This history of the Society is largely a reproduction of the booklet which accompanied the Society's gramophone record which was issued in 1988. The first section (up to 1976) was written by Ida Davison and published in Northumbriana and is used by permission The later part was written by Steve Barwick. This history will be updated when time allows.
The present Society is the successor to the 'Northumbrian Small Pipes Society' which was started in December 1893, - "to encourage the art of playing the Northumbrian Small Pipes; to preserve the melodies peculiar to the English border, and to exhibit the musical pastimes of Sword Dancing, and the other traditional accompaniments of our Folk Music". They published their proceedings until 1897, and continued competitions till 1899, but soon afterwards dissolved.
Interest in Northumbrian pipe playing had waxed and waned for at least a hundred and fifty years before this. Thomas Bewick, the engraver, at the end of the eighteenth century, wrote to a friend: "At one time I was afraid that these old tunes, and this ancient instrument, might from neglect of encouragement get out of use, and I did everything in my power to prevent this and to revive it, by urging Peacock to teach pupils to become masters of this kind of music; and I flatter myself my efforts were not lost." John Peacock was a small pipes player, and the last of the Newcastle waits. It was he who persuaded the pipmaker John Dunn to make a set with four keys to it. He also produced a tune book.
The early part of the nineteenth century was dominated by the Reids of North Shields, (father and son) who were making beautiful sets of pipes with increasing number of keys, up to seventeen. These are still much sought after. However the number of players declined throughout the century.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century Dr. J. Collingwood Bruce, the antiquarian, gave a series of lectures on the pipes and pipe music, because of the fear that they would die out completely. He also (with John Stokoe) compiled the 'Northumbrian Minstrelsy', published by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1882.
After the break-up of the 'Northumbrian Small Pipes Society', piping was kept alive by the Duke of Northumberland, who still retained a piper in his service, and by families in which small pipe playing was a traditional art, e.g. the Cloughs of Newsham, and by players in districts where the love of pipe music had not given way to the attractions of more modern tunes and instruments.
About 1920, G.V.B. Charlton of the Hesleyside family, who had been a member of the previous Society, wrote many articles for the press, chiefly about the half-long pipes, which were then his main concern and particular interest. He also kept lists of pipers, and where sets of pipes were known to be. W.A. Cocks of Ryton also wrote articles and started a collection of bagpipes. He also made pipes.
These two, together with Edward Merrick, revived competitions; in Newcastle at the North of England Musical Tournament, and at agricultural and other shows in the county. James Spencer gave a silver cup to be competed for at the Bellingham Show (1921), and dies from which medals could be produced were given by many leading Northumbrian families.
The first meeting of the present Society was held on 5th October 1928. There were five people present, viz., Basil Alderson, William Miller, Vivian Fairbairn, William Kirton and Gilbert Askew. They had received three encouraging letters, from A. Shield, J.T. Dunn and J. Armstrong, and two apologies for absence, from J.K. Stanger and R. Douglas. This resolution was put before the meeting and accepted:
'Resolved that a Society be here and now formed for the purpose of encouraging pipe playing, and the composition and collection of pipe music, with particular reference to the Northumbrian pipes; the policy of the Society to be directed on such lines as to be most encouraging and stimulating to the younger generation of pipers and beginners in pipe playing.'
A set of rules was drawn up, and officers appointed. It was decided to ask the Duke of Northumberland to be Patron, and G. V. B. Charlton to be President. Both accepted. W.A. Cocks (small pipes) and James Robertson (half-longs) were elected technical advisers. J.K. Stanger- who was pipe-major for the Medical School OTC band of half-long pipes, became chairman, G.H. Askew secretary, B. Alderson assistant secretary, and the committee consisted of W. Kirton, W. Miller, V. Fairbairn and A. Shield.
They were an active group, led by G.H. Askew and meeting in each other's houses every fortnight. They distributed circulars to all known pipers and those interested in pipes, and enlisted the help of the Society of Antiquaries, who agreed to insert a notice in their proceedings. All the well-known names of pipers began to appear in the minutes of the Society; Tom Clough, W.A. Cocks, Jack Armstrong and many others.
Within six months, membership had grown considerably, arrangements had been made to hold meetings in the castle, and classes had been arranged for tuition on the half-long pipes for Grammar School OTC and Scout groups. These classes started at the castle in May 1929, with twenty pupils, but were discontinued in December 1930 because numbers had sadly deteriorated. Mr. Robertson presented a silver cup for the half-long class at competitions in Newcastle.
The Society also started a collection of music for a new tune book. Meetings started at the castle in April 1929, by kind permission of the Society of Antiquaries, and the first annual competition was held there in November. There were four classes: small pipes junior, small pipes senior, half-longs and Highland pipes. There were few entrants. The first Annual General Meeting was held there in January 1930, and the following Vice-Presidents were appointed: Miss Grace Gray (of Wark), James Hall (piper to the Duke), Anthony Charlton and T.W. Pigg. There were now 58 members. Fees were 2s. 6d (12.5p) for playing members, and 5s. (25p) for non-playing. There was a small surplus at the bank of £1 5s 6d. It was decided to send round a monthly circular of all piping news.
The President (G.V.B. Charlton) expressed great disappointment at the number of entrants to competitions both in Newcastle and at the country shows, and urged members to do something about it. This had some effect for at the second Newcastle competition there were six small pipes players and twelve on the half-longs. The Margaret Askew (mother of G. Askew) cup was presented for the senior small pipes competition. At the second annual meeting, K. Stanger resigned and R. R. Armstrong (father of Jack Armstrong) became chairman. There were now 90 members. Meetings were then held monthly.
It was decided to reprint the 'Instruction book for the Northumbrian Small-Pipes by J. W. Fenwick' first published by the earlier society. It was revised by W.A. Cooks and G. H. Askew. Mrs. Fenwick-Clennell provided the major portion of the funds required for this publication with a donation of £7.7.0d. One doesn't know how many copies this procured but, a little later, the Society bought the printer's remainders of 260 copies for £3! At the annual competitions in 1931, three members of the Clough family were prominent, Tom Clough being judge, Tom Clough junior winning the small pipes senior competition, and Henry (Tom's father) with his son and grandson giving a demonstration afterwards.