The City of Cardiff (Melingriffith) Brass Band can justifiably claim to be the oldest band in Wales, indeed one of the oldest in the World. Its history can be traced back as far as 1798, when a drum and fife band was formed in Whitchurch, Cardiff,  to assist the recruitment of a company of volunteers to fight against the French, who were threatening to invade Britain.

By 1850, it had become a brass band under the aegis of the 13th Glamorgan Rifle Volunteers Corporation with T.W. Booker of Melingriffith as Commandant. The band’s headquarters was in ‘New Houses – a row of workers’ cottages near the Melingriffith tinplate works. An early record in the accounts shows a payment of £12.13s.6d to G. Davies for a quarter’s tuition for the band.

 

Extract from Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian Glamorgan Monmouth and Brecon Gazette. 25th February, 1860

Welsh Newspapers Online – National Library of Wales

 

It was frequently referred to as ‘Booker’s Band’ and played at club feasts and semi-public occasions. In 1878 the bandmaster was Mr. French Davies and in 1886 Mr. Evan Owen.

 

Whitchurch, circa 1940, showing Melingriffith Works (purple), New Houses, a row of workers’ cottages where the band rehearsed during the 1850s (green), Velindre Road, where T.J. Powell lived at number 81 (blue) and Whitchurch Hospital (red).

 

The Booker undertaking appears to have failed, and connection with the Works was broken. However, the band continued to function and, for a time, there were three different combinations running simultaneously: the ‘Volunteer Band’, the ‘Temperance Band’, and the ‘Drum and Fife Band’, the first two later combining to form a village band known as ‘Whitchurch Brass Band’, conducted by Mr. F. Chivers.

 

Whitchurch Brass Band, 1908

Photo – Atkins family collection

 

In 1913, the Whitchurch Brass Band was incorporated with the Melingriffith Cadet Corps through the influence of Mr. Hubert Spence-Thomas, Managing Director of the Melingriffith Tin Plate Works. It was reorganised in 1919 as ‘The Melingriffith Volunteer and Cadet Corps Band’ under Mr. Frank Morgan.

Mr. Thomas James Powell was appointed conductor in 1920, heralding a new era for the Band.  T.J., as he became affectionately known throughout the brass band world, was a former Salvation Army player from Tredegar who had graduated as a Bandmaster in the Royal Marines, serving at H.M.S. Nelson in Portsmouth.

 

Melingriffith Volunteer and Cadet Corps Band, with T.J. Powell, 1928

Photo – Atkins family collection

 

T.J. Powell’s wealth of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm were an inspiration to the bandsmen, who responded well to his coaching. The band entered contests organised by the South Wales and Monmouthshire Brass Band Association and, under his guidance, rose from Class ‘C’ to Class ‘A’ (Championship) status in 1932.

 

At Fairford Carnival, Gloucestershire, after winning first prize in the Class ‘A’ Open Section. 12th July, 1930

Photo – Atkins family collection

 

The band’s headquarters until the mid 1930s was a tiny hall at the end of Velindre Road, just above the Melingriffith Works. It was condemned in 1937 and the band moved to larger premises, a converted former stable and piggery, on Company land between the River Taff and the Glamorganshire Canal.

In 1941 came a change of name to ‘The Melingriffith Works Band’. These were the days of military-style tunics with high collars and brass buttons, and Tom Powell, with his Royal Marines background, was a stickler for turnout and discipline. A former member recalls that anyone turning up with coloured socks or unpolished buttons would be severely reprimanded- or even sent home!

 

Melingriffith Works Band at the ceremony when the fifth Marquess of Bute handed over Cardiff Castle to the people of Cardiff in 1947. Tom Powell was ever immaculate in his signature frock coat.

Photos – Atkins family collection

 

T.J. Powell was the composer of many original works and arrangements for brass band, and his talent for writing fine marches earned him the nickname, “The Welsh Sousa”.  The marches named after the castles of Wales are particularly well known, and his favourite,“Castell Coch”, was dedicated to the Band and commemorates the fairy-tale edifice that appropriately overlooks their current home village of Tongwynlais.

 

Tom Powell rehearsing in the bandroom (the converted piggery near  Melingriffith Works) prior to a visit to the Welsh Industries Fair in London, 1947.

Photo – Atkins family collection

 

With T.J. at the National Eisteddfod in Caerphilly, August 1950.

Photo – Atkins family collection

 

The closure of Melingriffith Works in 1957 came as a great shock to the local community, and it took a while for the band to adjust to being an independent organisation rather than a semi-sponsored Works Band. However it continued to function with help from The Steel Company of Wales, who provided rehearsal facilities at the former Melingriffith Drill Hall.

 

Tom Powell was still at the helm for the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff in August 1960.

Photo – Atkins family collection

 

Although not conducting on the day, T.J. came to give Band members a pep talk before their performance at the Swansea National Eisteddfod in 1964.

Photo – Atkins family collection

 

Tragedy struck on Friday 29th January 1965.  Tom Powell was to be guest conductor of Cory Workmen’s Band in the radio series ‘Challenging Brass’, and they gathered for the live broadcast in the BBC’s Cardiff orchestral studio, a converted chapel vestry in Charles Street.  Their opponents, Luton Band, were similarly waiting in London whilst the programme presenter drew lots for the order of play. When it was announced that “Band B” (Cory) would perform first, T.J. sprang to his feet, ready to accept the challenge, and collapsed with what transpired to be a fatal heart attack. In the best of traditions, and as he would have wanted, a solo cornet player left the bench, took up the baton and conducted the band’s performance. T.J. never heard the result – that Luton had won; he died in the studio as Cory played. A glorious era, which had spanned 45 years and  given Melingriffith its richly deserved reputation, had come to an end.

Only weeks later, the band was given a new home and a new life as ‘Excelsior Ropes Works Band’. Several members worked for the Company, which manufactured wire ropes for industry, and the initiative received the enthusiastic support of the management. Haydn White, who had deputised for the ailing Tom Powell for several years, took over as conductor, and the band progressed once more, leading to further successes.

 

Official press photo of Excelsior Ropes Works Band at the time of adoption by the Company in early 1965. The site is now occupied by a Halfords store.

Photo – Atkins family collection

 

Upholding T.J. Powell’s tradition of fine marching, the band parades from Western Avenue towards the rope factory for a Company event circa 1966. Now heavily redeveloped, and long after the demise of the Firm, this area is still known as the Excelsior Industrial Estate.

Photo – Derek Thomas (Drum Major)

 

During Excelsior days, the band competed in the National Finals as Wales Regional Champions and won at the National Eisteddfod on several occasions. Conductors who followed Haydn White included Harold D. Morgan from Tongwynlais, and David Thomas, a virtuouso ex-Welsh Guards cornet player. Occasional guests on the podium included Rex Mortimer and Major H. Arthur Kenny.

 

Haydn White conducting the band at the Royal Albert Hall in the National Finals of October 1965. The test piece was Gilbert Vinter’s “Triumphant Rhapsody”.

Photo – Atkins family collection

 

In 1965 and 1967 Excelsior reached the final rounds of Dilyn y Band (Follow the Band), a television knockout competition recorded at the Pontcanna studios of TWW (then the local ITV franchise) and broadcast on Teledu Cymru (the forerunner of S4C).

 

Excelsior performing in Studio 1, Pontcanna, during a preliminary round of Dilyn y Band in Spring 1967, conducted by Harold Morgan.

Extract from Television Weekly, 16th March 1967

Photos – Atkins family collection

 

As Excelsior, the band twice participated in the London Welsh St. David’s Day celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall, and in 1968 inaugurated their own Festival – a gala held annually for more than ten years at Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens Pavilion. An invitation contest during the day was followed by an evening concert graced by the finest of Britain’s brass bands and Wales’ male choirs.

 

Photo – Geoff Atkins

 

Amongst other memorable engagements during Excelsior days, the band were invited to “act” in a Welsh language comedy drama recorded at the BBC’s television studios in Broadway, Cardiff.  Y Drymwr (The Drummer) starred the late great Ryan Davies as Sami, pathetic factotum of the fictional Abermarlais Silver Band, who was longing to find musical fulfilment and escape the henpecking of his domineering wife. The serious illness of the band’s bass drummer provided his golden opportunity, and he went on to lead them to victory in a marching competition, making him the band’s hero and boosting his confidence to face-up to his spouse! Interestingly, Y Drymwr was to become the very first Welsh language play to be re-broadcast with English subtitles.

Eight years later, during the long hot summer of 1976, the band (as Melingriffith once more) were again engaged by the BBC for an episode of the popular Welsh sitcom Fo a Fe.  By coincidence, Ryan Davies once again played the bass drum, and this time the marching was real … filmed outside Cardiff City Hall to the strains of T.J. Powell’s “Castell Caerdydd”.

 

Television screen shots from Y Drymwr, recorded on 16th March 1968. Members of the band with Ryan Davies.

Photos – Geoff Atkins

 

Association with the Excelsior company lasted until 1973, after which the band reverted to its former and much respected name of Melingriffith. For a while, construction company George Wimpey provided rehearsal facilities at their office canteen in Newport Road.

 

Melingriffith Band at the National Eisteddfod, Cardiff, 1978

Photo – Atkins family collection

 

Success continued in both the concert and contest fields, but with the lack of any sponsorship and the gradual loss of players to other bands, it became impossible to maintain the high standard of the Championship Section. After 45 years ‘at the top’, the band was relegated to the Second Section of the National Registry in 1977, and finally to the Fourth Section – a sad reflection of past glories.

The band returned to Whitchurch in the early 1980s at the invitation of the Community Centre, and rehearsed in the former Welsh School building on Old Church Road. When this was sold in 1988, the band moved to Tabernacle Chapel, Merthyr Road, where it remained for several years.

Unfortunately, the band’s membership continued to dwindle until only five playing members were left, and to put on a performance guest players had to be imported. Key musicians from all the top bands in Wales were willing to turn out to assist the famous ‘Melingriffith’, but it proved impossible to attract players on a permanent basis and the band withdrew from competitions.

But those who remained were determined that the band should not be allowed to die, and efforts were made to find a new home and identity, and prompt a resurgence of interest. In due course the Community Council of Radyr and Morganstown, just across the river from Whitchurch, offered facilities in the Old Church Rooms, and thus, in 1992, emerged the Radyr and Morganstown Band. The dedicated five, Arthur Atkins, Norman Collins, John Davies, Terry Short, and Lee Swallow, moved the library and equipment and began recruiting new members.

By 1994, the band was performing concerts once more and its reputation had begun to re-establish, although for a while it endured a number of transient conductors, some with relevant experience and some without!

The Millennium dawned, and the Band felt it could justifiably re-instate its much-loved name, adopting the title Radyr and Morganstown (Melingriffith) Band. It was a fitting tribute to both the band’s heritage and the determination and fortitude of the handful of players who refused to give up on something they had loved and served for so long.

In November 2001, under the direction of Gareth Hann, the band re-entered the contest circuit and had instant success, being placed fourth in the South East Wales Section Four contest at Treorchy. The following year they were placed first in the same contest, being awarded the Hawkes Championship Shield, along with the Nigel Jones Trophy for being second, overall, in the 2002 Welsh Championship Section Four listings. Philip Morris (Soprano Cornet) was awarded the Evan Evans Bevan Cup as Best Instrumentalist in the Fourth Section. The Band repeated the feat in 2003, retaining the Hawkes Championship Shield and with Colin Evans (Principal Euphonium) being awarded the Evan Evans Bevan Cup.

 

Radyr and Morganstown (Melingriffith) Band, November 2001

 

In 2004, the Band gained second place at the National Eisteddfod of Wales contest in Newport, and represented Wales in Section Four of the UK National Championship Finals, having won the Welsh Regional Contest at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea.

Gareth Ritter assumed the position of Musical Director in 2005, bringing with him experience of and enthusiasm for the “big time.” Gareth led the band to think of higher things and was instrumental in making the band’s first CD recording – appropriately titled “Heritage”- and the introduction of the Annual Gala Concert. Under his leadership, the band continued to prosper, developing both musically and numerically. As a result of recent success, the band adopted the title “City of Cardiff (Melingriffith) Brass Band,” recognising the close affinity throughout its history with what is now Wales’ Capital City.

Local competition success continued, with Colin Evans (Principal Euphonium), Terry Lax (Soprano Cornet), and Alan Gwynant (Principal Cornet) successively being awarded the “Best Soloist” prize.

In 2006, the band gained promotion to Section Three, and in 2006 and 2008 the band represented Wales in the Third Section of the National Championships at Harrogate, achieving a very creditable third place out of twenty-seven competing bands on their second visit and gaining promotion to Section Two nationally.

In November 2008, the band won Section Three of the South East Wales Contest at Treorchy. As well as being placed first out of the six competing bands and being awarded the Mel Huntley Memorial Trophy, the band’s horn section was awarded the Mavis Thomas Memorial Trophy for the best horn section. In addition, eleven year old Alexander Rees was awarded the Rhondda Cynon Taf Trophy as the best instrumentalist in the section.

Electing to play John Rutter’s “Suite for Brass,” which brought them such success at the recent UK Championships at Harrogate, the band wowed the adjudicator, Peter Roberts. In thanking the band for a, “very fine performance of this work,” Mr. Roberts remarked upon the quality of their technique and the excellence of ensemble playing, soloists, atmosphere and dynamic contrasts. He awarded the band a score of 184 points, three points ahead of second-placed Upper Rhondda and five points ahead of third-placed Seindorf Arian Crwbin. This result meant that City of Cardiff (Melingriffith) Brass Band had been placed first in each of the three qualifying contests for the second year running, and became the Welsh Region Section Three Champion Band, gaining promotion to the Second Section in the Welsh Regional Grading System (matching their National grading) and being awarded the T.J.Powell Trophy – particularly poignant, as T.J. Powell had been their legendary conductor.

In March 2009, the band was placed first in the Welsh Regional Qualifying Competition held at Swansea and, once again, represented Wales in the Second Section of the UK National Championship Finals at Harrogate in September. Presenting a near faultless rendition of Alan Fernie’s ‘A Scot’s Miscellany,’ the band was placed first and declared Champion Second Section Band of Great Britain. This was unquestionably the highlight of recent band history!

December 2009 saw a further advancement in the band’s history with the creation of a second contesting band, known as Melingriffith 2, or M2 for short. Twenty eight players turned up for the first rehearsal and by mid-January 2010 all positions were filled. Dewi Griffiths, Principal Cornet with Tredegar Town Band, was appointed to the post of Musical Director, and he soon had the band playing together as a cohesive unit. Entering the Welsh Regional Contest in March 2010, their first ever competition, M2 gained a creditable fifth place in the Fourth Section. Returning in 2011 they succeeded in winning that contest, gaining a place at the National Finals. From 2012, they were promoted to Third Section nationally. The band then progressed to be graded nationally in the second section, and although this seemed a formidable challenge, the band again gained an invitation to the National Finals in Cheltenham in 2013, having been runners-up in Swansea.

 

M2 at Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, March 2011

 

The main band, now colloquially known as M1, were placed fourth in their first attempt at Section One in the 2010 Welsh Regional Contest, but won a place at the 2011 Finals with a creditable second place at Swansea in March 2011. With this came national promotion to the Championship Section from 2012.

In 2011, another band was added to the Melingriffith organisation – the “Melingriffith Youth Band,” or M3, with the aim to nurture talent for the future of the other bands.

In January 2013, there was a formation of another group under the Melingriffith banner – M4 Beginners. Under the tuition of Gareth Jones and senior members of M1, the band flourished and now has approximately 25 members learning to play brass and percussion instruments. In March 2013, M4 gave their inaugural concert and since then have made an appearance at the first Melingriffith Youth Band Festival on the Glanfa stage in the Millennium Centre, Cardiff.

Gordon Robinson, the organisation’s secretary, then raised the question, “Where do all the players who have stopped playing go?” either because they do not want to compete, cannot make the commitment, or are not quite up to the standard required. Gordon came up with the idea of a Community Band who would not compete, and would meet occasionally “for a blow”. It was agreed to give it a try, and Jacob Pritchard, a young Tredegar player, was appointed as conductor. The band now meets weekly for rehearsal (and a cup of tea!), and its pool of players now numbers in excess of 30, of all ages and abilities.

Early 2016 saw many changes for Melingriffith. The organisation was saddened by the resignation of Gareth Ritter as both a player and musical director. M1 were fortunate enough to welcome Dewi Griffiths as full time conductor in the wake of Gareth’s resignation and he is currently working alongside Nigel Seaman in bringing M1 back to the pinnacle of Welsh banding. It also saw M1 take on a different format of competition … Band Cymru on S4C. It was quite a change from the usual contest days with their registration rules and ensuring that players are signed on time!  M1 progressed through the first round, an audio recording, to get through to a televised heat recorded in the Arts Centre at Aberystwyth University. Much to the delight and surprise of everyone, the band won their round, beating Tredegar in the process! Progressing to the live final, they acquitted themselves admirably, although Tredegar fought back to win the top prize.