Llangollen International Eisteddfod – How it Started

The year 1946 saw the beginnings of the formation of the International Eisteddfod. It was barely a year since the end of the 1939- 1945 war, but even during that devastating period the germ of an idea to promote such a festival occurred to the man who must be considered the originator of the International Eisteddfod – Harold Tudor of Coedpoeth.

Harold Tudor spent some years with the Liverpool Daily Post, and then in a regional capacity with the British Council, based in Manchester. During this period he became involved from time to time with representatives of exiled governments, some of whom visited the National Eisteddfod of Wales gatherings. It was at the Eisteddfod held at Rhosllanerchrugog in August 1945, arising from comments by those representatives, that the idea which had been lurking in Harold Tudor’s mind for some time really began to take root.

He gave a lot of thought to the type of town which might be approached to promote a festival of this type, being anxious that any such town should not be misled by visions of profit from a substantial tourist trade influx. He eventually chose Llangollen because the beauty of the vale and its surrounding hills had been acclaimed by many distinguished writers and he knew that although it was a comparatively small community of some 3000 people, it had in earlier years staged the National Eisteddfod of Wales, and that the surrounding towns and villages were likely to come to its aid. He was advised to travel to Llangollen to talk to W.S. Gwynn Williams, a leading music figure in Wales, and in the National Eisteddfod in particular, who was also a music publisher.

Harold Tudor described the elaboration of his scheme into an independent international event and suggested that Llangollen would make a fine stage for such a festival. On subsequent visits to Gwynn Williams, he was able to say that the British Council’s Music Department would co-operate, and believed that overseas choirs would attend.

During the period of these meetings in the Spring of 1946 the first post-war elections for the Urban District Council of Llangollen had taken place for nine seats and at the top of the voting for the twenty two candidates emerged the name of G.H. Northing.

George Northing was a teacher at Llangollen Grammar School and was also an accomplished musician and organist. As the candidate receiving most votes in the election he was elected as Chairman of Llangollen U.D.C. and Harold Tudor and Gwynn Williams decided to discuss the proposed Festival with him.

The proposition was received with enthusiasm by Mr. Northing and he spent the next few days visiting individually his fellow councillors and winning their support. He was encouraged to call a public meeting and he therefore wrote to some hundred residents of the town, inviting them to attend a meeting on 24th May 1946 to discuss a projected scheme with members of the British Council – a scheme which might be very much in the interests of Llangollen.
It was in August 1946, under the chairmanship of Mr. Northing, there assembled in the Boardroom of Messrs. R. & G. Cuthbert Ltd. the first Executive Committee of the Eisteddfod which comprised the officers with the chairmen and secretaries of the five committees viz. Finance, Grounds, Hospitality, Music and Publicity. As was to be expected, Finance was the Committee’s first priority and pre- occupation but misgivings on this score were quickly dispelled by a ready and generous response to an appeal for guarantors against financial loss. Within a matter of weeks the Hon. Music Director produced his syllabus for the various competitions and the Hon. Publicity Director, through the good offices of the British Council, set in motion its distribution to various parts of I Europe and America. The first syllabus was confined to Choral, (Mixed, Female, Male and Children’s Choirs), Solo and Instrumental Competitions.

The work of the Executive and various committees proceeded inexorably on through the autumn and winter of 1946 – 47 and officers of the London Office of the British Council from time to time attended Executive Committee meetings, to assure the members that the venture was receiving their wholehearted moral support and that overseas public relations and publicity were proceeding satisfactorily. “Publicity” busied itself with local and national publicity; “Grounds” with securing and preparing a site, procuring a suitable marquee with the necessary seating, lighting, public address service and parking facilities; “Hospitality”, composed almost entirely of ladies, engaged itself in the prodigious task of visiting hundreds of householders in Llangollen itself and in an area several miles outside the town in an effort to find accommodation for the many hundreds of people, competitors and audience who, it was hoped, would be in attendance at the first International Eisteddfod. At last it would seem all preparations were completed, but in these extraordinary and unfamiliar circumstances, containing, as they did, so much that could only be hoped for and guessed at, it was riot surprising that as the opening date approached the initial cheerful optimism was often replaced by moments of gloom and doubt.

The one burning question in everyone’s mind was whether after all the preparatory work of the past months even one overseas choir would arrive and thereby justify the audacity of appending the word “International” in connection with an Eisteddfod. There was just no means of knowing. The organisation had, from the very beginning been built on faith but the last days of May and the early days of June, 1947 (the Eisteddfod was held from June 11th- 15th) which incidentally were days of torrential rain, were days of alternating hope and despair, feelings which were exacerbated by the declaration of a French railway strike just a week before the opening date. “Would they come?” was replaced by “How is it possible for them to come? . What unhappy days!

But come they did and by devious routes – some sang their way across France in order to pay for road transport, others hitchhiked, others unknown to us had organised their own coach transport. The first group to arrive hailed from Portugal and the full thrill of seeing a Portuguese coach wending its way down Llangollen’s main street could only be experienced by those fortunate people who happened to be on the street at the time and by the officials who had borne the pressures of doubt and anxiety of the preceding weeks.

Here was at least one European choir which, if it did nothing else, would justify the term International Musical Eisteddfod in a truly comprehensive sense and not, as had been feared, in the narrow sense that choirs would be limited to the nationalities which lay within the confines of the British Isles. Eventually forty overseas groups arrived representing fourteen different countries. They came from France, Spain, Hungary, Holland, Denmark and Sweden and were joined by various national groups from overseas who were domiciled in Great Britain. What relief!

What reward to those countless numbers of people who had thrown such boundless enthusiasm and tireless energy into the project and who, although occasionally showing signs of diminished trust, had never lost faith. To see and meet these overseas “strangers” was for some enough; but for others, to hear them was an experience which transcended their wildest dreams. Little wonder that even with the passage of years people who were privileged to be present at the first Eisteddfod still talk with ecstatic delight of such things as the masterly precision and musicianship of the Madrigalisti “Citta di Milano” and the weight, dignity and pulsating fervour of the Hungarian Workers Choir.

These are but two, but each and every group brought to the proceedings a degree of artistry and presentation that could be appreciated only by those fortunate people in attendance. Mere words can never capture the diversified atmosphere in all its nuances ranging as it did, from the mighty resonant tones of triumphant singing to the sweet fragile and the infinitely delicate mood of the Madrigal. Nor is it possible to describe the wide range of human emotions which were evoked. On occasion people were electrified by what they saw and heard and the mood bordered on the hysterical. Mostly competitors and audience alike laughed and smiled but there were also times when they became thoughtful and serious. Sometimes they were even moved to unabashed tears. That it was possible for such an event to take place at all in any place within two years of the end of world-wide hostilities was, to say the least, impressive but that it should occur on an improvised stage, in a canvas auditorium, erected on the Recreation Ground of a small, tranquil, picturesque town in North Wales was perhaps something of a minor miracle.


Reproduced from the book ‘Fifty Glorious Weeks 1947 – 1996’
ISBN 0 9528296 06 – Compiler and Art Editor Robert B. Attenburrow M.B.E
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