Brass banding has its roots in the coal mining areas of Northern England and when whole families emigrated to Australia, those traditions came too. While the immigrants used their skills in pioneering the coal mining industry in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, some also brought musical instruments and formed small groups.
In the 1860s and 1870s bands were formed in the area, including Waratah, however, they didn’t last.
On 9th September, 1884, a public meeting was held to discuss the formation of a community brass band and Waratah Brass Band was formed. New instruments were ordered from the world reknowned Besson co and the first practice took place under the tuition of Mr W Barkell, a well known teacher of music and band conductor. Mr Barkell continuted with his tuition during rehearsals, but the band performed in public under the baton of Mr Robert Edward Lee.
Mrs Bertha Downie, interviewed for a local history project, tells a story of the BHP bringing out workers from England and Scotland in the early 1900s and reported that the band played when they arrived in Mayfield, and led them down into their homes in Pommie Town, where the fire was set and the pantry was full of food.
At times, the band’s identity has been obscured by name changes – at one time it was renamed simply the “Police and Citizens Brass Band”. Amongst its personas, between the words “Waratah” and “Brass Band” have been fitted “-Mayfield and RSL”; “Town”; “Municipal”; “Citizens and District”; and “Prize”. The name changed but the organization did not falter.
Waratah has engendered much loyalty over the years. Of special note is Wallace (Wall) Jory who spent 49 of his 61 banding years with Waratah, including service as deputy bandmaster. His brother William had also been bandmaster.
The band reached a peak just before World War Two when it won the B grade championship in Newcastle, resulting in promotion to A grade. The adjudicator on that occasion was the legendary A.H. (Bert) Baille of Newcastle Steelworks Band fame. Waratah won all sections except the Street March which saw them pipped by a point.
World War Two brought its share of sadness and losses to the band as members left due to military service with some, inevitably, never to return. One Waratah historian singled out Jim Craig as having given “his life for the cause of Waratah Band”.
In the band’s more than 125 years there has been many a conductor. Success in the 1920s was enjoyed under the late P. Hopwood, and later with W.J. Traise, who was also known to double as drum major. The band continued through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s under the baton of Joe Goodshaw. By the early 1970’s David McCaffrey led a young, energetic band.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the band improved rapidly under the leadership of local brass musician, Ron Grice. Since entering A Grade, once again, in 1992, the band has consistently placed highly in contests at all levels; Regional, State and National.
Waratah Brass is recognised as one of the premier entertainment bands in Australasia. The band won the prestigious Ern Keller “Band of the Year” entertainment contest for 10 out of 12 years, including 9 in a row!
Sydney Symphony Principal Trombonist, Ronald Prussing took over the musical reins of the band in 2001, continuing the band’s domination of banding in NSW and Australia. During this time the band launched into a series of concerts, featuring artists such as James Morrison, The Tap Dogs and visiting overseas brass band identities.
A major initiative of the band in its 125th Anniversary year is the formation of a brass programme in the Wallsend (Newcastle) community. A strategic program has been developed so the band can share its wealth of banding experience and extend the enjoyment that comes from banding to the youth and community of the Wallsend area.
In April 2010, Waratah Brass appointed Steven English as musical director. A renowned musician in both community banding and Salvation Army circles, Steven is a NSW State Soprano Cornet Championships and National Soprano Cornet Champion and is a nominated Yamaha Artist in Australia. He enjoyed early success with the band by leading it to victory in the East Coast of Australia Championships in June 2010. Steven enthusiastically embraced the Waratah Brass philosophy of serving the people of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley with high quality brass band performances.
In early 2013, Rowan Taylor, a young well-established musician in the Hunter and Central Coast region, took over the reigns of Waratah Brass. Rowan had been a member of the band for several years and had been acting Musical Director since 2012. He stayed with the band as Musical Director until 2014.
In 2014, Stephen Grice was appointed Musical Director. Stephen has been a player in the band since 1984. He is an excellent musician and has a wealth of knowledge about brass bands. His talent as a musician as well as his dedication, enthusiam, humility, and trademark good cheer have ensured both his popularity and success with the band. He has lead the band to several East Coast Championship wins, a NSW State Championship win and in 2019 a National B Grade Championship title.