A flurry of fanfares from nationally and internationally renowned Wingates Band heralded the start of Westhoughton Local History Group’s (WLHG) chosen project for the 2023 National Heritage Open Days in the most appropriate fashion at the town’s Carnegie Hall last Saturday.

Since the 1990s, the object of the annual Heritage Days (this year spanning from September 8 to 18 inclusive) has been to bring aspects of local history to a wider audience, and WLHG are certainly well set to do just that, having chosen a most appropriate topic – the 150th anniversary of their renowned local brass band.

The central plank of the project is a comprehensive exhibition profiling the remarkable Wingates story, since it began in the humblest fashion in 1873, by happy coincidence the same year as Bolton’s magnificent town hall was opened.

After introductory comments by the group’s chairman, David Kaye (who had a long association with the band including 10 years as its president), the Town Mayor of Westhoughton, Cllr. Deirdre McGeown, accompanied by consort Ollie Younge, welcomed the near-capacity audience in Westhoughton’s civic venue, the very same hall where Wingates Band has been regaled by many civic receptions down the decades, when they returned home triumphant from such iconic contesting venues as Belle Vue, Manchester, and London’s Crystal Palace and Royal Albert Hall, having been crowned as British Open Champions or British National Champions.

The audience included many who had travelled substantial distances to be present, primarily people for whom Wingates Band has played a special part in their lives, either as former players themselves, or the families of those who had been proud to be members of this renowned musical institution.

There was even a visitor from Australia in the audience, although his claim that he had travelled specially for the event needs verification!

With the mayor having congratulated the band on the magnificent achievement of 150 years of totally unbroken history, and wished them well for the future, Jim Berry, lead singer of Westhoughton’s other renowned musical ensemble, The Houghton Weavers, took the stage to perform the exhibition’s opening ceremony.

He unveiled a giant-sized framed message of congratulations from the history group.

Jim emphasised that whilst Wingates and the Weavers had enjoyed a long and happy partnership, playing many joint concerts together, it wasn’t that connection that prompted the invitation to perform the opening duties. He explained that he was a member of a well-known Wingates family, whose house was just yards away from the bandroom entrance, resulting in a number of family members having had long associations with the band, as trustees, officials, and players.

When outlining the numerous links between the Berry family and their neighbourhood band, there were reactions of surprise and amusement when Jim told the audience that his mother and father held their wedding reception in the humble bandroom across Wingates Square.

After Jim Berry concluded his most amusing opening remarks with a poignant poem specially composed for the occasion, recalling his childhood memories of Wingates Square, the audience was treated to two sets of music by the Wingates 10-piece ensemble, which were greeted with loud cheers and enthusiastic applause throughout.

The band sessions alternated with two spots by Jim Berry himself, who demonstrated so graphically what a talented all-round entertainer he is, as a combination of his humorous stories, character acting, poetry, and of course his wonderful singing and superb self-accompaniment on both guitar and harmonica.

The comprehensive exhibition has a large ‘Welcome’ display highlighting key milestones in the band’s history, through to the current 150th anniversary, or sesquicentennial as it is known.

Another major segment of the displays is labelled “Down Wingates Way”, a multi-panel sequence profiling the many aspects of the life of a premier brass band, including their two contrasting ‘lives’ on stage, when playing in concerts and contests. The bands’ 13 National and International Championship titles are highlighted, along with other significant achievements, such as four appearances before royalty, numerous UK and foreign tours, and over a century of recording and broadcasting.

Few aspects of the band’s history are overlooked, including a list of the innumerable iconic venues where the band has been privileged to play, and a schedule of ‘notable firsts’, including the first British brass band to have roadside district “Welcome” signs, referencing the home of the band, and the fact that Wingates is believed to be the only brass band in the world which can boast a blue plaque marking its historic birthplace.

And there are also some fascinating nuggets of trivia, including one which few people will be aware of – namely that the excellence of Wingates Temperance Band was once discussed in The Rovers Return, courtesy of a Coronation Street scriptwriter!

The display panels are complemented by collections of the band’s recordings spanning the shellac, vinyl, cassette, and CD eras, together with vintage gramophones, instruments, cups, medals, band clothing and other items of memorabilia and ephemera.

The organising team from WLHG has also assembled a large complementary display profiling different aspects of Westhoughton’s long and rich history, and a section focusing on the eclectic activities of the heritage group, including illustrated presentations, excursions to places of historic interest, quizzes, local history walks, publishing of books, booklets, cards, and prints, and highlighting that the group also finances and project-manages Westhoughton’s blue plaque scheme.

Following on from Saturday’s programme, tomorrow (Thursday) the upper level of Westhoughton Library will resonate to Jim Berry’s musical magic once again, whilst David Kaye will be delivering the first of two illustrated talks profiling aspects of the band’s history in somewhat novel fashion, entitled “The Wingate Band Story in 12 Objects”.

Then on Saturday Jim Berry will appear for the third and final time, and will be joined on stage by popular Atherton singer-songwriter Corrie Shelley, whilst David Kaye will cover more aspects of the band’s colourful story in a second talk, intriguingly-titled “The Wingates Band Story in a Single Tweet” (280 characters).

Whilst the National Heritage season is a relatively short one, the exhibition will remain open for viewing during all scheduled library opening hours until Tuesday, October 31.

For further details of the programme and timings for Thursday’s and Saturday’s events at Westhoughton Library, email: howfenhistory@gmail.com or phone 07970 131460