The 1971 Weeley Festival: T.Rex, Rod Stewart, Quo and 150,000 fans
PUBLISHED: 12:07 30 March 2017
It was the little village that, for one hot bank holiday weekend, hosted The Greatest Rock Event of The Year: the ‘Great British Woodstock’
The donkey derby and the chance to win a goldfish were a bit “yesterday”…
So for their next fund-raising showpiece, the go-ahead members of Clacton-on-Sea Round Table were dreaming big.
The Isle of Wight Festival had made its bow in 1968, and 1970 drew a massive crowd to the island to enjoy stars such as Jimi Hendrix and The Who. Could little Weeley (population 951) grab a piece of the action and raise money for 10 Clacton organisations and four national charities in the process?
It was a big challenge, not without risks and bumpy moments, but they brought names such as Marc Bolan and T.Rex, the Faces with Rod Stewart, and Status Quo to fields not far from the Essex “sunshine coast”.
It also brought an influx of about 130,000 music fans – perhaps as many as 150,000. And some headaches… Including some fights, fires and a disappointing financial return for the humongous effort put in by the team of enthusiastic amateurs.
But it’s earned legendary status in the minds of those who were there. More than 45 years on, the story is being celebrated by Ray Clark. It’s the subject of the BBC Essex presenter’s latest – and compelling – book. Ray, then 17, bought a ticket for the Weeley Festival and has remained fascinated. “Before embarking on a career in radio, my work took me through Weeley on a weekly timetable – quite literally, as I drove the bus through the village,” he tells us. “Gazing across the fields of Hall Farm continues to be an addictive sight and I still imagine the 150,000 people who temporarily moved into the area.”
News of the planned happening, The Weeley Festival of Progressive Music, had broken in the January. It was the dream of Clacton-based businessman Vic Speck, the 37-year-old chairman of the Round Table’s fundraising committee, says Ray. Well, initially a smaller dream…
The first idea was a festival for local bands in a field behind the Blacksmiths Arms in Little Clacton. But after landowner Roger Weeley was approached, and offered the use of his 32-acre site at Hall Farm (about three miles from the pub) free of charge, a bigger Plan B emerged. How about a mini Isle of Wight-type shindig, with through-the-night music by at least one famous group on the August bank holiday weekend? “The reaction within the village to the news was one of shock and disbelief,” Ray writes. Cue grumbles, and even a cancelling of the festival, with members of Round Table holding a mock funeral. And then it was on again. In March, the county council granted permission but limiting the attendance to 10,000.
Just as well, really, as Mungo Jerry had already been booked. He’d had a big hit the previous summer with In the Summertime.
With dreams of landing more big-names, and charities such as Save the Children and Shelter due to be among the beneficiaries, the organisers realised they needed expert help to bolster their enthusiasm and commitment. Vic Speck approached Colin King, who had been involved in organising events such as the Bath and Isle of Wight festivals.
The ball was rolling – particularly by the end of spring, with stories and ads appearing in the national music press, including Melody Maker. With no Isle of Wight Festival in 1971, Weeley stood out. Here’s a précis of some of the things that happened (drawn, of course, from Ray’s book):
* The construction team had to surround an area of 10 acres with a 6ft-high wooden fence, using more than 10,000 boards
* A mile of water pipe was laid
* A 100kw electricity substation was installed to power the stage
* The loos? Best not ask…
* There was still local anxiety a week before the event. A leaflet from a parish council sub-committee suggested villagers take precautions such as moving things like bicycles from the garden, and getting extra milk. That caught the eye of the national press. Ray writes: “Over the following days, the Weeley Festival would continue to be the subject of front-page news in every major daily and Sunday newspaper.”
* Music fans arrived, and camped, early. There was great concern, including from the police, about the fire risk. “Straw igloos” were built by festival-goers with loose straw left from the harvest. Ray says that on Friday, August 27 “there were at least five larger fires started and dealt with”. There was worse to come
* It was Clacton pensioner “Pop” Sherman who launched proceedings with an impromptu accordion recital, followed at midnight on Friday by Hackensack
* As night turned to day, Status Quo took to the stage. “Everyone credited us as breaking out at the Reading festival, but it was more to do with the Weeley festival…” said Quo’s Francis Rossi
* A police report talked of an estimated crowd of 100,000 by Saturday morning, which continued to rise
* Dehydration was a problem. And a team led by Clacton GP and Tabler Dr Dick Farrow treated people worse the wear for drugs
* There was trouble with some Hell’s Angels. There were fights on the site. Many motorcycles were badly damaged, and a number of Angels needed medical treatment, some for severe injuries
* Late on Saturday morning came the most dangerous incident, says Ray, with fire spreading through a large area of tinder-dry farmland. “It engulfed all before it at an alarming rate, tents, vehicles and even part of the festival village that was in its way.”
Festival-goer Tim Hillyar said: “An American girl in a very thin hippy dress was wandering around in tears. She had lost her tent, passport, tickets home and all her money in the fire. My friend gave her a couple of quid.”
* The festival came just a few days before Rod Stewart and the Faces released Maggie May. Stewart arrived by Rolls-Royce.
* Marc Bolan irked many by saying (perhaps tongue in cheek) he was a big star and they’d probably seen him on Top of the Pops. But a setlist that featured Ride A White Swan, Get It On and Hot Love went down well.
* The festival came to an end early on Monday and more than half the crowd had left by 9am, police reported. In all, 112 arrests had been made over the weekend
Ray says the Chief Constable stressed how well-behaved most festival-goers had been. But not everyone was happy. One letter of complaint read: “My daughter, myself and our dog have been made quite ill having to endure this continuous noise and having three consecutive nights without sleep.”
* Magistrates sat on the bank holiday Monday. Among the defendants dealt with were Hell’s Angels. Three were jailed that day for threatening behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace, writes Ray, and 26 others fined up to £35.
And then, that autumn, came a shock. Clacton Round Table revealed it hadn’t taken anything near the sum it had hoped. It seemed the sheer and unexpected weight of fans had proved overwhelming at the entrances. Ray’s book also mentions claims about forged tickets and other allegations. One Tabler is quoted as saying: “In the end I think we renegotiated some of the bills so we virtually broke even… as far as fundraising was concerned it was a part failure, but as far as an event for the locality was concerned, it was a success.”
The Chief Constable produced a report, sent to the Home Office, whose conclusions “would have a bearing on future events of a similar kind, including the huge pop festivals held today”, says Ray. One point was that no festival of such size should be allowed on an arable site without conditions to eliminate the danger of fire. “It is indeed fortunate that in this case no-one was burnt to death in the camping area,” said the officer. “The combination of tons of loose dry straw, oil and spirit stoves, open fires, plastic tents and a largely... irresponsible population crammed together was terrifying.”
Still, most people emerged unscathed, and had an adventure.
Ray quotes local journalist Mike Sams, who’d followed the story from the beginning: “Some people have said, ‘Oh, we’ll have another concert,’ but you just could not do it. Another festival wouldn’t have the atmosphere... It would be organised professionally… with Weeley, here was a little band of ‘unprofessionals’ who just wanted to do something different... it was the British Woodstock.”
* The Great British Woodstock: The Incredible Story of the Weeley Festival 1971 is published by The History Press at £16.99
The Greatest Rock Event of The Year
That’s what Melody Maker called the Weeley Festival bill when it saw names such as Marc Bolan and T.Rex, Rod Stewart and the Faces, King Crimson, Mott the Hoople, Status Quo, Barclay James Harvest (complete with 40-piece orchestra), Al Stewart, Van der Graaf Generator and Mungo Jerry.
A T.Rex in our bath
“My friend… came rushing up to see me, her old face a-beaming. ‘You’ll never believe this,’ she said. ‘T.Rex had a bath in my house.’ They came and asked if Marc could have a bath there. She got a pound,” remembered villager Ena Wade.
“My father, who was the baker then, didn’t go to bed all weekend. He stayed up for the whole three days, just baking, and the shop was open more or less twenty-four hours a day,” reported Weeley resident, baker and musician Hoss Selfe.
“He used to say he took a year’s takings in a weekend…”