Carnival marching bands in the Black Country

Recently, Stuart Cowley got in touch (coming via Brownhills Bob’s excellent blog) to talk about something I knew almost nothing about. He’s very kindly agreed to write a guest post documenting the history of children’s marching jazz bands in the Black Country (and wider region), and it’s fascinating. Without further ado, over to him:

Burntwood Bluebirds early 1970s

I was in the drum section of one from Burntwood 1970-77, the Bluebirds. Drum section trainer of the Chaseley Coronets from Cannock, early 80s. I was also Chairman of the Staffordshire league briefly early 80s.  At one point nearly every town in our area had at least one. Each band would have about 30 members on average, sometimes many more. They would compete at carnivals and competitions up and down the country during the summer months. The chances are that they touched the lives of some of the visitors to the museum at some point.

The history of these Jazz bands goes back to around the 1920s and 30s where they were originally found in the traditional mining areas of the East and West Midlands, the North East and across the Welsh valleys, as a social activity for the local miners and their family members. They became increasingly popular as a way to pass time during the strikes associated with this period, in particular the General strike of 1926. Some images have been spotted of members of the Jarrow march, marching with makeshift instruments.

Back in the day, the instruments were simple tin kazoos and drums, they performed to crowds in local carnivals and festivals in the area, often competing between villages. Their trainers and members were mainly adults. Many of them using their past military marching skills to perfect their routines to see who could perform the best on the day. In 1976, veteran BBC journalist and broadcaster, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, CBE, gave a first-hand account of his memories of the bands in a documentary “50 Years of Jazz Band History.” As a 16 year old, I had recorded the sound of the documentary and some 40 years later, after finding the recording in my loft, I teamed up with a Lisa Ashby via William Robert’s Brownhillsbob blog. The documentary was resurrected with new images and to my knowledge is about the only piece of history that links the bands from their beginnings to how they were in the 60s, 70s, 80s and present day. Although it relates predominantly to the South Wales area, all areas of the country evolved in much the same way. If you visit the Brownhillsbob blog and search “Jazz bands” you can find more articles (like this one (ed) [I’ve always wanted to an (ed)]). The ones I am relating to are here though. It should be said, that William Roberts has always welcomed any information about the bands on his blog and is also keen to see a history of them more permanently documented.

The blog also holds some of the oldest film of local carnivals that also feature some of the bands of the area. This goes back to 1934 in Brownhills. Amongst some of the bands in the clip were Tolson’s Music Weavers from Fazeley, The Lilacs from Wednesbury, Melody Makers from Smethwick and the Dandies from Norton Canes.  Another band, the “Red Caps” from Walsall Wood were also more than likely in attendance.

Back in 2013, a David Oakley told of his memories being a member of the Red Caps, again, on the Brownhillsbob blog:

“As a youngster in Walsall Wood in the ’30’s my first allegiance was to the Red Caps. But all the
‘jazz bands’ fascinated me, and I would follow them for miles, when marching. The band seemed to come under the control of a Mr Scott, and he would carry the mace in front of the band, when marching. The band trained on Bowker’s field in Holly Lane, and in the summer time, during the evening practice, the sound of the bazooka’s and drums would drift across the common, (No Castlefort Estate, then) into Salters Road and into the open windows of the kid’s bedroom. Yes, we called them ‘bazooka’s’ in those days, ‘kazoos only came about in the 1960’s renaissance of the bands.
I loved the band contests. Many were held on the Walsall Wood F.C. football ground at Oak Park. One in particular sticks in my memory – after competing in the playing and marching competition, the finale of the contest was for each band to offer an original tableau. The form of the tableau was a closely guarded secret, and bands went to extreme lengths to preserve the secret from other bands, while practising assiduously to get things right for the contest.
Came the moment. The Red Caps formed into a group, and all was silent, then two members of the band emerged, quickly wrapping a very long white sheet around the band, at the same time ,
wooden masts and sails were hoisted from within the band and, hey presto ! the band had transformed itself into a sailboat ! While the strains of “Red sails in the sunset” drifted from the bazooka”s and drums.. Yes, the Red Caps won the contest, Who could follow that ??? Yes, happy innocent days ! I saw an earlier reference to a Norton Canes band of the ’30’s, That would most certainly be The Norton Dandies. Don’t be put off by the name ! They were tough cookies when it came to competition.”

Walsall Wood Red Caps in the 1930s
Norton Canes Dandies in the 1930s

The early 60s and 70s saw the largest growth of bands in all areas of the country, mainly gaining popularity again post second world war.

1973 saw the first England Vs. Wales competition which brought the top bands from all areas of the country together. This was followed the next year by the first World Championships held at Alexandra Palace in London. The street parade was held past the Houses of Parliament. A federation was soon formed to look after the interests of participants. The United Kingdom Federation of Jazz Bands. Some of the initial meetings were held at Wimblebury near Cannock, due to its central location.

Competition at Alexandra Palace in 1978

In the 60s and 70s the bands were mostly predominant in the Tamworth and Cannock coalfields areas of the West Midlands region. One that bucked the trend was from Wollescote, Stourbridge. The band was formed in the early 60s according to ex band leader, Hazel Shilvock. She was in the band for 20 years. A lot of the members lived on Hill Top Wollescote, so they adapted the name of “Wollescote Toppers.”

In the 60s, a group of people watching a local carnival thought it would be a good idea to form a band for their children. Some of them had been in the bands as youngsters themselves. After raising the funds needed, the band would practise on ground next to the Beech Tree Miners club in the town. In later years, a daughter of one of the founding members later went on to form the Stourport Severn Siders.

In the early years, the bands were known as “Tableaux bands.” A field display would last for about 30 minutes and as well as marching, music and drumming, each band would take on a theme. So during this time you would see Toreadors, Zulus, Minstrels, etc competing against each other. As the number of bands increased and became more competitive, the time on display had to be restricted and many bands adopted the Welsh style of close rank marching and style of uniform. The Toppers were one of the last tableaux style bands in the area but remained in the new style of marching for many more years. An attempt to bring back tableaux themes was started in more recent years amongst bands.

Wollescote Toppers
Wollescote Toppers

Back in the 60s and 70’s it wasn’t common for every family to own a car or take regular holidays so venturing out to a carnival on a band coach anywhere in the country every weekend throughout the summer season generated many happy memories for the children, parents and supporters that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. Nothing was more exciting than turning up at a carnival field with all that it had to offer, including, at times, the delights of Pat Collins fun fair, another local institution.

Pat Collins Fair

Valuable life skills were learned in terms of teamwork, discipline and confidence building that would put them in good stead for later life. All credit should be given to the trainers and committee members involved who through dedication and some personal sacrifice, were able to get together, raise funds for band coaches, uniforms and instruments and provide the ongoing motivation needed to put some 30 or more children per band proudly out on to the streets in local parades, marching in unison, not for financial gain but purely for the love and joy of doing it.

The bands were judged on their performance on the street parade, then on display on the carnival field. Each judge would specialize in their own area of music, drum solo, marching deportment, spacing, uniform, etc. Standards were such that some members would later enter the armed forces including the prestigious Royal Marines drum section.

Tyne Tees TV (1980)

A Tyne Tees TV production in 1980 followed the progression of three bands as they attended the World Championships at South Shields. Entitled, “Some people don’t call it music,” it gives a good insight as to what it all entailed from the point of view of the children and committee members.

Bilston Carnival 1964
Coseley Carnival 1964 (beware the “it was normal at the time” appearance of blackface in this one)
Rushall Carnival 1974
Stourport carnival 1972

The summer months would include many of the annual gala’s during the main shut down. One such gala was the Annual Chase Wakes in Chasetown. A clip was produced a few years back to celebrate its history and is typical of such events that took place during this time in the year.

Chase Wakes

Some local bands were fortunate enough to be able to go abroad but whether abroad or at somewhere closer to home these children acted as fine ambassadors for their hometowns. A typical week would be training on a Tuesday and Thursday night, up early on the Saturday to catch the band coach to a carnival anywhere in the country, getting back late, sometimes near midnight, to get up on the Sunday and do it all over again. The winter months would involve fund raising by such events as discos and bingo sessions that would draw in other members of the community.

Some bands also found themselves partaking in children’s TV shows and a couple even found their way to the big screen. The Burntwood Bluebirds led a procession through the streets of Birmingham in Cliff Richard’s film, “Take me high” in the early 70s.

Scenes from Take Me High (1973)
Clip from Take Me High (1973) in Birmingham

As lads we used to get some stick from time to time from mates who didn’t understand what we were up to but at the end of the day the girls outnumbered the lads about 20-1, so it was inevitable that long term relationships formed. I met my wife of 40 years through the bands as did many other couples.

Some bands still exist but people’s expectations change. We no longer have the carnivals that we once had. Imagine the health and safety issues now with carnival floats! The fascination for the children is understandably lacking these days as new generations discover new pastimes and interests.

For those who were fortunate enough to have been caught up in it all, memories of time spent as members will last a lifetime.

I’m so grateful to Stuart for getting in touch and writing this all up. It’s a fascinating piece of social history, as yet much under-explored. To find out more though, see the work of Dr Frances Thirlway, and Lucy Wright, and their Carnivals Pageants Street Parades Research Network.

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