By: Victoria Yates
The founder of the Glastonbury Festival, Athelstan Joseph Michael Eavis, CBE, was born on the 17th of October, 1935 to a Methodist local preacher (his father) and a school teacher (his mother). He attended Wells Cathedral School until he was 15 when he left to join the Union-Castle Line, becoming a trainee midshipman as part of the British Merchant Navy. He spent these years largely sailing between Britain, Kenya, and South Africa. His plan to spend 20 years at sea and build up a pension to subsidize his farming career was cut short by the death of his father to cancer when Eavis was 19. He reluctantly agreed to take on the “150 acres of land, 60 cows, and an overdraft” (as is popularly reported). He eventually came to love the work, and the farm still produces 10,000 litres of milk a day. Around the time his father died Eavis married his first wife Ruth with whom he had three children. The couple divorced in 1964.
It was with Eavis’s second wife, Jean Hayball, that he experienced the event that would lead him to create Glastonbury. In 1969 they attended the Blues festival at the Bath and West Showground, where they saw Led Zeppelin. Eavis still recalls the moment that led to starting his first festival, stating, “something flashes down and you suddenly change. Bit like St.Paul; do you know what I mean? There’s a change of attitude, a change of purpose.” The couple hosted a free festival (the Pilton Festival) in 1970. Tyrannosaurus Rex headlined (later T-Rex). Stackridge and Al Stewart, amongst others, performed. About 1500 festival goers paid £1 for the privilege and they also received free milk from the farm.
In 1971 the second festival was held (called the Glastonbury Fayre) and it received worldwide attention. Performers included David Bowie, Traffic, Fairport Convention, Quintessence, and Melanie. It was at this event that an early ancestor of the Pyramid stage first appeared. Believers in the Fayre’s ideals, one of going against over-commercialization appearing in music events of the day, supported the festival and as a result entrance was free. The festival took a more encompassing approach, including music, dance, poetry, theatre, lights and spontaneous entertainment, and acts included David Bowie and Fairport Convention. The event was organized by Andrew Kerr and Arabella Churchill.
The festival didn’t return until 1978, known as the “impromptu festival” because it was the result of a group of travellers from Stonehenge who were led to believe a festival was taking place. A free mini festival did eventually take place and despite the lack of facilities and organization 500 people attended.
It wasn’t until 1981 that the name was changed from the Glastonbury Fayre to the Glastonbury Festival, and that year saw Eavis taking the helm once more to provide firm leadership for the event. This was the first festival to raise funds for the “Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.” This was also the festival at which a permanent Pyramid stage was created. It doubled as a cowshed and animal food store in the winter months.
The festival continued to grow and change, taking on its current title of “Glastonbury Festival for Contemporary Performing Arts” for the first time in 1990 as a tribute to the diversity of attractions offered. The charitable side of the festival shifted to Greenpeace and Oxfam in 1992 following the end of the cold war. Eavis felt that people’s concerns were shifting from the threat of nuclear war to issues concerning the environment. £250,000 was raised for the charities, which also included some local groups.
Despite the increasing popularity of the festival, Eavis contracted stomach cancer in 1994, calling that the ‘show go on’ despite his recovery. Eavis steered the expansion and improvement of the festival, with attendance topping 100,000 in 1998. In 1997 Eavis stood for the Wells Constituency in the General election as a Labour Party candidate. He polled a total of 10, 204 votes but still came third. His political allegiance changed when, in 2004, disillusioned by the Iraq War, he suggested that Labour voters switch theirs votes to the Green Party in protest.
In 1999 Eavis’s wife Jean sadly died from cancer. At the festival a winged wicker sculpture was ceremonially burnt in her honor, before a fireworks display. The year showed yet more variety available to attendees, with over 250 food stalls and over 300 bands. Eavis’s intelligent decisions meant that the festival continued to attract some of the most popular bands and performers each year. He also effectively responded to the problems of increasing popularity following the influx of gatecrashers seen in 2000. This was the same year that he met his third wife, Liz, at a medieval fancy dress party.
The Festival took 2001 as a year off to deal with the gatecrashers issue. They had been prosecuted for a breach of licensed attendance and fined £5,000 as well as a further fine of £1,000 for noise offences in one of the Festival’s car parks. The site underwent work to secure its perimeters (with The Fence) whilst a “virtual festival” was held on the website, showing archive footage and some live acts.
All in all the festival has continued its remarkable trajectory, with every year heralding a new, more successful Festival than previously seen. Tickets regularly sell out within hours and despite the reputation for mud and rain, it is an ongoing success story. After the serious flooding of 2005, over £750,000 was spent on “flood defences” which undoubtedly helped.
Eavis made a rare appearance on the Pyramid Stage in 2005 as part of the Make Poverty History Campaign, a year in which in total £1,350,000 was raised for charities and good causes.
Despite the reputation of ‘hippy like hedonism’ that pervades Glastonbury, Eavis himself remains a tee-total Methodist, attending Chapel every Sunday with his wife and, now 93 year old, mother who plays the organ. He claims himself to be “a bit puritanical” on issues concerning smoking, drugs and alcohol; upon seeing a group on Bath High Street drinking alcohol, his reaction was to wonder why they didn’t get out into the world and get a job. In Eavis’s own words “I’m a bit of a Puritan, but I do enjoy myself immensely. I have a hell of a time. I’ve got the best life anyone could possibly have. I’m not moaning. This whole Festival thing is better than alcohol, better than drugs. Its marvelous.”
Eavis has created and led what many view to be the pre-eminent music festival in Europe today, guiding it at every step to make it current, appealing, and ever more varied. He has also supported “good causes” throughout. To quote Wikipedia:
“After the huge number of tents left behind in 2007 the Festival devised its Love the Farm, Leave No Trace campaign which gently pushed revellers to respect the environment and clear up after themselves. The Festival had always pushed a green agenda and new initiatives in 2008 included biodegradable tent pegs handed out free to all campers and biotractors running on waste vegetable oil. These new efforts were rewarded with The Greener Festival Award for 2008.”
At the same time as leading the Festival with daughter Emily, Eavis balances life as a working farmer and an active advocate for good causes dealing with some of the greatest problems facing mankind today. He is a leader in a way that he never seems to have set out to become, being listed in the Time magazine 100 most influential people in the world in 2009, and receiving a CBE in the Queen’s 2007 birthday honors list.