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The History of the Bandstand

Any website dedicated to bandstands needs to tell the story surely? Well indeed this one does too. The story is incredible and is worth looking into.

On Wed 20th April, 206, the Queen with Prince Philip officially opened the new bandstand in Alexandra Gardens in Windsor. Apart from the obvious significance of our longest reigning monarchs 90th birthday, the opening of this simple, yet elegant bandstand, with the background of Windsor Castle is also important. 2016 marks 20 years of Heritage Lottery Funding committed to our urban parks and nearly £800 million invested in them. Lottery funding has in essence saved our parks from inevitable almost non-reversible decline. The decline in many of our most important parks has been signified and exacerbated by the loss of one of the most iconic of features in the majority of our public parks. Bandstands had been a feature of the British way of life for well over a century but after the Second World War an increasing number had fallen into disuse and were neglected. Sadly many were demolished as public parks and seaside resorts went into a spiral of decline in the 1980s and 1990s. At their peak, there were over 1,200 bandstands across the country, now sadly reduced to less than 500. However, in 1996 the Heritage Lottery Fund started investing in our public parks and gardens and this has seen the rediscovery of bandstands which continues to this day. Former Director of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Dr Stewart Harding has described them as ‘wonderfully exotic structures that are at once very familiar and also alien in their strange designs - looking like UFOs, Moorish temples, rustic cottages or Chinese pavilions’.

But what of their origins? The first domed bandstand – then called a ‘band house’ – was believed to be one erected in the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens in South Kensington, which went up in 1861 on its slender cast iron legs. Iron was the wonder of the day. It was strong and yet it could be cast into delicate decorations. The industrial iron-age coincided with paternalist councils creating municipal parks for the industrial terrace-dwellers to relax in. The Middlesbrough Advertiser wrote in October 1859 on how these new industrial towns cried out for parkland. ‘No place is so badly provided for the recreative department as ours,’ says the paper. ‘Sickly looking youth and pallid manhood would receive a boon indeed by the establishment of some recreative institution or the enclosure of some ground where cramped limbs might be exercised, and the mind be dragged from the everlasting monotony around us. The lobes of the lungs are nowhere so severely tested as here and it is paramount opinion everywhere that we live in the smokiest, unhealthiest hole in the kingdom.’

Each park needed a focal point. A bandstand, with its rich decoration and its oriental shape inspired by the expansion of the empire into India, provided that. But a bandstand wasn’t just decorative – it provided music, too. It was our Victorian forefathers who thought that ‘good music would free the mind of urban griminess and humanise the industrial landscape’. During their heyday in the Victorian era bandstands were enormously popular and drew crowds of up to 10,000. For instance, Thursday night concerts at Myatt’s Fields, Lambeth were always packed, right up until the Second World War. An account by the Daily Express writer Jack Donaldson was published in 1937: ‘I arrived on time but there was no room on the seats or the railings, so I leant against a tree and enjoyed the music. The children danced to it, played ball to it, sang to it and ignored it, The grown-ups, all listening, sat round on their wooden seats or leant against the green railings and were happy.’

But the real origins of British bandstands go right back to the great pleasure gardens of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before our Victorian forefathers. The most famous of these was Vauxhall Gardens, in London. It combined music, illuminated fountains, hot air balloons, tightrope walkers and firework displays for the rich and fashionable people. They were like the ‘night clubs’ of their day and drew enormous crowds from all over the country, who loved the music pavilions, which hosted promenade concerts, where the audience could stroll about while listening to the music, and it was from these musical events that the bandstand evolved.

Bandstands soon became so popular that nearly every public park and seaside resort had one by the end of the nineteenth century.

Of the bandstand in South Park, Darlington, the local ‘North Star’ dated 4 July, 1893, reported, ‘Tonight, the newly-erected bandstand at the public park will be opened … selections of music will be played by the combined bands of Darlington Volunteers and the Sons of Temperance, numbering nearly 50 performers.’ It was opened where ‘an assemblage of between 2000 to 3000 had gathered by the bandstand which had only been approved some four months previously.’

Lincoln’s Arboretum was opened in August 1872. The opening ceremony was attended by 25,000 people and attractions included brass band recitals, Professor Renzo's Performing Dogs and Mr Emmanuel Jackson, the Midland aeronaut in his new balloon. The impressive bandstand was erected on the large lawn in front of the terrace in 1884 followed with an extremely busy programme of events including brass band concerts, flower shows, fetes and galas. In 1889 over 40,000 people attended the band concerts alone. At its the Secretary of the Committee proclaimed ‘It is hoped that it will not only be an ornament to these grounds, but useful in inducing bands of musicians to discourse from its platform, music that has such power to soothe the savage breast, and enliven the hearts of visitors’. The Mayor was fulsome in his praise and approval, saying ‘I think the brass band concerts are a great improvement on the “so called” fetes that have been held in years past. There cannot, in my opinion, be a more sickening sight than to witness three or four painted brazen images in tights, dancing about on a raised platform in the broad light of heaven’. Around 10,000 visitors attended the opening and the evening culminated in the ubiquitous firework display. In subsequent years, many concerts and contests followed with a wide ranging repertoire. Some of the contests occasioned great controversy and in 1887 the judges’ decision aroused such animosity that the police were called in to protect him from being mobbed until he was able to escape to the railway station in a cab!

Queen’s Park bandstand in Loughborough was opened in 1902. At the opening, Councillor Wootton proclaimed during his speech that it had often occurred to him, when he had seen young people about the streets after the shops were closed, that it would be a good thing if they had an opportunity of listening to ‘a bit of good music’ which included Wagner, Strauss, Sullivan and Rossini.

When eleven brass bands gathered on the upper terrace of Corporation Park, Blackburn, Lancashire, in 1861, more than 50,000 people gathered to listen, and in 1909 the Blackburn Times The following was reported in the Blackburn Times in 1909:- ‘Over 6000 people assembled in the Blackburn Corporation Park yesterday afternoon, when the new bandstand was formally opened by Councillor J.H. Higginson, vice chairman of the Parks Committee and chairman of the Elementary Education Sub-Committee. The seating accommodation was taxed to its utmost capacity and there were hundreds of people standing round the railings….. ‘

A completed bandstand in Bedford was officially opened on 10 April 1926 in the new St Mary’s Gardens ‘in the presence of several thousand people and in delightfully warm sunny weather’. But behind the celebrations was considerable local discord. ‘A cordial welcome was given to Luton Red Cross Band, whose very fine playing was greatly enjoyed.’ The effect, however, was seriously impaired by a most disconcerting echo, which certainly detracted from the musical value of the new stand. This, apparently, was foreseen by the members of the local bands and was partly the cause of their protest, although at the protest meeting on the Market Place the week previously, attended by four or five thousand people, it was made clear that the main grievance was that the Bedfordshire bands had been entirely ignored by the Corporation in connexion with the erection and opening of the bandstand. The acoustics though were a real problem where ‘the tone hardened almost to harshness’. The protest meeting in the Market Place was attended by many of the local bands, and ‘Mr J Dunkley of the Trades Band said that all Bedford bandsmen had the greatest admiration for Luton Red Cross Band. They were proud of them as belonging to the same County, but if the Council liked to take £728 of the ratepayers’ money and build a bandstand – in the wrong place to start with (laughter) – at the very least they might have consulted the local bands and invited one representative to be there’.

But the popularity of these concerts waned in the 1950s as other attractions, such as the cinema, radio and TV became increasingly popular and, as a result many fell into disrepair. Cities like Leeds lost all eighteen of its bandstands bar one! The number of bandstands in London before World War Two was nearly one hundred but over half were lost. There was a brief revival in the late 60s when groups like Pink Floyd, The Who and Fleetwood Mac played a series of free bandstand concerts at Parliament Hill in London and David Bowie played a free concert in Beckenham Recreation Ground, Bromley but most parks were by now struggling and in the years between 1979 and 2001, more than half of the bandstands in historic parks across the country were demolished, vandalised or fell into a chronic state of disuse. But a major revival is under way and continues. Over one hundred bandstands have been restored and are now in use up and down the country and are once again becoming the focal points of restored and vibrant parks, not just echoing to the sounds of brass, but often bouncing to rhythm and blues, rock, opera, street theatre and drama. Since 1996, bandstands have been restored in Queen’s Park, Crewe; Mesnes Park, Wigan; Exhibition Park, Newcastle; the Arboretum, Lincoln; Duthie Park, Aberdeen; West Park, Goole; North Lodge Park, Darlington; The Arboretum, Walsall; Weston Park, Sheffield; Sefton Park, Liverpool and many others. Where bandstands have been lost, replicas of the originals have reappeared including Albert Park, Middlesbrough; Leazes Park, Newcastle; Wilton Lodge Park, Hawick; South Marine Park, South Shields; Wandle Park, Croydon; and Alexandra Gardens, Windsor. With lottery funding continuing, and the opening of the Windsor bandstand, funded partly by the local authority, 2016 not only marks 20 years of bandstand restorations, but the beginning of a new generation of bandstands bouncing back to life, with restorations underway in Cassiobury Park, Watford; Hanley Park, Stoke; Victoria Park, Ilkley; Pump Room Gardens, Leamington Spa; Hexham Parks and replacement bandstands in Dartmouth Park, West Bromwich; and Saughton Park, Edinburgh, and even plans for the lost bandstand of Pearson Park in Hull. The work continues with a new wave of restoration expertise from companies like Lost Art of Wigan, responsible for many of these projects, including the Windsor bandstand.

A bandstand is, however, merely an empty shell unless music is played on it . Local authorities and town councils are once again active in engaging bands and community groups. But much work remains to be done. Paul Rabbitts, an avid enthusiast and historian of bandstands and Director of PARKS FOR PEOPLE CIC, a Community Interest Company established to promote the use of bandstands (infamously now termed one of Britain’s Dullest Men) says that many are active but many have yet still to wake up to the opportunities their bandstands offer to local communities. There is some great work going on with bandstands being made freely available to their local community but others who seem to miss the point altogether and neither promote them, care about them and restrict use by copious amounts of bureaucracy. Are there really that many risks associated with a performance on a bandstand. There are still many bandstands requiring restoration and largely ignored – Rylands Park, Lancaster; Myrtle Park, Bingley; Victoria Park, Birmingham; Overtoun Park, Rutherglen; and Basset’s Close Park, Wellingborough. There is funding to be had. As for those up and running, their return is welcome. Bandstands are back.

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