If there is one longstanding event that has been synonymous with bands, it would have to be the South Street competitions. There have been whole generations of bands people who have made the journey to Ballarat to participate in the competition, and when the bands’ sections were introduced, they were extremely popular with the crowds. Such is the reputation of South Street that the first band contest in 1900 attracted two bands from other colonies.
Remembering that this was Australia in 1900. The separate colonies had contingents over in South Africa for the Boer War, cities and towns were much smaller, transport networks consisted of railways, ships and mostly dirt roads. Yet brass bands thrived where they were established due to otherwise limited entertainment. Ballarat at the time was lucky to have three.
While the story of this first South Street contest will focus primarily on the bands and results, there were some other stories to come out of this event and newspaper articles of the day reported on all sorts of angles – reactions from townspeople, travel, and even the voices of local Churches contributed an opinion. Thankfully we can see these early articles through the Trove archive.
What started from this modest event is still evident today with bands traveling to the South Street event and carrying on the history of the bands’ people before us. Many of the most famous brass band composers, adjudicators, conductors, musicians, and bands from around Australia are associated with South Street in some way. Their legacy will not be forgotten.
The beginning of South Street:
The South Street events were famous even before the band sections were added to the program. The origins of the competitions can be traced back to 1879 when eight young men, none over the age of seventeen decided to form a debating society (Blackman, 1966). The society was very successful in gaining members and funds and was eventually able to own their own building (Blackman, 1966). However it wasn’t until 1891 when the first debating competition was held, and from this first event, subsequent competitions were held and other sections were added (Royal South Street Society, 1979).
In terms of music, the early Society started holding Monday night concerts in 1893 where many songs were sung and the audiences were extremely appreciative (Blackman, 1966). In 1896 the final concert for the competitions in that year was held in Her Majesty’s Theatre for the first time (a venue bands people know very well) and in 1897 the first choral competitions were held (Blackman, 1966). A year later solo singing was added as a section and with these new sections, the time period for the competitions was extended and three venues across Ballarat were used (Blackman, 1966). In 1899 Alfred Hall brought into use as a dedicated venue because of large and appreciative crowds (Royal South Street Society, 1979). And in 1900, the first brass band sections were introduced into the program with immediate success (Royal South Street Society, 1979).
South Street Society adds bands to the program:
There was nothing new about having brass bands in Ballarat as they were popular for ceremonial and recreational music. Indeed, as the Royal South Street Society (1979) has noted:
By the 1870’s, bands were features of the Ballarat scene. However, it was the German combination known as Baulch’s Band which first brightened the local processions and played at important functions. Then came Apps Soldiers’ Hill Band, and a couple of other minor combinations.
Interest slackened in the 1880’s, and at the turn of the century the musical reputation depended on the famous Prout’s Band and the City of Ballarat Band. Later the Ballarat Orphanage and St. Joseph’s Home Bands had brief periods in the limelight(pp. 6-7)
With this in mind, the progression of the South Street Society was to add a brass band and brass solo sections to the program of events with sections to be held on Friday the 5th of October and Saturday the 6th of October (“THE SOUTH STREET COMPETITIONS.,” 1900). The competition was divided into four sections; the first part of a Selection Contest and a Solo Cornet contest to be held on Friday and the second part of the Selection Contest and a Euphonium Solo contest held on Saturday (Royal South Street Society, 1900a, 1900b, 1900c, 1900d). An aggregate score was calculated to decide the winner of the selection contests with the leading band declared on Saturday (Royal South Street Society, 1900c). All full band sections were held at the City Oval while the solo sections were held at Albert Hall. Nine bands competed with seven coming from Victoria, one from Tasmania and one from New South Wales (Greaves, 1996). In the history of the Royal South Street Society, it is written that “15,000 people thronged the City Oval for the closing scene of the Band Contest” (Royal South Street Society, 1979, p. 6).
Ballarat welcomes the bands:
Well, not entirely.
It is known that the first band contest at South Street was a huge success but despite this, there were some pockets of resistance to having it held in the first place. Although not directly related to the competition itself, the churches were not happy about bands occupying the City Oval two Sundays in a row which was perhaps understandable for the time (“BAND PLAYING ON SUNDAY.,” 1900). On the weekend before the competition, the resident Ballarat band Prout’s Brass Band had played at the City Oval to provide support for a statue to be built commemorating the soldiers from the Boer War. The Reverend of the Scots Church complained bitterly of this event, but in the same article took aim at the fact that some participating bands would be again taking to the City Oval on the Sunday 7th of October for another commemorative event. The performances on the Sabbath, as he “pointed out, was for a purely secular purpose, and like all of its kind of the Lord’s day was inimical to the welfare of the community, and had a very bad effect on Sunday school children” (“BAND PLAYING ON SUNDAY.,” 1900). The fact that this first event was attended by 3000 people and raised over £50 obviously escaped the notice of the churchmen.
A more pragmatic letter was published in The Ballarat Star newspaper on the 4th of October 1900 by a G. H. Smith. He concedes that not all in the local Chamber of Commerce were happy about a public holiday being granted on the Friday for the purpose of the band competition. However, he waxes lyrical about the very positive effect bands have on the populace due to their sound and the many benefits the South Street Society brings to Ballarat on a whole (Smith, 1900).
Notwithstanding the grievances of a few, the reaction from Ballarat residents and visitors was extremely enthusiastic. Greaves (1996) has written on the reaction of people to the arrival of the bands in this year and subsequent years:
On arrival in Ballarat it was quite usual for visiting bands to find swarms of people crowding the railway station awaiting their appearance and, after listening to speeches of welcome by civic dignitaries and contest officials, these crowds would then follow the bands to their respective hotels. Sometimes the bandsmen would avail themselves of transport in the form of horse-drawn drags made available to carry them to their hotels or other places of accommodation. On most occasions though, the bands would elect to form up and, as the Adelaide Observer reported in 1902, “march to their hotels, to the strains of lively music, that attracts a customary following, brought up in the rear with a miscellaneous assortment of small boys and a stray dog or two. Even the latter possess a sort of musical instinct in Ballarat(p. 31)
It seems Ballarat had no shortcomings in accommodating and promoting the band competition, not only for the bands but for the people themselves. The enthusiasm was palpable, and Ballarat was festive. As mentioned, huge crowds flocked to the City Oval to watch them march and play. And just to make sure people arrived in Ballarat and enjoyed themselves, The Herald reported on October 5th, 1900 that, “A public holiday has been proclaimed and is being generally received. Excursion trains have been run for thirty or forty miles round, and these are being well patronised” (“HOLIDAY AT BALLARAT.,” 1900).
Of course, the competition would not have been a competition without the bands themselves. The nine bands that took part were – Ballarat Militia Band (3rd Battalion), Bathurst District Brass Band, Bulch’s Model Brass Band, Eaglehawk Citizens’ Brass Band, Geelong Town Band, Hopetoun Brass Band, Launceston Garrison Brass Band (2nd Battalion), The Lord Nelson Mine Band & Prout’s Ballarat Brass Band. Three of the bands were based in Ballarat which gave them a distinct home town advantage, and home town rivalry. Two were from interstate while one came from Geelong, one from St. Arnaud and two from the Bendigo area. It made for a full competition for the times. In addition, there were two solo contests which attracted entrants from the aforementioned bands including a Cornet player by the name of John. F. Code from the Albert Park Band (more commonly known as Code’s Melbourne Band) (Royal South Street Society, 1900b).
It was known quite early on which bands would be attending due to details of the South Street events being published in newspapers (“THE SOUTH STREET COMPETITIONS.,” 1900). Interest in the bands was high, so in the days before the competition took place it was not unusual to read little snippets of the arrival of bands and the reception they received. An example of this (pictured) appeared in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal on October 4th (“To-Day’s Telegrams.,” 1900). Interestingly, there appears to be no mention of the Launceston band arriving in Ballarat in the Tasmanian papers although details of the competition were published in their local newspapers.
The details of the competition itself are covered in the next section, but the reputation of some of the bands was enhanced due to their participation, especially the praise that was given to the Bathurst District Brass Band. Bathurst traveled the furthest distance to arrive at the competition and as noted by Greaves (1996),
Bathurst District Band, the only entrant from New South Wales, and a runner up in the quickstep contest, found themselves to be quite popular in Ballarat and they were asked to return the following year. Their conductor Sam Lewins, had to decline because of the expense and distance involved but suggested that the society contact the Newcastle City Band a much better combination, he assured them, than the Bathurst Band.(p. 29)
Bathurst Band also won praise for participating in the services at the City Oval on October 7th with other bands that had participated in the competition (the same service that was criticized by the Church). A letter was sent by J. W. Nedwell and W. D. Hill, the Honorary Secretaries of the Soldiers’ Statue Fund to the Bathurst National Advocate newspaper, published on October 22nd where they thanked Bathurst Band and the other bands for their performances (Nedwell & Hill, 1900).
Unfortunately, a boundless rumor took hold after the competition about the conduct of the Eaglehawk Citizens’ Brass Band. Said the opening of an article in The Bendigo Independent newspaper on the 19th of October:
We were informed that it has been rumoured in certain quarters, especially in Eaglehawk that the Eaglehawk Brass Band while in Ballarat last week competing for the band prizes, were guilty of conduct which incapacitated them from winning the prize. One allegation was that they found Ballarat ale so enticing as to imagine that it had been specially brewed for them.(“A BAND THAT FAILED.,” 1900)
The article goes on to say that the rumors were unfounded and that various officials praised the demeanor and behavior of the Eaglehawk Band in and out of the competition. A Colonel Williams of the 3rd Battalion was quoted as saying in the article:
…he observed the men of the Eaglehawk Band on several occasions, and he heard nothing but praise for them all the time, and whoever started the slander ought to be “ducked” in a horse trough. The people of Eaglehawk, he says, should feel very pleased with the behaviour of their bandsmen on their visit to Ballarat.(“A BAND THAT FAILED.,” 1900)
It appears that there was no instance when the Eaglehawk Citizens’ Brass Band was inebriated while competing or on any other occasion. The headline of the article is unfortunate and misleading.
In 1900, travel around the Nation cannot have been easy or cheap, so just getting to Ballarat was an achievement in itself. The early railways were a lifeline which enabled bands and spectators to descend on Ballarat. The Bathurst band were probably over traveling and trains when they finally arrived back home.
The results of the competition were widely published in the newspapers of the day. Indeed, many newspapers relied heavily on telegraphs direct from Ballarat and these were published a day or two after the competitions were held. An article published in The Ballarat Star on Monday, October 8th was particularly detailed as all adjudications were shown (“THE CONTEST.,” 1900). The three adjudicators were; “Ernest Wood, T. E. Bulch…and Captain Tom Riley” (Pattie, 2010, p. 13). Bulch was an adjudicator however his former band was one of the competitors. Thanks to the excellent resources of the Royal South Street Society results database, we can see how the bands and soloists fared on each day and the final results of the Aggregate. The full lists of results located on the can be found via the links below – the Lord Nelson Mine Band (St. Arnaud) won the contest for this year:
- 05/10/1900 – City Oval – Brass Band Contest (first part of Selection Contest)
- 05/10/1900 – Alfred Hall – Cornet Solo – “My Old Kentucky Home”
- 06/10/1900 – City Oval – Brass Band Contest (second part of Selection Contest) / Brass Band Contest – Aggregate
- 06/10/1900 – Alfred Hall – Euphonium Solo – “The Pilgrim of Love”
As can be read in the cited article from The Ballarat Star, October 8th, criticisms were mixed about the playing of the bands. Given that these were early days of Australian bands, with instruments that were not the quality they are now, the playing can only be imagined. Greaves (1996) writes that “…with the exception of the winning combination, “untunefulness”, according to the judges’ reports, was a common fault in the playing of all the competitors.” (p. 29). The selection of music was the norm of the day with many bands playing arrangements of Operas for their selections and early marches for the Quickstep.
After the competition, there was undoubtedly some comment on the music and playing of certain bands that came from the competitors themselves. The conductor of the Launceston Garrison Brass Band (2nd Battalion), Mr. George Harrison, was effusive in his comments by giving praise to some bands but criticizing his own band. In some respects, he was also biting the hands that fed him! In an article published in the Launceston Daily Telegraph on October 11th, Mr. Harrison conceded that yes, “undoubtedly the best bands won” although he questioned the amateur status of the “St. Arnaud (Lord Nelson mine) band” (“THE INTERCOLONIAL BAND CONTEST.,” 1900). However, when reminiscing on the playing of his own band he went on to say,
Of the Second Battalion, I have only to say that they deceived me in saying they could play their parts in the quickstep without the music, and which is verified by the judge’s remarks, vis., that the music was wrongly interpreted. Outside the music they could have got but few points for their general appearance, the stained and worn-out state of the Government uniforms being severely condemned by the military judge.(“THE INTERCOLONIAL BAND CONTEST.,” 1900)
Not much comment is made on the solo Cornet and Euphonium competitions aside to note that they took place – the newspaper articles of the day merely listed the results. Although Mr. George Harrison, commenting on the Cornet contest said that. “The contest was most farcical, not a single competitor giving an acceptable performance of the test piece.” (“THE INTERCOLONIAL BAND CONTEST.,” 1900). Noted, however, the comment was a bit harsh for the time – I’m sure all soloists played to the best of their abilities.
One must give credit to these early bands for competing at Ballarat and establishing an early benchmark in competition for subsequent years to follow. Perhaps the early conductors saw this as a learning experience but there is no doubt that rivalry was entrenched in the early bands, despite there being a level of comradery as well.
It would have been an amazing experience to step back in time and view this first competition. No doubt that we would have been astounded by the crowds and festive atmosphere, the bands, the playing and the whole spectacle. For a first contest, it was a huge success with everyone in Ballarat, and beyond, making it a success. Giving that it was billed as ‘The Intercolonial Band Contest’, it probably didn’t live up to its full potential given that only two interstate bands played. Yet it set the scene for future competitions and the reputation spread. It is a credit to these early organizers that it happened and gave us what we now know today.
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