Paul. A. Rabbitts    

Author, Parks Historian & Public Speaker

The History of the Bandstand

Bandstands have been a feature of the British way of life for well over a century but after the Second World War an increasing number fell into disuse and were neglected. Sadly many were demolished as public parks and seaside resorts went into a spiral of decline in the 1980s and 1990s. However in 1997 the Heritage Lottery Fund started investing in our public parks and gardens and this has seen the rediscovery of bandstands which has continues to this day. Former Director of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Dr Stewart Harding has described them as ‘wonderfully exotic structures that are at once very familiar and also alien in their strange designs - looking like UFOs, Moorish temples, rustic cottages or Chinese pavilions’.

But what of their origins? The first domed bandstand – then called a ‘band house’ – was believed to be one erected in the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens in South Kensington, which went up in 1861 on its slender cast iron legs. Iron was the wonder of the day. It was strong and yet it could be cast into delicate decorations. The industrial iron-age coincided with paternalist councils creating municipal parks for the industrial terrace-dwellers to relax in. The Middlesbrough Advertiser wrote in October 1859 on how these new industrial towns cried out for parkland. ‘No place is so badly provided for the recreative department as ours,’ says the paper. ‘Sickly looking youth and pallid manhood would receive a boon indeed by the establishment of some recreative institution or the enclosure of some ground where cramped limbs might be exercised, and the mind be dragged from the everlasting monotony around us. The lobes of the lungs are nowhere so severely tested as here and it is paramount opinion everywhere that we live in the smokiest, unhealthiest hole in the kingdom.’


Each park needed a focal point. A bandstand, with its rich decoration and its oriental shape inspired by the expansion of the empire into India, provided that. But a bandstand wasn’t just decorative – it provided music, too. It was our Victorian forefathers who thought that ‘good music would free the mind of urban griminess and humanise the industrial landscape’. During their heyday in the Victorian era bandstands were enormously popular and drew crowds of up to 10,000. For instance, Thursday night concerts at Myatt’s Fields, Lambeth were always packed, right up until the Second World War. An account by the Daily Express writer Jack Donaldson was published in 1937: ‘I arrived on time but there was no room on the seats or the railings, so I leant against a tree and enjoyed the music. The children danced to it, played ball to it, sang to it and ignored it, The grown-ups, all listening, sat round on their wooden seats or leant against the green railings and were happy.’

But the real origins of British bandstands go right back to the great pleasure gardens of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before our Victorian forefathers. The most famous of these was Vauxhall Gardens, in London. It combined music, illuminated fountains, hot air balloons, tightrope walkers and firework displays for the rich and fashionable people. They were like the ‘night clubs’ of their day and drew enormous crowds from all over the country, who loved the music pavilions, which hosted promenade concerts, where the audience could stroll about while listening to the music, and it was from these musical events that the bandstand evolved.


Bandstands soon became so popular that nearly every public park and seaside resort had one by the end of the nineteenth century.

Of the bandstand in South Park, Darlington, the local ‘North Star’ dated 4 July, 1893, reported, ‘Tonight, the newly-erected bandstand at the public park will be opened … selections of music will be played by the combined bands of Darlington Volunteers and the Sons of Temperance, numbering nearly 50 performers.’ It was opened where ‘an assemblage of between 2000 to 3000 had gathered by the bandstand which had only been approved some four months previously.’

Lincoln’s Arboretum was opened in August 1872. The opening ceremony was attended by 25,000 people and attractions included brass band recitals, Professor Renzo's Performing Dogs and Mr Emmanuel Jackson, the Midland aeronaut in his new balloon. The impressive bandstand was erected on the large lawn in front of the terrace in 1884 followed with an extremely busy programme of events including brass band concerts, flower shows, fetes and galas. In 1889 over 40,000 people attended the band concerts alone. At its the Secretary of the Committee proclaimed ‘It is hoped that it will not only be an ornament to these grounds, but useful in inducing bands of musicians to discourse from its platform, music that has such power to soothe the savage breast, and enliven the hearts of visitors’. The Mayor was fulsome in his praise and approval, saying ‘I think the brass band concerts are a great improvement on the “so called” fetes that have been held in years past. There cannot, in my opinion, be a more sickening sight than to witness three or four painted brazen images in tights, dancing about on a raised platform in the broad light of heaven’. Around 10,000 visitors attended the opening and the evening culminated in the ubiquitous firework display. In subsequent years, many concerts and contests followed with a wide ranging repertoire. Some of the contests occasioned great controversy and in 1887 the judges’ decision aroused such animosity that the police were called in to protect him from being mobbed until he was able to escape to the railway station in a cab!

Queen’s Park bandstand in Loughborough was opened in 1902. At the opening, Councillor Wootton proclaimed during his speech that it had often occurred to him, when he had seen young people about the streets after the shops were closed, that it would be a good thing if they had an opportunity of listening to ‘a bit of good music’ which included Wagner, Strauss, Sullivan and Rossini.


When eleven brass bands gathered on the upper terrace of Corporation Park, Blackburn, Lancashire, in 1861, more than 50,000 people gathered to listen, and in 1909 the Blackburn Times The following was reported in the Blackburn Times in 1909:- ‘Over 6000 people assembled in the Blackburn Corporation Park yesterday afternoon, when the new bandstand was formally opened by Councillor J.H. Higginson, vice chairman of the Parks Committee and chairman of the Elementary Education Sub-Committee. The seating accommodation was taxed to its utmost capacity and there were hundreds of people standing round the railings….. ‘

A completed bandstand in Bedford was officially opened on 10 April 1926 in the new St Mary’s Gardens ‘in the presence of several thousand people and in delightfully warm sunny weather’. But behind the celebrations was considerable local discord. ‘A cordial welcome was given to Luton Red Cross Band, whose very fine playing was greatly enjoyed.’ The effect, however, was seriously impaired by a most disconcerting echo, which certainly detracted from the musical value of the new stand. This, apparently, was foreseen by the members of the local bands and was partly the cause of their protest, although at the protest meeting on the Market Place the week previously, attended by four or five thousand people, it was made clear that the main grievance was that the Bedfordshire bands had been entirely ignored by the Corporation in connexion with the erection and opening of the bandstand. The acoustics though were a real problem where ‘the tone hardened almost to harshness’. The protest meeting in the Market Place was attended by many of the local bands, and ‘Mr J Dunkley of the Trades Band said that all Bedford bandsmen had the greatest admiration for Luton Red Cross Band. They were proud of them as belonging to the same County, but if the Council liked to take £728 of the ratepayers’ money and build a bandstand – in the wrong place to start with (laughter) – at the very least they might have consulted the local bands and invited one representative to be there’.


But the popularity of these concerts waned in the 1950s as other attractions, such as the cinema, radio and TV became increasingly popular and, as a result many fell into disrepair. Cities like Leeds lost all eighteen of its bandstands bar one! The number of bandstands in London before World War Two was nearly one hundred but over half were lost. There was a brief revival in the late 60s when groups like Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac played a series of free bandstand concerts at Parliament Hill in London and David Bowie played a free concert in Beckenham Recreation Ground, Croydon but most parks were by now struggling and in the years between 1979 and 2001, more than half of the bandstands in historic parks across the country were demolished, vandalised or fell into a chronic state of disuse. But the revival is under way and continues. Over one hundred bandstands have been restored and are now in use up and down the country and are once again becoming the focal points of restored and vibrant parks, not just echoing to the sounds of brass, but often bouncing to rhythm and blues, rock, opera, street theatre and drama. A bandstand is, however, merely an empty shell unless music is played on it and once again local authorities and other organisations are realising this with the annual ‘Bandstand Marathon’ and now ‘Our Big Gig’ along with Bandstand Busking regular features of the bandstand scene. Their return is welcome. Bandstands are back!


The Iron Age and the Great Foundries

The evolution of the bandstand within parks and on seaside promenades and how they have developed particularly in relation to materials such as timber, iron and concrete has been impressive. However, it is the more traditional octagonal bandstand that is associated with most parks and sea fronts, ornate, embellished and highly detailed structures composed primarily of cast iron. In some cases, iron bandstands have been replaced over the years with concrete, such as Clifton Park, Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and coastal bandstands have appeared as part of new developments, constructed of concrete, but it is the ornate, light airy Victorian bandstand that is often associated with our most loved parks. To understand their significance to parks and promenades, a better understanding of the use of iron in their designs and how this was used effectively by the great foundries of the time is essential.

The introduction of iron as a constructional building material may have begun in the eighteenth century, but in the nineteenth century its use became more widespread when adopted for more different purposes. Iron was the material of the nineteenth century and in the early part of the century it was, in a way, seen as the wonder material of the day. This was really before the structural potential of the material was understood fully, which did not happen until the later part of the century. In the eighteenth century the decorative potential of iron was adopted in traditional forms, such as in the construction of railings and gates, but towards the end of the century there were experiments in the substitution of iron for other materials, such as timber, which displayed the structural use of the material, even if its potential was not fully appreciated at the time.


Early nineteenth century landscape gardeners such as Humphry Repton and John Claudius Loudon were enthusiastic about the potential of iron. They praised its great strength in relation to the size of member when compared with other materials such as wood or stone in their garden designs of the time and were used in buildings and features within the landscape. Iron offered to garden designers and horticulturalists a strong, durable material that could be used for many different purposes, but which physically would not appear as large objects made of more conventional materials. So structures, railings, gates and other objects of cast and wrought iron, because of their lightness of form, offered a more sympathetic relationship with the natural world of the garden.


The decorative advantages of iron were also an important factor in its widespread adoption in gardens during the nineteenth century. Both wrought and cast iron presented advantages over other materials. Wrought iron could be worked into different shapes while hot, and through repeated heating and beating or rolling could take on shapes, which could be used for constructional or decorative purposes. The real discovery of the early nineteenth century was the recognition of the potential of wrought iron for constructional purposes, but the potential of cast iron was also more widely understood during the century. Cast iron was very important for decorative purposes, and able to adopt the form and relief surface of the moulded shape into which the molten cast iron was poured, and so offered the possibility of replication and repetition with little need for craftsmanship beyond the making of the initial pattern. This was in contrast to wrought iron, each member of which would have to be worked by hand, first having been heated to a temperature where it was malleable when it could be worked by beating and other tools, to bend, twist and cut the material to the desired shape. The characteristics of the two different materials can be very clearly seen in the ways in which they were used.

The different uses of iron as a decorative and structural material in public parks were many and included applications to bandstands, pavilions, shelters, bridges, seats and benches, light standards or pillars, ornamental vases, fountains, drinking fountains and other sculptural purposes.

Like conservatories and winter gardens, bandstands were often of iron. In many instances cast iron was used, but wrought iron was too, particularly for light lattice rafters to support roofs. Cast iron columns were a common feature of their design. Frequently these functioned as rainwater downpipes, so it is not unusual to find that these pipes are sometimes split from the action of freezing water inside. Decorative castings around the eaves, or cresting along the top of the gutter or the ridge, and a finial or weather vane at the centre of the roof were common elements, but these are now usually missing in some part and it is quite rare to see a bandstand with all its ironwork intact. Bandstands were usually elevated on a platform for visibility and the decorative iron stairs, handrail and railings around the perimeter are often broken or missing elements because they are vulnerable to vandalism. The underside of the bandstand roof was frequently boarded to serve as a sounding board like the tester above a pulpit, and the superstructure upon which the bandstand was raised was sometimes a masonry construction.


With the rise in popularity of the bandstand, the swathe of public parks being created across the country and advancements in production techniques, it is not surprising that a number of designers and foundries came to dominate the market. These foundries had a major role to play. Foundries producing bandstands in the nineteenth and early twentieth century included Walter Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry, Glasgow, George Smith’s Sun Foundry, Glasgow, and the Lion Foundry, Kirkintilloch. Smaller foundries which were less prolific in relation to bandstands included James Allan Senior and Sons Elmbank Foundry, Hill and Smith Ltd of Brierley Hill, Hill and Sons Sun Foundry of Alloa, J & A Law of Glasgow, McDowall, Steven and Company Milton Iron Works of London and Glasgow, and Yates Haywood and Company of Rotherham, South Yorkshire.


However, it was a small number Scottish Foundries who were so prolific in producing cast iron products and in particular, bandstands. This was partly due to the discovery of black band ironstone in 1802, followed by the invention of the hot blast process in 1828 by James Beaumont Neilson and meant that vast reserves of iron ore could be processed cheaply and in a viable manner with pit coal. The abundant supply of coal and ore, coupled with the suitability of the pig iron for ornamental work prompted the industry to develop in Scotland, and the West Coast in particular.

‘In this new foundry an immense variety of work is turned out, and art in cast iron is cultivated to such an extent, and with such an amount of success as are not known elsewhere, either in this country or abroad…….MacFarlane’s castings are favourably known in every civilised nation in the world…’Notices of some of the Principal Manufactures of the West Coast of Scotland, Glasgow, 1876

For a considerable time, Scotland was an exceptional producer and manufacturer in architectural cast ironwork and was primarily centred in Glasgow at the Saracen Foundry of Walter MacFarlane & Co Ltd.


Walter MacFarlane & Company Ltd was one of a small number of Scottish architectural ironfounders which came to prominence in the nineteenth century. Despite being considered late starters in comparison to others, it wasn’t long before they came to dominate this industry, quickly matching and eventually surpassing their rivals to become the most prolific architectural ironfounders we have ever known. Their execution of design and marketing of products, through catalogues of considerable artistic achievement, was vital. The principle of prefabrication in particular was clearly demonstrable through these catalogues and no doubt a major factor in their success. These catalogues included components that allowed customers to choose elements that they preferred and often enabled individual designs to be created. Many however preferred to choose a complete design based on existing patterns and models. This, and the seemingly unrelenting ability for self promotion by the owners, made for a seductive operation.

At the same time, the distribution of their products throughout the world was simply astounding. Even now, when much architectural ironwork has been removed from the landscape, it is still possible to find the distinctive diamond trademark of the company on many of their bandstands.

Walter MacFarlane developed his company in such a way that he outstretched the competition, putting established companies like George Smith's Sun Foundry into the shade and eventually out of business. His perceived arrogance was demonstrated by the foundry putting his name to every piece of iron to leave his premises. Known as shrewd businessman with his prolific publications, this has surely helped to perpetuate the aura which Saracen Foundry developed and even maintains to this day.


Between 1849 and 1850, Walter MacFarlane went into Partnership with Thomas Russell, his Brother in Law, and his friend James Marshall who was a Glasgow businessman. In 1851 the company took over an old disused brass foundry in Saracen Lane in the Gallowgate, naming the foundry after the street name. The company thrived in Saracen Lane and by 1861, it employed 120 people. After eleven years at Saracen Lane, the company outgrew the premises and were looking to expand and ultimately relocated to Washington Street in 1862. However, the success of the company was overwhelming and a further decision was made to move to what became the third and final Saracen Foundry, built and expanded to a vast scale in 1872. By this time, the Possilpark Saracen foundry eventually covered 80 acres.

Sir William Stirling Maxwell visited the site in 1875, an extract from his diary of November eleventh stating; ‘I was struck with the immense growth of Glasgow on its North side……..we stopped at Walter MacFarlane's Saracen Foundry newly built on the Possil Estate of which he feud 100 acres - a speculation likely to make a great return. The establishment employs from 70 - 80 Clerks, and almost 1,400 workmen, and the workshops extend over 8 acres, all under cover. It is a very interesting and picturesque site. Home by the 4.20pm train’

Whilst Walter MacFarlane remained the figurehead of the company, his Partners Thomas Russell, and James Marshall became intimately involved in the development and running of the business. Each became wealthy men in their own right. In the 1870's Thomas Russell also provided his adopted town of Rothesay with the gift of a bandstand.


By the 1890's the Saracen Foundry was a major employer, providing work for around 1,200 people and now driven by Walter MacFarlane Junior and reached its peak under his leadership. After 1918 the firm moved on to the production of rainwater goods and enamelled baths for the domestic market and building facades which became a significant percentage of output. The Second World War practically ended the production of ornamental work with most of the foundry contributing to the war effort and only limited engineering work. The foundry continued in operation in the early twentieth century but with drastic changes in the market the foundry at Possilpark eventually closed in 1967.

Saracen Foundry bandstands are still the most frequent bandstands found in parks today with significant structures still in many of our public parks, from Penzance in Cornwall (Morrab Gardens), to the Isle of Wight (Ventnor Park), to Wolverhampton in the West Midlands (East Park), to Liverpool, Merseyside (Stanley Park), and as far north as St. Andrews in Fife, Forfar in Angus and Dunfermline in Fife. MacFarlane was known for diversity of design and workmanship yet it is often quite easy to recognise a MacFarlane bandstand as two models were especially popular, the 249 and 279, the latter often ‘topped by open scrolled ironwork in the shape of an onion dome’. There are at least twenty remaining 279 models still in Britain, showing how popular they were.


George Smith & Co Ltd were founded in 1858 and were very much contemporaries and therefore business rivals to Walter MacFarlane & Co Ltd. Founded by George Smith at 64 Port Dundas Road in Glasgow, the company quickly expanded, moving to Parliamentary Road in 1875 where they remained to 1896. By the 1870's and 1880's they were able competitors and equal in size to the Saracen Foundry, although Walter MacFarlane & Co Ltd would eventually outstrip them in terms of production and sales. The Sun Foundry, despite being less prolific than the Saracen Foundry, are however considered by many to be superior in terms of style, design and quality and this can be seen from the examples of bandstands that remain in parks as well as from the few images that still exist. They are extremely detailed with complex baluster panels, spandrels and cresting. The Glasgow Sun Foundry produced a range of excellent designs for several bandstands which still remain and have included London’s, Clapham Common; Lincoln Arboretum; Newcastle, Leazes Park; Middlesbrough, Albert Park; Wigan, Mesnes Park, and Nairn, The Links.

In 1896 Sun Foundry relocated, suggesting that the company were starting to struggle with the continued rise of the nearby Saracen Foundry. Only three years later, they had closed. Sun Foundry did not appear to embrace the constructional opportunities of cast iron for building which both the Saracen Foundry and Lion Foundry did. It was also rumoured that George Smith had relocated to Alloa just before the main company went out of business in 1899 and established the Sun Foundry, Alloa which became a significant foundry in its own right.


McDowall Steven and Co Ltd also had their roots amongst the founders of the cast iron industry in Scotland and had an important role to play in designing and manufacturing bandstands. Thomas Edington started the Phoenix Foundry in Glasgow in 1804, who were the first true ornamental ironfounders in Glasgow. His experience and wealth arose from his involvement with Carron, Cramond Ironworks, Muirkirk Ironworks and Clyde Ironworks. His son James worked with him at the Phoenix Foundry before departing to establish the Eagle Foundry with John McDowall around 1820.

In 1828, changes to the partnership meant changes to the name and they became McDowall & Robertson and Milton Foundry at Port Dundas, later becoming McDowall & Co Ltd from 1844 to 1861 in Port Dundas. The most prolific period of the Foundry's success followed another move to 142 Woodside Road in Glasgow from 1862 to 1909, where the company became McDowall Steven & Co Ltd and the foundry Milton Ironworks.

Several excellent bandstands of theirs are still found in a number of parks. These show innovation in construction using wrought iron sheet with cast iron roof formers, unlike the predominantly timber construction of Saracen examples for the most part. The quality of the bandstands in constructional detail is matched by the fine detail and quality of their castings. Many of their bandstands were also unique in style and design and were the only manufacturer who used double circles of columns as seen in Wolverhampton’s West Park, in the West Midlands and The Quarry, in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. There is some doubt as to when they ceased trading but it is thought they closed in 1909. The firm was then resurrected in 1916 at the Laurieston Iron Works in Falkirk right up until 1930 when it became the Allied Iron Founders Ltd of Falkirk.

Remaining bandstands include Valentines Park, Ilford in Essex; The Quarry, Shrewsbury in Shropshire; West Park, Wolverhampton, in the West Midlands; North Lodge Park, Darlington, Co. Durham; Roker Park, Sunderland in Tyne and Wear; and Aberdeen’s Duthie Park in Aberdeenshire.


In 1880, three staff from the Saracen Foundry left the company and set up The Lion Foundry in Kirkintilloch. James Brown had been a clerk in the order department, James Jackson a Salesman, and Robert Hudson a fitter at Saracen. It was not until 1881 that a key figure from Saracen joined Lion Foundry. William Cassells was a designer and draughtsman at Saracen and left to take up the same post at Lion. The design references are apparent in the work of the Lion Foundry from the point Cassells joined. He was succeeded by James Leitch and was responsible for many of the Art Nouveau designs produced by the company. Originally known as Jackson, Brown, Hudson and Cuthbert, the company changed it's name to the Lion Foundry in 1885. In 1893 the company became a limited liability company with the formation of the Lion Foundry Company Ltd. The name is still registered, although has been dormant for many years.

Lion Foundry produced ornamental cast ironwork like its competitors and local contemporaries and included railings, crestings and terminals in its early days, but quickly started to manufacture fountains, bandstands, canopies and larger structures. It produced pattern books like its contemporaries which grew larger over time as the company developed. Significantly, the Lion foundry outlasted Walter MacFarlane & Company Ltd by twenty years, surviving in Kirkintilloch until the early 1980's when it closed in 1984.

Bandstands included the North Embankment, Dartmouth, Devon; Victoria Park, Newbury, Berkshire; Handsworth Park in Birmingham; Locke Park in Barnsley, South Yorkshire; Hyde Park, Tameside; Victoria Park, Southport, Merseyside; Carmarthen Park, Carmarthen; Peel Park, Kirkintilloch in Lanarkshire; and Lewisvale Park, Musselburgh in Midlothian.


Of the English foundries that had any impact, Hill and Smith from Brierley Hill in the West Midlands were significant. Manufacturing bandstands in a number of parks, many still remain and include Hayes Town Hall Park, Middlesex; Abington Park, Northampton, Northamptonshire; Mary Stevens Park, Stourbridge, West Midlands; Victoria Park, Ilkeston, Derbyshire; Queen’s Park, Loughborough, Leicestershire; Saltwell Park, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear; Hordern Welfare Park, Hordern, Co. Durham; Congleton Park, Congleton, Cheshire; Victoria Park, Denton, Tameside; Sefton Park, Liverpool, Merseyside; Aberdare Public Park, Mid Glamorgan; Bedwelty Park, Tredegar, Gwent.

Despite the decline of the great foundries, which followed both the decline of our parks, seaside resorts and loss of bandstands, a small number of conservation specialists have evolved which have been at the centre of the revival of many of our parks in particular. These specialists have recreated many of the skills of these past foundries and have researched in detail many of the Victorian designs. Much of the Lion Foundry archives remain having been saved by the local librarian, but sadly much of the MacFarlane legacy was lost. What remains is valuable and is now used by these conservation specialists and local authorities in restoring and recreating many of the bandstands lost and sadly neglected for the latter part of the twentieth century.

(Extract from "Bandstands" by Paul Rabbitts, available from Shire Publications)