The Founder, William Ernest Fowler, was born in Bristol (St. Paul’s) in 1872. At the age of 14 he became the organist at The Pro Cathedral and, after ten years, moved to All Saints’ City, where he was organist for over 50 years. William later retired to Portishead where he died aged 82.
He founded the Bristol Eisteddfod in 1903 and it continued under his direction without a break even during two wars. In 1932 it was suggested that W. E. Fowler be given the Freedom of the City for his services to the arts and to Bristol. In 1934 he was the Honorary Representative in Bristol of the Royal Academy of Music and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music; also Honorary local Secretary of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM)
The Eisteddfod (Gathering) is a festival involving artistic competitions and Bristol is recorded as having an Eisteddfod in 1871/2 organised by the Bristol Welsh Literary and Musical Society. Fowler felt there should be an Eisteddfod in Bristol which was open to all-comers without distinction of nationality.
His first Eisteddfod, held in 1903 at the Victoria Rooms, had over 300 competitors from London, Bath, Cardiff, Bournemouth and Newport. The competitions included Piano, Violin, Choral, Organ, Vocal, Reading at sight for Vocalists and Military Band.
By 1914, the entries had reached over 2,000 and Railway vouchers were issued to choir winners to encourage entries. Folk Dancing, Morris Dancing, Morris Jig, Country and Sword Dancing was introduced with Cecil Sharpe (English Folk Dance & Song Society) as the Adjudicator. There was also a set vocal piece written especially for the Eisteddfod by Dr Alfred J Silver – ‘Snowdrops’.
The Victoria Rooms was taken over by the military in 1915 so the Eisteddfod moved across the road to the Royal West of England Fine Arts Academy. The Eisteddfod continued during WW1 but there were no concerts. By 1928 there were over 6000 performers which included 50 choirs and 900 Folk Dancers. The Royal West of England Academy, Bristol Music Club, Central Hall in Old Market, the Museum Lecture Theatre and Bristol Grammar School were also used from the 1920’s as numbers increased with competitors coming from all over England, Wales and even Scotland.
For many years two concerts were held in the Victoria Rooms at the end of the Eisteddfod and were very popular. These were often attended by The Lord Mayor and Sheriff. Madeline Bess Fowler, wife of the founder died in 1932. The following year the Bess Fowler Trophy was donated by the founder in memory of his wife who had done so much behind the scenes as secretary. It is engraved ‘Ars Longa Vita Brevis’ (Art is Long, Life is Short). It was awarded to the competitor reaching the highest standard of efficiency in the festival.
In 1935 the Victoria Rooms was badly damaged by fire so the Eisteddfod moved to the Colston Hall and other venues for two years, returning in 1937. Later the Bristol City Council took on the responsibility for running the Eisteddfod, but in the late 1990’s they ceased funding and around this time the dance section left the main umbrella of the Bristol Eisteddfod.
The Bristol Eisteddfod is now self-funding. The name was changed to The Bristol Festival of Music, Speech and Drama but it is still often referred to as The Bristol Eisteddfod.
The Bristol Eisteddfod has attracted some prominent adjudicators over the years including:-
– Sir Adrian Boult
– Sir (Dr) A. Herbert Brewer
– Dame Clara Butt
– Mr Thomas F. Dunhill
– Gustav Holst
– Dr Herbert Howells
– Mr Hubert Hunt
– John Ireland
– Hugh Roberton
– Cecil Sharp
– Sir Arthur Somervell