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When the Fair came to Town - Recollections of a Berkshire Country Fair

From an article by Peter Wyatt (brother of Brenda Newton, who kindly offered the text, Oct 2018)

The month of October brings the season described by poets as “that of mellow fruitfulness”. It is also the season of Michaelmas fairs to which I have always had a high attraction, even from a very early age.

For the memories I have had to rely on stories handed down to me by family members, press cuttings and publications which have occurred only in recent years.

The post war memories are my own recollections, which unfortunately only lasted in Hungerford for a few years afterwards. due to traffic increase and council regulations.

Hungerford Fairs were originally established in this little Berkshire town by Royal charters in the Middle Ages. There were three animal fairs each year - on the last Wednesday in April for cattle; the last Wednesday in June for wool, and August 17th for sheep. All these were confirmed by a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century.

Probably due to the changes in the calendar in the 18th century, two fairs were then established annually on the Wednesday before October 11th (Old Michaelmas Day) and the Wednesday afterwards.

The "pleasure" fairs started in the 19th century:

In due course the first fair came to be a hiring fair when labourers and servants could be hired for a year’s labour with a new employer.

The second fair became a pleasure fair in the early 19th century.

Many itinerant showmen, pedlars and horse traders follow these fairs. Various other shows all started to make their appearance at this time becoming very popular with the local inhabitants.

In 1887 John Jennings purchased a set of three-a-breast horses, which was believed to be a dobby set, before being converted to galloping action later. This set came to Hungerford for many years until about 1930.

In 1893 the local press reported “that although a good crowd was attracted to the fair, there was more pleasure than business transacted, and there was one roundabout of galloping horses which seemed to secure a large amount of patronage”!

There were a few swing-boats, squirts, coconuts and the usual stalls, whilst shows attending included a boxing saloon, “Terry's crocodile from Egypt” and “Violetta the strongest jawed lady on earth”.

By the turn of the century the hiring fairs had ceased and both days were given over to pleasure fairs.

In 1903 Henry Jennings of Devizes had taken over the gallopers and vastly improved them by the addition of electric light, which was provided by the famous Wallis and Stevens showman’s engine “Royal John” purchased the same year. This engine was regarded as the most decorated engine in show land, being literally a mass of gold leaf scrolls and rising sun rays, all done to attract attention and encourage the public to spend their pennies on his attractions, which apparently rode to capacity at many events the firm attended. All the time “Royal John” was in Jennings’ ownership the engines had only one driver, the renowned Sid Willis senior. Apart from the gallopers all equipment was horse-drawn including the organ which was always pulled by a white horse.

When at Hungerford fairs, Mrs. Jennings would purchase a large quantity of fritters (a local delicacy) from the baker’s shop and fry them in butter in the open air for the gaff lads’ tees.
The “squirt” stall was always in evidence, where one could buy a bag of confetti and squirt for one old penny. After the fair tubes would be collected on refilled from a static rainwater tank at the rear of a public house ready for use at the next event - usually Marlborough mop.

Bill Webb's wife made delicious homemade sweets, boiling the sugar in copper pans and pulling it on a hook in the time-honoured way. Brandy snaps, humbugs and toffee apples were greatly sought after.

In 1908 a Boxing Show appeared at the fair, presenting a newcomer who was later to become Champion of All England. His name was Joe Beckett, who was only a lad just starting out on his career in the ring.

In the years before 1914 the fair really prospered, when it must be realised that in country areas there was no transport, nor cinemas nor any other form of entertainment. So the annual fairs were greatly looked forward to, people walking many miles from villages around to attend.

So great were the crowds attending Hungerford fairs in those years that overflow amusements were erected on other sites in addition to the streets.

Baker’s Hippodrome came with their amusements to the Croft and Symonds’ Fair occupied a meadow on the Bath Road.

At 11pm on the Wednesday evenings my grandmother would leave my grandfather to close up the business whilst she crossed the street and had the last ride on the horses, whilst the organ played the showmen’s anthem “God be with you till we meet again”.

Curtailed fairs during the First World War:

Curtailed fairs were held during the First World War but Jenning’s engines were engaged on His Majesty's Service so there were no rides present.

Fairs revived in 1919:

The fairs were revived in 1919, but in 1922 Henry Jennings sold the gallopers and “Royal John” to J & H Williams of Tadley and Newbury, who took over the existing rights, whilst almost every sort of show came to the fair at various time, including Chipperfield’s Animals Show, the Wall of Death, various Freak Shows and Boxing Academies. Another show then much in evidence was provided by “Darkie” Barrett who ran a KIE show with his wife and daughter Margaret, at many fairs in the area later running a smallholding until his death in the 1960s.

In 1933 there came another great change. The rights were taken over by R Edwards and Sons of Swindon who transformed the fair with provision of dodgems, Noah's Ark and other modern equipment.

Mr Robert Edwards senior had a great affection for the town having been born in a caravan at the fair on October 15th 1879 and on the occasion of his 70th birthday he claimed never to have missed attending the fair since then, and always made a point of looking up old friends and acquaintances when in town.

Edwards dispensed with their showman’s engines “Earl Kithener”, “Progress” and “Starlight” after 1936, going over to Armstrong-Saures and Scammells.

I can recall from this time also the toy stores where one could buy a Canary that whistled when swung on a stick, Fairy Dolls for the girls, Bats and Balls which were tied together with elastic and covered in glitter dust, all purchased for just a few pence.

All prizes on stalls were of good value such as china teapots, cups and saucers, tins of toffees, or glass vases and Willow Pattern tea services.

One of the early memories I have is of Jack Edwards’ Tilling Steevens lorry, which had had the bus body removed and a wooden box body fitted and was always “on the boil” when generating.

Also, Charlie Wells lorry ran a dynamo off the crankshaft, through a hole in the floor of the cab!

The 1930s also saw almost all showmen going over to mechanical transport, although two families continued to use horses until the outbreak of war in 1939.

During the 1930s a carnival was held annually in September, again with Messrs Edwards providing the amusements.

In 1938 for this event, they presented a new ride - the “Monte Carlo Speedway” in addition to “The Ark” and dodgems, the latter ride being so large that a tree had to be built around in the centre island.

This was the only time three rides were built up in the street but of course there was very little traffic in those days.

No fairs during the Second World War:

The fairs were not held during the war between revived in 1945 although never to their previous status.

The fairs were revived in 1945:

Only “The Ark” was the major ride, also Edwards bought the “Joy Cars” juvenile ride, “Arcade” and shooter.

Two spinners were always in evidence, those of G Frankhams Boadicea spinner and George Symonds “Airways” spinner, with the additional attraction of Sid Willis’s “Housey Housey” stall.

I recall the following showmen who came annually - Charley Webb, John Bunce, Sid Willis, Mrs. Voyle and her sons, Sam Smart, Jack Edwards, George Symonds and his family, Tubby Black, and of course the person I regard is one of my oldest friends in showland - Dolly Harris.

John Bunce’s wife Hilda provided toffee apples reputed to be the “best in the West”.

In 1953 the carnival was revived and then for several years R Edwards and Sons presented five rides on the Croft, an open space near the town centre.

The fairs ceased in 1965:

By 1953 the traffic was getting a problem and with no way around the main street, which is the main A338 Oxford to Salisbury road, the fairground gradually dwindled and ceased altogether in 1965.

Times change, and people have other interests, such as television, cars, sport and hobbies, but the above memories will always remain with me to remind me of those happier days when the fair came to town.

(With thanks to Peter Wyatt)

See also:

- Markets and Fairs