OUR story begins, as so many York stories do, at the Rowntree works.

"It has been suggested," started an advert in the Cocoa Works Magazine, "that the formation of a brass band in the confines of the works would be welcomed by the many music enthusiasts within our midst. The project will have careful consideration if it is likely to have sufficient support to ensure its success."

That notice appeared in the June 1903 edition of the factory journal. Whoever came up with the idea clearly had the support of the Rowntrees. The family was always looking for leisure activities which would "improve" their workforce.

At that time, the factory boasted nearly 3,000 employees. Among them was Anthony Lickley, conductor of the Groves Wesleyan Band. He responded to the advert and, together with about three quarters of the Groves band, they formed the Cocoa Works Band.

In the subsequent 100 years, the band has undergone several name changes, and seen many talented players come and go.

But at least two original features remain in this, Nestl-Rowntree Band's centenary year. Its sponsor - the band is now supported through the factory's social fund - and the unalloyed enjoyment the members get from playing the distinctive Yorkshire sound that is brass band music.

The sponsorship has been vital. York is north of the brass heartland, home to such famous names as the Brighouse and Rastrick, Black Dyke and Grimethorpe Colliery bands, and it may not have survived, let alone prospered, without the extra support.

To get the Cocoa Works Band off the ground in 1903, Rowntree's provided nearly all the instruments. Some of them were nearly 50 years old, but that did not matter.

In the old days, a talented brass musician would often be given a job at Rowntree's purely to play in the band. Today, anyone can join and the contemporary line-up includes a doctor and a plumber.

Band members have always worn a uniform of the same two colours: burgundy and black. They have resisted a switch to brown even though it was soon known as the "chocolate band".

In the early days the band had no set place to rehearse. Members would find themselves practising in Rowntree factory corridors, in the fire station or the kitchens. Anywhere they could get together to play, they would.

For years, it was men only. A six-strong women's section started in 1936. But it wasn't until 1958 that the main band took on its first woman, Grace Pratt. A cornet player like her husband and fellow band member Ted, known as the singing postman, her son Mike is now in the band, playing euphonium.

The band played on through both world wars. In the later conflict, it was kept going as a quintet, featuring Johnny Sutton. The son of one of the band's founders, he went on to form dance orchestra The Modernaires.

As well as the music and camaraderie of brass bands, we should not forget the pride and the prizes. The Nestl-Rowntree Band has competed in many a battle for brass honours.

It scored an early success by being runner-up in the 1907 national competition at Crystal Palace.

However, it did not always do so well. At one contest the band performed a piece brilliantly, and left the stage buzzing, only to be disqualified for playing the wrong arrangement.

Arguably the band's greatest moment came in 2001, when it was promoted to the Championship section for the first time in its history.

"That's the Premiership for brass bands," said Sharon Lang, a cornet player in the Nestl-Rowntree Band who has spent the last eight months compiling its complete history. "If Black Dyke is the Manchester United, we're Manchester City."

Last year the band swept the board at the Hardraw Scar contest. No wonder it is in such a healthy state, with nearly 70 members in the concert, senior and beginners bands combined.

Down the years, the social side of the band has remained important. There was an annual dinner, whist drives and the "clod fund".

This was apparently named after an old term for a penny, the clod, which members would pay for a weekly raffle ticket, raising cash in the process.

You sense the fun and friendship involved. "It's more than just turn up, rehearse and go away," Sharon said. "It's a family."

Many families are involved in Nestl-Rowntree Band. There are sets of brothers - Ken and Denis Stamp are the latest of a "collection" of Stamps who have played down the years - there are fathers and sons, and Sharon and daughter Jenny are the first mother and daughter to perform in the band.

Together they are a class brass act.

The Nestl-Rowntree Band celebrates its centenary with a gala concert in York Theatre Royal on Wednesday May 28 at 7.30pm. Trombonist Nick Hudson and cornet player Roger Webster are the internationally renowned guest soloists. For tickets at £8 (concessions £5) ring (01904) 623568

Updated: 10:31 Monday, May 19, 2003