In September 1859 a “Grand Village Band Contest” was held in a place called Loftus – a small moorland-village on the North-Yorkshire coast, not far from the house where I grew up. Music filled the air and crowds poured in from miles around to witness the spectacle. Among them was John Hollingshead, a London journalist and theatrical impresario who would later go on to produce the first collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan. At this point he was making his way in the business under the tutelage of Charles Dickens by contributing articles to Household Words and All the Year Round. His account of the “Musical Prize Fight” at Loftus appeared in the latter magazine in November 1859. It’s a delightful account of an outsider’s visit to the area and features a Dickensian cast of local characters.

119 years later, in 1978,  my parents unearthed a copy of the article in a second-hand bookshop. My Dad (a historian) began to explore the history of the Loftus Band Contest, while my Mam (an artist) started illustrating some of the scenes from Hollingshead’s account. Her pen & ink drawings are fabulous. She’s far too modest to make this comparison herself, but the characterisation and delightful background details remind me of Cruikshank and Hogarth. The results were exhibited at a local art gallery, whose promotional materials incorrectly listed them as man and wife. Rather than re-print the posters, they decided they “should probably just get married” and went to a registry office a few days later!   The artwork has been hanging in their hallway for years, but I think it deserves a wider audience. Hollingshead’s account appears below, courtesy of the brilliant Dickens Journals Online. Click on the illustrations to see them in their full-size.

Musical Prize Fight

John Hollingshead, All The Year Round, vol 2, (1859), pp. 65-68.

Illustrations by Gill Nicholson, (1978).

01 Millowners & InvalidsFEW London frequenters of spas and watering-places know the sandy town of Redcar, on the north coast of Yorkshire. It is one of those remote refuges which Nature has provided for bathers who are tired of even the moderate gaiety of Worthing; for north-country millowners who wish to wash away the smoke of Barnsley, or the soot of Sheffield; for invalids who are advised to fly from the noise of society into the noise of the elements, and for yachting barristers on the Northern Circuit who have more taste for catching cod-fish a score of miles out in the German Ocean, than for dangling after broad-hatted beauties at Harrogate or Scarborough. 

02 Yachting BarristersThese are the high and important objects for which Redcar has risen from an old and obscure collection of fishing-huts on a line of sand-hills, into a broad, calm street of red-bricked lodging-houses. There is no more human tumult, there are no more signs of life, there is much less of dissipation, in the Redcar High-street on a September evening, than in any well-conducted metropolitan cemetery. The place may be likened to a long cell, into which it is good for worldlings to retire for a while and reflect on the tenor of their past life, with a view of improving the future. The few silent shops seem sacred to the memory of the names over their doorways; and, although the draper’s sends forth a perfume of merinoes, silks, and fustian, and the grocer’s a scent of coffee, tea, and pepper, both shops may, with very little imagination, be taken for family sepulchres.

A shaky cart may jolt by with a load of glistening sea-weed for manuring land, but the horse looks drowsy and contented, as his hissing cargo drops in long brown flakes on the sandy road, and the driver moves as if he had his whole lifetime in which to perform his task. So close as Redcar is to the jar and din of the Middlesboro’ iron-works, it neither hears them, nor cares for them one jot. It wants to be left alone. It has been a fishing-town beyond the memory of the oldest man, and a fishing town you will be pleased to let it remain. It has gone so far for half a century as to net lodgers as well as fish; but the lodgers were none of its seeking. As they think proper to come, they must be respectably provided for; but with no idea of extortion, or of making the most by them. Its principal hotels, while they furnish every comfort, have not yet got beyond the simplicity and moderation of commercial travellers’ prices.

The iron road is too near not to tantalise the inhabitants with the prospect of cheap and rapid travelling—too distant to be readily available; the stage coach is unknown, the omnibus has faded away, and the heavy rumbling carrier’s cart, with its three coarse horses harnessed head and tail, remains the undisputed master of the position.

The inhabitants of this hill district are clannish and self-reliant. They live and marry amongst themselves, and present the high cheek- bones and hard features which generally mark the Yorkshire race. A few wild offshoots are occasionally sent out as scouts, in the shape of wandering boys who see the misty sea between the hills, and go down to its tempting fishing- boats, and away in its gliding ships; but they return as “master mariners” to be buried in their native moorland churchyard, and to add their testimony to those who have been round the world, and pronounce that there is nothing in it worth mentioning.

03 Gravel-coloured peasants

A favourable specimen of a moorland village in the hills, is Lofthouse, in Cleveland, about half way between Redcar and Whitby. Attracted by a handbill advertisement of a “Grand Village Band Contest” at this place, on Friday, September 30, 1859, I procured a dog-cart at Redcar, and was driven over the greatest part of the way, like the hero of Lammermoor, along the sands, but with not quite such a melancholy result. At length, winding slowly down a hill which we had reached into a valley; past a waggon heavily laden with provisions, which was toiling over to the village festival, while the group of shouting schoolboys who were interested in its contents were making short cuts to Lofthouse, by scampering over the stubbly fields; past the village clergyman and his favourite monitor, driving over on the same cheerful errand in a substantial four-wheeled chaise; past another waggon, loaded with gravel- coloured peasants mixed with women, boys, and girls, on shafts, back, front, and sides, and almost on the wheels; past a solitary omnibus from Guisboro’, specially chartered by one of the competing bands, in which an ophicleide, as large as a village pump, appeared to hold the post of honour, and dingy Sax-horns were nursed by rough-looking musical nurses, as if they were children of priceless worth; past many pedestrians who were jolting down one hill, and toiling up another, on their road to the scene of the musical prize fight; past all the signs of a not very distant attraction, down into the valley, across a stone bridge, and up through a dark fir-wood, until at last we drove up to the door of the principal inn in Lofthouse, the Golden Lion.

04 A Large Shopkeeper05 Young Lady in Rival Drapers2There was nothing very peculiar in my appearance, except that I was an alien and a stranger in a place unaccustomed to public visitors; but my general impression is that Lofthouse was wholly unable to make me out. Several dogs came up to examine me, lolled out their tongues and wagged their tails, and then disappeared in one or other of the open doorways. A large shopkeeper, in a small general way of business, surveyed me from between a number of miscellaneous articles that stood in his shop window amongst dead blue-bottles and expiring wasps. A young lady in full evening costume, even to allow dress and crinoline (the daughter of a leading draper in the village), came out to her father’s door, and after surveying me for several minutes, retired into the dim recesses of the shop, totally incapable of making me out. Another young lady at a rival draper’s, who was adorning herself for the mid-day festival, after examining me several times, for periods of from one to five minutes each, from her chamber window, continued her toilet, at last, in despair, because she, too, was unable to make me out. A number of boys with vacant faces and open mouths, who stood motionless in the road at the front of the Golden Lion door, with their heads bent forward, their hands thrust into their pockets, and their knees disposed of at different degrees of inward inclination, were also perfectly unable to make me out. An aged bandy-legged man in drab cloth gaiters, who came to, and went from, the threshold of an opposite doorway, like the figure over a Swiss fancy clock, was probably making himself quite ill in his fruitless endeavours to make me out. A tottering old woman in an adjoining doorway was another observer of the single alien and stranger, and she, like the others, was incapable of making me out.

The Golden Lion, and its landlord, were far above any such idle curiosity on such a busy day (for them), and while they were as ignorant as any one in the village as to who I was, or who I might be, they made me pretty clearly understand that they cared very little to know, as long as I stood out of the way. The usual hotel form of “showing” me “to a room,” was certainly gone through, and I availed myself of it to deposit my great-coat, and my travelling- bag; but, finding that six Lofthouse men were engaged at the window in hanging out a flag, and that preparations had been made for turning this and all the other sleeping apartments into tap- rooms at a later period of the day, I gave it up, without a murmur, into the hands of resolute festivity, and proceeded down stairs to the old- fashioned stone-floored parlour, that was also kitchen, tap-room, and bar.

06 Performers in PubHere I found the first band that had come into Lofthouse to try its musical skill, very busily engaged in trying the Lofthouse rum and ale; while, hanging up by hooks from the ceiling, amongst many bundles of dried winter herbs, were several cornopeans to be used in the harmonious fight.

The usual plan of band-approach appeared to be, to stop about two hundred yards outside the houses, and then to tramp in, playing a defiant march. Upon drawing up before the Golden Lion, the players formed a circle, and finished off with another defiant tune, which seemed to say to all Lofthouse, “We are Farndale; beat that if you can!”

Before the arrival of another party of combatants, these performers retired to one of the drinking rooms, where the landlord gazed upon them with a silent but fatherly interest, having more regard to what they drank than to what they played.

They sat upon tables, and along benches against the wall; they puffed pipes until they were almost invisible in clouds of tobacco-smoke; they disposed of their brass instruments in the window, until the hostelry looked, from the outside, like a military trumpet-maker’s shop. Their faces were flushed with beer, if not with anticipated triumph, and they were encouraged to seek victory by the presence of certain gentle beings who had sworn to wear their colours to the last. A couple of Yorkshire “Arabs” had somehow drifted up from some city of large population in the county, and, while one offered to clean boots at a penny a pair, the other stood up with his nose just above the beer mugs on a table, and sang a popular song, until a member of a brass band extinguished him with the mouth of a yawning ophicleide. I am sorry to have to admit, in all candour, that these were the only two boys in the village who seemed quite capable of making me out.

I now give the rules and the programme, as they were given in excellent print to me:


“That the district shall embrace all villages within a distance of thirty miles. That each band intending to compete shall consist of not more than fourteen members, each member having been enrolled in the said band at least three months before contesting. That each band shall have the privilege of choosing one piece of music, the other to be selected by the judge. That no professional shall be allowed to play with any band.”


N.B.—- Placards announcing the name of each band, as they play, will be displayed upon the platform; reference then can be made to the programme. The order of playing will be decided previously by drawing lots.


Test piece, to be played by each of the bands—- “Grand Parade March” . . . Jones.

AISLABY BRASS BAND, 9 Performers.—- Leader, Mr. R. Corney. Selection … “La Somnambula” … Bellini.

BILSDALE BRASS BAND, 12 Performers.—Leader, Mr. W. Hart. Selection … “Twelfth Mass” … Mozart.

FARNDALE BRASS BAND, 11 Performers.—- Leader, Mr. Potter. Selection … “Lucrezia Borgia” … Donizetti.

GUISBRO’ BRASS BAND, 12 Performers.—Leader, Mr. Bannister. Selection … “II Trovatore” … Verdi.

LOFTHOUSE SAX-HORN BAND, 10 Performers.—- Leader, Mr. J. Walker. Selection … “Hallelujah Chorus” … Handel’s Messiah.

The contest will commence at one o’clock.


07 Judge in Bathing Machine

The first three of these bands were what is called “moor-bands;” that is, a troop of performers collected in a straggling district of cottages, extending from ten to twenty miles, the inhabitants of which have proportionately few opportunities for practising music together. The Guisboro’ band has the good fortune to come from a town that boasts a railway terminus, and which can scarcely be called a village; while the Lofthouse Sax-horn company was the only strictly “village” band that was entered for the musical contest.

The whole village, though it could not quite make out all the important points in the combat, was quite willing to stand still, with its hands in its pockets, and to give itself up to gazing at everything and everybody, and the moderate dissipation of an extemporised fair. The daddies (and what village is without a dozen of them?) crawled up and down the hilly street with blinking, smiling satisfaction; while the grannies (and what village is also without a dozen of them?) conferred with each other across cottage garden palings. The children assembled round every object of the slightest show or interest, in speechless astonishment, and listened wherever there was one man speaking to another.

The individual who seemed to take in the whole festival with a quiet grasp of intellect, was a dusty, yellow-coloured quarryman—- or something of that kind—- who was returning home to dinner from his morning’s work. He said nothing, although he stood in the midst of a (Lofthouse) crowd; but the twinkle of his eye, and the saucy tilt of his ragged cap, spoke volumes, even without words. His jacket was flung over his shoulder, in the form of a soldier’s breast-belt; and in his hand he held dangling a tin can, like a small oil-can, which was most probably devoted to his daily allowance of tea. He looked as if his body had been buried in clay three parts of his life, without destroying his sense of enjoyment, or his belief that whatever is, is right. The children gathered round him, as round one who was evidently good at thinking, and who might possibly give utterance to something that it would not be well to lose. Their expectations, however, were doomed to be disappointed, for, after regarding the Golden Lion, the assembled bands, and the spectators at the opposite cottages, with another eye twinkle, and another meaning smile, he walked slowly down the village hill at the Whitby end, as he had walked slowly up the other hill at the Redcar end, swinging his tea-can jauntily at his side, and dragging his heavily- booted legs after him, but making no further sign.

At length the time approached for the musical struggle, and the order was given to desert the rum-glass and the ale-can, and to march to the meadow, where the judge and the orchestra were ready. This was done in noble style, each band of performers playing its own favourite march, in its own favourite way, and being headed by its own favourite musical vivandières. This time it was the turn of the oxen in an adjoining paddock to be thoroughly astonished, and, after regarding the troop of visitors and players with becoming gravity, they evidently came to the usual Lofthouse verdict, that they were not able to make it out. The four or five policemen from the different villages were disposed of round the meadow, and their first duty, as usual, was to chase unruly boys, who dodged behind hedges instead of paying sixpence, and coming in by the legal entrance, up a lane.

The judge got into a bathing-machine, which had drifted up from the coast on to the hills, to serve him as an observatory, and being duly fortified with apples and a bottle of liquid, he gave the necessary and long-expected sign to begin.

08 Moor Band

It was Guisboro’ that led off first (by lot) with Mr. Jones’s March; and, without pretending to be critical, I may say that the performance more than equalled the composition. The Lofthouse Sax-horn band then took possession of the arena, and showed the judge and the visitors what village amateurs can do. Both of these companies were dressed in something like uniform, which may, or may not, have had an effect upon their musical unity; and it was not until the Aislaby players stepped on the platform that I, for one, amongst the audience, had an opportunity of regarding a lonely Yorkshire moor- band, standing up without any adventitious aid. Without inquiring too closely into the daily occupations of the performers (which, I am given to understand, may range from farming to iron- working, and sometimes to keeping a shop), I should say that a journeyman baker, two regular canal bargemen, three Dudley colliers in their Sunday clothes, a working blacksmith without much adornment, and two Scotch tally-men, provided with dingy trombones, cornopeans, Sax- horns, and ophicleides, would complete the picture of the Aislaby band. The Farndale and Bilsdale moor-bands that followed them, were twin brothers in appearance; and I say this with no disrespect to these humble students of a refined accomplishment, but rather to their infinite credit. They were all working men of the hardest working class, and they manfully showed like what they are.

When Mr. Jones’s March had been decently blown through the five brass bands and then got rid of, the second test of comparative merit took place; the performance of the operatic and sacred selections. The same rotation was again observed, and after Guisboro’ had led off with a number of airs from II Trovatore, the Lofthouse band followed with the Hallelujah Chorus, and the moor- bands of Aislaby, Farndale, and Bilsdale respectively, with selections from La Somnambula, Lucrezia Borgia, and Mozart’s Twelfth Mass. To say that the performance of these difficult pieces approached perfection, would only convey an untruth, but it far exceeded the ordinary standard of civilisation existing at the places from which the bands were drawn. The Bilsdale band, although playing with less spirit, perhaps, than some of their rivals, had a keen sense of harmony, and a rich mellow tone, which suited my taste even better than the performance of their more successful competitors. It was a sight to see the leader of this band, a short and sunburnt young man, like a country “boots,” dressed in a waistcoat that might have been a piece of leopard’s skin, except that the ground, instead of being brown, was crimson, and the spots, instead of being black, were a very prominent white. There were several other moor flowers in this and other bands, with a taste for very similar waistcoats; and not the unapproachable Jullien, in all his glory, could compare with one of these.

09 The Triumphant ReturnTo see such conductors waving a cornopean, while “T’ Twel’ Mass o’ Mozart,” or “S’lectshuns fram t’ Narma,” as they were conversationally called, were being played in rather slow and consequently Lofthouse time, was a hopeful sight for those who travel through the moorland district in the constant fear that some ruffian will “fettle their mouths with a brick.” I do not pretend to say, that because Ah, che la morte! is blown upon a Yorkshire trumpet, fighting is altogether a stranger to Yorkshire fists, but I think that the man who conducts the melodies of Bellini, although in a crimson waistcoat and corduroys, is not likely to bite off his neighbour’s ear, or to gouge out his neighbour’s eye, and is very likely to have a humanising influence on some of his less cultivated brethren, besides.

The excitement when the prizes were declared to be awarded in the following rotation

Lofthouse . . . . First

Guisboro’ . . . . . Second

Farndale . . . . . Third

Bilsdale . . . . . Fourth

Aislaby . . . . . . Last

was sufficient to show that the cudgels and the wrestling ring had not altogether been exchanged for the harp; and the cheers and groans were sufficiently loud and antagonistic to warrant the presence of the police officers, who had come from every village within twenty miles. The final musical assault of the day was the triumphal return of the five bands, in the order of their adjudged excellence, to the devoted and expectant Golden Lion, where all the dirty glasses and mugs of the morning had been washed for the afternoon, and where fresh barrels of ale were set under groaning machines to satisfy alike the demands of the victor and the vanquished. The noise that these enraged and delighted musicians made, as they marched into the village, all playing at once, and all playing different tunes, amidst the barking of dogs, the shouting of children, the cheering of friends, and the groaning of enemies, can only be compared to Bartholomew Fair in its palmiest days, when every showman was beating his gong, and declaring that he alone was the possessor of the original spotted boy.