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Exploring the history of brass banding across the north of England

Brass banding has a long and rich tradition across the north of England
Besses Brass Band

Brass banding is a rich and deep tradition across the north of England and a huge deal across parts of Greater Manchester.

So, let’s explore the huge impact of brass bands on our communities of yesteryear and today.

From the coal mines of Yorkshire to the hubbub of the city of Manchester, brass bands have been the heartbeat of Northern England for centuries.

Born out of a need for recreation and camaraderie among workers, these ensembles have evolved into symbols of pride and unity, embodying the spirit of their communities.

But there’s much more to it than that.

Led by David Thornton, director of Brass Band Studies, and Murray Greig, head of School of Wind, Brass and Percussion and Director of Brass, at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), we delve into the roots of this cherished tradition.

Brass banding in the north of England

The Black Dyke Mills Band
The Black Dyke Mills Band. Photo credit:

In Britain, a brass band (known regionally as a silver band or colliery band) is a musical ensemble comprising a standardised range of brass and percussion instruments.

Traditional brass bands have played an important cultural role in working-class British communities for centuries.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, nearly every colliery, or coal mine, in the U.K. had a brass band. They kept workers out of trouble and were a matter of civic pride for local communities.

“The brass banding tradition in the north of England goes back an incredibly long time,” David told me.

“For instance, The Black Dyke Mill Band, which is over in Yorkshire, goes back as far as 1816.

Besses'o'th'barn Band
Besses o’ th’ Barn Band in New Zealand, 1907

“Besses o’ th’ Barn Band began in 1818, and there’s another band in Bolton, called Wingates, who set up around the same time.

“The heritage is truly incredible. They all have their different backgrounds and reasons for coming into existence.”

But they don’t all have their roots in coal mining communities.

“Most bands are associated with the collieries and mines, however Foden’s was set up by the Motor Works company,  Besses o’ th’ Barn were from Clegg’s Reed Band, from a cotton company. Wingates were originally set up as a temperance band.”

Becoming part of the community

“I think they were a very social thing back in the 19th and 20th centuries”, said Murray.

“Most villages had a band, like the Besses o’ the Barn and there are numerous examples of employers forming bands for their workers.

Foden Motor Works Band

“Companies like Fairey Aviation, Fodens Motor Works, Grimethorpe Colliery and Black Dyke Mills are a few that spring to mind.”

Brass banding was seen as a great way to bring people together after a hard day’s graft – so they could enjoy each other’s company and make some great music.

“Communities were a bit more tight-knit back in the day, and the brass band formed a real focal point for the communities to socialise. It was almost like going to the pub,” said David.

And in certain areas, brass bands are still a pivotal part of the community today.

“A lot of bands still provide free musical education to absolutely anybody who wants to pick up an instrument,” said Murray.

“The number of brass bands that have daytime adult learner bands is certainly on the increase as it’s never too late to learn and enjoy the camaraderie!”


Brass band competitions are a huge part of being part of a band. They are the lifeblood of the bands, who regularly practice to try and win these competitions.

Local competitions include The Blackburn & Darwen Band annual March & Hymn Tune Contest, which draws huge crowds from all over.

In 2023, Black Dyke Band were crowned National Champions at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall. This is the highest level of competition, The Championship Section.

For the youngsters, The National Youth Brass Band Championships is open to all youth bands across Great Britain and Northern Ireland, offering bands a chance to perform on a national platform in either a competitive or non-competitive capacity.

The event is designed to celebrate, unite and promote youth music-making in brass bands at all levels.

There are also numerous regional competitions for all sections both using the standard competition format of all bands being tested on the same piece of music to entertainment competitions where bands play a varied programme of music of their own choice to highlight their personalities.

Brass banding at the RNCM

RNCM Brass Band

The RNCM welcomes students who study brass band instruments from the across the UK and from all over the world.

The College offers professional placements with Black Dyke Band, giving students first-hand experience playing as part of a world-renowned brass band.

Plus each year the College hosts the RNCM International Brass Band Festival, one of the main events in the brass banding calendar. Taking place across a full weekend each January, the event welcomes performances from the world’s leading brass bands, renowned soloists, and the next generation of brass banding talent.

The future of brass banding

Despite a prestigious history of tradition, Murray believes it’s important to look forward.

“Although the brass band movement is steeped in a great tradition, it is looking to the future that will determine its continued popularity and success.

“The RNCM International Brass Band Festival promotes and celebrates this great success.

“We love to champion brass music and its traditions while exploring exciting new avenues for the genre to explore. Huge possibilities still exist with new performers, composers and audiences in this wonderful form of music making.”

When asked whether brass banding had declined over the years, David was adamant that things were not quite as bleak as they may appear on the surface.

“People seem to keep saying that brass bands are declining, that people aren’t interested and it has no relevance to modern day culture, but go and watch one of these competitions and I think you’ll find that’s not the case.

“There’s a huge amount of people still involved, and it’s still playing a huge role in people’s lives. And communities that still have bands are very proud of them – and rightly so.”

So what are you waiting for? Isn’t it time you experienced this proud northern music tradition yourself?

Check out RNCM student ensemble, Salford Quays Brass Quartet, perform Christopher Bond’s Eminence:

And experience the RNCM Brass Band live on Thursday 13 June 2024. You can get tickets to that by clicking here

You can find out more on RNCM’s website by clicking here

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