Nearly every small town in New South Wales can speak of their own band, and why should a town with the population of Condobolin be so far behind the time?(Band Enthusiast, 1902)
This question was asked in a letter to the Lachlander and Condobolin and Western Districts Recorder newspaper in January 1902. The person who wrote the letter under a pseudonym, “Band Enthusiast” asked a worthy question as to why his town had not caught up with the times and started their own band. Condobolin is a town located in the Central West region of New South Wales and at this time, they were lagging other towns in the region. By the time 1902 has ticked around, some towns in the Central West have already had bands for the best part of a decade. Condobolin was feeling left out and wanted a band to boost civic pride and give townsfolk something else to do.
There is always a bigger picture and if we were to examine layers of history, patterns of immigration and the development of towns, agriculture, and industry, we would find that the bands of the Central West were very much products of their location and people – and there were many of them. For the purposes of this post, the focus will be on a large regional block of New South Wales; Lithgow and Bathurst in the east, Condobolin and Lake Cargelligo in the west, Mudgee, Galong Wellington & Tottenham in the north and Oberon, Blaney, Cowra, Grenfell, and Forbes in the south with many localities big and small in between. It is just over 400km from Lithgow to Lake Cargelligo and from North to South around 200km. As you can see from the brief list of towns, there are some famous places, some of which are etched into Australian psyche and history. The middle line of Central West can be drawn through the towns of Lithgow, Bathurst, Orange, Parkes, and Condobolin. Below this introduction is a Google map of this area.
For the sake of brevity with reading and writing, this blog topic in two parts. Part 1 focuses on a little history of the N.S.W. Central West and stories of the individual bands. Part 2 focuses on the various iterations of the Western Band Association and regional competitions. Given that there were twenty-eight bands that have existed in the Central West, this provides us with a rich history of music-making. Much like a previous post on the bands surrounding Canberra, this post is a result of a visit to Orange in October 2019 where various resources were accessed thanks to the assistance of the excellent librarians at Orange Library. They pointed out several features of their own town related to brass bands, and I was naturally curious about the other bands in the region. The Trove archive has also provided an amount of information.
One might say the development of bands in this region is very typical when compared to other parts of Australia, and to some extents this is correct. Well-might every town in the Central West have a band or want a band. They were community groups to be proud of.
The Central West:
To provide some context to the bands in this region, it is important to appreciate the history of the region. Early settlers travelled various locations, mainly to farm sheep on the vast plains although some towns were originally settlements to house convicts (Blainey, 2001; Kass, 2003). The main impetus to population growth was the discovery of various minerals across the region namely gold, copper, shale, limestone, and coal and most of the miners originated from Wales and Cornwall (Kass, 2003; Payton, 2005). With greater migration came town services and recreation as well as transport links – roads and railways. Kass (2003) wrote of the migration, “These new people left their mark. Sometimes, particular ethnic practices of skills affected the area” (p. 16).
Naturally, some towns grew bigger than others due to their location on major transport routes, the success of the mines or agriculture. Some towns like Hill End dwindled due to the exhaustion of mines (“Hill End,” 2004; Hodge, 2013). Others, like Bathurst, were regional centres in their own right – Bathurst, in particular, is one of the first towns established after the crossing of the Blue Mountains (Blainey, 2001). European influences on some towns are obvious. Below are some pictures of two bandstands in Orange located in parks at either end of the town centre.
The history of this region is fascinating, and it is through the development of these industries and towns that gives rise to brass bands, an amount of which are still in existence. These famous towns are historic. The bands themselves developed reputations that extended far beyond this region.
If we consider that the main immigration of the time was from Britain where brass bands had already taken hold in certain areas, it stands to reason the ethnic practices that Kass mentions would include certain kinds of music-making. Bythell (2000) tells us that this was no accident,
The successful transplantation of the brass band to the colonies in the late nineteenth century should not surprise us, given the importance of ordinary, wage-earning immigrants from Britain in building-up Australasia’s population and developing its communities and institutions. The contribution of British-born bandsmen to Australian banding is particularly noticeable in mining areas whose counterparts in ‘the Old Country’ were major centres of the movement.(p. 227)
More specifically and related to the regional area, Payton (2005) states that “Brass bands were popular among the Cornish at Hill End, Bathurst and elsewhere…” (p. 234). The link between mining and brass bands cannot be understated, and the names of some of the early bands reflected this origin. This was very much a transplanting of culture, and the Central West became blessed with several brass bands.
Where bands were formed:
In most of the major towns, they could boast one band although some had two or three. In the smaller towns, they could claim one band. As is the case with some of these activities, some bands folded or merged. In 1908 for example, the Parkes Brass Band merged with the nearby Parkesborough Brass Band to become a single entity (“Parkes Brass Band.,” 1908). Below is a table showing a list of locations where brass bands were mentioned, most of which were in existence in the early 1900s. Today, a number of bands remain in the major towns and these are highlighted by links – interestingly, some of the bands that exist today in this region are now concert bands.
|Hartley Vale||Hill End||Kandos||Lithgow|
There was no doubting the enthusiasm, civic pride and motives of the early townsfolk when it came to starting brass bands. However, it was not only townsfolk who started bands. Robert Bartlett (2018) wrote in his book Orange and District: A History in Pictures. 2 that “…a volunteer band attached to the Volunteer Military Corps in Orange was established about 1874” and that “The Orange Town Band was formed in the late 1880s” (p. 48). Here, this is an example of two bands that had existed in the town in relatively early times. The Orange Town Band was afflicted with a few stops and starts in its early years, however, it still exists to this day (Bartlett, 2018).
It is interesting to see how local newspapers reported on proposals to start bands or reported on bands already in existence. For example, a correspondent writing for the Peak Hill Express newspaper in August 1902 says of the newly formed Yeoval band,
One would scarcely think of hard times and drought at the small township of Yeoval, since the local Brass Band has commenced practice. The Bandmaster, (Mr. Kennerson) came yesterday from Eugowra to give his pupils their first lesson. I am afraid (although I should be very sorry to dishearten our amateurs), that some time will lapse before the Yeoval Brass Band will appear in a contest or even turn out a few professional players.(“YEOVAL.,” 1902)
The optimism is admirable given that Yeoval was a small township located inland from the main road linking the major towns of Molong and Wellington.
Expressions of enthusiasm for staring a brass band in the town of Cudal, located on a road from Orange to Forbes was all very well. But this enthusiasm was tempered by a pragmatic question over instruments, as written in an article from March 1902 in the Leader newspaper,
Cudal boys intend on starting a brass band. Why not? Mr. Walter Carter, who has been considerable time in the band at Wellington, and who is settling in town, will act as instructor and also conductor. The trouble is, where are the instruments coming from? Perhaps some person who is interested will push the thing ahead.(“CUDAL.,” 1902)
This is, of course, another aspect of starting a brass band, finding the right people to start them and instruct pupils. In the town of Cumnock, located near the towns of Yeoval and Molong, they found a person willing to start a band. A local and popular factor manager, Mr R. E. Higgins pushed an effort to start a band and it seems he was successful (“CUMNOCK.,” 1904). The Cumnock Brass Band was still in existence in 1927 (“CUMNOCK.,” 1927).
The township of Kandos, located south-east of Mudgee, provides an interesting example of how to start a band properly. Aside from the fact that got started much later than other towns, an article published in the Lithgow Mercury in March 1918 tells us much. It seems their town band was going to be supported financially by the N.S.W. Cement Co., so all they really needed from potential musicians was “determination and enthusiasm” (“KANDOS.,” 1918). And they really wanted a band for the town,
As a town band is a means of pleasurable entertainment, a welcome relaxation from the workers’ daily round and common task that appeals more than any other, the committee confidently look to the citizens of our model township for aid and support, financial and other ways. Meanwhile, a goodly number of names of intending members with more or less experience has been booked, and quite an encouraging number of names of intending pupils have likewise been handed in.(“KANDOS.,” 1918)
Nine years later we find that the Kandos Town Band is thriving. In the September 26th issue of The Australasian Band and Orchestral News, an article about the happenings of brass bands in New South Wales is published and there is a small paragraph on the Kandos Town Band:
Kandos Town Band has emerged from its winter seclusion and rendered a fine programme on Sunday, September 11 under the baton of Bandmaster Julius. The band has always had strong financial support and its efforts are always appreciated.(“New South Wales,” 1927, p. 23)
Then, of course, are the times when bands have, for whatever reason, gone into recess and then reformed. Such was the case of the Oberon Brass Band in 1936 when a tiny article published in the Sydney Morning Herald makes mention of the reformation of this band (“OBERON BAND RE-FORMED.,” 1936).
Some of the brass bands mentioned above were in smaller towns and faced challenges that did not really affect bands in bigger locations, though that did not stop these towns trying to start them. We know that bands in some of the bigger centres of “Bathurst, Wellington, Orange, Blaney, and Lithgow” were in existence by the early 1890s (“Western Brass Band Union.,” 1893). The Orange City Band, as we can see above in the photo, was lucky enough to have its own band hall. The band in the tiny town of Yeoval might have aspired of entering competitions but for the bands in bigger towns with more resources, this was a reality. It was seen in an earlier post how the Bathurst District Brass Band travelled all the way to Ballarat to compete in the first South Street band sections in 1900 and gained high praise for their playing (“THE CONTEST.,” 1900; Nedwell & Hill, 1900; “To-Day’s Telegrams.,” 1900). For many other bands in this region, travel to neighbouring towns or to Sydney for competitions became routine, no doubt helped by the early railways. The nature of competing and competitions for these bigger bands will be examined in Part 2 of this blog post.
Challenges laid bare:
Operating a band was not an easy task. And the early newspapers show numerous instances of where the local band put out a call for help. Most of the assistance was to be in the form of small concerts or other events that would provide funds for a band. In September 1900, a tiny article published in the Wellington Times newspaper asks the townspeople of Stuart Town to support their band,
At a public meeting held at Stuart Town on the 17th instant (Mr. A. G. Coleman in the chair) it was decided to hold a concert and social at Boehme’s Hall, on November 9, for the purpose of putting the funds of the Stuart Town brass band on a sound financial basis. Tickets for the concert will be 2s and s, and for the social 3s and 2s. Mr. Howard Warn is the hon. Sec.(“The Stuart Town Band.,” 1900)
Then there was the distinct challenge of gaining and retaining members of the band which was either overcome…or not. The McPhail and Peak Hill District Band was one ensemble that managed to turn things around with an effective recruitment campaign. Through an article published in the Peak Hill Express newspaper from December 1905, we see why there was a loss of initial membership and how they are progressing,
For some time past McPhail and Peak Hill District Band has not been heard so frequently as in the past, for the reason that the members being miners, were mostly out of the district. As a result, the Band has had to recruit, and this being done, with some £30 worth of instruments, the Band is on the up grade again, and during the coming year will be heard to advantage. The members have some really fine instruments, and everything points to a bright future.(“McPhail and Peak Hill District Band.,” 1905)
One can sense the inherent frustration of a Mr W. H. Gray, committee member of the Grenfell Town Band through a supplementary report published in the Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser newspaper in August 1931 regarding some issues surrounding his band. Firstly, Mr Gray has tried to justify the music library and choices of music for performances by stating,
In the first place the library referred to is an extremely important factor in the make-up of the band, and comprises all the music as used by them, and the same as in a reading library, there are good, band and indifferent pieces, and it requires a great deal of time to look through a quantity of music and make a selection of numbers that will be interesting to players to practice, and which will also please the majority of the listening public. […] Of course, there are numbers that will be uninteresting to the musically uneducated, but if we were to confine ourselves to the class of music that would appeal to that that type of listener we would get nowhere. And so it is necessary to have an assortment that will appeal to the highbrow as well as the lowbrow, if I may be permitted to use that term.(Gray in “TOWN BAND,” 1931)
Mr. Gray went on to making other forthright comments in his report of which are quoted here.
Most of them think the instrument has only to be blown into and it will play itself
A lot of programmes could be much improved if I could get fuller rehearsals. A lot to poor and bad spots in a performance are caused by members who only come along to rehearsal occasionally, and are not entirely familiar with the programme, and are not competent enough to read at sight, make mistakes which disconcert the rest of the players.
In a small town like this there is not the same chance or privilege to get a better combination, as there is only a certain percentage or average of all who take up the study of music who ever amount to much, and distance from other places are a bar to attracting other players here.
I would now like to appeal to the public for support. We have to be continually adding to our library, instruments have to be kept in repair, and band room rent and lighting to be paid. The bandsmen give a great deal of their time. Of course it is looked upon as a recreation, but it is not always so, as duties often interfere with other plans, so that a band call is sometimes a sacrifice to the men. […] You will now see it takes a certain definite amount of money to run a band, also a certain amount of sacrifice on behalf of the bandsmen, and as I hope the band gives a lot of pleasure to people that in the future better monetary support will be given that will enable us to continue and improve on the work already done.(Gray in “TOWN BAND,” 1931)
This article was as informative as it was fascinating. We see here a committee member who has outlined several frustrations yet still asks the public for support, as well as asking his bandsmen to give a greater effort. The challenge of being in a smaller town without ready access to a pool of musicians and other resources is not unique. To have laid it all out in a local newspaper to this extent is certainly brave – one wonders the comments he received from his bandsmen who might have read this.
Conductors and bandsmen:
It has been mentioned at times in this post certain names of people who were influences on their local bands. Again, this is nothing new when compared to other bands in Australia – this was a time of the journeyman band member who frequently changed towns and bands. To keep up retention for any length of time was a major challenge. Yet there were some remarkable stories of longevity, and the lengths towns went to honour their brass band people.
The year is 1920 and, in an article, published in January of that year in the Bathurst Times newspaper, news breaks of a possible transfer of the conductor of the Bathurst District Band, a Mr Samuel Lewins, to somewhere else in N.S.W. because of employment. This was a conductor who had been at the helm of the band for a considerable length of time,
Mr. Verbrugghen, the conductor of the State Orchestra, has been telling the public that he success of the orchestra is due to its conductor. By the same line of reasoning the success of the Bathurst District Band is due to its bandmaster. Is proof wanted? It can be found in the fact that during the thirty-three years the band has been going it has had hundreds of members, but only one conductor.(“BRASS BANDS,” 1920)
Rightly, or wrongly, there were fears the band would collapse if the conductor left the band,
Now there is a rift looming. Bathurst is likely to lose Mr. Lewins, and in losing him the city is in danger of losing the District Band as we now know it.
This is how maters stand. Mr. Lewins is an officer in the Railway service. He is reaching the retiring age, and when that time comes (as will be in about two years), he proposes to remove to Sydney or some other centre. Is Bathurst going to allow him to go without making an effort to keep him?
What will Bathurst do? Will it get busy during the two years yet to go, and arrange to keep the District Band and its conductor, or will it sit down and allow matters to drift? Two years is not a long time. Some towns have been trying for a dozen years to get a man with the brass band knowledge of Mr. Lewins and with equal worth as a citizen, but have failed. Bathurst has the musician man and the citizen, and should see that he is kept here.(“BRASS BANDS,” 1920)
The story of Mr Lewins at the helm of the Bathurst District Band does not end here. In 1926 we find that he is still conducting and as a measure of appreciation, the townsfolk honour Mr Lewins with a plaque as a testimonial to his now forty years as conductor of the band (“THE LEWINS’ TESTIMONIAL,” 1926; “MR. S. LEWINS’ TESTIMONIAL,” 1925). Mr Lewins kept conducting the band for another twelve years until 1938. In 1936 he was further honoured for conducting the band for fifty years with the erecting of commemorative gates at Machattie Park (“LEWINS COMMEMORATIVE GATES,” 1936). In 1938, having achieved the record as the “oldest bandmaster in the Commonwealth”, is suffering from ill health and has had to retire from leading the Bathurst District Band – by all accounts, this is an astonishing record (“MR. S. LEWINS,” 1938). Two years after his retirement at the age of 78, Mr Lewins passes away with tributes flowing from band people all around Australia (“MR. SAMUEL LEWINS,” 1940). For a brief time afterwards, the band is conducted by one of his sons and soon after Mr Harold Walmsley takes over as conductor of this band and the Bathurst Boys’ Band (“BATHURST AND ITS BANDS,” 1941).
Samuel Lewins was but one of many remarkable musicians that have called the Central West their home and the legacy of these musicians lives on. One must recognize that every musician made a contribution to their bands, and in some cases to Australia as euphonium player and conductor of the Orange Town Band, Herbert Rockliff did in the AIF (Orange City Council, 2015). To my knowledge, not one band conductor has come close to the Lewins record yet.
Bands of the Central West:
To reiterate a point, the development and running of bands in the Central West were no less compared to other bands around Australia. In fact, it was fairly typical – challenges were commonplace. However, to have so many bands in the one region did bring out the best of bandsmen and they did their best to keep bands operating. Perhaps circumstance was unkind to some of them – they were tied to their towns and if the towns dwindled the bands folded. But for the most part, at least in some of the bigger towns, their legacy lives on.
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Bartlett, R. (2018). Orange and district : a history in pictures. 2. Robert Bartlett.
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OBERON BAND RE-FORMED. (1936, 07 November). Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), 14. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17286874
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Payton, P. (2005). The Cornish overseas : a history of Cornwall’s ‘great emigration’ (Rev. and updated ed.). University of Exeter Press.
Peak Hill Band. (1911). [Photograph]. [phot9371]. The Internet Bandsman Everything Within, Vintage Brass Band Pictures : Australia. http://www.ibew.org.uk/vbbp-oz.html
The Stuart Town Band. (1900, 20 September). Wellington Times (NSW : 1899 – 1954), 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article139003931
To-Day’s Telegrams : THE BATHURST BAND IN MELBOURNE. (1900, 04 October). Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (NSW : 1851 – 1904), 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article63874689
TOWN BAND : Grenfell Band. (1931, 17 August). Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser (NSW : 1876 – 1951), 4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article112830663
Western Brass Band Union. (1893, 02 November). National Advocate (Bathurst, NSW : 1889 – 1954), 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article156684544
YEOVAL. (1902, 22 August). Peak Hill Express (NSW : 1902 – 1952), 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article107245170