The Penge Festival is celebrating its 47th anniversary in June, 2019.
The idea of a Penge Festival was first mooted at a Penge Forum meeting in 1971. The idea was then followed up in 1972 with an inaugural meeting arranged by representatives from the Penge Churches Housing Association and the Groves Community Association.
A main impetus for the festival had been that too many local charities were putting on events on the same day, leading to unfortunate clashes. It was thought that establishing a festival week, where all could be accommodated, would solve the problem. Reverend John Travell, Chair of Penge Forum, became organiser of Penge Festival with Mrs Anne Bradley, his Secretary. The late Eric Hyam Turner was also a founding member.
The ongoing plans and discussions attracted much attention in the local Press. Beckenham Journal has several articles throughout 1972 chronicling the development: A Festival for Penge? on May 19th to a final Festival Plan to be Followed Up, on December 9th.
The first festival meeting was held at Melvin Hall. The festival would be staged the next year in 1973 and ‘it was envisaged that it would last for a week, during which time organisations would be responsible for one particular function. Ideas suggested included a five-a-side football match, and entertainment by local townswomen’s guilds’.
So much has happened and changed since 1973. People remember with affection the carnival with its colourful floats parading along the high street and turning into Croydon Road, followed by the bands and preceded by the majorettes. Even all breeds of dogs were dressed up with streamers, hats and ruffles and walked in procession with their owners. In the 1973 festival there was also an It’s a Knockout competition in Royston Field. An Art competition received 450 entries (anticipating the successful Art Trail, perhaps?). Penge has always had a great sense of fun.
In 1974, on Friday May 24th, Any Questions? was broadcast live from Kentwood School, Beckenham Road. A Saints and Sinners cricket match took place between clergy and local councillors in Royston Field.
Thanksgiving services have always been a feature of the festival. In 1974 it was held at the Penge Congregational Church. Walks and talks were prevalent from the beginning. There were guided walks through the ‘Open Spaces of Upper Norwood and its Surroundings’. Two walks took place, one led by Philip Daniel, the other by Councillor Chris Gaster. There was a Historical Evening at the Penge Baptist Church. Interesting that churches were involved as venues from the start and how talks on local history figured prominently in the festival programme.
Musical events were a popular feature over many years including bands and choirs from local schools. There was a Choir Festival at the former Christchurch in Franklin Road in 1974. A taste of theatre featured with the Westbee Players giving their variety concert with music and song at Anerley Town Hall. The Players had been founded in 1941 and toured Kent and Sussex villages with their entertainment shows. Jack Harrild was Musical Director and the Players had their own Stage Electrician, Steve Gill.
The Penge Proms began in 1988 and led to regular schools music festivals. In the mid eighties the English National Opera appeared at the Penge Congregational church with up-and-coming opera stars serenading us with arias from Carmen and Aida.
The roots of the festival as we know it was in these beginnings: the fete, talks and walks, theatre, music, art, fun and games… And always with an eye to contributing something to charity and making as many events as possible free of charge.
One week of events in 1973 has developed today into three weeks of various happenings and celebrations with ‘something for everyone’ and, as far as possible, the involvement of everyone. This 1986 video captures the community spirit:
Penge Festival 1986 video:
Raising money for charities was an essential aspect of the festival from the beginning and it always seems to have been run on a shoestring budget.
Celebrating Our Heritage
What has survived today, in 2020, is a sense of celebration and of a community having fun.
The festival is no longer organized by Penge Forum. For many years it has been organised by Penge Partners. For twenty-one years Councillor Mayor of Bromley, 2018) Kathy Bance MBE has been involved in planning the festival. Wendie Roche, Chair of Penge Partners from 2008-2017, did sterling work coordinating an ever-expanding programme of events. In 2015 Chris O’Shaughnessy (then Vice-Chair) liaised with the Bridge House Theatre to introduce nine theatre events; inaugurated an Art Trail with local artists; organised a Festival Poetry Competition and continued to promote the work of poet and novelist Walter de la Mare with walks and talks. On one of the walks three generations of the de la Mare family were represented.
Penge Festival video 2017
The grand fête still takes pride of place as an opening event, this year in Royston Field.
All manner of stalls, dance displays, Sea Cadets parades, fairground rides, locally-brewed beer tent, artwork, food, music and the involvement of local groups make it truly representative of Penge.
From 2015 festival banners, designed by Dominic Richards, adorned Penge High Street and a new logo accompanied all publicity. Celebrating Heritage became the by-word of the festival.
Walks and talks continued – a Heritage walk, a Cemetery walk, a Bat walk, an Ira Aldridge walk, Beating the Bounds, a Walter de la Mare walk and a lecture/recital. Links have been made with local historians Martin Spence and David Johnson who have given memorable talks on the history and heritage of Penge. Giles de la Mare, grand-son of Penge poet Walter de la Mare, supported the Penge Festival Poetry Competition and gave a fascinating talk on his famous grand-father. Victorian theatre specialist, Dr Hazel Waters, gave two excellent talks on African-American actor Ira Aldridge who was married in St John’s Church in 1865.
The Art Trail made a link with Penge’s artistic past and with the early art competitions. Music still formed an important part: at the fête, in the organ recital, the choir, and at the theatre.
The Bridge House Theatre, under the auspices of directors Guy Retallack, Rachel Tucker and theatre manager Rob Harris, continued the tradition of performance in Penge. Perhaps it took the place of carnival with its variety of events from West End Cabaret to new Drama, from Jazz Band to Comedy Night.
Music and dance also had their moment: the organ recital in Penge Congregational Church, dance displays, choir singing, reggae and orchestral performances in various venues.
Melvin Hall reminds us of its originating significance, where the first Penge Festival meeting was held in 1971, and the hall is used as a venue for festival events. A special Older People’s Network party is a highlight, as is a Quiz night with fish and chips, continuing the tradition of a festival quiz.
A Tour de Penge engages young and old in a cycle ride to Greenwich and back. Families took part in the Teddy Bears’ Picnic and in Library activities.
Tour de Penge video:
In 2018 the Penge Festival had, in addition to its usual variety of activities, celebrations of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and the centenary of the end of the First World war. There was a fascinating talk by historian Martin Spence giving accounts of the men and women who joined up and who gave their lives for our freedom. A premiere of a new play, The Strokes, by local dramatist Christopher O’Shaughnessy was directed by Guy Retallack and played to a full house at the Bridge House Theatre.
The opening festival fete was even more spectacular in 2018 with a family dog show, a petting farm, a number of fairground rides and a cornucopia of stalls in Royston Field. The weather was sunny and warm. Although still run on a shoe-string budget, generous sponsorship from local businesses and astute fund-raising activities maintain its remarkable success. The festival ran for three weeks from Saturday June 2nd to Sunday 24th June.
The 2019 Penge Festival maintained the tradition but without an official theatre input although BHT’s brilliant production of Twelfth Night overlapped the festival’s timescale. The fete in Royston Field was as enjoyable and as well-attended as ever with a second outing for the Dog Show, this year organised by Millie Knights who injected a much-needed freshness of approach into proceedings.
The glorious Art Trail showcasing Penge’s remarkable local talent was in its 5th year; the splendid Tour de Penge in its 12th year. Marilyn Nicholson once again organised a superb Organ Recital in Penge Congregational Church. Great to note that Dr William Wootten, editor of the forthcoming new edition of Walter de la Mare’s poems, joined us from Bristol University on the Walter de la Mare Walk. There was also a thought-provoking lecture by Martin Spence on Penge’s role in the First World War. Once again a festival hugely enjoyed by the Penge community.
The unexpected Covid 19 pandemic throughout 2020 led to the cancellation of that year’s Penge Festival. However, the 2021 Penge Festival began on Saturday August 7 and ended on Saturday August 28. The usual walks and talks, of which Dr Wootten’s Reading Walter de la Mare was a highlight, took place and of course the Penge Festival Fete was a resounding success.
The 50th Penge Festival did not disappoint: all the usual highlights over a glorious four weeks with, oddly, an overlap with the Bromley Arts Festival, so that some events were billed twice. As festivals are becoming generally more popular, this is likely to happen again. Already there is the simultaneous London Festival of Architecture scheduled for June 2023, Penge and Crystal Palace being chosen for the 2023 focus. Maybe this is why the 2023 51st Penge Festival will cover just three weeks, but we are looking forward to it anyway!
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