December is here and Christmas will soon be upon us. Thus this month’s Yuletide Time Machine explores a musical side of Christmas in Worthing that goes back at least 130 years.

For as long as anyone reading this will be able to remember, the Salvation Army’s brass band activities has been a notable part of the festive season.

“We’re quite happy being associated with the good cheer of Christmas,” says Major Bruce Tulloch, a semi-retired editorial consultant on Salvation Army publications such as The War Cry and The Salvationist. “Not only does the band go out and play carols to people in the town centre fairly regularly, as well as visiting homes, hospitals, and other churches, but the Salvation Army Centre also provides food parcels at Christmas to upwards of 300 families notified to us by social services. We’ve been preparing that for two or three months.

“The last Sunday before Christmas we have our regular services and, as soon as the last of them are over, all the chairs are pushed back, and suddenly the space gets filled with carrier bags of food parcels. It’s quite a sight really. There are 800 centres across the country doing similar things.”

When we see them in their familiar dark navy uniforms on the corner of Montague Street and Montague Place, year after year, ebulliently blasting through O Come All Ye Faithful and the like, the music can distract from how chilly the weather is.

Christmas 2017

“We call that space ‘Monsoon Corner’,” laughs Bruce. “This is partly because the shop Monsoon is there but partly because it’s a very windy location. That’s when you find brass instruments are a lot handier to play in the cold than something like a violin, for example, because you can play a brass instrument with gloves on. Try that with a violin!”

The brass band can range in size from a group of six to an ensemble of 30, depending on where they’re playing. They clearly enjoy what they do, because no one gets paid to do it. They regard it as a means of spreading the Christian message, as a music of praise. And this goes back to the Army’s earliest days, which are entangled in one of the most notorious episodes in the history of Worthing.

The Salvation Army was developed in East London during the 1870s by Methodist minister William Booth and his wife Catherine. Broadly speaking, it can be seen as part of the Temperance movement that swept Europe and the US in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It combined Christian evangelism with proactive concern for society’s poorest, with especial reference to the devastation wreaked by alcohol.

By the 1880s the Salvation Army had a presence in Worthing, but they weren’t seen as the genteel organisation they are now. Worthing was on the rise as a quietly civilised holiday destination at the time, and the locals weren’t keen on the Army’s rowdy brass band parades through town each Sunday. Not only that, but local victuallers were worried about the effect the Army’s convincing arguments against alcohol were having on sales.

Thus a so-called ‘Skeleton Army’, partly funded by the alcohol industry, formed to take on the Salvation Army. Throughout 1884 there was an increasingly violent and explosive series of confrontations between the two sides, culminating in a full scale riot in August. The army had to be called in after the police lost control of the situation and there was chaos, bloodshed and even death. Google it. It’s a fascinating episode, but the ramifications go beyond the scope of our Christmas Time Machine.

Skeleton Army 1884

Suffice to say, once the Skeleton Army was made illegal, the whole matter finally quietened down. Nowadays, of course, the Salvation Army has a very different reputation in the Worthing. Their bands even have a new cultural kudos due to interest in the current brass band renaissance (think of the way festivals and younger crowds have embraced outfits such as the Hot 8 Brass Band, the New York Brass Band, and Renegade Brass, as well as various Balkan brass outfits).

“Yes, there is an increased interest in recent years,” Bruce agrees. “At one time brass banding was considered working class lower grade music making. It’s certainly not seen as that now.

“It’s a highly skilled operation and the best brass bands across the world are phenomenal: Black Dyke, Grimethorpe and Corby are big names in the secular brass band world, and among the Salvation Army there’s the UK’s International Staff Band, drawn from dozens of Salvation bands across country. It’s a benchmark band.”

Of course, banding is only a part of what the Salvation Army does, as Bruce is keen to emphasise.

“It’s not all brass,” he explains. “The senior and junior choirs will be bringing Christmas cheer around Worthing too. And if you drop into the Crescent Road building any Sunday morning, you’ll find guitars, drums and keyboards have a place in its worship too.”

As he concludes, “Music may not be the prime function of the Salvation Army, but it’s certainly part of its DNA.”

If you want to catch the Salvation Army’s annual carol service in the Assembly Hall, pick up a ticket for the afternoon of Sunday 8th December; otherwise, keep an ear open for them at ‘Monsoon Corner’ over the festive season!

And, finally for 2019, a Merry Christmas to all you Time Machine travellers from me, Thomas H Green. 

HAVE MEMORIES OF MUSIC LIFE IN WORTHING?

We’re interested in hearing your stories and scenes from any era. Do you remember dances in the 40s or rockin’ out in the 90s? Please email Thomas at editorial@hereandnowmag.co.uk