26 August 1970: the Isle of Wight holds the UK’s biggest-ever music festival

Isle of Wight Festival 1970 © Getty Images
600,000 people turned up – making it the biggest ever festival to be held in the UK

These days, there’s a music festival every summer weekend on pretty much every spare plot of land from Thurso to Truro. Fresh-faced youngsters – or whole families, depending on the niche the festival is intended to fill – turn up with a bootful of freshly-bought equipment, and set up camp, or rent eco-friendly tipis with composting toilets and solar showers. They settle down for a sophisticated weekend of the latest tunes and, if they’re lucky, get a bit of a tan.

But things weren’t always so sanitised.

The Isle of Wight held its first counter-cultural music festival in 1968. 15,000 young people came to see Jefferson Airplane headline. In 1969, 150,000 flocked to witness Bob Dylan’s first live performance for three years.

But it is the 1970 festival that most people (well, most people over 40) think of when you mention the Isle of Wight Festival. 600,000 people came to watch The Doors, The Who, Joni Mitchell, and the undisputed star of the show, Jimi Hendrix, strut their stuff. So many turned up without a ticket that it effectively became a free festival, after the perimeter fence was demolished. It was a cultural phenomenon – not quite Woodstock, but not far off. The Isle of Wight Festival remains the biggest festival ever held in the UK.

Unfortunately, it was a victim of its own success. The retired colonels and yacht-club members that made up much of the island’s population weren’t impressed with the vast number of unwashed hippies swarming over from the mainland. So they decided to put a stop to it.

As a result of their objections, the Isle of Wight County Council Act 1971 was passed, which made it effectively illegal to hold gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without jumping through an inordinately stringent set of bureaucratic hoops. The restrictions it imposed killed off the festival for 30 years.

The festival was revived in 2002 (though it has no connection to the original), and has been held there every year since.

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