Our History

Our History


In the late 19th century, choral singing was a popular social activity enjoyed by people from all walks of life and the choral competitions which started at this time were the nucleus from which music festivals grew. Much of this activity was curtailed during the Second World War, but as soon as the war was over people needed to reconstruct their minds and sensibilities, as well as their homes and factories. There was a feeling of cultural rebirth following the austerity of the war years and every encouragement was given to organisations trying to regenerate cultural activities. For example, the year 1947 saw the start of the Edinburgh International Festival as well as the first courses of the National Youth Orchestra. It was in this spirit that the Godalming Music Festival started. The 50th Festival was held in 1997 (51 years after its start since there was no Festival in 1952).


The idea of a music festival for Godalming was proposed by Mr Norman Askew, County Music Adviser, and those interested met on 15th March 1947 at The Priory in Church Street, Godalming, the home of Dr and Mrs Turner.

It may be of interest, especially to those who have lived in the area for some time, to record those who were present at this meeting. According to the minutes they were: Miss Cherry-Garrard, Dr Hunt, Mr Mills, Mr Arthur Trew (musical director of Godalming Operatic Society 1926-57), Mrs Ann Turner, Miss Susan Radcliffe, Mr Norman Askew, Mr Thomas Bayley (piano tuner to many in the area until the 1980s), Mrs John Smith, Miss Rose Keen, Dr Turner, Mrs Bellerby and Miss Mollie Vergette. Others, unable to attend but offering support, were: Miss Yates (secretary of the Surrey Federation of Women’s Institutes), Mr A.A. King, Rev F. Schofield, Mr John Wilson (Director of Music at Charterhouse 1947-1965), the Rev A. Studdert, Miss K.M Estridge and Mr Mitchell of Gomshall.

A committee was formed under the chairmanship of Dr R.H. Hunt, organist at Godalming Parish Church and music master at the Grammar School. Sir John Jarvis, the local MP, was elected as President and the first Festival took place in November 1947. This festival had the support of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who presented the certificates. He had been educated at Charterhouse and was a great musical inspiration in the area. He died in 1958 and was remembered with affection at the 1959 Festival, when massed choirs sang his ‘Let us now praise famous men’ at the Concert.

The adjudicator at the second Festival was Herbert Howells, and the certificates on Children’s Day were presented by Mr H.E.Haig-Brown. He was the 11th child of William Haig-Brown, headmaster of Charterhouse 1863 -1897. Mr Haig-Brown retired in 1941 as Chief Education Officer for Surrey. He lived in ‘The Croft’, Peperharow Road, and died in 1953. Mr Haig-Brown’s daughter, Hilda Haig-Brown, was well known as a stalwart helper in all sections and gave much time and enthusiasm to the planning of the 50th Festival Celebration. She was head teacher of a number of Surrey schools at the time of the early Festivals, retired to Godalming in 1972, and soon became a member of the Festival committee. Hilda Haig-Brown died in 2011 at the age of 99.


School Choirs

The early Festivals were rather different from those of today, not least because they only involved choir competitions, for both adults and children. The Children’s Days were originally run as a separate concern. The first school choir classes in 1947 were held at the Godalming County Grammar School in Tuesley Lane but in the 1950s they moved to the Borough Hall, where they were run as a non-competitive day, notably under the direction of Mr Heptinstall, headmaster of Godalming Church of England Primary School (in Moss Lane). Gradually the school choir classes joined the competitive Festival and the numbers involved grew so that since 1982 the school choir competition has been held in Charterhouse Chapel. In 1994 a non-competitive Schools’ Day was revived and now runs alongside the main Festival.

Adult Choirs

The Adult Choir Day was the main event in the first Festivals. The first half of the day was competitive, and in the afternoon the massed choirs rehearsed the songs together. Finally, a concert was given, including songs from choirs from each class, both individually and together, under the direction of the adjudicator. An important interlude was a performance by a solo professional singer – in 1959 this was John Noble, who lived in Chiddingfold and was educated at Godalming Grammar School. The concert finale featured the massed choirs singing rousing songs such as ‘Non Nobis Domine’ (Quilter), ‘I vow to Thee my Country’ (Holst) and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (Elgar). At first this event was held in November but in 1951 numbers had fallen from around 20 to only 12 choirs. The time of year was blamed, as there was a clash with a WI choir event and with the Woking Festival. The date was moved to the spring (at first in May, and then later in March), and so there was no Festival in 1952. By 1959 entries had risen to a record number of 29 choirs. In recent years the Adult Choirs section has had to be cancelled due to lack of a Secretary to run it.

Miss Christine Streeter (General Secretary 1955 – 1970) writes of her memory of the early days: ‘The Festival was dominated by the adult choir competitions, Vaughan Williams was the inspiration and his belief in competitors singing together after fierce competition was the cornerstone. Thus there was no ‘Own Choice’, all choir music was ‘set’. The competitions were in early May for two reasons: to avoid clashes with other local festivals and to accommodate the Godalming Operatic Society, who could only begin to rehearse for the Festival after their February show was over. I always contacted the Football Association to discover the date o-f the Cup Final for the -following year, so as not to distract male voices by colliding with it! The scale of that May choir Saturday was remarkable. It was an “occasion”. We always decorated the Hall and Court Room (where there was a running buffet throughout the day and evening) with as much lilac and apple and cherry blossom as we could muster – the whole atmosphere was dominated by May flowers. To put on a choir concert with the numbers and balance of voices being so uncertain was a nightmare – one could never relax until it was known who was staying, when they assembled on the stage at the end of their class for their ten-minute -rehearsal with the adjudicator as conductor. Usually more voices stayed than had originally committed themselves, being carried away by the joy of the occasion and not wanting to go home. But the excitement of cramming on to the stage, edging into a position where you could both see the conductor and get next to someone you knew singing your lines, was all part of it. I remember one adjudicator, in his speech to the audience at the end of the Concert, saying ‘It was a good party’ and that was what it was. We tried to involve the audience as much as we could: one year they were invited to bring their copies of ‘Messiah’ and join in the Hallelujah Chorus. ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ was a winner until one very influential committee member had severe qualms about jingoism, and we had to drop it!’

One can see why much committee time was occupied planning accommodation of choirs on a small stage, movement on and off the stage and making careful seating plans.

A rather amusing dispute arose concerning Rule 10 of the Festival: ‘No conductor may sing while he or she is conducting’ In the middle of the 1957 Festival, a competing WI Choir had asked if Rule 10 could be deleted because, say the Festival minutes, ‘(i) we were the only festival they knew that had it and (ii) human nature being what it is they found it very hard to keep.’ At this stage, somewhat obstinately, the committee decided to retain the rule! Then in July 1959 the committee agreed that conductors did sing automatically when leading their choirs and it was impossible to distinguish between singing and mouthing, and to disqualify the many offenders. It was agreed that a conductor could not deliberately sing a part loudly and conduct properly at the same time’. Rule 10 was deleted in 1960.

Very full press coverage was given to the 13th Festival in 1960, when the adjudicator was Kenneth Roberton, a member of Curwen’s the music publishers and son of Sir Hugh Roberton, the famous conductor of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. (Sir Hugh Roberton’s grandson, Ian Mclntyre, is currently chairman of the British Federation of Festivals to which Godalming Festival is affiliated). Mr Roberton pronounced the festival movement to be flourishing in Godalming. One anecdote concerned a well-known local singer Miss Jean Gaff, who took the solo part in both the entries from the Godalming Operatic Society and Guildford Musical Society Choirs. The adjudicator declared that ‘both soloists were really excellent’. When told that they were the same singer Mr Roberton remarked: ‘Ah, a quick transfer. How much was the fee?’ (Was this further evidence of an obsession with football at this time of year? Incidentally, in 1961 the secretary fixed the choir day for the end of April, to avoid the Cup Final, only to find that the date clashed with the Peperharow Point-to-Point!)


Providing a piano of sufficient calibre has always been a priority for any successful music festival and a grand piano was considered essential at Godalming. At the early committee meetings there was talk of arranging for an orchestra for the concert performances of the choirs, no doubt with experience of the Operatic Society in mind since Mr Trew, then the Operatic Society’s Musical Director, was being consulted. However, the committee decided there was not enough space in the hall for the choirs, let alone an orchestra, and set out to find a grand piano, as the Hall only contained an upright. One was hired from T. Andrews in the early years, but this was costly and so the Festival borrowed pianos from members of the committee to save money. There was a campaign in the press to persuade the Council to buy a grand piano for the Borough Hall: in 1959 the Surrey Advertiser headlines read ‘Urgent need for a Grand Piano – and the Hall is too small’. The Council relented and bought a baby grand in 1961 and so in the fifteenth Festival in 1962 a piano section was introduced.

That first year there were 47 piano entries, in 18 different classes over a range of ages. The Festival then ran for three days and was set for further expansion by the possible introduction of wind and string classes. However in 1963 the Borough Hall piano was criticised for sticking notes. For a few more years either Mrs Kathleen Dines (a piano teacher at Guildford High School and mother of Rosemary Dines & Margaret Clack) or Mrs Streeter lent another instrument. There was even a class for two pianos (from 1966 to 1974), for which the resident piano was presumably tolerated. Further pleas were made to improve the Borough Hall piano, but it was eventually accepted that there was not enough call for a first class instrument to justify the buying of a better one. Finally, as increased entries provided more resources, a piano was hired from T Andrews and Co.


String and wind sections were added in 1966, classes for speech and solo singing in 1968, and classes for recorders in 1970. With generous support from the Surrey Organists’ Association, organ classes were added in 1977, initially taking place in the Parish Church, moving in 1982 to Charterhouse Chapel and now, once more, in the Parish Church. Finally, and most recently, a dance section was added in 1991. The enthusiastic start of the Dance Section is still a very vivid memory. There were nearly 500 entries in its first year and this has since increased to over 1000. Some of the dancers are familiar with other sections of the Festival, but many are newcomers and it is pleasing to spread the benefits of the festival movement to another section of the local community in this way. The friendly atmosphere for which the Godalming Music Festival has been renowned since its beginnings has been retained in the Dance Section and must partly account for its popularity. The Speech Section too is currently enjoying an increase in popularity. There have been over 500 entries in speech and drama in each year since 1993. Numbers in musical sections have also held up well and so it looks as if the future of the Festival is assured. The competitions now last for three weeks, attracting around 2000 entries of all ages, in nearly 300 classes. It is a far cry from the two-day Festival from which it grew!


There was very little room for the audience at the early concerts since most of the competing choirs took part. The event was mainly for the benefit of the choirs, a culmination of the efforts of the day, with the added excitement of a professional soloist. When instrumental classes were started, an instrumentalist was often invited instead of a singer. Gradually more players from the new classes were used and the dominance of the choirs was reduced. Use of professional soloists was discontinued after the 1967 Festival, when soloists from the instrumental competitions in March joined the choirs for the concert on the Choir Day in May. (The first piano classes were in May, but were moved to March in 1964, though the Choir Day remained in May until 1973.) From the 1970 Festival a concert for all but the choir sections was held after the speech and instrumental sections in March, with just a few instrumental soloists performing in the choir concert in May. In 1973, for the first time, all the classes, choirs included, took place in March, in order to avoid a clash with the Aldershot Festival. At this time too the choirs ceased to take part in the Festival Concert, although the final unison song remained on the Schools Day. Also, since entries in the Speech Section had risen to around 200, a separate speech & drama concert was held, and this continued until 1994.


Many local figures stand out as giving vital support to the Festival in the early years. Also the long service given by many committee members has been important for continuity. For example, in the General Secretary’s report for the 21st Festival in 1968, Mrs Streeter had already served 20 years on the committee, Mr John Smith 19 years, and Miss Gilbert (Headmistress of the British School, later St Edmunds, in Bridge Street) 18 years.

Mr Gilbert Streeter was a public works contractor in the town and he and his family were enthusiastic amateur musicians. Both Mr and Mrs Streeter were very active in the Godalming Operatic Society from 1927-1970, Mr Streeter holding various posts from Secretary to President, Mrs Streeter being their accompanist for over 30 years. For the Festival, Mr Streeter helped with secretarial work, while his wife was Official Accompanist (1947-1969) and their daughter Miss Christine Streeter was General Secretary (1955 – 1970). The Streeter Trophy was given by the Festival in 1970 in recognition of the contribution of the Streeters to that first 20 years.

Mr Reginald Tracy, a well-known Elstead builder who conducted Elstead Congregational Church Choir, was an active committee member in the early years of the Festival. He erected the conductor’s rostrum for the adult choir competitions in the Borough Hall in the 1950s.

The Dolmetsch family have been an important part of the local musical scene for some years. Dr Carl Dolmetsch presented the certificates to the adult choirs in 1950 and joined the committee in 1954. His daughters Jeanne and Marguerite have been a popular choice as adjudicators of the recorder section, with Jeanne Dolmetsch adjudicating again in the 50th year.

David Stone was a master at Charterhouse in the 1950s and became a producer at the BBC in 1956. He was Musical Director of the Godalming Operatic Society 1958-62 and conducted their choir at the Festival in 1958. He was elected to the Festival committee in 1954 and organised soloists for festival concerts while working with the BBC. He was adjudicator for the first Instrumental Section in 1966, and again several times after this. He moved to Scotland in 1969, returning to Godalming and to our committee in the late 1980s. He has since adjudicated the composition class several times and we are delighted that he has accepted the position of Joint President.

When the festival began William Llewellyn was a master at Charterhouse and later Director of Music there. He was widely known in the 1950s as conductor of the Linden Singers. There were many with musical aspirations who came in contact with him and benefited from his advice. He enters the history of the Festival in many roles: as conductor of the Godalming Operatic Society choir, as conductor of Children’s Day, as Piano Section adjudicator in the first piano competitions in 1962, as committee member from 1963, and as Chairman from 1968 until 1984. His advice and support during those years were most valuable to the Festival, as they were to so many other organisations in the town.

Many Town Mayors have given support as Patrons (more recently called Friends). Often their admiration of the work they have seen when presenting the trophies at Festival concerts has inspired them to give a trophy: those given by former town mayors include the Tyreman Trophy, the Claxton Trophy, the Barbara Butters Cup, the Goodridge Trophy and the John Taylor Trophy. Peter Martin, mayor in 2005-6 presented a glass trophy for the newly formed small ensemble classes. In 2006 the first recipients were St Catherine’s School which delighted him as he became Chairman of Governors at the school in 2007. (He is also the husband of General Secretary Rachel Martin who took over from Julia Newman in 2000 and retired in 2019)

The Godalming Operatic Society (GOS), which had completed its 16th production when the Festival began in 1947, entered a successful choir for the early Festivals. The annual operatic productions and the Festival have always been regarded as special events in the Borough Hall calendar. Since both organisations draw from the same pool of musical enthusiasm, it will come as no surprise that many of the key figures in the 1950s were involved in both events. The Society’s Musical Director from 1926-57, Arthur Trew, a Charterhouse music master and well known ‘cellist, was involved in the first Festival and became a committee member. Successive Musical Directors of GOS have been important names in the Festival history: David Stone (Leader of the orchestra 1948-1956, MD 1958-62, William Llewellyn (MD 1963-68), George Draper (MD 1969-70) and Robin Wells (MD 1971 to present day). Of these, William Llewellyn and Robin Wells, both also Directors of Music at Charterhouse, have been long serving Chairmen of the Festival committee; George Draper, clarinettist and Head of Wind at Charterhouse, was soloist at the Children’s Day Concert in 1949, when the certificates were again presented by Vaughan Williams. Other evidence of a common purpose is easy to find: Geoffrey Ford, Head of Strings at Charterhouse and a strong supporter of the Festival Strings Section since its introduction in 1966 until the present day was the producer of GOS in 1965-68, and at other times a member of its orchestra; Ralph Truckle (see notes on The Ralph Truckle Trophy) played in the GOS orchestra from 1948 and was leader from 1957-1975; Gerald Bartlett was treasurer of both organisations, starting with GOS (1961-68) and moving to the Festival (1969-83). Secretaries of GOS have also influenced the Festival. Mrs Winifred Hart (Secretary GOS 1947-59) is commemorated in the trophy given to the Festival by Mr Streeter in 1969; Betty Moat, whose mother Mrs Helen Moat was a founder member of GOS and wardrobe mistress for 26 years, has been secretary of the Operatic Society since 1969. She has always supported the Festival, competing in singing and speech sections, helping with publicity, taking minutes at committee meetings and as a steward. Also, names of Festival Secretaries appear in the GOS annals: Eileen Skelton, Christine Streeter and Barbara Saunders (Simm). Other GOS members whose part in the Festival is mentioned elsewhere include Barbara Bartlett, Mrs John Smith, Dr R.H. Hunt, Mr S.C.Blunt. Jean Pratt (Gaff), who played GOS soprano leads for many years, competed in the Festival and acted as soloist in the accompaniment class, and Ellen Brown (Rowell) was accompanist and pillar of strength in both organisations after retiring to Godalming in the late ’60s.

Local businesses were also involved, often as members of participating choirs, or as Sponsors. Names which occur in early minutes and lists of Patrons include Craddocks, Skeltons, Andrews, Palmers, James, Paul Perry, Pitchers, Billings and Edmonds, Alan Paine, Mellersh, Lloyds Bank etc. Sponsors in more recent years have included local music shops (T. Andrews & Co., Albert’s Music Shop, Britten’s Music, Chamberlain Music, Record Corner Ltd.), Hamilton Barr Insurance Brokers, C.H. Wakelin, Inn on the Lake and Secretts Flower Shop. Special thanks are due to Mr R. Donn of T. Andrews & Co., who has for fifty years given personal attention to the provision of the high-quality piano for which the Godalming Music Festival has become well known. From 1966 to 1970 this was a Bechstein Grand but Mr Donn remembers using a new van to deliver a new Steinway when it was hired out for the first time, on trial, for the Choir Day in the 1970 Festival.


The cost of running the Festival, when high quality adjudicators are needed, several venues and a top quality piano have to be hired, not to mention the costs of printing and postage, has always been a topic of concern. Early Festivals ran at a loss, subsidised by the generosity of a few people. One problem was that the Borough Hall was not big enough to hold a very large paying audience as well as all the choirs. It was a cruel irony that if numbers of competing choirs rose, the space available for an audience fell and expenditure exceeded income. Thus a system of subscribing Patrons was introduced. This is succeeded by the ‘Friends of the Festival’ system in place today, and the income this generates cushions the finances against an unpredictable income arising from a variation in entry numbers. There was rejoicing after the 1951 Festival, when there was a credit of £3 in the bank, but by the 1964 Festival, when a loss of £3 was reported, the reserves had only increased to £12. It was pointed out that £10 could be saved by abandoning the piano competition, but fortunately this was not done! Instead, as at other times of financial difficulty, a Borough Council grant saved the situation. Since at that time it cost £25 (guineas actually) to hire a piano, one can see why pianos were borrowed from friends for a few years.By 1967 the finances were on a firmer footing and the increase in size of the Speech Section was important in maintaining this. There were further difficulties in the 1980s, when costs of hiring halls escalated. To avoid putting too much of this burden on the competitors, cake sales were run and, in 1989, a special concert raised over £500. The Festival nearly doubled in size when the Dance Section was added and entries in all sections have since kept up well. Grants from Waverley Borough Council and the Town Council have helped in difficult times and income from Friends and Sponsors ensures that entry fees can stay at a reasonable level. In the early 1950s it cost around £50 to run a Festival. It now costs over £25,500. This presents a great challenge but thanks to the enthusiastic support of today’s teachers, parents, sponsors, competitors and Friends, the Festival is now in a more healthy financial state and able to meet that challenge.


Competitive music festivals have an important role to play in education. For anyone to perform their piece of music, speech or dance in front of an audience and an expert adjudicator is a valuable experience. Vaughan Williams always emphasised that it was not only the winners who were important and the Godalming Music Festival – now the Godalming Performing Arts Festival – has always tried to keep that in mind. More children than ever before are taking lessons in music, speech and drama or dance, and arts education has become an important part of the school curriculum. The music festival movement provides a much needed platform for these children to gain experience and to build up their confidence. Adults too are catered for, with classes for all levels of experience, early experience in performing in public is especially important for future students of the performing arts, and many cup winners from Godalming have entered the profession. Also many of the past competitors in our Festival now teach locally and have sent their own pupils to compete.

In recent years the Festival has continued to grow. Musical Theatre classes were introduced in 2010. A Contemporary Section was introduced in 2015 which included amplified bands, solos, keyboard, and guitars, though it has not run recently. In 2019 the festival changed its name to the Godalming Performing Arts Festival to reflect its broad range of performances.

The Covid pandemic that began in February 2020 meant that the festival that was to be held up to March 2020 could not quite be completed. There was no live festival in 2021 but the committee managed to organise a virtual schools choir festival. Thirteen choirs from seven schools totalling 300 children were able to film themselves singing and the films were then viewed by an adjudicator. The adjudicator did not award marks but was able to make valuable comments on the performances.

The live festival will resume in February and March 2022. Sadly the committee of the festival has lost many of its members during the pandemic and consequent break in the festival. At the time of writing in October 2021 We have no Director for the festival .Nor do we have secretaries to run piano, strings, school choirs, adult choirs and contemporary music. However entries are already coming in or will be starting shortly for dance, organ, speech and drama, wind solos and ensembles. We look forward to a successful, if somewhat smaller, festival in 2022.

Julia Newman

Hon. General Secretary 1982 – 2000

Updated by Angus Palmer 2021