On 14th August 1931 a committee was formed with the intention of beginning a musical festival in Darlington. The prime movers were the choir master and members of the Orpheus Male Voice Choir. The choir master, Mr E. Broadley, was elected chairman of the new committee. Most of the committee were choir members but during the following months more outsiders were co-opted onto it, including Mr E Roxburgh-Kelso, whose speciality was Elocution. The original name chosen was Darlington Eisteddfod, but after some advice was asked of Mr Deans Forster, chairman of Newcastle Musical Festival, the name was changed to Darlington Competitive Musical Festival, “it being considered for many reasons that the word Eisteddfod was unsuitable”. Perhaps this was because there had been eisteddfods organised in Middlesbrough and Stockton by the large colony of immigrant, Welsh-speaking steel-workers at the end of the nineteenth century, and the committee thought that the impression would be given that this was a Welsh organisation.
In the first Festival there were 278 entries in 18 classes. These were for Soprano, Contralto, Tenor and Bass or Baritone Solo, Boys and Girls Solo, Pianoforte Solo (3 classes), Mixed and Male Voice Choirs, Mixed and Male Voice Quartets, Vocal Duets, Brass Quartets, School Class Singing, and Elocution, Junior and Senior. Entry fees were one shilling (5p) for children and 1/6 (7p) for adult individuals. After 31 (!) committee meetings the first festival was finally held on 20th February 1932. Folk Dancing was introduced in the 1935 festival, and the number of classes was growing in the Music and Elocution sections. In 1935 there were 325 entries in Music and Elocution, and 75 entries in the new Folk Dancing section. The early festivals all seem to have been held at the Co-operative Hall in Priestgate, but then some were held at the Baths Hall, but by 1939 the Co-operative Hall was used exclusively. By then the festival was being held over three weekends in March, a tradition which was continued for many years.
In 1939, we find that the Elocution Section is now the Speech and Drama Section, and the original two classes have been expanded to include Choric Speech, Mime, Duologue, Sight Reading, all of which can be found amongst the present festival classes. Two classes we have lost from those early days are Period Costume Recital and Dialect Solo. That year there were 151 entries in the section. The Music Section now had additional classes for Violin Solo, Percussion Bands, Operatic Arias, Leider, Musical Competition and altogether 10 classes for Choirs, amounting to 405 entries altogether. In the Folk Dancing Section, then as now, were classes for Country Dances, Morris Dances, Morris Jig, Sword Dances and Kentucky Running Set. One class which has disappeared is Singing Games for under eight-year-olds. In 1939 there were 91 entries, all teams of course, apart from the Morris Jig.
Activities were suspended during the Second World War, and the Darlington Musical Festival was not resumed until 1947, when it re-commenced with increased entries and great enthusiasm. This hiatus accounts for the seven year difference between the number of Festivals we have had and the number of years we have been going. After the war venues changed, the 1947 festival being held in Victoria Road Methodist Schoolrooms and in Eastbourne Boys’ and Girls’ schools’ Halls. Folk Dancing entries were down that year, but entries in the other sections were up. With wartime economies still in force, printed copies of set pieces, particularly Music, were difficult to obtain, so more ‘own choice’ classes were introduced. By this time, the president of the festival was Lady Starmer (pictured left), a position which she held until her death. She was a generous benefactor of the festival for many years.
Throughout the fifties and sixties the festival continued, but by the seventies there were fewer entries in all sections, active participation in performing arts having been harmed by television. There was also a movement amongst some educationalists against any form of competition and a discouragement of the competitive spirit. Still the committee soldiered on under the chairmanship of Mrs Madge Andrew until her death in 1986. During the 1980′s the Speech and Drama Section grew again, and although we lost some good teachers of the subject in the area, there has been interest and entries from new teachers, and an increased entry from state schools, whereas at one time our entry was almost entirely from private schools and teachers. During these latter years we have tried a variety of venues, Polam Hall, Longfield School, the College of Technology, the Music Centre, Northland Methodist Church and Harrowgate Hill Methodist Church. All these venues had some drawback, those that were most suitable for our purpose becoming prohibitively expensive.
During the eighties we changed our name to the Darlington Music Festival, the recommendation coming from the Federation of Festivals, to whom we are affiliated, to play down the competitive aspect, although our classes remain hard fought and competitive. In the early festivals it is evident that most entrants were adults, but now there are not so many. There is still a healthy entry in the teenage classes, with very high standards being set, but we lose many entrants at adolescence, and almost all the rest when they go off to university. In 1996 the Music section ceased but, fortunately, Dr John Meffen offered his services as Music Secretary, and in March 2000 we were able to begin Music classes again, with a limited number of classes to begin with. In 2006 Trevor Daynes took over the Music Section and is building on Dr Meffen’s initial hard work. In July 2007 both Mrs Pat Buckle and Dr John Meffen retired from the Festival committee. Both have put in many hours of hard work to help make the Festival what it is today.
In September 2001 the Festival changed it’s name once again to The Darlington Festival for Performing Arts which encompasses all three disciplines in performance.
We have a lively and vibrant festival, under the presidency of the actor Mark Gatiss; the patronage of Julie Ward, Member of the European Parliament; and the chairmanship of Lynda Daynes. After many years of devoted work Wendy Acres stepped down as Speech & Drama co-ordinator to take on the less demanding role of S&D Trophy Secretary. Taking over as the S&D co-ordinator was Andrea Gardner.
Zoe Bellamy has rejuvenated the Dance section, attracting many dance competitors from throughout the North of England, from Northumberland down as far as Leicestershire and over to Manchester. We are a qualifying festival for All England Dance.
We have acquired a reputation as one of the friendliest festivals. Due to the hard work of the small committee, the word has spread amongst adjudicators that we are a festival worth coming to, and we hope we can keep up these standards for many years to come.