A Brief History of the Beckenham Festival
(extracts from “60 Years of the Beckenham Festival” by Helen M. Oliver. 1988)
In 1911 the Minister of Crescent Road Congregational Church, Beckenham set up a Church Guild and organised an annual Eisteddfod (as held in Wales) with classes in Music, Elocution, Arts and Crafts and Literature.
In 1921 the Church Guild called a conference at Christ Church to discuss the possibility of throwing open the event to all citizens of Beckenham. Local support was immediately forthcoming from, in particular, the Thornton family who owned the local bookshop and local paper, and from the organists of other local parish churches of St. George and Christ Church. The conference elected a Festival Council who met in January 1922 under the Presidency of Mr C. Elgood, Chairman of the Beckenham Urban District Council and included representatives from all sections of Beckenham’s community (the Council, Education Committee, clergy and organists from all parent churches, the Orchestral and Choral Society, Men’s Brotherhood, Art School, County School for Boys and Girls, Central School, all elementary schools and private schools. This impressive Council elected the first Beckenham Festival Committee, 13 in number, with Henry Lambie as Chairman and W.T Chard as Secretary.
Thus was born the first Beckenham Festival which took place in May 1922 and which has taken place every year since then, with the exception of a seven year period covering the 2nd World War. The subjects making up the first Festival were Music, Elocution and Literature, including one-act plays, and at a later date the return of Arts and Crafts for a few years. There were just 34 classes, 236 entries and 1 trophy for music in the first Festival, By 1928 the number of entries had risen to 1,000.
For many years the Festival was held in the Beckenham Public Hall, over a 7 day period (but excluding Sundays). The subjects of Arts and Crafts and Literature were replaced about 1930 by Drama and Stage Dancing. After the war the Festival grew in size and expanded into more halls and schools. The one-act plays decided to go it alone and for many years held a successful Drama Festival in the spring, although this was eventually discontinued.
The history of the Festival is studded with celebrities and many local notables look with pride and affection on their association with the Arts in their home town. A number of names stand out, notably an English teacher at the County School for Boys (later Beckenham Grammar School) - Tom Williams, who set questions for the radio series “Top of the Form”; Sydney Box, who became a famous film producer; Josephine Veasey (Opera singer), Carey Blyton and Margaret Judd (Composers), Pat Carroll (Pianist and Professor at the Royal College of Music), Maurice Denham (film actor), James Cossins (actor) and Beryl Grey and Antoinette Sibley (ballerinas).
Just after the war, Frank and Peggy Spencer brought their original Formation Dance Team to perform. This early link, many years later, culminated in the introduction of a Ballroom section into the Festival, which was run by Peggy Spencer, until in the 1980s, like the one-act plays, the Ballroom section decided to go it alone, though remaining affiliated to the Beckenham Festival.
Financial crises have not been unknown, but the Festival has survived, and due to careful budgeting over some years the finances are now quite stable. Its national reputation is increasing and it is now recognised by the Carnegie Trust as coming within the top flight of national Festivals.
The bond between the Festival and local authority has existed since the former’s foundation in 1922, because the President has also been the town’s senior citizen – initially the Chairman of the Beckenham Urban District Council, then the Mayor of Beckenham, and now the Mayor of Bromley.
The Beckenham Festival can rightly be regarded as a local institution, but it attracts competitors from all over the southeast. It is a registered charity and is affiliated to the British and International Federation of Festivals and the Bromley Arts Council. Several competitors have gone on to join the National Youth Orchestra, and to compete in (and even win!) the BBC Young Musician competition.
The Festival continues to grow and to embrace new ideas. In 1988, the Festival’s Diamond Jubilee year, there were 330 classes and between 2,500 and 3,000 entries. In the year 2000 there were over 500 classes, over 3,000 entries and nearly 200 trophies and awards to be won.
For some years now the Festival has adopted the principle of workshops conducted by the adjudicators, who are artists of national and international repute. There is an annual Musician of the Year competition. In 1991 there was a special event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart.
Links with other local organisations have been forged, and some cash prizes have been re-introduced. The Choirs competition, held in St George’s church on the final Saturday of the Festival, now attracts over 20 choirs of all ages and sizes from all over the South East.