The History of Porthywaen Silver Band by Cyril Gillham (1987)

To trace the history of Porthywaen Silver Band it is necessary to go back to the year 1925, at which time I was living at Nantmawr. At the same time a young man, Len Evans, was employed as under gamekeeper on Llodwel estate. I had seen Len about but had never been in conversation with him, although it had got to my ears that he played a cornet. If I remember rightly, he was tutored by a Mr Arnold Lovett, then bandmaster of the Ifton Colliery Band.

It so happened that when cycling home one evening I cam across Len on the bridge near Porthywaen Gate House, so I decided to dismount and have a chat with him. Knowing that he was an instrumentalist like myself, I thought we may have something in common, though his leanings were to brass bands whilst mine were towards orchestras. However, both combinations produced music and that was good enough. We were on friendly terms right away and met occasionally to discuss the all-absorbing topic of music. As time went on we met frequently, in fact, perhaps more frequently than we ought to have done. As I have already stated, Len was a gamekeeper and had a certain area of the estate to patrol. Often he would say, “Cyril, I shall be at ‘such and such’ a spot at 2 o’clock on (naming the day). You be under the big hedge and I’ll meet you there; the head keeper will be on so and so’s ground”. Without fail we would be at our rendezvous and seat ourselves on a convenient root or bough. Then the band would play! It was music, music, music until we had to go our respective ways. How we enjoyed those clandestine meetings. Reference to these meetings has been made to show how we had been bitten by the music bug, the bug that strengthened our friendship as time went on; the bug that eventually bit scores of other people round and about Porthywaen.

On one occasion Len said, “Cyril, it would be just my delight to see a good band in the Waen (Porthywaen), but there seem to be no players around here. To this I agreed. Even so, Len was not to be discouraged and soon afterwards he made the acquaintance of a youth, Arthur Davies by name, to whom he threw out feelers and found Arthur, too, was interested in music by unable to play an instrument. To Len’s delight, Arthur agreed to try to learn the cornet, so Len took him in hand and they got to work. Arthur proved to be a hard-working pupil and made rapid progress. For some years after it seemed that these two would be the only instrumentalists in the village. Towards the end of 1933 however, a youth – Douglas Lloyd – thought he would like to play the cornet and again Len went to the rescue and turned out another satisfactory pupil. So far there were three brass players – Len, Arthur and Doug. Len was now beginning to smile. He invited me to take up a brass instrument and so make up a brass quartet. There is a world of difference in the playing of a brass instrument and the playing of a flute. Interested as I was in a brass combination, I spent very little time in playing one of the instruments but what developed will be seen later.

We now come to the Spring of 1934. These three cornetists were being looked upon as ‘some lads’ and they were creating unrest among the locals. One by one these locals expressed a wish to play an instrument. This was just what Len had been waiting for through the years and he and Arthur undertook to give them tuition. I have forgotten some of the earliest recruits but I remember Reg. Pugh and Charlie Rowlands were among them.

One evening in May of that same year (1934) cornetists and would-be cornetists met in the disused office of Llynclys Hill Lime Works, kindly lent by Mr & Mrs W A Thomas. After some discussion it was decided to form a small village band and get as many recruits as possible. I was asked to take charge of the band with Arthur as assistant bandmaster. Len and Arthur consented to give tuition to all recruits.

The number of recruits soon increased and were taken to the old office for weekly practice. The office became the bandroom. What time we enjoyed there! It was only a small room and dilapidated at that. Never-the-less, it was the best to be had at that time and we were very grateful for it.

I remember how we used to look through the holes in the roof and how the bandsmen were packed like sardines. The poor trombonists used to have difficulty in finding space in which to manipulate their slides. The horn section would be playing into the ears of the neighbours. I imagine there would be bigger holes in roof after we had finished practice. Oh, yes! We had a fire and those who were fortunate, or unfortunate, to be sitting near it were made uncomfortable and frequently had to change places. What with the heat of the fire, plus their efforts, bandsmen would be sweating profusely.

The instruments in those early days were really museum pieces; different models by different makers. It was surprising how the bandsmen were able to collect, or rather, purchase them. Most of the instruments were ancient and in need of repairs. They leaked and were badly dented; consequently many were patched with solder. All in all it was a scruffy set of instruments and only a few were true to pitch. Valves and slides would be seized up and much time was spent in getting them workable.

But it was a set of instruments and to those budding bandsmen they were treasures. The players in those days were to be congratulated on their tenacity. In spite of difficulties the men went on playing and eventually learned to play little pieces.

The first public performance was at a Garden Party on Llynclys Hill in August 1934; this in connection with Porthywaen Methodist Chapel. For this performance, the band consisted of seven or eight players. Three weeks later, in September, a Fete of organised to raise money for band funds. A profit of £19 was made. Things were then moving and the band was making it existence known. On the 17thDecember a social, together with a draw was held in Llanyblodwel & Porthywaen Institute. This effort brought in about £17.

The first service to be held at the Parish War Memorial to the men who fell in the Great War, 1914-1918, was in 1934. Here the band played after having led the procession of ex-service men and the general public from Porthywaen. They then proceeded to Llanyblodwel Church where a short service was held conducted by the vicar, Rev. J Allen Jones. The hymns were accompanied by the band.

By the end of 1934 the band consisted of about 20 players. The little bandroom would house no more and as more recruits came along we had a problem on our hands. This meant we had to look for other accommodation. Sometimes we practice in Porthywaen School, the Institute or the Methodist schoolroom. Some weeks the band was split, each section in turn went to the old bandroom.

1935 was a busy year as engagements came for fetes, carnivals, flower shows, etc.

It was an exciting time when in 1936 the band was engaged to play for the parish celebrations on the occasion of the coronation of King George VI. For this we felt we should be in uniform, but what about the cost? To pay for them with ready cash was impossible. At that time we had a very energetic secretary who, by the way, served the band well for a number of years. I refer to Mr Joseph Edwards of The Harbour, Porthywaen. Mr Edwards was a determined man, always loath to accept defeat. On many occasions he won through when other would have failed. In this instance he felt we should contact uniform manufacturers with a view to obtaining uniforms on easy terms. This was placing the band in a difficult financial position. However, the voting was in favour of Mr Edwards’ proposition and he immediately got in tough with the manufacturers. The result was that they put forward terms acceptable to us and an order for the uniforms was placed. As celebrations were nationwide manufacturers were inundated with orders for band uniforms and were feared our would not arrive in time for the great occasion, it so happened that they arrive, minus trousers, the day before the event. The great day came and we turned out in green tunice with cherry facings edged with gold and military style caps to match. We had to wait a while for trousers to complete the set up. By much effort and public support, our debt was wiped out and we once again breathed freely.

In 1937 the band took a bold step by entering the Belle Vue Brass Band Contest. I’ve often though we had a lot of cheek to attempt such a thing, but we went to the contest. We were young, green and inexperienced as a band and were nowhere near ready for contesting. As I have said, we went, and we played. This was our first appearance on the contest platform, and how well I remember it. Our order of play was perhaps half-way down the list of competing bands. We mounted the platform, the bandsmen seated themselves, and I stood in front, waiting for the signal to start. There we were, perched on the platform, all tense, nervous and excited. Would that signal never come? The minutes passed, probably 15 or 20 of them. Still we waited some with knees knocking, other making some imaginary adjustments to their instruments, and myself not knowing what to do. What an experience for a first contest! Reason for the delay? The judges had decided they wanted their lunch as we mounted the platform.

After the contest I was introduced to an old bandsman who was weeping. Whether they were tears of sympathy, I don’t know. Perhaps our playing had got on his nerves. We visit Belle Vue three successive years. One can only hope that our playing show some improvement each year.

1939 brought the Second World War. This was disastrous, as we all know. Like most other things, our band suffered in consequence. Some members joined the forces, some were compelled to work long hours, while other did duty with the Home Guard. I’m pleased to say some of the bandsmen were able to play with their regimental bands. That proves that they had learned something with Porthywaen Band.

Soon after the outbreak of war a huge building of corrugated iron sheets was erected over a disused lime kiln on the works at Porthywaen. It was used by the Home Guard as well as being a store. In this spacious building the band was allowed to practice and how different we found it after our old bandroom. Here we had more room than we needed. A fire grate had been put in which would hold two or three barrow loads of coal, and a roaring fire would be made. Large as the fire was, it was ineffective in such a vast room. In the wintertime we practised with our overcoats on, but still we were starved to the marrow.

Gradually our numbers dwindles and I remember going to practice when only one bandsman attended. But for all the obstacles and difficulties we fought on and were never disbanded. At the cessation of the war members drifted back and the old enthusiasm returned.

About 1948 or 1949 I found I necessary to resign; much to my regret. My friend Reg. Pugh took over as bandmaster, a position he held for a number of years. Reg. In turn, handed over to John Pugh. John was quite a boy when he joined us, a keen at that. His keenness and effort has shown in the progress made by the band. Under his guidance they have a least been awarded the trophy as winners of the Junior Section in the Belle Vue Contest, the section in which we competed back in 1937 when we were green as grass musically. May the band go on from success to success.

The band now has its own bandroom, a good building erected by the bandsmen themselves; a fine achievement proving their love for the band, they have also purchased a new set of instruments. What more needs to be said?

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