At the outset of this chapter concerning a hitherto unheard of and somewhat unusual use of the Common ground belonging to the Town and Manor of Hungerford, I feel that a short account of the circumstances leading up to this use must be mentioned.
The link between the Common ground and the Town Hall and Corn Exchange building situated in the High Street is possibly well known to the inhabitants of this town of ours, but to the reader and the passer-by would not necessarily be apparent. The present building was constructed on land purchased by the town and opened to the public in 1871, to replace a former building which had stood in the High Street for a considerable number of years, at a point not one hundred yards south of the present building, which presumably had outgrown its usefulness, not to mention the increasing amount of traffic that was beginning to use the High Street.
The new buildings consisted of a Town Hall and additional meeting rooms with a large Corn Exchange at the rear, plus the usual ancillary rooms such as a kitchen, toilets and so on. By the late 1960s and early 70s, the Corn Exchange had virtually become unused, as, not only had its original use become extinct, but the Saturday night Dances, and previously Roller Skating Sessions, had by this time ceased. Therefore the Trustees of Hungerford had on their hands, as it were, a large portion of the property which attracted no income, but still needed maintenance and expenditure just to keep the fabric together.
During the years leading up to this period, the finances of the Town and Manor as a whole had not been very sound, and even though its constitution provides for any additional finances over and above those needed to successfully manage any department within the Town and Manor to be firstly spent to maintain its Town Hall, this money had not been forthcoming.
It was at this time and realising that something had to be done one way or another that a Public Meeting was called under the chairmanship of the Constable of the day, Mr J. E. Pallett. The Writer, being a Trustee was present along with about sixty other persons at this Meeting held in the Town Hall. The Constable outlined the position as it stood at that moment in time and asked for any comments and suggestions. Various views were aired and even, to my horror, one worthy gentleman suggested that the whole building be demolished and the site sold for development.
Being incensed by this, as were many others, and also being aware of the unique position held by Hungerford, in owning its own Town Hall, free from any municipal body, I jumped to my feet and stated that it would be sacrilege to do such a thing and that the Town must possess a building worthy of itself, and in accepting the benefits of the gift of John of Gaunt, we must be prepared to accept those items which at first were not so appealing, but nevertheless formed part of our heritage~ I well remember going away from that meeting realising that I had put my foot in it, so to speak and that I must now do something constructive towards this project. It had been decided that, at all costs, the Corn Exchange must be saved and various money raising ideas were put forward. The first major step in this direction was soon taken, when a fellow Trustee, the late Clive Norman, proposed and formed a small committee, with himself as Chairman, to be known as the Town Hall Restoration Committee.
I became a member of the committee, and we then set about organising various fund raising events, most notable of these being the Hocktide Ball, which is still running to this day and which has been tremendously successful. The Tutti-wenches, a new innovation, was the direct result of this committee, and is now an added and colourful part of our Hocktide celebrations.
I realised, as I had known for a long time, that what was really needed, was for a large injection of capital to be made to the Town Hall buildings, which could be spent with no thought of any return on the capital sum involved, on a modernisation programme, before the cost of building work rose to such a degree that it would outstrip our money raising efforts.
The small sums that could be raised by such events as dances, bazaars, bingo, raffles and so on, whilst good and worthwhile in themselves, to my mind could not produce the finance that would be necessary in time.
My first step in this direction was to enquire of the remaining members of the old Hungerford Carnival Committee, which had not been held for a number of years, as to the amount, of money which could be raised by reviving this event. My path led me to Mr Ken Burroughs, who had been Treasurer of this Committee, and a person whom I felt more than any other could give me the facts of the matter. His words were not encouraging, and I well remember him saying "John, it will kill you, for with all your enthusiasm and efforts, the end result will not be worthwhile. You must organise something to which the public can be charged admission, as with a Carnival, you are dependent upon the amount of money collected during the procession, and this is invariably not as much as you would hope for".
This was what I had feared in one way and in another what I had hoped. For forming in my mind was an idea, quite new and revolutionary to the town, and I now had to sell the idea to the Trustees and make it work. The idea being to hold a Steam Engine Rally on the Common. Fired with enthusiasm and the support of my wife, I approached the Constable by this time, the late summer of 1969 - Mr EL Davis, who gave me his blessing, as he agreed that it was only right for the Trustees to use their own ground - the common - to raise money for their own cause.
At this time, the Constable was actively engaged in finding the necessary finance from the accounts to start on the restoration programme, as he felt, and rightly so, that something ought to be done to give a lead to the whole project and also for the 100th anniversary of the building of the Town Hall and Corn Exchange. He proposed to repair where necessary and completely clean the outside of the building.
This was finally achieved in the Spring of 1971 - if not a hundred years after the building was constructed, then at least in time for the hundredth anniversary of its opening. This was a bold step to take at that time but was just what was needed to spur others on to greater effort. I had many a hasty meeting with him, when the necessary financings of this were worked out in the street, on the back of an envelope.
Steam Engine Rallies had, by this time, become firmly established as an accepted part of the outdoor summer scene, providing not only an enjoyable day out for vast numbers of the public, but also worthwhile money-raisers for a large number of charities. The steam traction engine together with its numerous counterparts, had, since their demise from everyday use become increasingly items of interest, and, following the early races of Mr Arthur Napper of Appleford in 1950, had become most collectable. In the decade or so since those first races, a worldwide resurgence of interest had come about, and by this time a national body, the National Traction Engine Club, had become established as had many smaller clubs. With this revival had also come a renewed interest in all manner of former aspects of everyday life, such as early agricultural machinery, fairground riding machines, together with their fairground mechanical organs, early transport of all kinds from cart horses to cars and commercial vehicles.
It is the collecting together of many aspects of the afore-mentioned equipment, together with organised events for steam engines and other self-moving early transport items that constitutes a traditional Steam Engine Rally. It was this kind of event that I was Planning to provide on the Common, where hopefully many thousands of persons would willingly pay admission to see such a collection, there not being a rally of this kind held anywhere locally at this time of the year.
The next logical step in this direction was the formation of a Committee to become a separate sub-committee of the Town Hall Restoration Committee, and accountable to that body with reports of our actions being given at intervals by myself, the link, as it were, between the two bodies.
My choice of members of the organising committee was guided by two factors. Those persons who knew the contemporary scene, and those with access to equipment or professional expertise. The first committee consisted therefore of my wife, who could provide secretarial help, my brother-in-law, who knew the fairground fraternity, a lady who worked in the Highways Department of Berkshire C.C., the Town Crier, a gentleman who was Group Scout Leader, who in later years, through his invaluable help and dedication, became Chairman, an employee - soon to become Partner of a firm of Chartered Accountants, to act as Treasurer and his wife for secretarial work and as minute secretary. There you have it, a small working band of volunteers. It was decided that we should meet at my house at monthly intervals to start with and that more frequent meetings would be held as the event approached.
At the first meeting held, I outlined what I envisaged we·should aim at, and we decided from that moment on, and this we never changed through all the Rallies, that we would work as a secretariat, each following up his own ideas to their logical conclusion and then reporting back to the Committee, when a decision would be taken as to whether or not to include them in the event. This saved much Committee work and also any overlapping of ideas.
One major problem I felt, which was all too soon to vanish completely, was to get over to my fellow members of the Committee and especially those not au fait with steam rallies, exactly what I had in mind, regarding the scope of the event, its sheer size and complexity. As I remember telling them that with the greatest respect, we were not organising a Church Fete, but an event the size of which had not been seen in the town for a long time. I will always be eternally grateful to those around me at this time, that from the first meeting, their dedication to our task and enthusiasm was of the highest order, and now we were really set on our course.
Plans were made to hold our first Rally on that part of the Common Port Down known as the New Common, over the second weekend in June 1970. We chose that portion of the Common for various reasons, amongst which was the fact that it is basically square in shape and could be relatively easily fenced off to allow for admission charges to be made. It is also conveniently near the town for mains water and telephone line to reach the site. Also the nearness of a laid road for the large and heavy equipment to reach their locations on the site. How prophetic was this choice as you will see later.
It soon became evident, after our early meetings, that the scope of our enterprise and financial outlay was more than we dare to burden the existing Town Hall Restoration Committee with, and it was therefore decided to make a break away from that Committee and to become an entirely separate body, working with the same aim as our goal.
It was decided to approach the Trustees with this new idea and to ask from them a loan of £300 to serve as our float. To my surprise, this was granted, as it was expressed that the gamble must surely be worthwhile, as from the plans already formulated and put before them, they could see the care and thought that was going into the project must at least bring in enough to pay back the loan.
The choosing of the second weekend in June was not a haphazard affair, because I knew from experience that no rallies were being held in our area at this time of year, and therefore I would be able to entice some of my friends with steam engines to begin their tour of Rallies at Hungerford.
We now set about planning our show in earnest and our meetings became exciting, traumatic and, invariably long. Topics bandied about included: the hire of fencing, toilets, tents and marquees tables and chairs , caravans for Treasurer and Committee, Catering for both public and exhibitors, printing of posters , leaflets., handbills and programmes, provision of coal for engines., water for same, and the laying of a telephone line and water main onto the site.
Advertising hoardings were to be erected on every road into Hungerford, Souvenir programmes were to be provided for exhibitors, and also rosettes for some sections. An entrance was to be made to the site sufficient to carry the large loads of fairground equipment and steam engines and hundreds of other items that would be required. A public address system would be required as would stabling for horses and other equipment would be needed for both immediately before and after the event. All this besides advertisements in the local press and national preservation papers, without even a mention as yet of one single exhibit. All exhibits had to be contracted to appear, requiring the necessary letters of invitation, acceptance and confirmation, plan of site, times of arrival and exhibit number, meal tickets and so on. The reader, I'm sure will have gathered the tremendous amount of work required to put on this kind of event, and will probably wonder, as I did many times, whatever have we done in starting this?
As the dark days of winter gave way to spring, the pace was ever quickening, for by now, we were involved with getting advertisements for our Souvenir Programme, together with collating all the material which it would contain. Posters were printed and circulated, and car stickers advertising' the forthcoming attraction at Hungerford could be seen far and wide. The show was now taking shape and would include a local Schools Tent, and various other attractions, such as Bowling for a Pig, Aunt Sally, fancy Dress Competition and so on. This was a deliberate attempt by the Committee to encourage an active participation by other groups within the town, to let it be known that this was truly a town's event and that everyone must surely benefit from its success.
The proqramme for the two days of the Show was now nearly complete and would include sheep shearing demonstrations, a steam threshing display, a crafts tent, a model show, a horse-drawn steam fire engine giving a display of firefighting, a hot-air balloon ascent, which would include a postal service of souvenir postcards from the Rally field, a free-fall parachute display, traditional Morris Dancers, as well as a display by the Army. Even a Jamaican All-Steel Band was booked to appear. Together with as far as possible an Olde Tyme Fayre, featuring such items as "Galloping Horse Roundabout" and many old fashioned riding machines containing their original fairground mechanical organs, playing tunes of a bygone era.
Apart from all this, the show was to contain displays and events by steam engines, old farm tractors, heavy horses, old cars and commercial vehicles.
It was the Committee's decision and our guiding principle that a person should have an entire day's enjoyment without having to spend further money, once inside the entrance gate, unless he wished, and that the arena events should be continuous from 2.00 p.m. onwards until the show finished at 6.00 p.m. This I am sure was one of the main reasons that, over the years, we enjoyed such success - as we gave value for money to our supporters.
Still, at this late stage, we endeavoured to cram even more into our Show, and it was with this in mind that I tried to persuade British Rail to run a steam-hauled excursion train from both Paddington and Bristol to Hungerford over our Rally weekend. Knowing as I did that, given ample publicity, these trains would be full to capacity, which would at least increase our gate by a few hundred persons. British Rail gave the idea some considerable thought, and even though they were beginning to relax their ideas about steam-hauled excursion trains, their previous decision about finishing with steam power on the country's rail network had to stand.
It is interesting to note that we nearly did achieve this, in the fifth year after steam was banned from the railway. Also it was a good number of years after this that the Railways Board finally relaxed their rules and let steam power, once again, be used if only in a very limited way. At least we did achieve something - that being a leaflet distribution on every seat of every train that left both Paddington and Bristol over the weekend prior to our show, by way of advertising the event. We even had permission to decorate the station - this we did using long poles fixed to the facing with bunting attached. Unhappily, this had to be removed on the very morning of the Rally as the Railway Inspector felt that the colourful flags waving in the wind might confuse an engine driver and consequently cause an accident.
I also travelled to Gloucestershire more than once to try to fix up for a stage-coach with four-in-hand team to travel from the Royal Exchange at the Down Gate, across to the main entrance gate, by way of an added attraction, but all that came to nothing - as I said earlier - the way we worked in Committee, gave us a free rein providing that the return on the capital expenditure involved could be seen to be worth the gamble.
Not all these, seemingly good ideas came to fruition - but at least we tried.
With the coming of June, great activity was to be seen on the New Common every evening. Firstly the paling fencing was erected to form a showground, fencing off some 32 acres. Volunteers were appealed for and press-ganged into the fencing gang - whose only payment was a can or two of free beer at the close of an exhausting evening's work. During the days of the week leading up to this event, an air of great excitement gripped the town, and one could not help being conscious of the mounting anticipation that seemed to prevail. All eyes were on the weather and silent prayers were offered for a fine weekend.
By now, the High Street and Town Hall were decorated with bunting and all the shops featured appropriate window displays. On the Common, as the days ticked by, the fairground began to take shape, marquees and tents were erected, as was the arena. The site began to fill with early arrivals. Every evening, and most of our days, were now spent in last minute preparations, pegging out, making and erecting direction signs, the A.A. seeing to the main road traffic direction signs. The Police made frequent visits to the showground to ensure that all was ready for the weekend, and details were finalised as to how to control the expected crowds .
Through the town, at all times of day and night, trundled various machines, some steam propelled, some mounted on heavy lorries, and, at last, our first rally seemed all set.
Even at this late stage, the unexpected had to happen. A fairground man, who was booked to appear with his set of Steam Yachts - the only surviving ride of its type - had a lorry breakdown on his way from Somerset. We only heard of this at the last minute on Friday, the day before the show. Luckily, two local firms came to our rescue, as they and many others did throughout the years ahead. Two long low-loading lorries left Hungerford at 4.00 a.m. on Saturday and travelled to Shepton Mallet. They returned by mid -morning, bringing with them not only the ride but the owners living van as well.
Saturday 13th June, 1970 finally dawned with what was a lovely bright morning, and what a hectic morning we had with still many little details to iron out, but our hearts were light, as from the moment the crates were opened at 10.00 a.m. the spectators seemed to appear in ever increasing numbers.
The event was officially opened by Mr Arthur Napper of Appleford, the gentleman whose races mentioned briefly earlier, had started the movement, from which had sprung up these steam engine rallies.
The afternoon passed like lightning, and all around there was hustle and bustle. The various noises are what one remembers most - the sound of the steam engines chugging around the arena, the lovely tunes of the fairground organs, the excited laughter of children, and the sight of people thronging the ropes around the arena, taking in the sight of what we had tried to achieve - all those meetings and plans made what seemed like a lifetime ago.
Immediately the show finished, on the Saturday evening, the Committee gathered in the Treasurer's caravan to hear the story from his angle - what heartening news he had to tell, we had already cut even on our expenses and made a small profit - and we had the whole of Sunday to corne - What Joy.
Sunday followed much the same pattern as Saturday with even larger crowds, and surely this was the largest gathering of people on the Common since that time during the Second World War just prior to the D-Day landings when the then General Eisenhower had reviewed his troops. The afternoon's programme commenced with a short interdenominational church service conducted by the Vicar of Hungerford, assisted by the Methodist Minister and Catholic Priest. This took place adjacent to the fairground, with the clergy standing on the galloping-horse roundabout, and the music for the hymns being played on the fairground organ. This was extremely well received, and seemed a fitting start to the day's proceedings.
By the end of the Rally, with only the clearing up to see to the Committee felt satisfied, and I feel, justifiably proud of what had been achieved. The town was full of the weekend's happening and exciting stories were told. Visitors from far and wide had travelled to this little town of ours.
Now, all eyes were waiting to see what the local press made of our efforts. I well remember opening the local paper on Thursday morning and reading the headline "21,000 at Hungerford's Giant Two-Day Rally" - they had done us proud.
The profit made was distributed entirely with the exception of a small amount kept back to float our next year's rally - which surely had to follow everyone now being keen to carryon again. Firstly the £300 was paid back to the Trustees, and small donations were made to the various Benevolent Funds of Police, St. John's Ambulance, Fire Service, and some to national charities. The remainder, some £2,500 was donated to the Trustees to honour our pledge, to carry on with the restoration of the Town Hall.
So excited was the Constable of the Day, Mr E. L. Davis, that he instigated a major restoration programme of the Corn Exchange building, which involved new central heating, new fabric ceiling and total redecoration. This to be funded from the proceeds of the Rally and the existing Town Hall Restoration Committee's continued support.
After a lapse of a month or so, the Committee met again to start on planning our 1971 event, and this was the pattern that followed through all the seven years of the rallies that were held. Slight changes were made, both in Committee members - which was always kept to a minimum, and also to the show itself, which was not always blessed with fine weather.
Indeed, on more than one occasion, we toiled in atrocious weather to bring the show to a safe fruition, and were only saved by our Sunday attendance.
Nevertheless, the show grew steadily and became even more involved and complex, and also, I'm delighted to say, nationally renowned.
We had two breaks from our annual toil in 1975 and 1976, but put on a show again for the Jubilee celebrations of HM The Queen in 1977. This, like some many other events staged around the country, suffered from the weather, and so, we decided to stage our final event in 1978. This cost some £9,000 to stage, a long way removed from our initial outlay of £300 and was, without doubt, our finest effort. The cost of staging a show of this nature had risen to such a vast amount - and all was being gambled on the weather - so it was decided to call it a day, and give over all our reserves of cash to the Trustees of the Town and Manor of Hungerford, before even the building costs involved with the restoration of the High Street buildings outstripped our efforts at raising funds.
I am sure that the reader will appreciate the impossible task of trying to include in this chanter all of the many detailed facets of these shows; all its trials and heartaches, all the many friends we made, and they are many friends of this town of ours - not only individuals-but firms, without whose help, we could never have rnanaged. The many implements that were received ,and the few brickbats, but above all, the sense of achievement that we all felt. We had followed a long and often weary path since those first tentative steps, nine years and seven rallies earlier, and had learnt a great deal.
For myself; I had played one small part in what I hope will go down as a page in the history of this town that we love so much. I had also the unique honour of becoming Constable during one period of the Rallies from 1972 until 1974, and was, therefore, able to instigate and carry on the restoration work of the Town Hall and Corn Exchange.
Much remains of our efforts on the Common -besides the many conversations which take place amongst towns-people - a film was made and is often shown around the country - a chain of office for the Constable donated by the Rally Committee – but above all the buildings still stand, now playing, more than ever, their role of a central meeting place for all parties within the town. But our greatest reward for all to see after some £14,000 had been raised and donated to this cause must surely be a small brass plate affixed to the wall at the bottom of the stairs to the Town Hall, which reads:-
"THE RESTORATION OF THIS
BUILDING WAS LARGELY MADE
POSSIBLE BY THE SUCCESS OF THE
STEAM ENGINE RALLIES HELD ON
THE COMMON 1970 - 1978
With thanks to John Newton