A tribute to Edwin
Sandbach musician remembered
He was the star cornet player for Foden’s brass band, playing an encore at his last concert in Cheshire before heading off to war in 1917. But the piece Edwin Firth chose to play, Tosti’s yearning anthem Goodbye, seemed to tempt fate.
‘The band didn’t want him to play Goodbye because it could be a bad omen,’ says Mark Wilkinson, principal cornet player and band manager for Foden’s today.
Fate was indeed tempted, and Goodbye proved to be Edwin’s swan song. Private Firth of the 28th London Regiment went off to war, leaving his best cornet at home, and died on June 1 1918 at Varennes in the Somme region of France. He was buried there in a military cemetery. Lost on that day was, perhaps, the nation’s greatest cornet player. He was just one of many millions who did not come home from that so-called Great War, but the commemorations this year of Edwin’s life have shown that, a century on, those sacrifices are far from forgotten.
Edwin’s old cornet was taken up by Mark Wilkinson, who used it to play that same tune Goodbye as part of concerts at Sandbach School to mark the centenary of Edwin’s death, attended by his descendants.’
Having done all my research on Edwin, seeing all the photos of him holding this instrument, and then to be holding it myself, playing the last piece he played with Foden’s before he went away, and in front of his family...it was quite emotional,’ says Mark.
Photos of Edwin - a young boy with cornet clasped proudly to his chest, a smiling 22-year-old celebrating victory in brass banding’s National Finals and a soldier in khaki destined for the trenches of France - are displayed on Foden’s history website (www.fodensbandheritage. co.uk). It’s yet another example of how commemorations of the centenary of the First World War have given us a fascinating new window on the lives of a previous generation.
Edwin Firth was born in Skipton in 1888 into a family steeped in brass banding. By his teenage years, he was winning medals and trophies, billed as a ‘musical marvel’. Edwin was the best, and another Edwin - Edwin Foden of the Sandbach lorry firm - wanted the best for his works’ band.
‘Foden’s wanted the best brass band in the country,’ says Mark. ‘There were solo competitions all over the country and the owner of
“By his teenage years Edwin was winning medals and trophies and billed as a ‘musical marvel’”
the company sent scouts to these competitions to find out who the best players were. Edwin came to their attention at a competition in Hanley.’
So in 1909, Edwin joined Foden’s Band, paid a princely 10s 6d plus expenses for every rehearsal attended, and 15s plus expenses for concerts. At first juggling band work with his training as a watchmaker, Edwin later moved to Sandbach and took a day job at the Foden works.
‘That’s how a lot of players joined the band. The deal was, you join the band, you get a job with the company,’ says Mark.
Edwin married Doris, daughter of Foden’s company secretary, and continued his medal-winning ways as principal cornet player of the works’ band.
He volunteered for the Army when the war was in its third year, and died just eight weeks after Doris had given birth to their son Edwin Twemlow Firth. Edwin never saw his son, and Doris never remarried, living until 1991, just a month short of her 99th birthday.
Edwin’s cornet - which had originally belonged to his father Squire Firth - passed down to Edwin Jnr and then to his son Martyn Firth, of Congleton.’
When we did the concert, we contacted him and he’d got all of Edwin’s memorabilia, service records, photos and letters,’ says Mark. ‘All this memorabilia was in his loft. He knew he had the cornet but had not looked at it for 40 years.
‘The instrument had been overhauled about 50 years ago. They had had the valves re-oiled to get them working again. It just needed a bit more work on the valves to stop them jamming. It was in great condition. The instruments then are different from the instruments now. The tubing was a lot narrower back then. But it still blows the same. It’s nice to play and easy to blow.’
A century after Edwin Firth was a star of the brass band world, lorry-making has long gone from Sandbach, but Foden’s Band remains a force to be reckoned with, performing 35 concerts a year at home and abroad, entering and winning competitions and producing two CDS a year.
‘It’s still in a good state,’ says Mark of brass banding as a whole. ‘There are over 500 competing bands in this country alone, and probably more non-competing bands with community bands, Salvation Army band who do not contest.’
“He had all Edwin’s service records, photos and letters”