A trib­ute to Ed­win

Sandbach mu­si­cian re­mem­bered

Cheshire Life - - Inside - WORDS: Howard Brad­bury PHO­TOS: Lorne Camp­bell

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”

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