Ivor Davies resigned. The next conductor was again an ex player of Uncle Dan's band, locally born Mr Emrys Henry who again brought success to the band. He continued his leadership until 1973 when he was succeeded by Mr Kenfin Evans, a teacher from Pontypridd and a former player of the Parc and Dare band. Mr Evans worked tirelessly to revive interest and to restore the players' confidence which had waned somewhat during this period, but later that year Mr Evans left the band. For a period the band existed without a conductor but still managed to compete at the London Finals.
The year of 1975 saw the appointment of Mr Gilbert Francis of Pontardulais who had previously played soprano cornet with the band in the early sixties, and he continued until 1977 when for the third time Mr Haydn Morris returned to the position of Musical Director. This period saw the band's individual player's sweep the boards all over Wales in solo and quartet competitions which helped put the band back in the championship section in 1980 – but the young band were up against experienced players and unfortunately were relegated back into second division in 1981.
The End of an Era
The year 1982 saw the bands most major upheaval when after an association of 90 years they moved away from the Mount Pleasant Inn. The committee had decided that owning its own bandroom was the ultimate aim and had purchase the old Wesleyan Chapel in Church Lane, Cwmgors. Unused for many years the building was in a dilapidated state, but with hard work, determination and the rallying of finances the first practice was held at their very own headquarters on the 8th February 1982. The questions now were, would the band survive; was the change of moving after 90 years in a public house to a former chapel going to be too much of a contradiction to what had become an institution? The necessary remedial work and alterations seemed to form a strong bond amongst all concerned and the new headquarters was officially opened on May 19th 1984.
Ironically as if content that he'd completed his life's dedication in ensuring the bands survival to its new home, the death of Harry Gourmil in November 1985 ended an association of more than 50 years service with the band. A year later during the summer of 1986, Haydn Morris's association with the band both as player and conductor came to an end. The last four years possibly with all the changes occurring had seen the band through a difficult stage but it was alive and financially sound ready for new inspiration.
A change of conductor brought immediate success to the band under the leadership of Eric James a former solo cornet player renowned for his musical ability. A new sound was beginning to emerge. Here was the inspiration needed towards the modern 90's brass band music. The enthusiasm was phenomenal and the forthcoming visit of a West German Band – Blasorchester Kleinblittersdorf on a potential exchange visit gave the band an euphoria of well being. The Easter weekend of 1987 became the start of an international friendship.
Success continued in an up and down pattern but an area competition in Neath saw the band give an outstanding performance on "Aeronauts" winning first prize however October 1990 brought the sad news of the tragic death of the bandmaster Eric James, killed in an accident at his place of work in his native village of Cwmgwrach. This tragedy stunned the band; the world of music had been robbed of a natural talent at such an early age. Surprisingly the band managed to contain its "Hiraeth" sufficiently to compete in the November finals in Blackpool under the temporary leadership of Mr Don Hendy who so graciously helped the band at its time of grief, but sadly there was no prize to lift the gloom.
The band's committee engaged the services of Mr Ceri Thomas, a police constable in the Swansea Force. The year 1992 saw the band and its musical director Ceri Thomas celebrate its centenary birthday. To commemorate the occasion, a plate was commissioned followed by a centenary dinner at Craig Y Nos Castle. The centenary celebrations culminated with a joint concert with our guest West German Band – Blasorchester Kleinblittersdorf at Theatre Cwmtawe, Pontardawe.
Ceri Thomas accomplished in reorganising the playing strength of the band and brought renewed interest however his association with the band came to an end in May 1993.
The band's committee later appointed Mr Alan R Bourne to take over the baton. He brought new inspiration and interest into the band. The Easter weekend of 1995 saw the band travel abroad to Kleinblittersdorf, West Germany for a weekend of musical festivities.
Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the MD the band continued to perform and maintain a high standard of playing however long after the band's visit to Kleinblittersdorf and the departure of Alan Bourne the number of band members dwindled to a handful and it soon became clear that drastic action was needed if the band was to survive and develop into the future.
The band's committee appointed Mr Colin Hogg in March 1999 and soon the band got down to the serious business of practising, however poor attendance and the lack of players meant the band had to withdraw from many competitions and this resulted in them being relegated to the 3rd section. Colin Hog felt there was potential within the band but sadly it wasn't enough to keep his interest and he resigned as Musical Director in November 1999.
Wynne Williams later filled the position of MD. He was an experienced player who previously played principle cornet with the band, but the relegation of the band proved to be a difficult period and the lack of playing members meant that the band had to import guest players in order to put on performances. It proved impossible to attract new players on a permanent basis.
The band and its committee made a successful application for a Lottery Grant through the Arts Council of Wales and during the summer of 2000 the old chapel was demolished and a new superb facility erected. During this period the band were temporarily relocated.
The band's committee employed guest conductor Tommy Charlton to see the band through competitions and Wynne Williams filled in as MD in the weeks leading up to competitions. This arrangement was agreed by the committee as Wynne Williams was needed as cornet player during competitions.
The New Bandroom
24th June 2000 was a landmark date in the history of the Gwaun Cae Gurwen Band. The date marked the official opening of the new bandroom by Assembly Member, Gwenda Thomas. The new headquarters boasted spacious practice rooms, kitchen & toilet facilities and ample storage rooms.
A new home brought resurgence and interest into the band. Wynne Williams resumed his position as player in the band and the committee appointed Mr Tommy Charlton as MD permanently. For a while the future looked bright with the band winning first prize in Ebbw Vale Contest.
Maintaining the bandroom demanded a strong financial commitment and the band was dependant on performance fees for its up keep and much of the financial support was received from the village and the surrounding areas with many supporters buying tickets from the development scheme which generated some £4,000 of annual revenue.
The band found themselves once again without a conductor at the end of August 2001 and was now in fourth section. Another change brought a new conductor into the band. Mr Ron Williams offered his services as Musical Director in October 2001. A retired sergeant who brought with him the influence of military music and soon he settled to the task and continued the traditions and regular commitments of the band until 2005 when another change brought around a new conductor.
Glyn Rhys Davies had plenty of youthful enthusiasm and brought to the band immediate success and with the future looking bright; suddenly competitions became a source of inspiration with the band achieving many prizes during his first year as musical director. He steered the band right back to second section and the band went from strength to strength.
The band continued to work hard under his leadership and in 2007 were awarded with the T. J. Powell Trophy cup and declared champions of second section, a great achievement for the band and its musical director, and the well deserved title brought to a close a very successful year.
The Ladies Supporters Club
During the last 40 years, the band has received tremendous support and financial assistance from the Ladies Supporters club. Their dedication in organising raffles, refreshments and numerous other activities have raised thousands of pounds over the years. An association of 51 years with the longest serving committee member came to an end when sadly Betty Jones passed away leaving fond memories with the band.
The Next Generation of young Musicians
The future of the band has been well supported by a thriving junior section with many youngsters finding friendship, and new musical challenges. Their enthusiasm, commitment and talent have carried the band throughout the years and inspired those responsible for its management to devote so much of their time. Many of these youngsters have now established themselves into the senior band. There has always been a healthy mix of youth and experience with the oldest serving member to date being Ashley Jones having served 67 years membership with the band and still actively involved to this present day.