Key woman behind Sidmouth folk festival dies at 90

Mrs Eileen Phelan - the woman who had the inspired idea of holding a folk festival at Sidmouth - pic

Mrs Eileen Phelan - the woman who had the inspired idea of holding a folk festival at Sidmouth - pictured in the early 1950s (right). Dancing with her are Jean Matthews (left) and Nibs Matthews (facing the camera). The Matthews held key positions in the first festival in 1955. Eileen died on July 6, 2013. She was 90. - Credit: Archant

EILEEN Phelan (née Brading) – the woman who had the inspired idea of holding a folk festival at Sidmouth – has died at the age of 90.

An important figure in what would later develop into Sidmouth FolkWeek, it’s possible that the annual event would not exist without Eileen’s initial input in the mid-1950s.

Eileen came from Portsmouth. After serving in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War Two, she joined the staff of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) and was sent to Devon.

Eileen ran dances at Tedbury’s Café in the Winter Gardens (now Carinas night club) in Sidmouth, and also worked with folk dance clubs in Salcombe Regis and Sidbury.

Driving a 1934 Austin Seven, she travelled around remote Devon country lanes with a record player and some old 78s, often returning to her lodgings after midnight.

In 1953 she married Peter Phelan. The couple settled in Sidmouth, where her husband had a job with WH Smith on Fore Street.

In 1954, while pregnant with her first child, Eileen was invited to a EFDSS staff conference. The society was seeking a new location for a summer festival, including dancing displays and the chance for the public to join in.

Most Read

Eileen suggested Sidmouth. Although there was concern about summer traffic, Eileen made some enquiries.

She received an enthusiastic response from the town clerk of Sidmouth Urban District Council and local councillors. Hotels and guest houses were also keen.

Following Eileen’s research, the first festival was born in 1955. Initially a folk dance festival, Nibs Matthews was in charge of the dancing, and Jean Matthews the music.

A year later Eileen and her family moved to London, and then to Buckinghamshire.

Eileen returned to Sidmouth in the late ’70s to lead festival workshops and call dances. A 1980 appearance led to a three-month residency teaching dance in North Carolina the following year. She continued to teach dance in the late 1980s, as a tutor for the Chiltern Folk Association.

Eileen died on Saturday, July 6, 2013.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter