The history of Glastonbury Festival

In 2014, the V&A acquired guardianship of the Glastonbury Festival Archive. Glastonbury Festival located on Worthy Farm, Pilton, Somerset is the largest greenfield music and performing arts festival in the world. The archive shows how the Festival has developed exponentially over the past 50 years to become the global cultural phenomenon it is today. The Festival is a witness to decades of creative, social and political change in the UK and the archive reveals how Glastonbury has paved the way for the development of festival culture in the UK and overseas.

"When I set out on this crazy, hippy trip, little did I know that this roller coaster would run. But now I have to pinch myself every morning when I wake up to the excitement of another day heading up a team of the most creative artists anywhere in the world."

Michael Eavis, co-creator of the Glastonbury Festival, 2014

This eclectic and growing archive includes a range of material from across the Festival's diverse and creative performances. It includes posters, programmes, designs, interviews, film, photographs, correspondence, t-shirts, tickets and other memorabilia. Personal accounts, maps and documents trace the origins of the Festival, and document how it has grown from an audience of 1,500 in 1970 to over 200,000 in 2019, with millions of others watching live on the BBC or streaming performances online.

Press cuttings reveal the relationship of the Festival with the local community and backstage documents such as set lists, backstage passes and films provide information on the workings of the Festival, and its evolution. Supporting political action is at the heart of the Festival and this is documented through pamphlets and imagery.

The V&A continues to work with Glastonbury Festival to collect and archive material from each Festival.

Camping at Glastonbury Festival. © Matt Cardy

Festival origins

The first festival at Worthy Farm was called the Pilton Pop, Folk and Blues Festival and took place in late Summer 1970, opening the day after Jimi Hendrix died. It was attended by 1,500 people. Admission was £1, which included free camping and free milk. Audiences enjoyed performances by Marc Bolan's Tyrannosaurus Rex who played in place of the Kinks who were due to headline.

Ticket for the first festival, 1970. © Glastonbury Festival

Michael and Jean Eavis, festival co-founders, had been inspired by the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in Shepton Mallet, Somerset and by the success of the Isle of Wight Festival and Woodstock in the US the previous year, and decided to host a festival at the Eavis family dairy farm.

By 1971 the festival had been renamed The Glastonbury Fayre and the date was changed to coincide with summer solstice, an anniversary celebrated at nearby Stonehenge, home to the world-famous Neolithic monument. Key organisers now included Andrew Kerr and Arabella Churchill. The team drew up a manifesto which set out the environmental and spiritual focuses at the heart of the Festival's ethos.

Watercolour, 'Stonehenge', by John Constable, 1835, Salisbury, England. Museum no. 1629-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Festival founders saw the event as a place for the "expression of free-thinking people". In the same year, the first Pyramid Stage, a replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, was designed and built by Bill Harkin and crew out of scaffolding, expanded metal and plastic sheeting.

The first Pyramid stage at Glastonbury Festival, 1971. © Brian Walker

The location of this now iconic stage was determined by the Glastonbury Abbey and Stonehenge ley line, an invisible line that runs through the Vale of Avalon and is commonly believed by esoteric traditions to demarcate 'earth energies'. The founders acknowledged Glastonbury's 3,000 year history and its importance as a destination for pilgrims for centuries, captured by William Blake in his poem Jerusalem, later used as the words for Hubert Parry's 1916 hymn.

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England's mountains green

Colour relief etching, partially hand-coloured, by William Blake, plate 11 from the 'Jerusalem' series of prints created to accompany the poem of the same name, about 1804 – 20, Britain. Museum no. E.668-1899. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bowie and Quintessence performed on the first Pyramid Stage in 1971. The 1971 Festival was captured on film by Nick Roeg and David Putman in Glastonbury Fayre (1971). The film is a great record of the Festival and reveals how it attracted hippies who identified with the counterculture movements that emerged in the late sixties. Sadly it does not include Bowie's memorable performance.

Glastonbury Festival, 1970s. © Brian Walker

For the following years there were a few impromptu gatherings in the Worthy Farm fields with performances by Ginger Baker and Jimmy Page, but it was not until 1979 when the Glastonbury Fayre team decided to stage a three-day festival around the Year of the Child, led by Arabella Churchill and establishing her Children's World Charity. The festival was attended by 12,000 revellers paying £5 a ticket, with Peter Gabriel top of the bill.

Glastonbury Festival, 1970s. © Brian Walker

Battles in the 1980s

The Festival began to gather real momentum in the 1980s under Michael Eavis's guidance, establishing itself as a powerful voice for social and political change and for raising money for good causes. In 1981, proceeds went to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a partnership that continued up until the end of the Cold War. The Festival attracted activists who were campaigning against Margaret Thatcher's government and seeking a fairer society. This year also saw the second incarnation of the Pyramid Stage and the first festival licence issued by the Mendip District Council, who sought to regulate issues such as crowd numbers, water supply and hygiene.

In the 1980s Michael and Jean Eavis continued to battle with the local council to ensure the Festival could go ahead, successfully defending five prosecutions in 1984. They also overturned the council's decision to refuse a licence in May 1987, just before the Festival was about to open. As the Festival grew in size and reputation, it began to attract some of the biggest names in music at the time with performances by Van Morrison, the Boomtown Rats and The Cure. The Mutoid Waste Company, pioneers of art, performance and parties, also found their home at the Festival. However, despite its ongoing success, obtaining a festival licence each year continued to be a struggle for the organisers.

Glastonbury Festival poster, 1982. © Glastonbury Festival

From the mid to late 1980s, the physical site of the Festival continued to expand as travellers began to make the annual pilgrimage to the Festival. The year 1990 marked the Festival's 20th anniversary and adoption of its current title, Glastonbury Festival for the Contemporary Performing Arts. Michael Eavis had decided that describing it as a 'theatre festival' to the local council would help him obtain the licence. It also reflected the breadth of performance from theatre and circus to rock and pop. The ticket price was now £38 and the official capacity was 70,000.

Broadcasts and popularity

The Festival took another leap in its development in the early 1990s as it attracted the new wave of Britpop bands and became an important destination for the emerging dance and rave culture. In 1994 Oasis, Pulp, Blur and Radiohead all made their festival debuts as Glastonbury embraced the rising stars of the burgeoning British music industry. In the same year a new Pyramid Stage was hastily erected after the original stage was lost in an accidental fire just days before the Festival was due to start. This seminal festival year also saw Glastonbury's first television broadcast by Channel 4 – a significant moment in establishing the Festival's ongoing success and popularity (continued by the BBC from 1997). In 1998, TV audiences could join festival-goers in watching Tony Bennett take the stage on the new Sunday afternoon 'legends slot', reserved for established, well-loved artists, often from a different musical world to the more traditional Glastonbury fare.

The 90s saw the Festival programme continue to extend across multiple stages and areas, each bringing its own character and nurturing its own audience or festival tribe. Stages, including the Other Stage, Avalon, Jazz World Stage, Cabaret Acoustic Stage, and Dance Tent, offered a variety of line-ups, with areas like the Cinema field, Lost Vagueness and the popular Kidz Fields also taking shape.

Jean and Michael Eavis cheer from the Pyramid Stage, 1992. © Brian Walker

By 1999 the Festival had reached a capacity of 100,500, the ticket price was £83 and Coldplay made their first appearance. However, this year's Festival was also overshadowed by the death of its co-founder Jean Eavis. A winged wicker sculpture was ceremonially burned in her honour.

The fence and the next generation

The new millennium was marked by a new Pyramid Stage in 2000, baptised by former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. This year David Bowie performed, dressed in the same style of flowing coat he had worn for his last performance in 1971. The Festival was becoming increasingly popular and as a result faced serious security problems when the five-mile long perimeter fence failed to keep audiences out. In 2000, the official attendance was 100,000 but unofficially estimates were around 200,000, which prompted the building of a new fence in 2002 costing £1 million. In 2003, with the new fence and limited capacity, 100,000 festival tickets sold out for the first time in just 24 hours.

Pyramid Stage architectural drawings. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The noughties saw a shift in the vision for the Festival with conscious decisions to remove branding and sponsorship, and to encourage a range of global and vegetarian festival food. The artist Banksy also created several iconic and witty artworks across the Festival site, including fighting hippies on the Festival fence and a Stonehenge installation created from portaloos.

Michael and Jean's daughter, Emily Eavis with her husband Nick Dewey took a greater role in the Festival programming. The Festival map was expanding again as they experimented with new areas, encouraging creativity and innovation across the site through art installations and site-specific staging. They created The Park in 2006, with the landmark ribbon tower; brought in Block9 in 2007, who created extraordinary stage sets inspired by the New York drag scene; and introduced the Common and Unfairground areas. In 2008, Emily and Nick made the then controversial decision to invite Jay-Z to headline the Pyramid Stage. Traditional festival-goers who favoured rock bands were initially unsure about a hip-hop headliner, but his performance was a great success and changed the direction of future line-ups.

View of Park Stage and the Ribbon Tower. © Glastonbury Festival

The decade also saw the passing away of several key figures who were memorialised in various ways across the festival site: Joe Strummer is remembered in the area known as Strummerville; the New Tent was relaunched as the John Peel Stage in 2005 in his memory; and Bella's Bridge was built in 2010 in memory of Arabella Churchill. In 2010, for the Festival's 40th anniversary, 'Glastonbury' was spelt out Hollywood-style across the slopes of the Festival site.

Infrastructure and ideas

In the 2010s, the Festival continued to be hugely popular, with tickets selling out in less than 30 minutes, even before the music line-up had been announced. In 2019, the Festival capacity was 203,500, and required a temporary infrastructure with power, food and sanitation similar to a city the same size as Bath. In a matter of weeks, the Festival organisers transform the green fields of Worthy Farm into a festival town which becomes a 5-day home to the festival-goers.

Glastonbury Festival in numbers, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As well as attracting a range of global superstars from Kanye West to Adele, Beyoncé and the Rolling Stones, the Festival continues to showcase rising talent and emerging genres. London's Grime artists made their debut at the Festival in 2015, paving the way for Stormzy headlining the Pyramid Stage in 2019. Over recent years, the Shangri-La area has become an increasingly active interdisciplinary space at the Festival, inspiring the new generation of cultural revolutionaries and pioneering new trends that extend beyond the Festival.

Print, 'Something like that'. © Mobstr

Good causes

Glastonbury continues to be bigger than the music or the artists, thriving as a global platform for creativity, ideas and performance, across all disciplines. The Left Field, with its Tony Benn tower, is a stage for political debate and provides an active programme of talks and performances, and the Green Fields provide a space in which green politics and environmental issues are brought to the fore. In 2015, Glastonbury welcomed the Dalai Lama, and on Friday 24 June in 2016, festival-goers awoke to the news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union. Many artists responded to this shocking news in their sets, including PJ Harvey, who read out John Donne's poem No Man is an Island on the Other Stage. In 2019, Sir David Attenborough took to the Pyramid Stage to draw attention to Seven Worlds One Planet, a project that draws attention to the impact of Climate Change. This year also saw the Festival successfully remove all single use plastic bottles from the site.

Glastonbury Festival banners, 2014. © Jason Bryant

The Festival continues its philanthropic mission of donating its profits to three main charities: Greenpeace, Oxfam, and Water Aid, as well as supporting other worthwhile local causes, including social housing projects. Performing at Glastonbury is a rite of passage for many of the world's performers who identify with the Festival's ethos.

2020 is the 50th anniversary of Glastonbury and would have seen debuts by American performers Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift, and another phase of creative developments across the Festival site. Unfortunately, the Festival had to be cancelled due to the Coronavirus Pandemic but plans are underway for Glastonbury 2021.

The V&A is working with Glastonbury to document this unique history, and to create a digital archive which will provide for the first time the opportunity to trace its rich and diverse performances across stages, performers and decades. This project will also include the capture of memories by festival-goers.

Header image:

The Pyramid Stage, 1970s. © Brian Walker