YMHC #6: Organising musical practices in mining brass bands (1947-84) – by M. Henry

The sixth issue of the series Young Mining Historians Corner is online!

In this issue, Marion Henry  (PhD, Affiliated Researcher to the Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po) presents a short summary of her PhD Thesis: ‘”Every village would have a band”: Building Community with Music. A Social and Cultural History of Brass bands in British Coalfields, 1947-84’.

Go to YMHC previous issues.

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Organising musical practice with shift work in brass bands affiliated to the nationalised British coalmining industry (1947-1984)

by Dr. Marion Henry (Affiliated Researcher to the Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po
marion.henry@sciencespo.fr)

Brass bands are musical ensembles formed of twenty-four to twenty-five brass instruments and percussion. During the second half of the nineteenth century, brass bands became a highly popular working-class activity in Britain, encouraged by the mass production of brass instruments and by the idea that organised leisure activities, and music especially, were a rational recreation shaping a ‘healthy, moral, and orderly work-force’.i Contesting, which developed from the 1840s onwards, was a key feature in the consolidation and the expansion of the brass band movement, as it shaped the instrumentation, the repertoire, the power structures, the performance practices, and the rules of the banding world.ii Bands affiliated to the coal industry historically played a central role in the British brass band movement. With the nationalisation of the British coalmining industry in 1947, bands remained firmly rooted in British coalfields,iii although the number of these musical formations had declined since the interwar years.iv

After the nationalisation of the coal industry, the question of the organisation between band practice and shift work was an important concern for personalities of the brass band movement. Production was organised in a twenty-four-hour cycle with three shifts: the day shift, the afternoon shift or back shift, and the night shift.v Rehearsals were usually held twice a week and generally lasted two hours. A few weeks preceding a contest, bands would rehearse most evenings of the week. When band players worked on day shift or night shift, they could organise to attend the rehearsal. This was impossible if they were on the afternoon shift. Miners were not necessarily on regular shifts and could have a changing time schedule depending on the weeks. The organisation between shift work and musical practice could also be an issue for concerts and competitions if miners were supposed to work during the weekends, when most engagements were organised. This post shows that, after the nationalisation, although there was a wide range of situations according to the type and standard of the band, colliery managers and deputies kept an important autonomy regarding the organisation of shift work. This could lead to tensions between miner-musicians and other workers.

Articles about mining brass bands published in Coal magazine—the official periodical of the National Coal Board (NCB)—­­­regularly emphasised the priority miner-musicians gave to their job at the colliery. In a 1956 reportage on Kinneil Colliery Band’s performance at the Daily Herald area contest held in Edinburgh—where they won the 4th section—the author underlines the band’s honourable result despite their ‘considerable handicap’ linked to shift working.vi In the years of coal shortage following the Second World War, mining brass bands symbolised the unity of the nationalised industry behind the objective of production. Quoting the Daily Herald’s pre-National Championship coverage in 1947, Dave Russell points out this rhetoric and notes the overblown tone of the periodical: ‘The musicians of the miners’ bands had worked two shifts without rest last Thursday, to avoid a drop in production while away.’vii

Beyond the official rhetoric, the ability of mining bands to get around shift work varied significantly depending on the type and musical standard of the band. Whilst it was easier for players from a band that was linked to a specific colliery to arrange with the colliery manager or the deputy so that bandsmen could be put on regular shifts, the situation was often more complicated for village bands that had players working in different mines in the area and/or in different trades. In Fife, in the 1950s and 1960s, majority of Cowdenbeath Brass Band’s members worked in various collieries around the town but also in the Rosyth Dockyards, which were located about ten miles South of Cowdenbeath.viii Danny Buchanan was born in a mining family in Dunfermline in 1951 and started to play in Cowdenbeath Brass Band in 1964. When he started as an apprentice in Solsgirth mine in 1967, he had to organise his musical practice according to his working shifts. When he was on back shift, he could not attend rehearsals, which were held twice a week from 7 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.:

danny: When I first started I was working day shift, back shift, night shift so … day shift I could manage the band, back shift I couldn’t ‘cause I started at 3 and I worked through ‘til 10 and night shift I didn’t start ‘til 10 so I could and started with the band ‘cause the bus I used to get to my work used to stop just across from the band hall so I could go to the band leave my instrument in the … ‘cause we had a room we could put instruments in, leave the instrument there and jump on the bus to go to work.ix

On the contrary, bands affiliated to a particular colliery generally continued to benefit from the compliance of the colliery management regarding the organisation of shifts. According to oral sources, players were often put on regular shifts—either day shift or night shift—so that they could attend rehearsals. In Lancashire, Alan Marsh worked down the pit between 1952 and 1960 and played the euphonium in Crooke Miners’ Welfare Band from 1954.x When he worked at Garswood Hall Colliery, where his father was a deputy, he was on regular day shift to be able to attend band practice. A few years later, when he moved to Robin Hill Colliery, he was also on regular day and night shifts. There, he could attend the rehearsal two or three times a week. Advantages, regarding the organisation of work time could also benefit bands who were not affiliated to a particular colliery but where a significant number of players worked at the same mine. In Scotland, Hugh Johnstone, who joined Dalmellington Brass Band in 1939, worked as a coalminer between 1940 and 1970, and took over the band as conductor in 1960. He remembered that most band players who worked in the local pit were put on regular day shift so that the band could have full practices two or three times a week. This was arranged thanks to the compliance of two colliery managers, who were brothers and whose father had played in Dalmellington Band in the past.xi

These arrangements reveal the autonomy or colliery managers and deputies regarding the organisation of work and the continuity of paternalist influence after the nationalisation. In their study on silicosis in the nationalised French coal industry during the second half of the 20th century, Paul-André Rosental and Jean-Claude Devinck identified individual negotiations based on a ‘deferential request’ and a ‘discretionary answer’ as typical traits of industrial paternalism.xii Although most interviewees remained elusive on the way shifts were allocated for bandsmen, similar modalities can be observed for bands with unofficial negotiations between musicians and deputies or colliery managers. Rab Wilson, who worked at the Barony Colliery in Ayrshire between the late 1970s and 1984 and played in New Cumnock Silver Band remembered: ‘I think it was tacitly, quietly agreed behind the scenes that I would just work the day shift so I could play in the band.’xiii

Whilst most interviewees insisted on the sense of unity at the colliery, miner-musicians’ advantages regarding shifts could cause tensions with other mineworkers. In the case of Ashton colliery, Dennis, Henriques, and Slaughter noted in 1956 that the band was not considered important enough by management to grant regular day shifts for bandsmen and to risk arousing the jealousy of other workers.xiv Ray Sykes talked about ‘some resentment’, ‘some bad feelings’, and ‘a fair bit of frictions’ between the players of Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band and the other mineworkers of the colliery.xv In a compelling anecdote, he explained how the band room had to be moved to the other end of the pit yard so that the other workers would not hear the band rehearse during the day, when band players were supposedly working at the pit:

The band’s room was about what, quarter of a mile away from the pit, but it’s the main route for all the men working at the pit. Now if men going to work were walking past the band room and they could hear them practicing (sigh) that was a big no-no so we… actually, there was an old building on the… the old powerhouse on the… really on the far side of the pit em we started to use that as a rehearsal room for in-worktime rehearsals so we didn’t actually use the band’s room.xvi

The case of Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band reveals the existence of in-worktime rehearsals. Ray Sykes was the only interviewee to explicitly mention this type of practices and it can be assumed from the standard of Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band—a championship section band—that in-worktime rehearsals mostly concerned the small number of top mining bands of the time.

Thus, although the situation of mining brass bands regarding the organisation of musical practice and shift work varied according to the nature of the ties between musical formations and the industry and to each band’s musical standard, management staff in the British coal industry kept some level of agency after nationalisation and paternalist practices continued to be influential. In that context, top bands that were affiliated to a particular colliery continued operate as environments of social distinction for talented musicians.

i Trevor Herbert, ed., The British Brass Band. A Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 7; Peter Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830-1885 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 136.

ii Herbert, ed., The British Brass Band, 7.

iii Marion Henry, ‘“Every village would have a band”: Building Community with Music. A Social and Cultural History of Brass Bands in British Coalfields, 1947-1984’, (PhD thesis, Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, University of Strathclyde, 2021).

iv Dave Russell, ‘“What’s wrong with brass bands?”: Cultural Change and the Band Movement, 1918-c.1964,’ in Herbert, ed., The British Brass Band, 68-121.

v William Ashworth, The History of the British Coal Industry, vol. 5, 1946-1982: The Nationalised Industry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 74. 

vi Coal, vol. 9, April 1956, 22.

vii Daily Herald, 3 Nov. 1947, cited by Russell, ‘“What is wrong with Brass Bands?”,’ 115.

viii Danny Buchanan, interview conducted by the author in Perth, Perthshire, December 14, 2017.

ix Danny Buchanan, interview conducted by the author in Perth, Perthshire, December 14, 2017.

x Alan Marsh, interview conducted by the author, in Wigan, Lancashire, February 25, 2012.

xi Hugh Johnstone, interview conducted by author in Dalmellington, Ayrshire, July 18, 2012.

xii Paul-André Rosental and Jean-Claude Devinck, ‘Statistique et mort industrielle. La fabrication du nombre de victimes de la silicose dans les houillères en France de 1946 à nos jours.’ Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’Histoire, no. 95 (2007): 84. Cited by Marion Fontaine, Le Racing Club de Lens et les ‘Gueules Noires’ : Essai d’histoire sociale (Paris: Les Indes Savantes, 2010), 161.

xiii Rab Wilson, interview conducted by the author in New Cumnock, Ayrshire, December 4, 2017.

xiv Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques and Clifford Slaughter, Coal Is Our Life: An Analysis of a Yorkshire Mining Community (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1956; London: Travistock Publications, 1969), 120. Citation refers to the Travistock Publications edition.

xv Ray Sykes, interview conducted by the author in South Elmsall, Yorkshire, July 25, 2018.

xvi Ray Sykes, interview conducted by the author in South Elmsall, Yorkshire, July 25, 2018.

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