Saddleworth Whit Friday Band Contests

The 1996 film “Brassed Off” tells the story of a colliery brass band who face unemployment with the threatened closure of the village pit. In order to improve the morale of the band, the bandmaster enters them for the Saddleworth Band Contests where, of course, they cover themselves in glory, going on to play at the Royal Albert Hall in London!

The Saddleworth Band Contests, which were first recorded in 1884, are held on the afternoon and evening of Whit Friday and have been called “the greatest free show on earth”. Each village holds its own contest and the bands, world class bands from mainland Europe and the UK to the smallest of village, university and local school bands, begin to arrive in coaches from about 4 pm.

Up to 100 bands might tour the area, though they don’t all necessarily stop at the same villages along the route. At each chosen venue, the bands play two pieces…a “march”, played as they parade along the street to applauding spectators and then a showpiece “quickstep” at a pre-selected area, where they are scored “blind” by an adjudicator hidden in a nearby room or caravan. Each contest offers prizes for the “best band”, “best youth band” and for “best soloists”.

The entertainment has been known to go on till the early hours on lovely warm days. However, the contests are also regularly plagued by cold rainy weather and this year was no exception. Perhaps the rain kept away many spectators and maybe not so many bands as usual stopped to play, but the musicians who took part and the spectators who shrugged off the wet weather all seemed to enjoy themselves. There was a lovely festive spirit at the Uppermill contest, which we attended for a couple of hours last evening.

Wardle Junior Blast posing for their official photograph in Uppermill 14th June 2019. Photo © Christine Widdall 2019.

The first band that we heard was “Wardle Junior Blast” (from Wardle, Rochdale). Some of these children aren’t much bigger than the instruments they are playing, especially the trombonists, but my goodness they can play! It’s worth taking time out to watch the video of this group of young musicians playing at the Saddleworth band contest at Denshaw village in the 2018 Whit Friday contests at this link…and this year they were equally enthusiastically received by a damp but happy audience. Have you noticed they are playing without the music?

We then listened to bands from as far afield as Stavanger to our own Saddleworth village bands before rain eventually stopped play. I hope that the photographs I have chosen for my gallery below show the mood of the night.

© Christine Widdall