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4BR Time Team
The fragile paper trail that led back to Besses in Blackpool in 1909

A chance discovery of a delicate piece of crepe paper falling from the covers of an old book has revealed a 109 year old snapshot of concert life on an Easter Sunday with Besses o' th' Barn Band under the great Alex Owen.

besses
History folded away...

An extraordinary piece of memorabilia has come into the possession of 4BR thanks to the well known brass band historian Allan Littlemore.

The former Band Manager at Foden’s was recently looking through his extensive collection of old archive material when a very delicate piece of crepe tissue paper dropped out from the covers of one of the books he had opened.

To his amazement it was a programme for ‘Two Grand Concerts’ given by Besses o’ th’ Barn Band on Easter Sunday, April 11th, 1909 at The Palace, Promenade, Blackpool, conducted by the great Alex Owen.

Egyptian papyrus

Although as delicate as ancient Egyptian papyrus and folded carefully like table napkin, the single printed sheet (A3 size) was in remarkable condition after perhaps seeing the first light of day for over a century.

Not only was Allan delighted by his archeological find, but intrigued to find out more about it.

Besses o’ th’ Barn were certainly in demand as one of the most popular brass bands during the early part of the 20th century, and were soon to depart on the second of their famous World Tours in 1910. 

Although as delicate as ancient Egyptian papyrus and folded carefully like table napkin, the single printed sheet (A3 size) was in remarkable condition after perhaps seeing the first light of day for over a century.

Legendary figure

Alexander Owen was already a legendary figure, conducting them since 1884, and notching up a reported personal record of 378 first prizes at contests with Besses and others during the period 1881 and 1888. 

Although the contesting glory years of the 1890s and early 1900s were behind them (including two British Open and National victories) Besses was still regarded as one of the finest brass bands in the land - especially when performing some of the incredible works arranged by Owen himself. 

A royal seal of approval had come just a few years earlier when they had performed for King Edward VII at Windsor Castle and where Owen was presented with a diamond pin by the monarch.  

Besses
Besses on their 1907 World Tour with Alex Owen and John Henry Iles (in straw hat) sat in the middle

Considerable attraction

The band must have been a considerable attraction for that Easter Sunday ‘double-header’ 109 years ago - with an afternoon show at 3.00pm followed by an evening performance at 8.00pm, as The Palace on the famous Promenade front at Blackpool was a 2,000 seat venue.

Originally opened in 1899 and redesigned five years later, it hosted the likes of the great musical actress Marie Lloyd and entertainer Harry Lauder. 

At its peak it rivaled the Winter Gardens, although it came to a rather inglorious end some years later as social habits changed with the advent of television. It was demolished in 1958, the site being eventually taken by a non-descript Woolworths store.  

At its peak it rivaled the Winter Gardens, although it came to a rather inglorious end some years later as social habits changed with the advent of television. It was demolished in 1958, the site being eventually taken by a non-descript Woolworths store.  

The Palace
The Palace, Blackpool in its prime 

'Tis a fairy trumpet

In 1909 though it was drawing in vast crowds, with the band joined by a local contralto singer called Miss Ethel Stephenson, of who little is known today. 

She sang the type of melancholic songs popular at the time - with the afternoon concert featuring her in ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ and ‘Good-bye’, and in the evening, ‘Abide with Me’ and ‘What the Chimney Sang’, which contained the immortal lines:

‘Over the chimney the night wind sang,
And chanted a melody no one knew;
And the children said, as they closer drew, 
‘tis some witch that is cleaving the black night thro’,
‘Tis a fairy trumpet that just then blew;
And we fear the wind in the chimney’.

Renowned soloists

Meanwhile, the band featured a number of its renowned soloists, including principal cornet Sam Pyatt (who played in the British Open wins of 1892, 1994 and the National in 1904) and who went on to become Bandmaster.  

He performed ‘Abide with Me’ after the band had opened the 3.00pm show with the march ‘Cornelius’ by Mendelssohn and the overture to ‘Don Giovani’ by Mozart (both possibly arranged by Alex Owen)

Meanwhile, the band featured a number of its renowned soloists, including principal cornet Sam Pyatt (who played in the British Open wins of 1892, 1994 and the National in 1904) and who went on to become Bandmaster. 

Solo trombone Tom Bowling (who joined in 1905) played ‘Angels Guard Thee’, whilst the band also played  a selection from ‘Le Prophete’ by Meyerbeer (although it is not known if it was the 1869 British Open test-piece version), and ‘Spohr’ - a ‘Grand Selection’ of the most well known works of the German romantic composer Louis Spohr.

After a communal chorus of ‘My Soul Praise the Lord’, the National Anthem closed off the entertainment.

Paper
The crepe paper programme is in remarkbale condition 

A few hours later they returned - although the General Manager, George H. Harrop (who in his long career brought attractions such as ‘Professor Nero and his Four Wonderful Performing Bulls’ and Herr Herkenrath and his ‘Celebrated Elephant and Pony Act’ to the Winter Gardens) certainly got his monies worth from the band and Miss Stephenson, as they presented entirely new programmes.

Lollipop finisher

Besses opened with the march ‘Edina’ by J.O. Hume followed by the overture ‘Ruy Blas’ by Mendelssohn. After Miss Stephenson regaled the audience again, they featured two of their latest signings in trombonist William Weedall and solo euphonium Earnest Kerry (both joining in 1909) on ‘selected items’. 

The finale was a classic ‘lollipop’ of the emerging brass band concert genre - both then and now - and a selection from ‘William Tell’ by Rossini.

A final bit of singing with ‘O Come, Let Us Worship’ (it was Easter Sunday after all) and everyone would have been able to pack up and wander back to their Bed & Breakfast seaside accommodation in time for a local fish and chip supper. 

The finale was a classic ‘lollipop’ of the emerging brass band concert genre - both then and now - and a selection from ‘William Tell’ by Rossini.

Auld Lang Syne

As for the crepe paper programme, printed by the local St Anne’s Express newspaper and rather oddly featuring the images of a Welsh harp and a lyre as well as the opening bars of ‘Auld Lang Syne’?

How it wasn’t used to wipe the chip grease off the hands of the person who had it and thrown into the nearest dustbin, or why it was so neatly folded into the cover of an old book instead, we will never know. 

It does though remain a wonderfully evocative snapshot reminder of a brass band age, that but for good fortune, was very nearly lost for ever.

Iwan Fox
With thanks to Allan Littlemore



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