History of Woolpit Festival
The Mill House Singers Ladies Choir was formed by Eileen Jones in 1972, meeting at the Mill House, Woolpit to sing together for pleasure and to partake in singing competitions. By 1975 the group had expanded to include men and juniors and public concerts were begun, usually in Woolpit, St Mary’s Church, the Institute building in the village centre or the old pavilion (pre Village Hall). Shows included “Swinging Sampson”, “Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo”, and excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. We all regard this as the beginnings of Woolpit Festival as we know it today and in 1976 a touring version of “The Mikado” was presented at some 10 local venues. Other memorable concerts included Handel’s “The Messiah”, Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”, and “The Requiem” by Gabriel Faure. Then in 1977 a Silver Jubillee Programme of Music was presented and enjoyed at local venues.
During this period “Woolpit Music Week” was instigated by Eileen Jones and as a result many well known artistes came to Woolpit to perform, including Jake Thackray, Iris Williams, James Blades, Robert Docker and a young Victoria Wood about to embark on a stellar career. Many of us fondly recall our Woolpit Church filled to overflowing for a memorable Julian Lloyd Webber concert. Having set the ball rolling Eileen Jones retired in 1987 and was succeeded briefly as Chairman by Ann-Marie Mlinaric with David Cordon taking on the combined roles of Chairman and Artistic Director the following year.
David Cordon introduced a radical change of style, including a name change from Woolpit Music Week to the Woolpit Festival, the formation of a supporters group, organised fundraising campaigns, staff (all unpaid local people) dress code, a bar for all events and the Festival’s own corporate logo. David undertook his dual duties for 10 years before passing the Chairman’s role on and concentrating on running the festival events. He did this for another 6 years, leaving the Festival in great shape, financially sound and one of the region’s foremost festivals. Among the artistes performing at Woolpit Festival during David’s time were The Academy of St Martins in the Fields, John Julius Norwich, Janet Suzman, Sylvia Sims, Moira Shearer, Ludovoc Kennedy, Jenny Agutter, The Allegri String Quartet, Cantabile, Richard Baker, Tim Pigott Smith, Frank Middlemas, Josephine Tewson and Anthony Hopkins. An impressive list for a small Suffolk village.
In 2002 Ray Melvin followed David Cordon as Festival Director to work alongside his wife Ros, who was already in place as Festival Chairman. They became a brilliant team, and were responsible for bringing some superb performers along to Woolpit, such as Pam Ayres, Rodney Bewes, Sir Jonathan Miller, the Locrian Ensemble and some of the Jazz Greats such as Terry Lightfoot, Kenny Ball and the Temperance 7. Ray retired as Director in 2008 to be followed by Lionel Denny and the following year Jenny Semmens assumed the role of Chairman to succeed Ros Melvin.
The next few years saw some terrific evenings and events including Jacqui Dankworth, Richard Digance, and a wonderful evening with the Chris Barber Big Band. The Festival worked hard to encourage new audiences and enjoyed some cabaret style events with Buddy Holly and the Beatles (not the real ones of course) but excellent Shows and full houses. Cinema in the Village Hall was reasonably successful for a while, mainly older Classic Films. Also films and events aimed at children were well received.
Lionel and Jenny worked as a team until the 2014 Festival by which time it was becoming clear that facing fierce competition and an ever busy Festival scene in Suffolk, another change of direction was appropriate. Nick Foster assumed the role of Chairman, working initially with Allan Weide as Festival Director. They emphasised more on regional and local talents which has been popular and an opportunity for several talented local artistes to perform at Woolpit Festival, as evidenced by reference to the website’s Archives link and this is seen as the way forward as well as moving the traditional June slot to successive weekends in October from 2019. Allan has since retired and Nick Foster has taken on Chairman and Director, much as David Cordon did. David was rewarded in the Queens 2004 New Year Honours list with an MBE for his services to Woolpit Festival.
Woolpit Festival is now a well established and popular event thanks to the hard work and efforts of the unpaid committee and many helpers from the village, the foresight of Eileen Jones back in 1975 and the skills and expertise of those officer’s mentioned above. It is known as a friendly, welcoming Festival, always well priced to encourage as wide an audience as possible. Long may this continue.