History of the Hay Festival – In The Beginning

The world was very different when the first Hay Festival took place in 1988.  Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States, we had Thatcher and the arrival of the world wide web was still five years away.

In a sense the deep origins of the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts go back a bit further.  In 1961 Richard Booth opened Hay’s first secondhand bookshop in the town’s old fire station.  In 1965 he bought the local Cinema and turned that into a bookshop too.  The town of books was born.  In a few years Hay became home to over thirty second hand bookshops and one vendor of the new.

The Festival was conceived around a kitchen table at the home of actor and theatre manager Norman Florence,  his wife the actress Rhoda Lewis, and their 23 year old son Peter.  It is said that the original funding came from £100 won in a game of poker but Peter Florence has never either confirmed or denied the story.  Norman Florence had worked with Sam Wanamaker on the Globe project and had ambitions to create an event of national and global standing.  Rhoda Lewis wanted a party.  The character of the Hay Festival was born.

Among the artists at the first festival was the playwright Christopher Fry.  Norman and Peter had not long before commissioned and produced a musical version of his 1938 play ‘The Boy with a Cart’.   The following year Peter  persuaded American playwright Arthur Miller to be the star guest.  In discussions Miller famously asked what Hay-on-Wye was “is it some kind of sandwich?”  Nonetheless he came and was asked perhaps predictably about his former wife Marilyn Monroe.  Also there for the 1990 Festival, housed in a couple of marquees by the river, was author and poet Owen Sheers. He was then aged just 15 and was there to collect his £100 prize in a short story competition for young Welsh writers.  The organisers also secured the sponsorship of The Sunday Times that year, a major boost to the events credibility and a guarantee of the oxygen of publicity.

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