William Halliwell


Allan Littlemore profiles the story of William Halliwell, the most successful conductor at the British Open Championships in the 20th Century. 17 times he was a winner over a 26 year period. Will anyone beat that in the next 100 years?

When, on Saturday 2nd September 1937 the foundation stones were laid of Roby Mill's new Methodist Sunday School, one of the speakers stressed the fact that many of the men who had attended the Sunday School, which up to then had been held in the Roby Mill Methodist Church, had attained distinction not only locally but in a much wider sphere. Of no one was this more true than of the Chairman of that ceremony David Halliwell MBE or his brother William Halliwell, MVO.

William Halliwell

My article concerns William Halliwell the world famous band conductor, composer, arranger, adjudicator, and one of Wigan's most unassuming sons. Mr Halliwell, and to everyone from industrialist to player he was never other than 'Mr', was born on 11th March 1864 at Roby Mill, a little country village next door to Upholland, and five miles from Wigan in Lancashire.

He began his musical studies very early in life as a player on the harmonium, the ambition of his parents being to make him an organist. He made great progress, and by the age of twelve was a good organist, and played at several places of worship. But as he grew older he had a longing to play in a band, and when sixteen years of age he persuaded his parents to allow him to join the Upholland Temperance Band. Here he made progress with the cornet, so much so that in little more than twelve months he was solo cornet player, and four years later was appointed bandmaster. As be began to get a name as a cornet soloist his engagements became numerous for concerts and oratorios.

He played solo cornet for the Wigan Orchestral Society and trumpet for the Choral Society, thus gaining experience which later stood him in good stead. He had an advantage over most cornet players inasmuch as he could get a full score of the oratorio or cantata under rehearsal by the Society, and play it over on his organ at home, thus being able to read the effect of the full orchestra and chorus as well as his own part.

In 1887 he engaged by the Wigan Rifle Band as solo cornet, making his first appearance in that capacity at the Belle Vue July contest in the same year, and resulting in a distinct success for himself and a prize for the band. He was soon promoted to bandmaster but his engagements became so numerous that he was obliged to give up his position. After this the band went steadily downhill but in February 1893 he was called in to re-organise it and to take entire charge as conductor. He did so, and although some players had left to join the Pemberton Old Band there was an immediate improvement.

Mr Halliwell was also at this time senior bandmaster to the whole Brigade of Territorials, and in 1894 was in charge of the fifth Territorial Battalion Manchester Regiment band, which provided the Guard of Honour when Queen Victoria opened the Manchester Ship Canal.

The Standish Brass Band was at this time looking for a conductor, and was successful in obtaining the services of Mr Halliwell, who at once started to win prizes with them. Thus started his phenomenal run of successes, and during the following fifty years he conducted almost every important band in Great Britain.

William Halliwell - Fodens

His big break came in 1910 when William Rimmer, up to that time the most successful band trainer of his day, decided to retire from conducting. One appointment which, as a result, came Mr Halliwell's way was the post of professional conductor to Fodens Motor Works Band. The partnership was an immediate hit and in the very first year together they recorded the 'Double'; first at the September Belle Vue and first at the Crystal Palace National Championship.
1911 was an even more successful year when he conducted the bands who were first second and third in both contests. In fact at the National Championships of that year he fronted five out of the six prizewinners. Further wins came his way in 1912 when he conducted Fodens to victory in the Diamond Jubilee September Belle Vue and did his own personal double by winning the Crystal Palace Nationals with St. Hilda's Colliery.

Traveling round to bands, especially just before a contest made for a hectic schedule and work load but Mr Halliwell seemed to revel in it.

Four times he conducted performances before King George V and Queen Mary, two being at Crewe Hall with Fodens in 1913 when he was presented to their Majesties. The other two occasions were with the equally famous St. Hilda's Colliery Band, one at Lambton Castle, the home of Lord Durham, and one at Buckingham Palace.

'The first was when the King visited the industrial centers of North Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland. We were to play somewhere inside the Castle, an hour's programme between five and six o'clock. That was all that I could get to know when I went up two days before the time to rehearse the band. I was rather concerned as to the kind of place it might be inside the Castle and much of the two rehearsals was spent in reducing the strength of tone.
On the day Mr Draper, who is the principal clarinet with the London Symphony Orchestra, cam to see me at the hotel. He was staying with friends in South Shields and playing at the Castle with a small orchestra during dinners at night. He expressed himself as extremely sorry for me, and on asking why, he informed me that his was the only wind instrument in the orchestra of nine, and there had been complaints all week about the playing being to loud, despite their efforts at quietness. I was taking a complete brass band of twenty-six colliers with drums to play in the place. Somehow I began to get a bit homesick, but of course we were in it and there was nothing for it but to go on. We arrived at the Castle at about 4.30 pm and were met by a Captain of the Scots Guards. He was most friendly, but at the same time to me most depressing.
He took me to the hall, which is a most beautiful place, and explained that there was a peculiar echo on it. He asked me if I minded him making a suggestion. "Not at all," I said, "I Shall only be to pleased to hear anything useful." "Well then" he said, "for heavens sake ask those men to play in a whisper. I wouldn't have our band (the Scots Guard) play here for anything. "Just as he said this, Lady Ann Lambton (Lord Durham's sister) came along. She was most kind, but after a few moments she cast her eyes around the room and said there was a peculiar echo in it, and she hoped I did not mind her suggesting that I ask the men to play quietly.
She had no sooner finished than Lord Durham made his appearance. He was very hearty, bluff, and breezy, but he very soon, in what seemed to me as assumed casual sort of way, asked me what I thought about the room "You see," said he, "there is a peculiar echo, and if I were you I would ask the men to play quietly." I made a bargain with him to come to me at the end of the first piece if there was anything very wrong. He had already told me that their Majesties would probably come in during the second piece.
Then to finish up with, as if it were a sort of casual second thought, he suggested that we should cut the programme to three-quarters of an hour instead of the hour, and I knew what it all meant. Like the gentleman he is, he was putting everything as delicately as he could, and I appreciated it very much. We crossed out certain of the pieces to bring us within the required time limit and then he left me thoroughly deflated. I started that programme as if I were under a sentence to be hanged, and that I depended only on the King's mercy to save me. However, the band hadn't played two notes before I knew that it was all right. There was nothing loud or offensive in it, and Lord Durham evidently though the same, because he never came to say so.

When we had all got nicely into the second piece I sensed a little commotion behind me, and knew their Majesties had arrived. At the end, I heard my name called, and on turning round, found the King, Queen and Lord Durham. I was duly presented. The Queen then began asking questions. Were all the men colliers? Were there no reeds in the band?
When I said no to the last question, Her Majesty said it was astonishing, but how did the band get that full, round, mellow quality of tone? Was it due to the instruments or the men? I replied the instruments were exactly like other brass ones, but the men were responsible for quality and colour of tone. "Well," she said, "whatever the reason, either the band was made for this room or the room for the band". Then the King broke in saying he understood from Lord Durham that the programme was to be cut. I said that was the arrangement, but he said, "We want it all, and probably more." We played it all and extras for an extra half hour, so that what I thought was going to be a ghastly failure was a huge success. Lord Durham was delighted.

I had yet another unique experience the same evening. I was anxious to get home, but to do so I had to join a train due to leave Newcastle about seven o'clock, but which did not stop anywhere between there and Durham. It was arranged for me to go to Durham by taxi. As soon as the proceedings were over I was conducted to the courtyard, where a taxi was waiting.
It was rather dark, but I though the taxi had a rather imposing appearance. Just as we were about to start a gentleman opened the door, asked me if he could have a lift to Durham. I said, "Certainly, come in," but he preferred to ride in the front with the driver. The bottom of the park drive is at the Newcastle end of Chester-le-Street, which is a long and rather populous village. Quite a number of people were about, and as soon as we made our appearance they began cheering, and it became a positive roar by the time we got through.
I couldn't understand it. I thought that the driver or his companion were playing the fool in some way. When we got to Durham Station the gentleman who had come with us opened the door, and asked me how I liked my reception at Chester-le-Street. I was mystified until he explained to me that he was a detective, and had ridden with the driver of the King's cars all week on his tours. The taxi was exactly like the King's car, and therefore the people thought that I was the King, and cheered me under that impression.'

Mr Halliwell had a special affection for the Coppull Subscription Band, and one of his favourite stories (which he included in his memoirs 'Sixty Years with Brass Bands') concerns a certain Frank Smallshaw, who was for some time euphonium player with Coppull.

Mr Smallshaw who was a native of Crawford village, near Uppholland, interested himself in brass bands as a young man, and he played with various bands in the Wigan district. On going to live in Coppull his services were soon requisitioned by the local band, and in September, 1901, he won a gold medal for euphonium playing at a Darwen contest, beating the then famous Herbert Scott of the Besses o' th' Barn Band, and other equally well known.

Now let me quote the personal account of this gold medal exploit of Mr Smallshaw from Mr Halliwell's memoirs.

'An incident with an interesting sequel stands out clearly and pleasantly in my memories of Coppull Subscription Band's contesting efforts in 1901.'

'The band had been successful in several in several minor contests, and decided to enter a contest at Darwen. This entry was considered to be a too ambitious venture of them, because brass bands bordering on the top class frequently completed there. Mr Richard Stead, a famous euphonium player of the Meltham Mills Band, was appointed judge. The test piece was H Round's "Songs of England", and included the "Pilgrim of Love" song as a euphonium solo. This solo was normally rather outside the scope of the band's solo euphonium player Frank Smallshaw - but he was a trier.
Smallshaw could do quite well in the dashing music of marches, quadrilles and waltzes, but a beautifully quiet sentimental song, requiring a smooth, flexible, quiet tone, with delicate articulation was rather beyond his normal capacity as a player. The bands success depended on him, and in order to improve the quality of his playing I adopted the unusual method of securing from Smallshaw a pledge that during private practice, or with the band, he would play the solo very, very quietly until I gave him leave to open out and play freely.'

'Smallshaw's quiet play mystified his fellow bandsmen, and he had to face up to some bitter criticism and gibes from them,' Mr Halliwell goes on to relate, 'but he loyally kept his pledge to me. When the ban was lifted Smallshaw was a new man as far as that solo was concerned. At the contest he played beautifully, and Mr Richard Stead referred to his performance in the following words: "Euphonium cadenza a very artistic performance. Andante moderato�soloist plays beautifully, and with excellent taste - not overdone and Mr Stead awarded Smallshaw the medal for the best euphonium solo.'

'The sequel to this event', Mr Halliwell adds in telling the story, 'was that Smallshaw brought the medal to me and said, "Here Mr Halliwell, this is your medal, not mine.' Of course, I refused it and expressed a hope that we should win some more medals to keep it company. Smallshaw's reply was startling, "There'll be no more - not for me - I'm stoppin' while I'm a good un." And so Smallshaw went into honourable retirement from brass band contesting. Years later he visited the Belle Vue Championship Contest, and I had the opportunity of indulging a gentle "leg pull" by enquiring for the other medals.'

William Halliwell - cartoon drawing

Mr Halliwell was so modest that it is not easy to write about him, but in 1925 the Rotary Club of Wigan succeeded in persuading him to give a speech. I am in possession of the manuscript, which I find so interesting, that I make no apologies for quoting from it.

'Brass bands have developed from extremely crude beginnings to quite a formidable institution not only in point of numbers, but also in the interest taken in them. As you know the Movement is essentially a working class one, and you may wonder wherin lies its fascination. Fundamentally the reason is a musical one. The working class have of course, the same musical instincts as any other class.
But they live in noisy surroundings, down the pit, in engineering shops and factories, and in many cases even in their homes, so that the tone of a piano, or a reed or stringed instrument seems a puny and effeminate thing, while that of brass instrument is commanding, arresting and compelling. But these same people under favourable conditions and training learn to love quiet tone as well as loud.

There are bands, of course, of all sorts; good, moderate, bad and very bad. Unfortunately the really good bands are comparatively few, but if you hear one you may rest assured that it deserves to be what it is, for it has involved much hard work and self sacrifice, both individually and collectively. To give you an idea of this I will give you the programme of last year's winners of the Crystal Palace contest during the five weeks prior to the contest. When they received the test piece they were in Eastbourne fulfilling an engagement. Each man on hearing that the piece had arrived took his part to his lodgings and spent hours practicing it to be ready for the first rehearsal, which was called for on the morning of the next day.
The players had three more rehearsals on other mornings. They traveled all Saturday night and that week for a fortnight's engagement in Southport. In the meantime they had arranged for me to visit them on two mornings during the fortnight. The two rehearsals were spent in dissecting the piece, and give them an idea of what would be expected of them from the technical side. They were at home during the last fortnight. The bandmaster, who is a collier, got further leave of absence from his work, and had sections of the band from 3.30 till 5.00 and from 6.00 till 7.30 with full rehearsal from 7.30 till 9.30 or 10.00 every day. I visited them on the Sunday prior to the contest and they had rehearsals from 10.30 till 1.00 and from 3.30 till 5.30.
The band was very good by that time technically, but the general performance lacked vitality and imagination. It was my job to develop these qualities and the progress during that day might be described as something like lighting a fire. First the smoulder, then the glow, then the blaze. They practised every night until Friday, when I met them in London for their final rehearsal which was spent in adjusting slides, and altering fingering for the purpose of perfect tunefulness. All the best bands would do something equivalent to this and yet some were out of the prizes. So many small things can happen that weigh very heavily against a band on days of such excitement as these.

It is the playing of such bands as these that I mean when I say that brass bands have attracted some of the best musicians in England. The first really notable one was Sir Arthur Sullivan. During the Boer War a patriotic concert was arranged in the Albert Hall and six of the best bands in Lancashire and Yorkshire attend. Each played a piece of their own choosing, calculated of course, to show them off at their best and joined in a massed performance conducted by Sir Arthur. He had to have a rehearsal and expressed himself as amazed at their quality and responsiveness. He also expressed his intention of writing a work which would embody their unique tonal qualities with those of the orchestra and choir. Unfortunately he died before this scheme materialised.

I could mention many more musicians of the highest standard who have given brass bands their blessing. A few years ago Leoncavallo, the composer of the opera "Pagliacci" was in London conducting a work of his in one of the theatres. He came for a couple of hours to the Crystal Palace contest and heard what proved to be the winning band, which was one of mine, and when I came off the stand he "let fly" at me in the voluble Italian. He was delighted and most excited.

To go on to the other end of the scale, there are many poor bands who, reading in the band papers of the successes of certain conductors at band contests, conceive the notion that it is done by some feat of sleight of hand, and decide to engage a conductor themselves. But when they find out that it means work on their part, oftener than not they subside into their ordinary way of procedure, and are never heard of. In my time I have had many of these all over the country. Occasionally one hears of good coming from them. I will tell you of one of the other kind. I was engaged to give three lessons to a Highland Light Infantry Band, whose headquarters were in Glasgow.
It was in preparation for a contest organised by the Glasgow Corporation to determine the value of the local bands for engagements in the city parks. The first prize band would have the most engagements, and a higher fee, the second fewer engagements and a lower fee and so on down the scale. I was not to conduct the band at the contest because I could not conduct them at the engagements. My job was to give them lessons on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before the contest on Saturday. Accordingly I found myself at their Bridgeton headquarters. Those who know the Bridgeton district of Glasgow will have an idea of the kind of men I should have to deal with. To begin with I asked the bandmaster, who was a fine well set up, soldierly-looking fellow, to take the band through the test piece, and I would listen. There was a lot of fuss before they could begin.
One man was not standing sufficiently upright, another didn't have his heels together, and another had his instrument not quite at the right angle, and so on. The first movement was rather a busy, but quite an easy one in common time, when everything was quite ready and in order the bandmaster gave them the 1,2,3,4 and they were off. Of all the horrible rows I ever heard in the name of music it was the worst. I thought surely there must be some mistake about the piece they were playing and looked to the bandmaster to stop them, but he seemed blissfully unconscious that anything was wrong, and I had to upset the symmetry of the ring and stop them myself.
On inquiry I found they had all the same piece in front of them. Then, beginning investigation, I started with the basses. They had a moving part in quavers, but how it moved and where it moved to, they didn't know; they neither knew the names of the notes nor their value, and every section of the band was the same. The last to be tested were the trombones. They had to play long notes in chords. They had evidently had a chart giving them the natural scale of their instruments which may be said to correspond to the scale of C Major on the piano - all the white notes, but they hadn't the remotest notion of flats and sharps.
The bass trombone had D flat and he played D natural. I adjusted his slide for him, and he played D flat. The second trombone had G, and as it was natural and in the close up position was correct. The first trombone had E flat; he played E natural. Having got the other two right. I asked him to play in combination with them.

It was of course, neuralgic. I adjusted his slide and tried again. Of course it was better, and when I asked the man if he could tell any difference he said he thought it sounded better. On asking him if he had ever been told the difference between E flat and E natural he said, "No, sir". "Then," I said "how do you do in your ordinary playing, at your ordinary practice. In the park or wherever your band is, you must have some idea that something is wrong." It was some time before I could get an answer.
At last he said. "Well, I just blow, and if it does no soond richt I stoop" That finished me. I enquired for the major, the band president, who had engaged me. He was in the officers' mess. I said I was awfully sorry, but really I was no use to the band at all, because they didn't know anything, and I asked him to release me from my contract for the other two nights. He seemed rather pleased than otherwise, and asked me to excuse him for a moment. He brought in about half a dozen officers, and asked me to tell them exactly what I thought of the band and when I would do with it if I were in their place. I repeated that a band in that state wasn't a band at all. They couldn't blow their instruments properly, they were utterly ignorant of the rudiments of music, and the only way I could see to get the bandmaster a blackboard, and start at the beginning.
The major thanked me on behalf of the officers, and explained that with the single exception of the colonel they had all known that there was something pretty hopelessly wrong with the band, but as the colonel was utterly devoid of the sense of music he thought that they were as good as any other band and indeed better than most because they could kick up such an infernal row. As I had a reputation for saying what I thought to bands, they thought that I should be a candid in speaking of them, though even that was not required after such a clear demonstration of the band's ignorance and incompetency. The officers had watched the whole proceedings unknown to me. They insisted on me taking a cheque for the full contract saying that I never had earned anything more fairly.

I heard the sequel only last December, when I was judging the North of Ireland Band Association Festival at Belfast. The only section I didn't judge was the pipe band. This was judged by Pipe Major Mather, of Glasgow, who said he would not have been there but for me. As I had not met him before I was mystified, until he explained that he was in the bandroom at Bridgeton on the night I was there and that as he understood a little about pipes he was commissioned to form a pipe band in place of the other, which was disbanded. So that as you can see, I am a band breaker as well as a band maker.'

Goodshaw, Fodens Motor Works, Crosfield's Perfection Soap Works Shaw, Spencer's Steel Works, Hebden Bridge, Luton Red Cross, St Hilda's Colliery, Irwell Springs, Nelson Old, Wingates, Black Dyke Mills, Clydebank Burgh, Besses o'th'Barn, Brighouse & Rastrick, Lincoln Malleable Works, Sowerby Bridge, Harton Colliery and Munn & Feltons - A 'Who's Who?' of brass bands all met with significant contest success under the baton of Mr Halliwell.

William Halliwell with Brighouse

Busy as he was, however, he still had time to consider others and in 1924 played a significant role in confirming that E R Foden's choice of Fred Mortimer for Bandmaster at Fodens Motor Works was indeed a wise one. This partnership blossomed to such a degree that the Halliwell-Mortimer-Foden combination took the premier honours at Belle Vue in 1926/27/28, thus winning outright the Jennison Trophy which was first awarded in 1889.

Now aged 65, William Halliwell still had ten more years of contesting success ahead of him. Nevertheless he could see how the future was shaping up and typically unselfishly he went to E R Foden, by now in sole charged of the Company Band, and said, 'I think it is time for Fred Mortimer to take total charge of your famous band - they play better for him than they do for me.'

Even so Mr Halliwell was to have six more first prizes at Belle Vue and one, in 1935 when Fodens were barred, at the Crystal Palace.

Mr Halliwell died on 24th April 1946 age 82, and is buried in Upholland Church Cemetary.

William Halliwell Open Successes

1905: No top six place 1906: 2nd 1907: 3rd 1908: 3rd 1909: 3rd 1910: 1st, 2nd, 3rd 1911: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th 1912: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th 1913: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th 1914: 3rd, 4th, 5th 1915: 1st, 4th, 6th 1916: 2nd, 6th 1917: 6th 1918: 1st, 5th 1919: 2nd, 3rd 1920: 2nd, 4th 1921: 1st, 5th 1922: 2nd, 4th 1923: 1st 1924: 5th 1925: 3rd, 5th, 6th 1926: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th 1927: 1st, 6th 1928: 1st 1929: No top six place 1930: No top six place 1931: 1st, 4th 1932: 1st, 2nd 1933: 1st 1934: 1st, 2nd, 6th 1935: 1st 1936: 1st, 4th 1937: 3rd 1938: No top six place 1939: 2nd, 6th

In all, William Halliwell secured his bands 17 First prizes, 13 Second prizes, 12 Third prizes, 6 Fourth prizes, 6 Fifth prizes and 11 Sixth prizes.

Copy right Allan Littlemore

(article originally appeared in 4bars rest)


Back to Articles