Lady Florence Duncombe and her husband Major A C Duncombe of Calwich Abbey near the village of Ellastone on the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border were active pillars of the community. Major Duncombe was JP for both Derbyshire and Staffordshire and formerly High Sheriff for Staffordshire. He was aided in all his ventures by his redoubtable wife and he was a very supportive husband in her enterprises.

In 1905 Lady Florence arranged the first Art Exhibition of the Calwich Abbey Amateur Art Society with Judges, also open to other competitors not members of the Society. It featured embroidery, paintings, carving and photography. There were in addition, special Artisan classes for high quality lace making, knitting, darning, embroidery etc. Expert judges were engaged for all sections including the likes of Mr C C Keene and Mr T H Thorpe for photography.

Fired up with the success of the Art Competition at Calwich Abbey and no doubt having seen the book produced by Mary Wakefield, Lady Florence Duncombe made enquiries about the possibility of forming a Festival. An inaugural meeting was called on Saturday 26 January 1908 at which Miss Egerton attended together with Dr McNaught. A well attended meeting was held in the Hall Hotel, Ashbourne to promote the idea of a competitive Festival. Rev Canon Morris, Vicar of St Oswald’s Church, Ashbourne was in the Chair. Miss Egerton, Dr McNaught and Lady Florence Duncome were on the platform. Miss Egerton and Dr McNaught in turn gave details on how the Festival competitions were run, Dr McNaught stressing the importance of advice from the Judges. After many questions successfully fielded by the guest speakers, Major Duncombe from the floor proposed “That an association be started in this neighbourhood called the Dove & Churnet Valleys Choral and Instrumental Competition. This was agreed to by the meeting. Long term they hoped to have instrumental as well as choral competitions. Lady Florence Duncombe was voted as President and the Chairman was to be Canon Morris. Sadly, Miss Egerton was to die in 1913.

Such was the enthusiasm of the founding Committee that the first Festival (one month after that year’s Calwich Abbey Art competition) took place on 9 April 1908. Despite the short time for organisation there were 900 competitors in choirs. The Festival was fortunate to engage the services of Dr McNaught as the adjudicator. After the vote of thanks at the end of the competitions by Lady Florence Duncombe the audience broke into applause and sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow”. This first competition, a Choirs only event, took place in a marquee in the grounds of the Hall Hotel, Ashbourne, there being a large audience for the competitors. At night there was a concert from some of the choirs, some choir members singing solo items, and a cello solo.

From this promising start the Dove & Churnet Festival continued to grow. 1909 saw the first visit of the Festival to Denstone College and the Dove & Churnet returned several times to Denstone but, as it was not central audiences could not be persuaded in large enough numbers to ensure that the Festival was both a musical and financial success. The losses in audience revenue hit the Festival finances.

The Town Halls at Ashbourne, Cheadle and Uttoxeter were all tried which are all in the Dove & Churnet Valleys, sometimes two venues in any one year, However, due to the continued success of the Festival which now also boasted a few instrumental items, these halls proved to be too small and larger venues were looked for in the vicinity. It was felt that a large building with space for an audience would hopefully ensure capacity for an audience as well as the competitors, the Festival could then be successful on all fronts.

The Dove & Churnet were so well organised that the Committee after the 1914 Festival had already booked the date and adjudicator for 1915 but, World War I intervened. From 1915 to 1919 the Festival did not run but some of the previously competing Choirs had run fund raisers for the war effort. After the War, in 1919 a public meeting was held to see whether there would be any interest in re-starting the Festival and they were able to do so in 1920.

1923 saw a new adventure for the Dove Churnet Festival. They tried Derby and performed in the Central Hall – a Hall in Derby Co-op, East Street. This was once a favourite concert venue in Derby but eventually taken back as offices by the Co-op. However, recently it has been restored by the shop who have tenanted that part of the building and the upper half of the former concert hall can be seen in their Men’s Department. The Festival ran on 12 and 13 April 1923.

The decision to try Derby paid off and the Committee held several meetings later that year resulting in the Festival becoming known as the Derbyshire and North Staffordshire Musical Festival by now running for up to four days. Local performing arts organisations were encouraged to send representatives to network with the Festival and the Committee acquired people on the arts scene in Derby. For the first time there were delegates to publicise in the region. Under the previous scheme regular competing choirs had sent a member to the Annual General Meeting of the Dove Churnet Festival.

Two of the large organisations who closely liaised with the newly named Festival were the LMS Railway Temperance Union Musical Festival and the Derby Free Church Musical Festival. By 1935 they had joined forces officially, the combined Festival now being called Derby, Derbyshire and North Staffordshire Musical Festival – Held at Derby.

The variety of classes had been extending over the years. A mainly choral competition by 1935 now embraced classes for Folk Dance, Vocal, Piano, Violin, Elocution (later Drama, Mime and Verse Speaking). By the following year the Festival was now running for two weeks.

From the early days of the Festival Lady Florence Duncombe had been aware of several music shops in both Burton and Derby which regularly advertised in the Ashbourne newspapers. In the issue of 7 August 1908 of The Ashbourne News there is a large box advert of Fould’s then of ‘Beethoven House’, Iron Gate, Derby for their twelfth Annual Clearance Sale of Pianos, Organs and Piano Players. It is not surprising then that Foulds’ Derby shop should become involved in the project when the Festival moved to Derby. The then Manager of the Derby shop was James Locke and both he and his wife, who in time became Director of Competitions, spearheaded the further expansion of the Festival together with their connections in the music, drama and arts world. Members of staff at the shop also helped in running the Festival.

During World War II the Festival did not run but after the War re-started, being re-named the Derby and Derbyshire Musical Festival. Mrs James Locke in her capacity as Director of Competitions brought much younger talent on board including her son, John Locke, and her daughter-in-law Mona Locke. The Foulds family themselves were involved in the Festival by now – Philip Foulds and his wife Jean. These four together with their friends and acquaintance moved the Festival forward.

1968 to date

Long Title

The Festival has never been afraid to change with the times. By 1968 the Festival was flourishing and probably for variety at its peak. It now ran for at least a month The classes were Art, Instrumental, English Folk Dancing, Junior Choirs, Vocal, Ballet, Speech and Drama, Scottish Dancing and Adult Choirs. Given the wide spread of disciplines covered it was felt appropriate that there be a change in name and in 1969 it became Derby Arts Festival – Competitive. In 1973, the sixty fifth anniversary of the start of the Festival, the name of the Festival changed again to its current name of Derby Arts Festival.

Some years ago, due to lack of support we ceased to run the English Folk Dancing and Scottish Dancing in their time well supported sections with section dancing parties at night. Also the Art Section has not run for a couple of years. However, on the other hand, the Ballet section is enormous attracting both large entries and audiences, which sadly is not always the case for other sections. In addition, the Section hosts the Derby heat of the Miss Dance competition which is a National competition – the latest of initiatives hosted by our Festival.

The Festival has always felt that it was there for the competitors to obtain good advice from the adjudicators, following the original precepts of the founders of the movement. The early motto of the Federation is still honoured in spirit :

Competitors are not rivals but comrades pacing one another on the road to perfection

The Festival organisers’ long term aim has always been to offer such opportunities to all those taking part.