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Old Sussex Amateur Bands

by William Albury - Sussex Country Magazine, 18(12), December 1944

One of the old social amenities of Sussex which has been neglected by contributors to the Sussex County Magazine is that of the town and village reed and brass bands. It is not easy for young and middle-aged people now to estimate the regard with which some of these native organisations were held from 50 to 100 years ago, and in some places are still held, and upheld, by their parishioners and friends.

With cheap Jazz and fearful saxophone "toodle-oodle-oo" in nearly every B.B.C. programme threatening to twist and warp our musical taste; with the machine reproductions of best music marvellously brought to us by the wireless and gramophone; and with the competition of the cinema, it is not easy to maintain town and, still less so, village bands; to find and enlist young lads with the right kind of enthusiasm and determination to learn music and overcome all technical difficulties and master a brass musical instrument.

Town and village bands have depended, and still depend, almost entirely upon the personal ability and enthusiasm of their members; all have experienced ups and downs - varying degrees of success and failure. Love of music and constant attention (sometimes with outside help) have put and maintained many amateur bands on a good footing; whilst others, even with wealthy patronage to support them, without talent and enthusiasm have been unable to avoid a "flop." In the histories of many Sussex towns and villages lie unrecorded efforts - some unsuccessful, others more or less successful - to set up and keep going amateur bands. The membership of these bands consisted almost entirely of the working classes, though a few shopkeepers "took a hand" in them with subscriptions and supported them in other ways. This support together with that of the neighbouring and neighbourly gentry, collected by "busking" for a month or so at Christmas time, kept the bands' financial heads above water.

Except in the case of Stedham Brass Band, information respecting Sussex bands before about 1860 has been difficult to collect. In a good many places, bands have been formed and after a short life dissolved, and new ones started again, but it seems clear that a great number of them originated with church choirs and bands before the general use of organs. In the Sussex Advertiser of the 16th March, 1789, it is recorded that on the occasion of the celebration at Horsham of the recovery of George III "and on Tuesday evening the town was most brilliantly illuminated, the band of music with the whole choir paraded the streets with colours flying," etc.

It appears certain from this report that the band must have consisted mainly, if not entirely, of wind instruments with perhaps a fiddle or two - cellos and string basses could not march. The wind bass instruments at this time consisted of serpents, ophicleides (both now obsolete) and trombones, with clarinets, oboes and flutes as soprano instruments with perhaps key bugles and slide-trumpets (now also both obsolete). Trumpets and French horns - very difficult to play - are not likely to have been used. Mr. MacDermott, in his "Sussex Church Music of the Past" with a list of over 100 Sussex Churches names only one with a French horn and none with a trumpet.

Church choirs and bands using these now mostly obsolete instruments formed small outdoor musical organisations until after about 1830-5, when Adolphe Saxe invented pistons which facilitated and vastly increased executive possibilities on all brass instruments. In a few years the contrivances for producing the chromatic scale were superseded by the Saxe valves which made possible, and almost universal, the brass band from that day to this.

The unpretentious village hand of Stedham is the doyen of Sussex bands. It has an uninterrupted history of over 100 years, with a traditional claim to 150 years, and it has been said of over 200 years. A visit to this little place has yielded some interesting facts concerning the longevity of the band as well as some of its individual members; it has no written or printed record of its history and performances, but tradition and knowledge of these have remained in the memory of past and present members and friends and passed from generation to generation.

Mr. Rooke, its present conductor, now 58 years of age, has been conductor and sub-conductor for 33 years. His father, who played the euphonium for 67 years until he was 82, was conductor for over 40 years, he died at the age of 85 years. With him played David Christmas and two others named Tucker and Titcombe, all of whom also kept their music going until nearly 80 years of age. Christmas, who lived to be 92, was a Stedham bandsman from boyhood until over 80 years of age and kept his band love and interest alive to the end. Another family were the Faulkners, father and son: Fred Faulkner, the father, was presented with an engraved record of his 50 years' service to the band. These are outstanding cases of musical stamina, faithful friendship and esprit de corps.

This famous Sussex little band, apart from its longevity and that of some of its members, is fairly representative of the "doings" of the average amateur bands of the county. They took engagements at various other villages, chiefly at Friendly Societies' Club Feasts, with, now and then, outside performances in their own village streets all through the summer months to reward their constant practices in the band room during the preceding winter.

Individual members of the band after walking sometimes two to six miles, would meet at the rendezvous of the village club engaging them about 11 a.m.; the proceedings would begin with a parade headed by the band to the Church and round about: members of the club, mostly in smock frocks and round hats, each member carrying a hazel twig or stick peeled round like a small barber's pole, and the club officers in broad, picturesque sashes of silk.

After the Church service the procession marched to the dinner tent near the village "pub", where, after all had been inwardly more or less satisfied, the squire, the parson and the club doctor would "hold forth" for their edification. The material, spiritual, and intellectual human interests having all been thus attended to, members and friends would then enjoy themselves with sports of all kinds whilst the band mounted on a four-wheeled farm wagon, played "Selections" in the afternoon and dance music in the evening till about 10 p.m.

In the '60s to '80s of the last century, each bandsman would receive about 2s. 6d. or 3s. 0d. with free dinner and beer for the engagement and be ready for work again at his job by five or six o'clock the next morning.

The old country Friendly Societies had all suffered extinction at the beginning of this century, but other band engagements, Flower Shows, Garden Parties, Athletic Sports, etc., came along and provided suitable occasions for bands to let off their musical steam.

Further early information of a Sussex band concerns one at Horsham over 100 years ago. It was a small party of about 12 players on flute, clarinets, key bugles, trumpet, French horn, trombones, serpent and drum. These played about the streets in summertime and also, of course, upon special occasions such as the Coronations of William IV and Victoria, "when", says Henry Burstow, in his `Reminiscences of Horsham,' "the band played and drank and drank and played again, "Hearts of Oak," "Bonny Dundee," "Bonnets of Blue," "Rory-o-Moore," the "Brighton Camp," and other such tunes." These were about the measure of the hand's repertoire, but even of these simple tunes, "some of the attempted harmonies rather hard for the public to appreciate, especially towards evening," when, it was suggested, John Barleycorn had had his effect upon the players' lips and tongues. "But it was Ike Aldridge, the big drummer, who used to afford us boys the greatest satisfaction when there was a band job on, old Ike was sure to have sought inspiration in an extra glass or two and then he would delight us with his extraordinary drum-stick flourishes and his very industrious accompaniments to the band's favourite tunes."

In 1854, a new band, under Mr. John Tugwell, was formed at Horsham, but appears to have faded out about 1861, when it was succeeded by a new organisation calling itself the Town Band, with Mr. Edwin Potter, as bandmaster. He was succeeded by Mr. H. C. Attwater and about then it became connected with the Fire Brigade. It was about this time, too, that the old flapper-keyed brass instruments were replaced by the now universal Sax-horns, plus, one-slide-trombone. The performer on this instrument, having lost his teeth - indispensable for playing on cup mouthpieces - made himself a set of wooden ones. These worked satisfactorily until the intake of too much beer swelled the wood and so incapacitated the player.

About 1873 the Band under its then new conductor, Mr. W. Garman, an excellent cornet player and a conscientious bandmaster, began the longest and most successful phase of its career which continued until his death in 1899. Since then with a brass and reed instrumentation it assumed the name of "Military" Band, enjoyed a short modest experience in the Southern Counties Band Association and under many different conductors has continued vicissitudiously to function until the present time.

It must be admitted that the intake of too much beer by Sussex bandsmen was not confined to the instance given above. Some Sussex bands, both before and after this time were habitually addicted to "beer and baccy." This connection was not conducive to rhythm - nor to harmony in more ways than one - and the difficulty of withstanding the temptations of alcohol and of obtaining music properly and easily arranged, sometimes made listeners thankful that the music had no smell, yet, we may hope - like some modern compositions - it not so had as it sounded.


The most famous amateur Town Band the County boasted up to the end of the last century was the Arundel Town Brass Band. It appears to have developed from a fife and drum band in the sixties and through a brass band chiefly of youths, with Mr. E. Blackman as conductor, to its great credit in the seventies, had progressed so successfully that it won the championship at the first amateur Brass Band Competition in Sussex held at the now almost forgotten Swiss Gardens, Shoreham. Rossini's Overture, "Semiramide," as the test piece on that occasion required great executive skill such as but few amateur bands of the period could show. Subsequently about the same time on its merits it was engaged to perform at Boulogne and Paris.

This band, of about 20 Saxhorn players, under the bandmasters Blackman, father soprano, and son solo cornet - in his day the finest soloist in the County - enjoyed a very high well-earned reputation through the years as the band of the 2nd administrative Battalion of the Royal Sussex Rifle Volunteer Regiment. Though a brass band, it was never "brassy." Its tone was refined anti very pleasing and its executive ability excellent. It regularly performed in the Town Square and one can hardly imagine a more delightful setting for its charming performances of some of the classical overtures and operatic selections together with National melodies interspersed with lighter music given under Mr. Blackman's baton for many years in the beautiful Arundel Castle grounds on fine summer evenings.

The band ceased its connection with the Regiment in 1892 and did not long survive the early death of its talented bandmaster.


One of the best and widest known Sussex bands in the seventies was the Cuckfield, then known as the Ockenden Band, so named after the Dower House of the Burrell family. It was established in the sixties by Sir Walter Burrell, its president, in connection with the local Company of Volunteers. It was a full band of about 20 performers, which under its conductor, Ambrose Dumsday, an excellent cornet player, included in its repertoire and played some high-class music and was widely engaged about the County. It had a stringent set of rules, with fines for absence and misconduct, but its military discipline was not such as to satisfy the adjutant of the Battalion, who on an occasion of a military parade, ordered it off the ground. Upon this divorce it was newly named the Cuckfield Town Band, under its new conductor, Mr. H. Askew, and continued its career a little precariously until the war of 1914-18, after which its remaining members merged with a new band formed at Haywards Heath.


Rudgwick is a small village in Sussex with a very large claim to credit for its Brass Band. It appears to have been raised with or soon after the rise of the Volunteer Movement upon the threatened invasion of England, by Napoleon III in 1859, by Mr. T. L. Thurlow, grandson of the famous Lord Chancellor Thurlow, of Baynards Park, near the village, but its ultimate and permanent success was based upon the enthusiasm and perseverance of the Tate family (and others). For three generations this family from the beginning of the band has been its core and source of energy and enthusiasm.

Early in the present century it entered the Southern Counties Band Association and won considerable success in the premier section, under its popular and able conductor, Mr. Harold Tate. It maintained its ability, popularity and strength until his very unfortunate death at the beginning of the present war.

It is the only band in Sussex, so far as I know, which had what is now known on the B.B.C. as a "signature tune." This was usually played or alleged to have been played at Club Feasts, with words facetiously adapted and supplied by members of rival friendly bands.

KNIFE - fork - SPOON. . . .
Razor - comb - and LAther - brush
Big Drum:
BANG ! ! BANG ! ! BANG ! ! . . . .


The East Grinstead Volunteer Band also took its name from the rise against the threatened invasion of Napoleon III and was formed in the early sixties. This band marched along under the discipline of the local volunteer officers and, with their consent, undertook the usual Friendly Society and other civil band engagements. In 1880, a new independent band called "The East Grinstead Town Band" was brought forth by the musical urge in the town when, after about 10 years' separate existence, the two bands, by mutual agreement amalgamated and were known as "The East Grinstead Volunteer and Town Band."

This band shared the prestige enjoyed by the volunteers' transformation to the Territorial Army by becoming the "East Grinstead Military and Town Band." It employed a retired military bandmaster and, joining the Southern Counties Band Association, achieved considerable success at prize-winning in the Champion Section.

The Band continued its successful career under Mr. C. Baker, as conductor and solo cornet, but alas ! the war has scattered most of its members to the four corners of Europe and Asia and it has temporarily suspended all performances.


Crawley is another place with a very long and creditable band reputation. Its first band was formed about 1866, in connection with the Fire Brigade; afterwards it became associated with the volunteer movement through Colonel Broadwood of Holmbush. With this band from its beginning until the present time, without a break, has been honourably and successfully associated the talented Snelling family. Of the ten players forming this band, in 1869, as shown in the photograph just half were members of this family. Oliver Snelling, the founder, was its first conductor and remained so for many years till his death. In 1904, another band, the West Crawley Temperance Band, started a career under Christian Chantler, its bandmaster. Both bands from this time ran together, sometimes intermingling membership with each other, until the beginning of the present war and both in turn winning the Southern Counties Championship in the period.


The Steyning Brass Band formed about 1874 gives a good example of consistent and persistent plodding. Its oldest member, Walter Standing, now 86 years of age, was present at the beginning with 7 other members, making 8 altogether. These increased their number and efficiency as time went along. In 1879, the band fulfilled its first engagement at the Ashurst Club Feast, where after meeting at "The Fountain Inn" it marched the Club to the Church and back. Whilst the band on the way were intently playing from their copies, the bandmaster, "Major" Green, suspected something wrong, and upon enquiry, found that half the band were playing "Dear little Jessie" and the other half were playing "Her golden lock of hair." Luckily, both these marches were set in the same key so the rather lax critical susceptibilities of the listening public were not seriously outraged.

The band afterwards bred some excellent performers, notably Harry Kilner and Edward Mitchell and at the first contest of the Southern Counties Band Contest, held at Reigate, in 1891, with only 16 performers, won the second prize, runners up to the then best amateur band of 24 performers, in the Southern Counties Association; The Reading Temperance full band of 24 performers.