Brass bands are still marching on in modern world
In the fifth installment of our Heroes of Coal series, Clare Hutchinson looks at the tradition of miners’ bands, choirs and sports teams and asks, do they still exist?
TUCKED away in a hut at the end of a backstreet in Rhondda, members of the Lewis Merthyr band are warming up.
While the dilapidated hut in which they rehearse may be modest, the band is proud to be one of the oldest and best-known in the region.
Established in the late 19th century as the Trehafod Recobite Band, the group was later given its name by the prosperous Lewis Merthyr Colliery, which had its base nearby at Trehafod – now the Rhondda Heritage Museum.
Musical director Gareth Pritchard, 56, of Tonypandy, said that while the colliery itself closed in 1983, the band is still proud of its mining links.
He said: “Most of the brass bands in the country started with a relationship to some sort of factory or a colliery.
“Often bands were used as a means of giving the workers entertainment out of work – keeping them happy and keeping them out of trouble at the same time.”
Gareth’s long career began when he went along to a band rehearsal as a small boy because he had “nothing to do”.
Right there and then he took up the cornet and two years later became Wales’ under-12 champion.
His career has taken him around the world, including playing principal trumpet with the BBC Concert Orchestra and working as a freelance musician in Norway.
When he returned to Wales in 2006 Gareth took up a role as musical director of the Lewis Merthyr Band.
He said many youngsters are now not taking up instruments because there are so many other distractions.
He said: “Brass bands have a set amount of 25 players but they are now struggling because the whole brass band movement in the UK is dying out.
“A lot of the teaching in schools has stopped and a lot of the bands that used to run younger bands have stopped because they can’t get the players.
“Lots of the bands I can remember from my 40-odd years have disappeared. There are now 400 competing in the country when there used to be thousands.”
But there is a glimmer of hope.
Some bands, like Lewis Merthyr, are now proactively going out to schools to recruit youngsters to their ranks, while others are following in the footsteps of male voice choirs like Only Men Aloud and are turning to popular music to win fans over.
And – once hooked – it’s hard to go back.
“Listening to a brass band is such a unique experience that once someone has done it they want to do it again and again,” said Gareth. “Nobody knows why, but it seems to work.”
It is not just brass bands and choirs which owe their roots to South Wales’ mines.
Eight miles away in Ystrad Mynach, near Caerphilly, Welsh Rugby Union club Penallta RFC, otherwise known as The Pitmen, is this year celebrating its 60th birthday.
Formed in 1952 by a group of miners from Penallta Colliery, the side’s first clubhouse was the former colliery manager’s house in Ystrad Mynach and, until the mid-1980s, the team changed in the pithead baths before getting a bus to the ground to play its games. Former Penallta Colliery surveyor Wayne Jones, 50, who still lives in Ystrad Mynach, is the club’s secretary.
He said: “There is no village called Penallta, it is just a colliery name given to land at the top of the hill above Ystrad Mynach and Penybryn, Gelligaer.
“The colliery also employed men from Hengoed, Cefn Hengoed, Pengam, Tiryberth – many of whom played on the team.”
Penallta Colliery closed in 1991 and most of its former site is now a housing development, but the pithead wheel is still there.
Wayne, who worked as a surveyor at the mine until its closure, said the pit’s rugby club is still true to its roots.
“At one point there were calls to change the name from the Pitmen but we fought that off and since then the club has gone from strength to strength,” he said.
“It’s a big organisation now with many teams, so I think we did the right thing.”