The Crystal Palace

1936 Canal Ironworks Band

ABOVE: The Canal Ironworks Band who placed first in the Junior Cup “B” section.

Ever wonder what it must have been like at the Crystal Palace in 1936 for the 31st British Brass Band competition, the Greatest Brass Band Festival in the World? What follows is an amazing account of what it was like to be in London leading up to the big event as witnessed through first hand accounts by newspaper reporters and one band boy, a clarinet player named Charlie Coupar, who had the presence of mind to write down what he saw that day in his diary.

The occasional crackle of a cornet, and the deep-mouthed bay of a trombone, strike sharply on my ears. A number of scarlet-coated bandsmen pass me. They are fidgeting, talking in whispers, lighting fragments of cigarettes, and throwing them away again. The name of their band has been called, and in a few moments they will be competing in the greatest Brass Band Festival in the world.

Their instruments give a slight preliminary cough before they are carried into the hall. In the halls and corridors of this colossal Victorian temple, you may hear the burr of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the rasp of broad Scots, the fluent Cockney, and the sharp excited intonation of South Wales.

There are more than 5250 bandsmen here today, playing in 209 bands, each of which has brought its following, as faithful as the following of a football team. Men have come straight from their work yesterday, hastily changed into their uniforms and travelled through the night. Some of the bands arrived in London as early as four o’clock today. Men from South Wales collieries shake hands with men from Lancashire factories. They meet only once a year-at the Crystal palace. They stop and drink beer together at the bars. Their shouts and laughter rise into the glass domes, and their talk is all of brass bands-of previous triumphs and disasters. It is the day of “Here we are again.”

“A well-dressed window is half way to a sale. Bandsmen, think it over! “says the slogan of one stall. Further on are massive pyramids of tenor horns, trombones, trumpets and drums, all waiting to be awakened into life-monument of potential noise! Outside it is raining in desultory fashion, and in a covered stand bands in the junior Shield “B” contest are playing a selection from Tschaikowsky. It mingles grotesquely with the test pieces in the hall producing a marvelous effect of modern tonality.

All of a sudden one of the conductors sways, and before anyone can reach him, he sinks to the floor. Mr. J. Henry Brookes, of Penn Street, Horwich, near Bolton, one of the best known soprano cornettists in the country- was conducting the Rivington and Adlington Public Band on the Palace terrace when he suddenly became ill. His wife, daughter and a son were in the audience. The band stopped playing and members, including another of Mr. Brooke’s sons, helped to carry the conductor to the ambulance station. On arrival there he is found to be dead. His wife is not informed of his passing until much later.

For the first time in the 31 years’ history of the festival girls took part. They were Miss Iris Holgate, who was with the Stanley Band, from near Wakefield, of which her father was the conductor and Miss Ivy Nuttall, daughter of the conductor of the Britannia Works Band, Gainsborough Lincs. Miss Holgate, who is 15 years of age, took part in the Grand Shield contest with eight of her relatives. She began her band playing career at age 12.

The bands come from 36 English Counties, Yorkshire sending 25, Durham 20, London taking third place with 10. South Wales, one of the most distressed areas in Great Britain, has sent nine bands, an eloquent example of the fortitude and self-sacrifice of working men who take music desperately seriously.

More than 5,000 bandsmen begin to troop into the Crystal Palace. They came in buses, charabancs, and trains, each party accompanied by an entourage of veterans, slightly nervous daughters, and small boys who flick peanuts at Palace attendants. There are amiable and unintelligible enthusiasts from Scotland laughing heartily at the Cockney accents, cheery souls from the North, and determined little men from Wales, grim and determined beneath their bowler hats. A great noise of tramping feet, clattering instruments and heartening comradeship fill the air, mightily reinforced by the well-trained blasts from the competition platforms.

The main concert hall is jammed all afternoon. From row after row of ascending tiers at the rear of the stage visitors stare down at the packed seats in the auditorium, from which a thin haze of tobacco smoke blurs the outlines of the blowing bandsmen. From a loft in the screened gallery sits the invisible judges. The trumpets finish on a brave note. A storm of applause and out troop the musicians. In comes a party from Sheffield. There is a crackle of chatter while the men take their seats. From the gallery someone blows a whistle. And………Loudly and triumphantly the Sheffield men blow. Someone faultlessly accomplishes an intensely difficult solo and surprisingly the hall rises to applaud. Agitated noises come from aloft and many voices “Hush.”

The music went on. The little Welshmen listened with their heads in their hands- the Northerners stood about stolidly, gazing critically at the roof. The Scotsmen stared at their shoes. It went on all the afternoon. Time after time the strains of “Kenilworth” echoed in the shiny dome of the glass palace and teams came tramping jubilantly in and then thoughtfully out.

I heard that test piece five times and then I rushed away. How the judges stuck it I do not know. I bought some nuts and went several hundred feet to escape up in a lift to the top of one of the towers. Far below the trumpeters blew with all their might while all Britain strolled on the terraces critically beating time with uplifted forefingers. Great cheers and whistling ascended…  And once again the music went round and round.

One of the attraction at the Festival was the Vancouver Boys’ Band. They arrived on a tour of England in July with the following credentials. Champions of the Pacific Northwest, Victoria Music Festival, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934, British Columbia Champions, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934, Canadian Champions, Toronto Exposition 1931, World’s Champions Chicago World’s Fair 1933. The band obtained the highest marks in the entire Victoria and Vancouver Music Festivals for 1933 and 1934 and received great praise from the adjudicators. In July 1934, they competed in the West of England Band Festival and received two first prizes and one second prize. Their latest prize was obtained at the Canadian Pacific Exposition Music Festival in 1935 where they secured first place in the open sight reading class for a total of 197 marks out of a possible 205. Many of the band members have received numerous medals for first place in solo, trio and quartette playing and their trumpet soloist has received no less than 16 first place medals.

Just before they were to play at the Crystal Palace they were booked into Wembley Stadium to play for the bicycle games. As the contest drew closer the conductor selected what he thought was the best combination of brass players and took them to the Palace while the rest of the band continued playing at Wembley. After the boys had competed in the contest they couldn’t wait to hear the results because they had to go back and join the others at Wembley. However they devised a way that their manager “Stocky” would let them know if they had won by the way he wore his bowler hat upon his return to Wembley. If it was tilted they had won. As the suspense grew upon Stocky’s return, soon one of the boys spotted him coming down the aisle from high in the bleachers. Sure enough, his bowler was tilted to one side. They had won their class in the contest beating 35 of England’s top adult band. It wasn’t long before their win was announced over the loudspeakers and the whole crowd gave them a standing ovation. Torchy Peden the Canadian cyclist was competing in the bicycle races. He came up on stage and conducted the band. The boy’s win at the Crystal Palace was the highlight of the band’s remarkable 50 year career which saw them win over 200 championship awards (From the scrapbook of newspaper clippings of Charlie Coupar who was a clarinet player on that trip).