Sunday, May 27, 2012

Besses On The Belfry

Beside the Anglican Church of St Mary the Virgin in Christchurch is a free-standing belfry. It bears a stone plaque, reading:
This belfry is erected by Friends, Parishioners
and The Lancashire "Besses O' Th' Barn" Band
to the memory of New Zealand's Great Statesman and Humanist
13 years (1893-1906) Prime Minister of this colony
Born June 22nd 1845 at Eccleston Hill Lancashire
Died at sea Lat.33°, 55'S. Long.150°, 08'E
S.S. "Oswestery Grange" Sunday June 10th 1906
Buried at Observatory Hill Wellington June 21st 1906 Aetat 61
Love The Brotherhood, Fear God, Honour The King
["The Brotherhood" refers to the Freemasons. Seddon joined them in 1868 and 30 years later, when Premier, became the Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge of NZ.]
But what was the "Besses O' Th' Barn" Band?
Turns out it's not a case of "what WAS...?" but "what IS...?" The "Besses O' Th' Barn" Band still exists!
Besses o' th' Barn is actually a curiously-named town on the edge of Manchester, in Lancashire, UK. Theories for its name abound (including being named after highwayman Dick Turpin's horse Black Bess), but more likely it stems from an infamous landlady of a local hotel! The industrial town's main claim to fame though is that it's the birthplace of one of the oldest and most famous brass bands in the world, the "Besses O' Th' Barn" Band.
This celebrated outfit of amateur musicians, known affectionately as the "Besses", can be traced back to 1818. And by the late 1800s, Besses were firmly established as one of the UK's leading musical ensembles - amateur or professional.
Seddon: Grand Master
At that time, much of the repertoire of brass bands consisted of arrangements of popular classical music, designed to give the working classes access to the works of world-famous composers. Folk from the cotton and coal towns of Lancashire could afford to listen to their local brass band playing classical arrangements in local venues, whereas there was virtually no chance of them being able to pay to travel and listen to professional orchestras in the major city venues.
The early years of the 20th century saw Besses at the peak of their success. They were so successful competitively that they undertook an extensive UK tour. They played for King Edward VII at Windsor Castle, and that led to a tour of France. As their fame spread, invitations to play arrived from all around the globe.
So they decided to tour the world: between 1906-1911 they did this twice, both trips lasting an incredible eighteen months. The band played hundreds of concerts in USA, Canada, Hawaii, Fiji, Sth Africa, New Zealand and Australia. They were the pop stars of their day, welcomed by enthusiastic crowds of thousands wherever they went.
On their second tour of NZ, their conductor Alexander Owen wrote a march, which he named after the famous NZ dolphin known as Pelorus Jack. Pelorus Jack became one of the band's signature tunes and is often included in present-day concert programmes. A notable souvenir from those tours was a wild boar trophy presented to them in NZ in 1910, still proudly displayed on the bandroom wall.
The Besses in Christchurch, 1907
The Besses were a huge success at the NZ International Exhibition in Christchurch's Hagley Park (Nov.1906-April 1907). The 36-man band played every afternoon and evening during its two fortnightly seasons in January and March, either indoors or at the sports ground. It was written that they "taught us new musical language". So that's something of the history of the Besses, and how they came to be in NZ...
After the death of Premier Richard 'King Dick' Seddon in 1906, a set of bells was purchased in his memory. The Press (12 April 1907), after a St Mary's parish meeting, reported that "owing to the interest taken in the parish by the late Mr Seddon, a belfry to his memory had been erected by the vestry on the church lawn. In addition thereto, owing to the kindness of the Besses o' th' Barn Band and the Exhibition authorities, they had been enabled to order from England a peal of bells as a further local church memorial of the late Premier. The peal of bells would cost £250, and the largest would be cast with the inscription 'In memory of R. J. Seddon'."
Seddon had been closely associated with the church since his eldest daughter Jeannie married one of the vicars, Walter Bean. The Premier was a frequent visitor to the vicarage, and on one of his last visits, gave money for "some bells for ringing". Following his death more funds were raised [perhaps a fundraising concert by the Besses?] and a peal of eight bells was hung in the bell-tower, erected in 1907. Over a thousand people attended the dedication ceremony.
St Marys and its belfry came through the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes with almost no damage, and the church remains one of the earliest timber churches still standing in Christchurch.
Church of St Mary the Virgin in Addington, Christchurch


Madame48 said...

Thanks for the posting & research, an interesting piece of our local history. How did it come about that King Dick died at sea, was it a shipwreck?

Writer Of The Purple Sage said...

No, Seddon's health hadn't been good for some time, and his visit to Australia was quite stressful. He died of heart failure aboard ship.
Actually, your question as to whether it was a shipwreck got me thinking about what happened to that particular vessel.
So stand by for a posting about it soon...