The Bedfordshire Eisteddfod, as it was originally called, was inaugurated in 1921 and emerged from a competitive festival held a year earlier in the Bromham Road Wesleyan Church. The 1920 competitions were largely organised and supported by the Nonconformists of the town.
The late Dr H A Harding, F.R.C.O., L.R.A.M., was responsible for the promotion of the Festival. The first President was S. H. Whitbread Esq., C.B., J.P. (Lord Lieutentant). In the early days of the Festival, band competitions were held in the Drill Hall, Ashburnham Road. The first Final Concerts were held in the Town Hall and the Rink on the Embankment (now demolished). Other competitions were held in the old Working Men’s Institute, Harpur Street, now the Guildhouse, but the Corn Exchange complex has been the chief venue for the competitions since the inception of the Festival to the present day.
Dr Harding died on October 29th, 1930, at the age of 75, after a lifetime devoted to music. His death was a great loss but the lovely silver Harding Memorial Bowl, given in memory of the Doctor by his family, is the most coveted trophy for Choral Singing in the Festival.
Although by 1927 the Festival had become one of the largest in the country, 1929 entries had fallen a little but old programmes show that impromptu speeches and classes for blind readers were popular features. It was in 1932 that the word “Eisteddfod” was dropped. WWII temporarily stopped the Festival and in 1939 Bedford enjoyed its last Festival for 12 years and in this year the Hall of the Bedford Modern School (now the Harpur Centre) was used for the Final Concerts. Prior to this the Great Hall of Bedford School had been used for several years.
After the war, in 1950, there was a Public Meeting at the Town Hall to consider the revival of the Festival; The Festival was held during October in 1951, Festival of Britain Year. The next Festival was held in March, 1953.
Of the many trophies donated to the Festival over the years, one of the most interesting is a silver salver given by the former Town Council in 1966 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the granting of the Charter by King Henry II to the town. Since the Festival was restarted in 1951 the total number of trophies has grown from 28 to over 200.
The number of patrons over the years has fluctuated greatly from 40 in 1951 up to over 200 in the early 1980s and the current list of Friends of the Festival numbers under 100. However, the Corporate Friends of the Festival now numbers nearly 20.
A very worrying problem for the Festival in the 1970s was the provision of a good grand piano for the competitions. This was resolved when, after a public appeal which raised £4,000, a Steinway Concert Grand was purchased for the benefit of the town. The piano lives in the Corn Exchange and is still used to date.
Between the 1980s (when the Festival was known as “Bedfordshire Music Festival (Incorporating Verse, Speech and Drama)) and present day the Festival has undergone great changes and great uncertainty. Although the Festival is principally the same as that founded in 1921, the staging of the event is unrecognisable. In 1980 the records quote about 5,000 people taking part each year, another 4,000 attending as interested listeners and the annual cost in the region of £3,000. Today the competitors number around 2,000, audiences 1,000 and the annual cost closer to £33,000!
Although the Festival is a registered charity and is still run by a dedicated team of volunteers, it was agreed in 2007 that the time had come to appoint a paid Administrative Secretary to carry out the office work associated with the Festival, albeit without an actual office space.
One of the other most significant changes in the running of the Festival is the introduction of on-line entry system which has been quite revolutionary and ground-breaking among the Festival movement.
The Festival has played a big part in the history of the town and its residents. The Committee would be most grateful to receive any information or memories anyone may have of the Festival in order to enhance this document which may go some way towards creating a more formal publication in the future.