Armadale Brass Bands
Extracts from Armadale Past and Present, by R. Hynd Brown, 1906
In the year 1855, when the air was ringing with the strains of martial music, and the interest of the public was centred in the valour of the British troops fighting in the Crimea, a wave of musical enthusiasm passed over the then small village, resulting in about a score of young men, in the spring of that year, possessing themselves of flutes and drums, and forming the first of Armadale's many musical combinations of a kindred character. The institution of a flute band proved an incentive to the young men of more mature years to inaugurate a brass band under the auspices of the Temperance Society, and by the autumn of the same year, sufficient capital was subscribed to put the members in possession of a set of instruments with which to form a band of the old-fashioned type, with two or three clarionets in it. The Brass Band secured the services of a Mr. Wood, who had served in the Army, as teachers, and the band made the rafters of the old school in North Street rattle as they struggled to master the intricacies of such tunes as "Jock o' Hazeldean," "the Bonnie Woods o' Craigielea," etc. In those days the opportunities for a day's engagement were few and far between. Bathgate Academy Procession, Torphichen Marches, and Mid-Calder Masonic Parade were the principal events to look forward to assure outings.
The conditions of membership in the Brass Band was that one must sign the pledge to become a teetotaller, and his breaking the pledge at once deprived him of his right to retain the instrument belonging to the band. A few, with a stronger desire to be in the band than to be teetotallers, signed the pledge and became members, and many were the schemes invented to obtain a drop of the mountain dew when filling an engagement on a warm day. The drummer (it was known by a few of his most intimate friends) never, on these occasions, was without his tot of whisky, but the way he managed it was calculated to disarm suspicion. He generally got a lemonade bottle and filled it with whisky, carefully wiring the cork over to make believe it was the real "tee-tee," and when anyone requested a drink of the drummer's lemonade, he always told them to buy lemonade for themselves. But by and bye the scheme got wind, and many of the others took the same liberty, with the result that they overdid it, and they were called upon by the teetotal society to hand over their instruments. At this time the members were beginning to feel that the teetotal conditions were too strict, and as it happened to be, it was some of the best-playing members that wore called upon to hand over their instruments, and so they resolved to resent the conditions, and not hand over the instruments. The teetotal society, failing to obtain possession of the instruments, summoned the band to appear in the Sheriff Court at Linlithgow to defend their position. The band appeared in a body, taking the instruments and playing through the county town as they went. At the conclusion of the case, which was treated by the band members as a huge joke, they were allowed to retain the instruments, since they had been subscribed for by public subscription.
Before the Court case, the members for some time had refused to meet for practice, but their victory seemed to put new life into them. William Chalmers, of Cambusnethan fame, was then engaged as teacher, and for a year or two the band made satisfactory progress. At the beginning of the sixties the Brass Band began to cool in its enthusiasm, and after a short struggle, died for want of that vitality so necessary to keep such institutions in a healthy condition.
The only original members of the first Brass Band now living in the district are ex-Provost Thomas Pow, fruiterer, South Street, who played the solo baritone, and his brother John, at Woodend, whose instrument was the solo trombone. It was not till 1873 that a serious effort was made to organise a second brass band.
Whitburn and Harthill, in 1872, had succeeded in forming a brass band each. The brass band fever that seemed to be in the air was caught by a number of the young men of Armadale, who set to work to raise the necessary means to procure the requisite number of instruments. After the town had been canvassed, and a number of county gentlemen had subscribed, the members of the would-be band found themselves in possession of £10. This sum was out of the question as a means to purchase a set of brass band instruments, being under the price of a good bass drum; but it so happened that Grangepans Brass Band had become defunct, and on investigation it was found that their instruments could be got for a very small sum. The sixteen young men who first proposed to constitute the band, by adding five shillings each to the £10, raised the sum in hand to £14, and with this they succeeded in making a bargain for the instruments. Jas. McDonald, who possessed a spring van for hawking fruit and vegetables, agreed to bring the instruments from Bo'ness, and on the 27th day of March, in the year 1873, the arrival of the instruments was signalised by a great blare of trumpets. The members met at the Toll, and on the arrival of the instruments they took possession of them. None of them could play a note, except one, Andrew Moffat, who had been for a short time in Leadhills Band. He, of course, was elected leader, and the members formed into line, and with the drums beating and everyone making as much noise as they possibly could, they marched to the Buckshead Tavern, and "watered" the instruments.
The Brass Band, after receiving an introduction to the intricacies of their instruments by two of the leading members of the Bathgate Chemical Works Band, engaged James McLay, a Glasgow bandmaster, who, although a splendid musician, was not a painstaking bandmaster, and the band made slow progress under his tuition. The band was plodding on, seemingly quite content, when there appeared a young man from the east country who was a "crack" cornet player. Thomas Miller was his name, and as he had come to work in the mines, he asked and was given a cornet, and became a member of the band. After a few demonstrations by Mr. Miller to the members regarding the manipulation of their instruments, he was appointed bandmaster, and the members began to make rapid progress. Mr. Miller soon found a better field for his musical talent in England. Peter Stewart, of Bathgate, who was very successful with the Flute Band, and was a member of the Bathgate Town Band, for a short time became teacher, but the members having a desire for professional teaching, again called in the aid of Mr. McLay.
The Brass Band, by this time, had never been properly accommodated with a practice-room. They were first accommodated in the Subscription School, but on its coming into the hands of the School Board, the conditions were altered, and Edwards' Hall, Mary Campbell's Hall, and the Crown Hotel Hall were all tried in turn, but it was not until the School Board built their first school on Academy Street, when all the little schools were closed, that the band was properly fitted with a place to practice. Mount Pleasant School, which was two houses made into one, was fitted with a stand for the music, and the manager of Buttries Works put it at the service of the band. The members were constantly changing, but nothing of a stirring nature occurred until there appeared a young bandmaster from Durham named George W. Scott. Mr Scott, who had come to Scotland to try his luck, was advised to try Armadale. and on reaching the town the first thing he did was to find out one or two of the most influential members. They at first, of course, thought he was a street musician, but, being respectably attired, and in possession of a magnificent silver-plated cornet, upon which he freely showed what he could do, a hurried meeting of the members was called, and after a trial practice he was retained as bandmaster.
Fresh life at once entered into the band members. A new idea was given of what a brass band could and should be, if only the members would allow themselves to be stirred up with enthusiasm. That there was a good deal of stirring up no one of the members at that time would deny. Constant attention when at practice and regular attendance were rigidly insisted upon, and it may be said, with credit to the members, they showed their appreciation of this new regime. What a man can do when he has the ear of all the members was early shown, for in a few weeks, and for the first time, they were set to the study of an operatic selection from Flotow's "Martha." This was the dawn of a new era for the band. Open-air practices became to be looked forward to with great pleasure by the public, and the members, encouraged by the presence of the public, made an extra effort. A march out was frequently indulged in, at the close of which the band discoursed a selection of music at the Cross, and all the town became happy over their attainments.
Mr Scott had but a short time become band-master when there was a brass band contest organised in the Waverley Market, Edinburgh, in 1877. All the best bands in England were entered, and Mr. Scott had Armadale Band entered for the purpose of giving them an experience of some value. The band was highly satisfied with themselves, and were proud of the fact that on their playing to the market they were mistaken for one of the English bands. Although the band made great progress under Mr. Scott, they were never possessed of a respectable set of instruments. The old instruments bought from Grangepans, never of a very high quality, were now in a very dilapidated condition. Efforts were made by public subscription to have the instruments renewed, but with very little success. At last the members of the Burgh Commission, who were the principal business men of the town, were induced to take up the matter. A committee was formed, with Archibald Robertson, colliery manager, as president; Duncan. McDougaI, secretary; and Gilbert Stewart, treasurer. Entertainments were held by them, and several new instruments were added to the stock as the result. Everything was going well with the band, since the committee embraced all the colliery managers, whose influence alone could command a great deal from the workers under them, when a grave mistake was made by the band that put an end to their progress in acquiring new instruments for some time.
The members of the band were asked by the committee what instruments they required most, and on being told, the committee communicated with a London firm of musical instrument makers for terms for five instruments named. The terms were sent to the secretary, and at the same time the five instruments were sent to the band for a month's trial. They were delivered to the band, who accepted them in the belief that the committee had ordered them, with the result that the instruments had been in use for some time and the account rendered by the firm to the committee before the committee me aware of what had been done. The committee became angry with the band for not intimating the receipt of the instruments, and refused either to pay for the instruments received or do anything further.
For several years the band was up and down. Mr. Scott had gone to America in 1879, and William Muirhead, his sub-conductor, took charge, and at once set about to make such alterations as he considered would be beneficial to the band, and thereby incurred the displeasure of a few. In the course of the next three years, Mr. Gilchrist, of Shotts, and Mr. T. Kelly, a well-known writer of music, were in turn elected to teach the band, but the cost was more than the members were willing to meet, and again they fell back upon Mr. Muirhead, who set to work to fit the band for entering the contest field that had now become popular. In 1884 the band attended two contests, one at Alloa in May, and one at Wemyss Castle in August. At the former they played a selection from the "Bohemian Girl," and gave a good account of themselves, but were not in the prize-list. They were more fortunate at Wemyss Castle, when they were awarded second prize (£12), the contest being confined to a selection of Scotch airs, when they played "The Beauties of Scotland." The following year found them at a contest at Airdrie playing a selection from "Joan of Arc," when Bandmaster Griffith, of the Royal Scots, was judge, and nearly all the prizes went to bands of an ex-military bandmaster - a result that killed that contest for the future. The instruments that composed the band were at this time of all makes and ages, and it was resolved before entering upon the contest platform again to endeavour to raise sufficient funds to replace the defective ones. The band was successful in raising a substantial fund by public subscription, and with a view to still swelling the fund, they held a contest at Middlerigg in 1886, which proved a financial failure, and the reserve fund was lost.
With more or less vigour they struggled on for a number of years, barely able to keep themselves together. From the institution of the Volunteer Company in Armadale in 1874, the band had a regular engagement to play them once a week half-way to Torphichen to drill, for which they received a good pay - for several years reaching £20 - but a new condition in Volunteering came about early in the nineties by which the hiring of the band was dispensed with, and after a short struggle for existence they resolved to dissolve. In the spring of 1894 the writer resolved to have the band reorganised on new lines, and for that purpose called a public meeting, which was held in the Crown Hotel Hall, when a public committee was elected to manage the affairs of the band in future. New rules were drawn up, and most of the old hands rejoined. In a remarkably short time sufficient funds were forthcoming to replace the instruments of which they were short, and repair those out of order. Mr. Muirhead was again elected bandmaster, and great hope was entertained for the future of the band. In the month of October, in 1895, the committee held a bazaar in the Subscription School, at which they raised sufficient funds to purchase a full set of Besson's first-class instruments, which were duly received and presented to the members by Colonel Hope of Bridgecastle who became honorary president.
Contesting became the aim of the bandsmen but they met with no success until September, 1898, when, at the contest held in the Waverley Market, Edinburgh, by the Scottish Amateur Brass Band Association, for second-class bands, they were bracketed with St. Margaret's, Dundee, for second place, dividing the second and third prizes, amounting to £11 each, which they never got. The following year the band got no place at the association contest, while St. Margaret's were awarded the second-class cup. Encouraged by public opinion, the committee, for the 1890 contest, engaged Mr. Wm. Rimmer, of Southport, to give the band a lesson, the cost of which was more than met by voluntary subscription, and the band was successful in being in the prize-list. The committee in the spring of 1901 held another bazaar, when they had the instruments silver-plated and the members provided with a new uniform.
All the association bands that were meeting with success were receiving first-class professional tuition, and before preparing for the 1901 contest a deputation from the band intimated to the committee that they desired special tuition from a first-class teacher for six weeks before the contest. Mr. E. Sutton was accordingly engaged, and after the contest, at which the band was again successful in being in the prize-list, Mr. Muirhead severed his connection with the band as the result of Mr. Sutton's engagement. On the 7th day of April, 1902, Mr. Harry Wadsworth was chosen as sub-conductor and cornet soloist, out of many candidates who had applied for the situation. The year 1902 was the band's most successful year, and through Mr. Sutton's and Mr. Wadsworth's tuition they came to the front rank in their class, winning three first prizes and several specials. The bandsmen, at least a number of them, and Mr. Wadsworth never could get along smoothly, and when his term was up in April, 1903, he left, and Mr. Samuel Campbell, from Edinburgh, became sub-conductor.
With the removal of Mr. Wadsworth, it was expected that everything would now go smoothly, but not so. The committee that had worked so hard in the interest of the band, and had succeeded in providing them with a first-class set of plated instruments and a uniform, in addition to instituting a scheme of monthly payments by honorary membership to assist in paying for their teaching, became the bête noire of a few of the bandsmen, with the result that the committee resigned in a body after making a statement at a public meeting hold in the Town Hall. This was done with the hope that the bandsmen would draw closer together, but it failed in its object. For a time the members failed to meet, until Mr. Campbell visited them individually and brought them together. A second meeting of the public resulted in a committee being appointed, but after a short struggle, in which the committee exhibited little interest, the band ceased to exist.
The flute band that was organised in the same year as the brass band (1873) had many ups and downs, and early in the nineties purchased a number of brass and reed instruments and resolved itself into a reed band. It was not until 1897, however, that it took distinctive shape, when, through a rift in the brass band, a few members left and joined the new band, disposing of the reed instruments, and taking the name of "Armadale Diamond Jubilee Band".
This band for a number of years was a serious rival to the Town Band. James Ellis, a former leader of the old band, became local conductor, and under Mr. Farrand, their professional teacher, they reached the contesting stage in the Scottish Central Amateur Brass Band Association. The public, however, was indisposed to support two bands, and both suffered for want of their undivided sympathy. The Jubilee Band ultimately dwindled away, each member retaining his instrument.
After a year's silence, inquiries began to be made regarding the instruments and uniform belonging to the Town Band, with the result that the Town Council commissioned Councillor C.E. Gillon, who was convener of the Town Hall Committee in 1905, to have the instruments and uniform drawn in and placed in the Town Hall. Councillor Gillon then began to receive applications from young men to become members of the band, and in a short time sufficient applications had been made to warrant him in calling them together. Mr. Angelo Marsden, A.R.M.C.M., was appointed conductor, and after a winter's teaching they have been able to fill many engagements this year, and for the first time in Armadale they have discoursed sacred music in the Public Park on the Sunday afternoons during the Rev. W.R. Paterson's summer Sunday open-air services. At a public meeting held in the Town Hall on the 8th August a committee was elected to manage the band affairs, with Provost Smith as president.
During the past years the public have been greatly disappointed with the bands, and are now loath to offer them any encouragement, but, compared with those of the past, the present combination is in the happy position, having a first-class set of instruments and a uniform, and if their efforts to excel warrants it, the public will again come to their aid with generous support, but the band must now prove themselves worthy beyond doubt.