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.
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.
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.