Brass Band Competitions in mid-nineteenth century Norfolk

 There are two brass band competitions we know a little bit about, thanks to three broadsides produced for the occasions. Two of these cheaply printed sheets relate to the same competition in Norwich, while the third deals with a competition in Great Yarmouth. We can tell that both were about the same time because some of the same characters appear in both Norwich and Yarmouth. The Norwich competition took place on 18th August 1861. After 160 years the local brass band movement is still going strong – the Taverham Band performed at the church this Remembrance Sunday. (2011)

brass bandIn the Yarmouth competition the cause behind the ballad was said to be the landlord of the pub where the contest was held, the Victoria Gardens (the Vickey Gardens of the title) had favoured one band, while the audience had favoured another. It’s not much of a story, but at least it adds a little spice to the contest. The Victoria Gardens of Blackfriars road remained a pub well into living memory, not being demolished until the late 20th century. The landlord’s name is given in the broadside as Lovick Anstead Brown, and he had been born into the pub trade. His parents had kept the pub in Taverham, the Papermakers Arms.

Two of the bands competing at Yarmouth came from Cambridgeshire, but this was not the furthest a contestant had come- one band leader was a German, described on the broadside with blatant xenophobia as full of trickery like all his countrymen. His name is given as Keyniech or alternatively as Kegnick, but I think these are phonetic interpretations of the German name Koenig. Koenig was a German cornet player and band leader who was lving in England at the time. He had composed the famous and virtuosic Post Horn Gallop a few years earlier. He was placed third in the competition.

The popular favourite at Yarmouth was Billy Jackson (also called Jaxon, another example of the phonetic approach to names). Here is the publication in which Mr Cosgrove – who is the hero in the broadside- gave his side of the story;  
 On 31st August 1861 Mr. Thomas Rolfe Cosgrove, then of Upper King Street, Norwich, published the following:-
` I admit that Mr. Ablitt ordered the police to remove me from the gardens, which they wisely declined, but deny that  I made any apology whatever to Mr. Ablitt. Mr. Ablitt was determined that Mr. Jackson’s band should not play for his cup and I, who was deputed by them to see they had fair play, was determined they should and by appealing to a respectable audience, who were unanimous in having the arrangements carried out with integrity, Mr. Ablitt was obliged to give way.’

Band leader Jackson must have been good, as he was the winner of the Norwich competition too. On one of the Norwich broadsides we learn that he was called Blind Billy Jackson – an interesting sidelight on this interesting man. We only learn of one piece of music played in the two events, and that was by Jackson at Yarmouth. It was that most rousing of nineteenth century favourites, Handel’s Hallelujah chorus. It would not be to today’s taste as the high point of a pub music festival.

These events relied on the new railway system, not only to bring the bandsmen from across the country to compete, but also to transport the many “country cousins” who were provided with cheap trains into Norwich to join in the merriment.  The contest was held on the New Cricket Ground in Newmarket Road, which had been opened in 1853.  The old cricket ground in Lakenham had been opened in 1827 and survived into the 21st century. To finish off events at the Norwich “spree” were fireworks provided by George Coe, who had a fireworks factory at Bull Close. The heady mixture of brass bands and fireworks is still popular as seen by the biennial Exploding Brass concerts. George Coe had a chequered career. He first comes to our notice as the publican of the Plasterers Arms in 1854. He was reportedly insolvent as a firework manufacturer and firework artist in 1860, but was still in business in 1870 when the inevitable explosion at his works severely injured two of his employees.

The humour of the two Norwich broadsides is undoubtedly coarse, not quite the style we normally associate with the ‘prim’ Victorians. One relates how a bandsman was blowing so hard on his cornet that he dirtied his breeches, while the other says how delighted the girls were with the contestant’s horns. The identification with horny is not hard to spot.



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