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Geoffrey Whitham 1932–2009

Geoffrey Whitham, one of the true greats of the brass band movement, has died following a long battle with illness.

In the beginning

Photograph of young Geoffrey Whitham, and euphonium

In June 1947, 15-year-old Geoffrey Whitham was given a four-week trial at Black Dyke Mills Band. It was an opportunity of a lifetime with the vacant position of 2nd baritone as the prize.

This opportunity was the first time he was to come into contact with the great Arthur O. Pearce, someone who was a legend in Queensbury and had conducted the famous Black Dyke Mills Band from 1912.

Geoffrey was the son of Harold and Olive Whitham and was born in Queensbury in 1932. There was only one brass band that mattered to anyone born in Queensbury, and that was the famous John Foster’s Black Dyke Mills Band.

His earliest memory of going to a band concert was in 1938 at the Victoria Hall in Queensbury. He was to grow up watching all his early musical heroes, the Black Dyke soloists: Harold Jackson, principal cornet; Rowland Jones, the solo euphonium and young Jack Pinches on solo trombone.

As a child he lived in the same street as Hubert Hepworth who was the conductor of the Black Dyke Juniors. It was thanks to Hubert and the constant persistence and nagging from young Geoffrey that he was given his first instrument.

Joining Black Dyke Juniors meant he had his first lessons with Hubert but once he started to show some promise Hubert suggested that he went to Jack Emmott for lessons. Jack Emmott was the senior band’s solo euphonium player and Geoffrey continued to have lessons with him until he went into the army for his war service.

Geoffrey’s father was concerned that he was not having any tuition once Jack had gone overseas, so his father persuaded Harold Pinches, one of the senior band’s most famous principal cornets players (1912-1926) to take Geoffrey for his lessons.

He had to be at Harold’s house at nine o’clock every Saturday morning and would be taught not only the right notes but a style of playing that was to be a trademark of Geoffrey throughout his playing career. He would often not get home from his lesson until well into the afternoon.

Those lessons continued up until Harold Pinches died and for a short while he then had lessons with Willie Lang, another legendary ‘end chair’ cornet player at Black Dyke. Further lessons followed with Alex Mortimer, who had successfully conducted Black Dyke professionally in the early 1950s.

Geoffrey always had fond memories as a ten year old in 1942, sitting in the junior band for the first time – and whilst he did try to play his old euphonium he was actually asked to play the Bb bass part of Slaidburn. His sight-reading was not yet quite up to speed because after the down beat and playing the first note he was then totally lost.

Canal Ironworks Band

Gradually as Geoffrey became a more improved player it was time to move on and this meant a short trip down into Shipley where he joined the Canal Ironworks Band, and its conductor Gershom Collinson (former Black Dyke soprano player).

This is where Geoffrey was given a taste of solo work both in the contest arena and concert stage. In 1945 the band was placed 2nd behind George Thompson’s Hickleton Main Band, playing Percy Fletcher’s Labour and Love with Geoffrey playing solo euphonium. The following year the band took part in its first outing at the King’s Hall, Belle Vue in the British Open Championships playing Eric Ball’s test piece Salute to Freedom. Although the band was not placed it gave Geoffrey experience on the ‘big stage’.

In 1947 the Canal Ironworks Band was closed down and Geoffrey drifted from one band to another. First it was Bradford City Band, then Hammonds Sauce Works Band and then in June that offer of a one month trial at Black Dyke on 2nd baritone came.

Meeting Arthur O. Pearce

Meeting the legendary Arthur O. Pearce was scary Geoffrey recalls, ‘he always kept a firm grip on discipline, particularly amongst his younger members’. On one occasion he remembers feeling the quiet but effective tones of a reprimand – it was at the beginning of a rehearsal AOP stopped the band and said staring at Geoffrey ‘Young man there is only one thing in this band that beats time and it is not your foot‘, Geoffrey got the message, from that day on he never tapped his foot whilst playing again.

Geoffrey’s assessment of the great AOP, he was a very strict disciplinarian, and suggested that although he may have not been the best musician, he had the uncanny knack of being able to keep a good band. I suppose today they would call it people skills.

With AOP it did not matter whether you were the swaggering ‘end chair’ cornet player or a drummer… he pulled no punches, you were wrong and you got his wrath in the neck. For all that Geoffrey is sure that he was probably the best Bandmaster the brass band movement has ever had, very strict but always fair.

Photograph of Geoffrey Whitham as a wollsorter, taken in 1947

At 14, Geoffrey started working at Foster’s mill, after a six month period in the Spinning Office he went into the mill as an Apprentice Overlooker. He was on the move again, this time into the Woolsorting Department as an apprentice Woolsorter. This was because the job as an Overlooker was simply not compatible with being a member of the band.