Besses & Beatles

Besses o’ th’ Barn Band’s visits to Australia, by the sound of it, had many similarities with the wild scenes experienced when the Beatles landed Down Under in the sixties. It wasn’t just in the popularity stakes either, but also in the proliferation of punters taking up playing a brass instrument (or mouth organ – a brass band in the pocket) following their departure. They weren’t from Liverpool, but a small industrial village situated between Bury and Manchester, quaintly named Besses o’ th’ Barn. Since 1818 the Besses o’ th’ Barn Band have been entertaining patrons and continue to do so to this very day. They made two world tours between 1906 and 1911 both lasting an exhausting eighteen months. In August of 1907 they played at the Bijou theatre in Melbourne and would return later that year to perform at the prestigious Melbourne Cricket Ground for two final concerts before travelling back to their home town. On their second tour they performed in a rotunda erected on the Sydney Cricket Ground directly opposite a packed members grandstand. The Besses at one time even had an Aussie bandsman. Edward Percival (Percy) Code born in South Melbourne in 1888 who was invited to join the band after winning the cornet section at the 1910 South Street competition in Ballarat. Aged eleven, Percy was tutored by his father on the intricacies of the cornet after three years of learning the piano and violin. His first competition was in October of 1902 at the Ballarat South Street Competition. After his return in 1912 from touring South Africa with the Besses, he commenced work as the musical director of Ballarat City Brass Band – a post he held till 1921.

This was how The Argus of Melbourne reported on the brass bands ‘Beatlesque’ first arrival.

“The reception they received at the Spencer street railway station on Saturday must have been most gratifying to the Besses o’ th’ Barn bandsmen. Not only was the platform crowded with men and women eager to accord them welcome, but the railway-yard was thronged with a large gathering of local bandsmen and citizens. Immediately they alighted from the Sydney express the visiting bandsmen stepped from the platform, into the railway yard, and as they did so twenty-two bands under the conductor-ship of Mr E.T. Code commenced to play an inspiring march. Each man in those twenty-two bands contributed his full share to a volume of sound the like of which has been rarely been heard in Melbourne. In the railway yard itself the effect was tremendous. When the musical welcome was over, Mr. W.C. Clemence president of the Victorian Band Association) and Messrs D Duff and S Jamieson (the vice-presidents), welcomed the visitors to Melbourne. A procession was formed, and heralded by the twenty two local bands, the Besses o’ th’ Barn were driven up Collins Street in two drays, The street was crowded with citizens whose curiosity had prompted them to see the famous bandsmen at the first opportunity. A halt was made at the Town hall, where refreshments were served. The bands which took part in the ceremony of welcome were as follows: St.Kilda City, Prahran City, Code’s Melbourne Bands, South Richmond Citizens, Collingwood Citizens, Richmond City, Malvern City, Williamstown Premier, Footscray City, Stender’s, Doncaster, South Melbourne City, Brighton City, Brunswick City, Warneeke’s, Bootmakers, Camberwell, Box Hill, Fitzroy Military, Clifton Hill, Fitzroy Citizen’s, Kyneton City, St Vincent de Paul Orphanage. The St. Arnaud, Castlemaine, Maryborough, and Ballarat bands were also represented.”

Alfred Percy Sykes was the founder of A P Sykes musical instrument importers formally of 202 Flinders Lane Melbourne. Mr Sykes, a native of Essex England, set sail for Australia in 1891. He was actively associated with the business to his dying day in 1936, aged seventy seven years. Percy had been a competent tennis player back in the Old Dart featuring in the Essex Singles Championship of 1881 and would have ties with the Forest Hill Tennis Club here in Melbourne.

The Besses tour was a marketable commodity Down Under and F A Bohm manufactured a Bess o’ th’ Barn mouth organ to cash in. A brass band in the pocket! Hohner produced a Beatles harmonica some fifty years or so later when they were at the peak of their powers. It was really only the graphics on the box as nothing was distinctively marked on the cover plates. There was a wee mistake with the signatures not lining up with the caricatures of Paul and George. Pictured below, the boys Down Under, with their gifts – didgeridoos. Don’t think the didge’s appeared on an album.

I would suggest the Bess mouth organ was made exclusively for the Australian market and sold by A P Sykes as it doesn’t appear to have shown up in the United Kingdom. There is a possibility they were sold in other countries of the world tour; North America, Canada, Hawaii, Fiji, South Africa and New Zealand. Interestingly they incorrectly (or perhaps for some other reason) spelt Bess (instead of Besses) and they also managed to do this with their Rozella model (at least they were consistent) which was sold here as well. I wonder if it had anything to do with Rosella an Australian company established in 1895 famous for their canned tomato soup. Both mouth organs have stamped on their cover plates English System. This appears on their Blue Bird harps that they manufactured for the British market. Bohm were a major player there up until World War II. They ran a national harmonica club and would also organise regular contests. This may be a reason why the Besses mouth organ wasn’t sold there. Probably not a grand idea to compete against your own heavily promoted and popular model. Even rival mouth organ brands were capitalising on the Besses o’ th’ Barn’s tour.

Here is a Crackajack advertisement professing the benefits of their pocket Besses.

(The Bulletin. Vol. 32 No. 1631 18 May 1911)

The Talkeries catalogue advertising the four Bess O’ Th’ Barn models.

The Fab Four Sheppard brothers from 5 Fitzgibbon Avenue West Brunswick were members of the Brunswick Salvation Army Brass Band. James (Dad) played the cornet, baritone and euphonium (pictured here). In Form One at High School Dad had me playing the cornet and euphonium under the tutelage of Mr. John. Who, by the way, would sell me my first electric guitar (a black beast) out of his music shop in Thrift Park Mentone. Wasn’t too long after this I spent some bikkies on a Hohner Blues Harp. I must confess I have found it easier transporting my current instrument to and from gigs!


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