Wilfred Middlebrook (b.1899): Habits, Beliefs and Recreations

‘They were determined that I should be taught music at the earliest opportunity’ (p.39)

In the fifth chapter of his memoir–titled ‘Holidays’– Wilfred reminisces about his father, playing a ‘cornet in the Nelson Old Brass Band’ (p.32) when Wilfred was a small child. The band occasionally took part in county concerts and field days, as well as an annual contest hosted in Belle Vue Gardens, Manchester. Speaking of the annual concert, Wilfred states ‘there was excitement indeed, for we never came away without stopping to see the wonderful firework displays that always provided the Grand Finale’ (p.32). As David Russell notes, ‘by the mid- nineteenth century concerts were a firmly established feature of social life’ and even ‘moderately sized English provisional towns’, such as Manchester or Leeds, ‘could expect to enjoy thirty to forty concerts a year’ (1997, p.32).

Nelson Old Brass Band Centre

During the annual wakes week, the Middlebrooks took their yearly trip to Blackpool. Wilfred describes this trip as a ‘week of endless thrills, not the least of which was the entirely different type of food from the daily fare at home’ (p.32). Wilfred claims that ‘even the loaves were of a different shape, soft cylinders of crusty white that were a delight to eat’ (p.32).

In 1903, it was the custom of the time for working-class people to ‘provide their own food’ (p.32) whilst staying at their holiday lodgings. Wilfred recalls that the landlady of the lodging would cook ‘whatever was brought in’ and this, often, led to scenes where he would get his ears clamped for ‘asking aloud for “some of what that man’s eating over there”‘ (p.32).

Susan Barton notes that holidays were ‘matters of continual contestation and negotiation between workers, bosses and the state’. She adds that by the early Victorian period, most ‘traditional holy days of religious and seasonal provenance had been extinguished’ (2005, p.512). However, ‘The Bank Holidays Act of 1871’ granted people, as Barton notes, ‘a completely secular day off in August’ and Lancashire textile workers helped themselves to an ‘annual summer holiday’ (during wakes week) that was acknowledged by employers as ‘legitimate leave’ that refreshed their staff rather than debilitating them (Barton, 2005, p.512). 

South Shore Promenade, Blackpool (1905)

Reflecting on his time in Blackpool, Wilfred remembers a small fair he used to frequent called the South Shore Amusement Park. The park was filled with merry-go-rounds and and all things alike. One feature Wilfred vividly details was ‘a tent on the beach holding a camera obseura’ (p.33). He adds that the feature allowed people to see all of what was happening on the crowded beach–noting that many came to the tent ‘looking for lost children’, and because everything was in glorious technicolour, could often ‘spot the missing youngster by the colour of his clothes’ (p.33).

Seventy years later, Wilfred stated that he had read an autobiography by ‘a gipsy who was born on the South Shore, and his father ran the camera obscura while his mother told fortunes’ (p.33). This is quite a fascinating, yet humorous detail because it demonstrates how small the world can be and the connections we have with so many people, that we don’t even know on a personal level.

As a young child, Wilfred also took trips to visit his grandmother, Oddy. His grandmother lived in Blackburn and after moving to, what Wilfred describes as, ‘the clean, newly built streets of Nelson’, it was only natural his impression of Blackburn was of ‘dirt and squalor’ (p.33). Wilfred describes his grandmother’s house as ‘surrounded by cotton factories and public houses, and with the primitive sanitation common to slum districts, in those days, grandmother’s home seemed a grim place indeed’ (p.34). Due to the local public houses, drunks were common to this particular area. Wilfred recalls how he would catch glimpses of a ‘better world’ when he was sent to play with his cousins, Horrie and Hilda, who ‘lived in a better neighbourhood’ (p.34). He notes that the sight of a drunken man used to send his cousins running indoors like ‘scared rabbits’ (p.34), but that he himself was ‘more used to seeing drunken people’ for his grandmother lived next to a public house ‘that was open from early morning to late at night’ (p.34), and Wilfred often played with the publican’s young son also. Speaking of the public houses, Wilfred reflects on one occasion when he witnessed a ‘drunken old woman bustled out the back door and locked securely in the wash-house until she sobered up’ (p.34). Oddly enough, as Wilfred notes, no one seemed to think there was anything wrong with children seeing such sights.

A public house in Blackburn

Alongside holidays and trips, music was a large part of Wilfred’s childhood, and recreational habits. With a musician for a father, Wilfred details his father’s determination to shape his son to be a music lover as well as a pianist–even undertaking the responsibility to teach Wilfred to play. Wilfred shares how he spent ‘hours in the seclusion of a cold bedroom, trying to master’ musical signs and notes (p.42). He adds that his father was always very patient with him, even when Wilfred felt his ‘fingers suddenly became all thumbs’ (p.43) and he couldn’t play the tunes right but Wilfred’s mother would call out: ‘knock him off the stool if he doesn’t do it right, you’re too soft with him’ (p.43).

Eventually, Wilfred’s father ceased their musical lessons together– giving up the attempt and sending Wilfred to professional teachers, instead. One of Wilfred’s teachers was the leader of the theatre orchestra, whose lessons were based at Palatine House in Norfolk Street. Wilfred describes Palatine House as a ‘rather large old private house’ that always seemed a ‘forbidding and mysterious-looking place’ (p.55) to his imaginative mind. The mistress of Palatine House, Wilfred states was a ‘tall and straight old lady, dressed in old-fashioned clothes’ (p.55). Later, in the chapter, Wilfred declares that after reading Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations’, he forever associated Palatine House and its mistress with ‘Miss Havisham and her gloomy mansion’ (p.55).

Illustration of Charles Dicken’s Miss Havisham from ‘Great Expectations’

Wilfred’s lessons with the leader of the theatre orchestra did not last very long, and before he knew it, Wilfred had a new music tutor. His tutor, like many music teachers in Nelson, only taught at night due to ‘having a regular job in a cotton mill’ (p.57). This demonstrates the financial and economical disparities of the working-class compared to the middle and upper classes, highlighting how their recreations and passions had to come second to work.

The lessons with his new tutor were much more serious and Wilfred states how he had ‘scales and arpeggios to practise everyday, and studies, fingers exercises and theory’ (p.57) to add to his worries now. There were also examinations to be studied for and Wilfred, in turn, passed the Junior and Intermediate Examinations held by the Trinity College of Music. Perhaps then, Wilfred wasn’t as bad on the piano as he thought!

Trinity College of Music (2008)

It’s clear to see that music was a core part of Wilfred’s free time, and life. Music not only gave Wilfred an outlet to work and invest his time into but it also helped forge a deeper connection between him and his father. Throughout Wilfred’s memoir, music is the key thing that he associates with his father, because of his father’s love and passion for the art. David Russell notes that ‘Britain in the Victorian and Edwardian periods was an extraordinarily musical place. The home, the street, the public house and the public park were almost as much musical centres as the concert hall and the music hall. A communal or civic event was a poor affair indeed if not dignified by music’ (1997, p.1). Russell recognises the importance of music and the significant role it played in the lives of working-class families.

This is something that the Middlebrook family can relate to, immensely. Music gave them all a common interest– a way to connect with one another, whether that be through playing instruments or going on family holidays and trips. The significance of music continues to ring true, in contemporary society. Music is a powerful tool that bands people together; it enables us to make memories, to remember our loved ones and brings such joy. Perhaps then, families like the Middlebrooks loved music because it lessened the hardships of working-class life and replaced them with uplifting, happy moments.


Barton, Susan. Working-Class Organisations and Popular Tourism, 1840–1970. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2005.

Middlebrook, Wilfred. Trumpet Voluntary, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:0527

Russell, David.  Popular Music in England, 1840-1914 Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.


[1] Nelson Old Brass Band Centre. Accessed 25.03.21. Available here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nelson_Old_Brass_Band_Club_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1212762.jpg

[2] New Promenade, South Shore, Blackpool (1905). Accessed 25.03.21. Available here: http://www.history-in-pictures.co.uk/store/index.php?_a=viewCat&catId=776

[3] Blackburn Public House. Accessed 24.03.21. Available here: http://www.blackburnpast.com/2010/01/mmmmmmmmmmmmm.html

[4] Miss Havisham, Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations’. Accessed 27.03.21. Available here:

[5] Trinity College of Music. Accessed 02.04.21. Available here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trinity_College_of_Music,Greenwichgeograph.org.uk-_1303854.jpg

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