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A balanced performance the Christchurch Bicycle Band

Joan Woodward - 12/02/09


A brass band riding bicycles seems unlikely, but a photograph taken by J. N. Taylor in 1897 shows the Christchurch Bicycle Band started with two brothers, Joshua and Fred Painter, members of the Christchurch Bicycle Club in the 1880s.

Fred Painter's Bicycle Band in Deans Avenue, near Riccarton Road, 1897.
Fred Painter's Bicycle Band in Deans Avenue, near Riccarton Road, 1897.
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On their penny-farthing cycles, they took part in races which were more like endurance tests, such as the one to Hurunui and back -- 114 miles on solid tyres and unsurfaced roads. They toured to the West Coast by way of Arthur's Pass, taking a week for the trip, and also established a bicycle messenger service in the city in 1885.

Joshua was a champion, pedalling his "high bike" around the cinder track at what was then known as Lancaster Park, winning trophies and earning a reputation as a trick cyclist. Fred was an enthusiastic bandsman, a founder of the Christchurch Professional Brass Band in 1892. In 1895, he found an excellent way to advertise the Professional Band by combining both of his interests.

By then, cycles were being designed more in the style that we know them now, complete with the newly-invented pneumatic tyres and ball-bearings. Members of the band spent hours on the open ground of Barracks Square (later King Edward Barracks, now a car park, planned for commercial development). They practised mounting and dismounting in unison, pedalling and playing in formation.

They steered with one hand and played their instruments with the other, including the big drum which was slung from the handlebars. The side-drummer, however, required two hands; this problem was solved by using tandem, the drummer maintaining his equilibrium at the back while someone else rode at the front.

They cycled through the streets playing as they went -- one can imagine the effect of pot-holes and punctures on their pianissimo. There were also concerts in the Opera House, the bandsmen riding on the stage playing their music and doing figures-of-eight while their leader, Fred Painter, gave exhibitions of trick cycling.

Both bands were in popular demand at race meeting shows, and other public gatherings until the First World War brought them to an end in 1915.