Looking back to one of the earliest Sidmouth Folk Festivals

morris dancers on ham 1957

morris dancers on ham 1957 - Credit: John Ankins

Historian Margaret Taylor writes for the Herald.

Margaret Taylor, Sidmouth historian

Margaret Taylor, Sidmouth historian - Credit: Margaret Taylor

It is August 1957. My keen amateur photographer father John Ankins snapped this view from Beatlands Road; the view was clear as the trees were smaller then! The Sidmouth Folk Festival was in its infancy, having begun two years ago in 1955.

The first Festival had about 100 people, and there was a Saturday evening get-together in the Girl Guide Hut and on the Sunday they met in the Manor Pavilion. The first Festival was a great success and the organisers and Festival goers were hoping that it would continue to be successful. It was – and this year will be the 68th Folk Festival.

The first Festival was held, as today, during the First Week in August. The organisers arranged hotel and boarding accomodation, and also ‘hoped to arrange camping facilities’. Many of the first Festival-goers were in their twenties; it was felt that the young people were children during the war and were now having the opportunity to gain a bit of independence and travel. It was also very popular with children and in later years the famous Hobby Horse Club was formed; and of course activities for children with continue in this year’s Festival.

The first dancers included Morris Men from Birmingham and Wiltshire. They needed to balance the sexes for the dancing and if single dancers were coming to the festival without a partner, they were paired up with another partner.

Two of the initial venues were The Connaught Gardens and The Ham. The Connaught Garden displays were held at 3.00 pm on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and on the Ham on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8.00 pm. These were the days before the Ham marquee and performances were held in the open air.

The Sidmouth Herald carried a brief report of the Festival, commenting that the Monday procession attracted, ‘one of the largest concourses of people seen in the town, even on a Bank Holiday’. The Festival increased in popularity and became an important fixture on the Folk Dancing Scene, and in 1968 it became the Sidmouth International Folk Festival.

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The photograph shows the 1957 Morris dancers on the Ham. The backdrop is very different though; in 1957 there were still cottages and industrial units on the area that is now a car park. The Gas Works had been recently demolished and moved to the new location at the Railway Station.

This information is taken from: The First Week in August; Fifty years of the Sidmouth Folk Festival, by Derek Schofield. This wonderful book is locally available.