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Stalham Brass Band
It has often been said that Brass Bands were born in the churches. They provided the necessary music and accompanied the hymn singing. Provision of an elevated rostrum in the lower tower area must have been quite impressive, and there is still evidence of them in many local churches.
Brass Bands first appeared around the country in the mid nineteenth century - the bandsmen invariably came from 'working class' families and were seldom joined by those of higher social status, although a measure of financial support was sometimes given by industrial firms, probably for commercial publicity.
Early musical groups included some reed instruments and indeed the Stalham Band had a clarinet player until the 1930's.
In East Anglia there are a few bands still in existence which have celebrated their centenaries. They were formed in a number of villages in the area around the turn of the century, although there is evidence that several did not survive the First World War, and indeed the Second World War made it difficult for others to continue.
Stalham Band was formed before 1880 and is the oldest in East Anglia. Many earlier bands were established before Stalham but did not have a continuous existence or after a break were revived in a different format such as a wind band. Research by newspapers and the East Anglian Brass Band Association in the 1970's established Stalham as the only band to have survived continuously. Like many others it has had a chequered existence. During the Second World War only a few of the older members were left behind as call up progressed, but it still continued to function.
Mr. Edward Cooke, the owner of Stalham Hall gathered together in his gig house a number of his agricultural workers to form a band. He purchased the instruments and other equipment, and a number of concerts were arranged to raise funds and repay the loan.
The band was originally known as the Stalham Excelsior Band under Bandmaster Mr. Pigg of North Walsham. He was succeeded around 1885 by Mr. Edward Cooke when the band headed a parade through a beflagged Stalham celebrating the homecoming from the Sudan campaign of a local member of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, Mr. Herbert Southey Neville White.
By 1903 the band was going through some difficult times. A poster for Ingham Fair in that year, rather sarcastically advertised the performers as "the remains" of the Stalham Band!
At around this time the tradition of carol playing or 'mumping' around the villages began. It was the custom during the tour of local villages around Stalham for the whole band to be invited into the larger houses to partake of Christmas cheer. One time the band was so hospitably entertained at Ingham Old Hall that most of them became rather merry, and it was not till they returned to Stalham that it was realised that the big drum was missing. Somehow or other it had been left floating in the pond of the hall grounds.
The name was changed to the Stalham Brass Band just before the First World War when Mr. Collison was Bandmaster. In 1922 Mr. Gus Spanton was appointed and it is interesting that about this period there were nine 'Spantons' from two related Stalham families in the Band. Three were appointed Bandmasters in the period up to the Second World War. Gerald Thirst joined the band in 1923, at the age of eight.
In 1934 the band under Bandmaster W. Williams held a fund raising concert in the Stalham Town Hall, to raise money for new instruments and uniforms. The concert opened with the march "Reliance" by Orde Hume. The Norfolk Chronicle reported that ' ....a euphonium solo, "Asleep in the deep", given by Mr. G. S. Thirst gained a well merited encore.'
Other local bands such as Martham, Ormesby and North Walsham were disbanding at this time.
The band played regularly at fetes and carnivals, seldom finishing until 10 pm. Uniforms then were of a dark green (perhaps faded from an original blue!).
In 1930 during a large procession of ex-Service men, Scouts, Guides etc., the Band led the parade to the Recreation Ground. Lloyd Spanton was in charge of the large bass drum. At the entrance to the Recreation Ground a gate post was inconveniently situated, making it necessary for the procession to divide, some going to the left, some to the right. The unfortunate drummer, not hearing the command, and with limited forward visibility, hit the gatepost, and came asprawl his instrument. We don't know how much he suffered physically, but the drum certainly suffered, and even when repaired, always sounded a bit funny from that day.
There was a slow return of members from the Forces after the Second World War, during which membership had dropped to just four players. A quartet however was enough to build up the band and enable it to continue to this day. Gerald Thirst was appointed the ninth Bandmaster in 1946. As the band enlarged, Mr. J. Aldous kindly made the Auction Hall, on the Sale Ground available for rehearsals.
In the 1960's Gerald's son Tim joined the band as a cornet player.
Rehearsal rooms at Stalham have included barns, a room in a mill where flour percolated through the ceiling boards every time the drummer beat the big drum, a stable, and a corrugated iron hut next to a garage. None were very warm (with the exception of the bake office at the mill) or comfortable in winter, and it was not unusual for every other player's position to be replaced by a bucket to catch the rain from the leaking roofs. Unfortunately, Stalham is one of the few bands left without a permanent band room of their own.
In 1983, eight junior members of the band, suitably costumed in 1930's dress, provided the music for a scene from Arthur Ransome's "Coot Club", part of "Swallows and Amazons - Forever," filmed by the BBC.
Gerald Thirst stood down as Musical Director of the Stalham Band in 1998 after 50 years conducting. He continued to play with the band which he joined as a schoolboy 75 years before.
In November 1999 his achievements were recognised by an award by the Guiness Book of Records as a World Record for the longest serving conductor.
Shortly afterwards he was honoured in the Queen's New Year Honours list for 2000 with an M.B.E. for services to music in Norfolk.
Sadly, Gerald died suddenly in April of the same year. He was active in the band until the last.
Tim Thirst joined the Stalham Band in 1963, playing Solo Cornet. He went on to play with other bands up to Championship level, and later conducted various bands around the country. In 1998 Tim took up the baton again as the new Musical Director of the Stalham Band.