Leeds Festival and its Posh Predecessor

Ahead of the upcoming Music exhibition in 2020, Ellie Parmenter has uncovered an early predecessor to the Leeds Festival we know today.

During my placement at Abbey House Museum, I was tasked with helping research the upcoming 2020 exhibition based around music. My first step was to investigate arguably the most prominent Leeds music event since 1999: Leeds Festival, which has hosted some of the biggest names in rock, indie, hip hop and metal.

However, when searching through the object database I was amazed to find objects dating back to the 19th Century. This led me to the discovery that before Leeds Festival there was a Leeds Musical Festival, which catered for the classical music enthusiasts of the city between 1858 and 1985. Whereas the rock-stars of Metallica and Blur have torn up the stage at the modern Leeds Festival, the famous guest composers Dvorak and Elgar were the rock-stars at these occasions. Consequently, the parallels between objects from these two festivals provide insight into these two very different yet vital parts of Leeds’ music history.

On 7 September 1858, Queen Victoria opened Leeds Town Hall and was welcomed by the Leeds Festival Chorus in the first ever Leeds Musical Festival. Remnants of this occasion include the composer’s baton used by the festival’s conductor, William Sterndale Bennett.

On the other hand, a variety of objects from Leeds Festival offer a similar reminder of past performances. These range from a guitar string and tequila bottle left from the Guns N’ Roses 2010 headlining set to broken drumsticks from the band Surprise… Fire!’s performance in 2009.

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As well as music-related objects, it is evident that souvenirs from these events remain to be seen as vital acquisitions. These items include programmes and tickets from the first ever Leeds Musical Festival 1858 and the colourful line-up poster from the first Leeds Festival in 1999.

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Other than marketing material, another highlight is a Leeds Musical Festival photograph souvenir book from 1928, whereby the owner has lovingly collected the autographs of the musicians. This can be compared to an autographed drum skin signed by the members of Leeds local band Arthur Rigby and the Baskervylles in 2011. This object was kindly collected by student festival-goers recruited by Leeds Museums and Galleries and as a result, proves signatures are still deemed valuable collectibles.

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In addition, the photographs of these events show the comparison between the two festivals. For Leeds Musical Festival this includes a portrait of Helena Walker, a notable soprano singer who took part in the first Festival and a photograph of Herbert Bardgett, Chorus Master in the Festival between the 1940s and 1960s.

Also, in the collection there are a range of eclectic (and often entertaining) photographs depicting the modern Leeds Festival, including the 2009 performances of two Leeds based bands: Ellen and the Escapades and Pulled Apart By Horses. The latter image depicts someone falling on a speaker. Ouch!

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Despite the differences and century-long gap between their formations, these festivals are linked together through the museum’s collection. As a result, these objects represent the wide range of musical events and artists throughout history, proving Leeds has always had a diverse and energetic music scene.

By Ellie Parmenter, placement student.

Find out more about the social history collection here.

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