The sound of brass which filled our hearts

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IT’S music that can fill your heart with gladness, or leave you sweetly melancholic.

IT’S music that can fill your heart with gladness, or leave you sweetly melancholic.

The sound of the brass band is part of our DNA here in the North East of England, tapping, as it does, into a rich seam of industry, community and heritage.

These pictures are from the story of one of the most famous and enduring, Westoe Brass Band, which is currently being told at South Shields Museum.

The exhibition, The Call of the Collieries, celebrates more than 170 years of the band’s history.

The title is derived from a painting commissioned from South Shields artist Bob Olley for the cover of the band’s latest music CD of the same name, which depicts it performing in the South Marine Park.

Bob – himself a former miner at Whitburn Colliery – is a great supporter of the band, regarding colliery bands as an integral part of mining heritage. “They should never be allowed to fade into obscurity.”

The exhibition, which runs until the middle of May, traces Westoe’s history to what was, originally, another colliery and another band – Harton.

In fact the first colliery band in the North East was formed at Harton pit, in 1842, albeit it’s more likely to have been a small brass combination, not emerging as a ‘band’ until the 1860s.

By the beginning of the First World War it had absorbed a companion ensemble, Tyne Dock Temperance Band, and was starting to take away silverware from competitions.

The band’s subsequent progress – and the support it received – astonishes even now.

In 1919, thousands of people lined the pavements from the railway station in Mile End Road to the Town Hall, to see the band return victorious from the 67th British Open Championship – the first colliery band to bring the prize North. In the same year, in the absence of a Crystal Palace contest, they were also declared world champions.

You can’t look at the photographs and other memorabilia without being impressed by what was being achieved by ordinary working men.

Gifted soloists emerged, such as Jack Mackintosh and Tom Brennan.

The band toured widely between the wars, and there were a number of recordings.

During the Second World War, Harton made more radio broadcasts than any other brass band – many of which went out live from upstairs in the Victoria Hotel (Winskells pub) at West Harton!

Stars would emerge. Maurice Murphy, who played with the band between 1947 and 1951, would later become principal trumpet with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO).

The band continued with relative success after the war, eventually changing its name to Harton and Westoe Colliery Band in 1958.

The first female player, tenor horn player Annette Peters, joined in 1972.

Yet by little more than a decade later, it has almost all gone. The band emerged from the 1984/84 miners’ strike struggling financially and with numbers.

It was then that the decision was taken to drop Harton from the band’s title and to set out to recruit new players through the South Tyneside Schools Brass Band Scheme.

Foundations were relaid, the subsequent blow felt by the closure of Westoe Colliery in 1993, being ameliorated by South Tyneside Health Care Trust stepping in with support.

It was to be a lifeline and the link with what subsequently became Westoe South Tyneside Healthcare Trust Band continues to today.

Now it’s just known as Westoe Brass Band, in partnership with South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust.

It performs, records and still takes a leading role at the Durham Miners’ Gala, and will be taking part in this Good Friday’s annual Procession of Witness in Shields.

As they say, the band plays on....

n The Call of the Collieries can be seen at South Shields Museum until May 16.