A Glorious Past

The quaintly named Besses o' th' Barn is an old industrial town situated between Manchester and Bury, in Lancashire. Competing theories for the origin of the name abound. Perhaps the most colourful involves Dick Turpin’s famous mount – Black Bess! The most likely, though, is that it stems from the name of the (in)famous landlady of a local hostelry. Besses o' th' Barn’s main claim to fame, however, is that it was the birthplace of – and has given its name to – what is certainly one of the oldest and arguably most famous brass bands in the world.


The origins of this celebrated outfit of amateur musicians can certainly be traced back to 1818, when the reed band based at Cleggs Cotton Mill was first mentioned. It is this date that "Besses," as the Band is affectionately known, takes as its inception. In the 1880's the Band moved into its present band room, situated behind the Red King public house on Moss Lane, Whitefield.

By the late 1800’s, Besses were already firmly established as one of the country's leading musical ensembles – amateur or professional. At that time, much of the repertoire of brass bands still consisted of arrangements of popular classical music, designed to provide the working classes with access to the works of world famous composers. People from the cotton and coal towns of Lancashire could afford to listen to their local brass band playing classical arrangements in local venues, whereas there was virtually no prospect of them being able to pay to travel and listen to professional orchestras in the major city centre venues. Many such arrangements, for example Rossini's Works and many of the early Henry Round selections, were made especially for Besses. Even by the high standards of today’s top bands, many of these pieces demand a remarkably high degree of both technical skills and endurance.

One of the earliest photographs of the Besses (1869)

The Band had been consistent competition winners since 1821, although they only converted into an all-brass ensemble in 1853. Such contests of musical prowess were introduced to improve the standard of brass playing. They also gave the bandsmen a welcome opportunity to benchmark their talents against other bands from both near and far. So successful at competing were Besses that in the year 1892 the Band remained undefeated all year and won every major title on offer, including their first of seven British Open Championship titles.

A major contributory factor in the Band's early successes was their partnership with the great Alexander Owen, at that time the most famous arranger of brass band music in the country. Although associated with many bands of that era, it was with Besses that he gained most success. Joining them in 1884 at the age of 33, he remained with the Band until his death at the age of 69 in 1920, just three weeks before he would have conducted them at that year's 67th annual British Open. Willie Wood, using Owen's baton, stepped in to conduct the Band at the contest and Besses duly won their third British Open title. He went on to win two more Open titles with Besses – in 1937 and finally in 1959, playing Eric Ball's The Undaunted.

The early years of the 20th century saw Besses at the peak of their success, starting with the Band's surprisingly one-and-only National Championship win, at the Crystal Palace in 1903. They were now so successful in the competitive arena that they decided, for a time, to leave the contest field and proceeded to embark instead on a series of truly pioneering events and adventures.

Besses proudly posing with trophies won in the early1900’s

Promoted by John Henry Iles as 1903 National Champions, Besses embarked on an extensive tour of the UK. Little could they imagine then where this first tour would eventually lead them. Hints of great things to come started with an invitation by the Prime Minister, Henry Balfour, to play By Royal Appointment for King Edward VII at Windsor Castle. This performance led directly to a tour of France with concerts in Paris to commemorate the Entente Cordiale pact between France and Great Britain. On the Band room wall sepia photographs can be seen of Besses performing to huge crowds in the Tuileries Gardens in the very heart of Paris. Henry Iles and Alexander Owen were both presented with Officier de L'instruction Publique medals to mark the occasion and Besses had the "Royal" prefix bestowed upon them as their fame spread throughout the world. Invitations to play were received from all around the globe.


From Whitefield to Wellington

In response to ceaseless requests and displaying amazing courage, the Band decided to tour the World. Between the years 1906 and 1911 they did just this not once, but twice! Both trips lasted an incredible eighteen months. Stories of players leaving home, on the pretence of heading for normal band practice, and arriving back home one-and-a-half years later may contain more than a grain of truth. Detailed itineraries show that the Band played hundreds of concerts covering venues in North America, Canada, Hawaii, Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. They were regarded as pop stars of the day and welcomed by enthusiastic crowds of thousands wherever they went.

An arrival parade in Melbourne during one of the tours saw the Band preceded by no fewer than twenty-two of Australia's finest brass bands. Their stay culminated in four days of concerts in the city that attracted a total crowd of over 100,000. It took the arrival of The Beatles more than sixty years later before the city once again saw such vast crowds for visiting musicians.

50,000 gather to hear Alexander Owen conduct the Band in Paris (1903)

The wealth of information on these early tours comes largely from diaries written by various members of the Band. Luckily some of these very personal records are still in existence and carefully tended in the Band's archives or by descendants. The details in the diaries are truly fascinating and even include train and boat timetables from all over the world. One such document dutifully records that during the Band's second tour of New Zealand Alexander Owen composed a march, which he named after a famous porpoise, known to seafarers as Polorus Jack. The diary faithfully chronicles the event, even down to the name of the ship (SS Pateena) on which the Band were sailing when the idea was first conceived. The score even includes a triangle part, said to be an imitation of the dinner gong, which rang to summon the players to their meal just as Alexander finished writing the piece. Polorus Jack has now become one of the Band's favourite signature tunes and is often included in present-day concert programmes.

Other notable souvenirs from those early tours include a genuine wild boar trophy presented to the Band in New Zealand in 1910. None of the music in the Band’s immense library, however, is thought to be inspired by that awesome creature! It is still proudly displayed on the Band room wall, opposite the large (some would say intimidating) photograph of Alexander Owen, whose eyes seem to follow you around the Band room – especially if your playing isn’t up to standard!

Promotional photograph for one of the World Tours


A Brass Band Without Christmas

"It wouldn’t be Christmas without a brass band," is often heard within earshot of the local yuletide carol concert. But who ever heard about a brass band without Christmas? Well, this is precisely what resulted when Besses sailed across the International Date Line on the journey between Hawaii and Suva (Fiji Islands) on their first tour, thereby losing most of 25th December. And we claim that banding is merely a hobby!

Within These Walls

To visit the Band room is to take a step back in time. The walls are lined with countless photographs and mementos of historic and more recent glories. The sight of these invariably triggers endless anecdotes from the hundreds of world famous brass band celebrities that have visited over the decades.

One often-quoted legend tells of a visitor from Australia looking for his Manchester roots. He arrived at Victoria Station in London with nothing more than a family name and that of the Band his grandfather played in – "Besses". He was promptly put on a train to Manchester with the instruction to change at Manchester Victoria for Besses o' th' Barn and told, "They'll look after you!"

However, it isn’t just strictly brass band devotees who are attracted to the Band room. André Previn was astonished by the Band’s capabilities when he brought a BBC TV documentary team to Whitefield in the 1970s. Both he and Sir Simon Rattle are listed as Band Vice Presidents. More recently, the world-famous US jazz trumpeter Bobby Shew sat spellbound throughout what was just a normal mid-week rehearsal. He also thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality downstairs afterwards and related some of his own anecdotes about the legends of the jazz world, including Woody Herman and Buddy Rich, for whose bands he played lead trumpet.

André Previn hosts BBC TV documentary in 1970s


Recent Achievements and Media Exposure

Though the Band is justly proud if its illustrious history it is certainly not trapped in a time warp. It is well known for commissioning new works from both established and emerging composers. Amongst the pieces that Besses have either commissioned or premiered are Images (John McCabe), Of Knights and Castles (Ray Premru), Australian Fantasy (Gordon Langford) and concertos for tuba by both Edward Gregson and Joseph Horovitz

Besses also gave the first performance on radio of Tim Souster's Echoes, a piece written for brass with "radiophonic" effects. Commenting on the recorded version, one of Besses’ horn players at the time, Dave Aston, thought it, "Very unusual to play just one note and then to hear it repeated twenty times on air."

Other radio and television appearances followed including the BBC Omnibus programme with André Previn. Elgar Howarth was the conductor on that occasion. The highlight of Besses’ radio broadcasts has to be its winning performance of the 1978 BBC Band of the Year competition, conducted by Ifor James. In the intervening period since that competition was shelved, Besses have remained regular contributors to the popular Listen to The Band programme and, since its inception, Classic FM Radio. Another recent TV appearance was on the Christmas 1998 episode of The Mall, a documentary series following the development of Manchester’s huge Trafford Centre shopping mall. In June 1999 a performance of English music to a packed Royal Albert Hall enthralled nursing delegates from all around the world after their formal international convention had ended.

The Band also spent several years under the musical directorship of Roy Newsome, culminating in their seventh victory in the British Open in 1982. The test-piece, Herbert Howell's Three Figures, was recorded by the Band and is available on one of its many tapes and compact discs.

The Band continues to play at venues around the UK and to tour internationally, with Switzerland, Holland and Germany among recent destinations. Finland was toured in 1983 and 1986, the Band being led on the latter visit by Major Peter Parkes.

Exciting Entry to the New Millennium

As a mark of respect and recognition to past members who have made the name Besses so famous over almost two centuries, the Band is in the planning stages of a third World Tour. It is hoped that this will take place in 2006 and will include at least some of the countries visited during the first two World Tours of 1906 and 1909. Already, concert invitations are being received, via the modern medium of the Internet, from New Zealand, America and the Far East. The international interest generated so far has led to the unearthing of yet more colourful memorabilia by third-generation descendants of people who attended huge concerts during the earlier tours. No wonder that media interest is already being stirred by the prospect of such a rich tapestry of history juxtaposed with the current thirst around the world for top-class brass band music. Whether the Band will again be able to pose with Zulu warriors in full battle dress remains to be seen! The photograph showing such a remarkable scene only a few years after bloody battles with the British is unfortunately too fragile to allow its reproduction here.

BBC TV North West broadcast September 1999

Media Interest

Such is the historical significance of the "Third World Tour" that initial interest has already been expressed by television and film production companies. A recent BBC TV News report (see above) covered both the planned tour and the nostalgic visit by forty members of the Jackson family. They included direct descendants of Bob Jackson, shown as a sixteen-year-old cornet player in the 1869 photograph on the front page of this brochure. The media are attracted by the contrast between the high-speed, hi-tech version of the Third World Tour and the pioneering, steamships images conjured up by the first two tours. Besses were then seen as one of the country's major ambassadors in a golden era of the British Empire. Next time around, they will no doubt be seen as ambassadors for British culture and commerce. It is anticipated that business leaders will be keen to help fund the Third Tour of the World early in the New Millennium. Those interested in potential sponsorship of either the Tour, individual concerts, or the day-to-day running expenses of this living gem of our national heritage should contact us!

Outside the Royal Albert Hall (1999)

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