Party in the Park
5:30am Wednesday 9th July 2014 in By Barry Leighton
KING of the high-wire The Great Blondini, Molle Retza “Doll of the Air”, some bewildering antics with a revolving ladder, Cossack dancing, novelty skaters and a pair of rib-tickling equilibrists grandly billed as Europe’s foremost comedy balancing act, Reco and May.
No youngster living in or around Swindon in 1939 would want to miss out… not when freshly-baked cakes were handed out, the tea was free so long as you brought your own cup, the biggest fairground of the year had been assembled on your doorstep and some buckshee rides on the roundabout were thrown in.
It all finished with a dazzling, dramatic bang, or several, as assorted oohs and aahs accompanied the fireworks which lit up the dusky summery skies above the redbrick railway town.
It was a fun-crammed jamboree keenly anticipated weeks in advance by virtually the entire community and had been held in The Park – that big green gift to the people of Swindon by the Great Western Railway – for 70 years.
But any child of say ten years old who had a ball at Swindon’s Annual Juvenile Fete on Saturday, August 12, 1939 and was already relishing similar jollities the following year, was destined for disappointment.
They would have been 74 years old – their juvenile days a frayed and fading memory – by the time the once annual shingdig finally rolled around again in 2003.
War got in the way, as it often does, and when it was all over our victorious but financially-crippled nation was on its knees. Post war austerity kicked in. Organised fun, as well as food, was rationed. No-one in Swindon had the inclination or, more importantly, the cash to revive what was once by far the town’s biggest annual event. For the past decade the Juvenile Fete – or the Children’s Fete as it was alternatively known – has been staged at its place or origin, Faringdon Road Park, although it was put on hold last year.
But it is up and running again next week – Saturday, July 19 – as the organisers strive to resuscitate the vibe and atmosphere of traditional fetes of the past, right back to its Victorian and later Edwardian heydays when more than 30,000 people regularly squeezed onto “the people’s park”. “This is Swindon’s only historic event so it’s really special,” says 2014 organiser Hannah Parry, 30, whose mum Martha resurrected the fete after 64 years in 2003.
They are both trustees of the Mechanics Institution Trust. It was the committee of the now derelict GWR Mechanics that initiated the first Juvenile Fete in 1866, although some reports put it at 1868.
However you could say that it all began in 1844 when the fledgling Great Western Railway acquired a swathe of countryside from local bigwig Lt Col Thomas Villett as an unsullied area of recreation and relaxation for its workforce and their families.
They called it The Plantation – later Victoria Park and then The Park. It had a “village green” feel, initially with a cricket field before later additions including a pavilion, flower beds, bandstand, park keeper’s lodge, drinking fountain and glasshouses protected by nets from the effect of leather on willow.
In 1849 another Swindon institution that lasted more than a century was initiated when 500 railway workers set off on a day’s excursion to Oxford, courtesy of the GWR which laid on the trains for free.
So began The Trip, now firmly enshrined in Swindon folklore, whereby works families were transported without charge to destinations around the West – especially Weymouth which became Swindon-on-Sea – for their annual hols.
But in the harsh early climate of New Swindon some families could not afford to take advantage of free rail rides. So 148 years ago the Mechanics Institute organised the Juvenile Fete where under 14 year-olds were allowed in for nothing.
Fairground rides, swing-boats, Punch and Judy, coconut shies, clowns, fortune tellers, tightrope walkers, spinners of plates… all against the backdrop of a booming brass band. It pretty much had the lot.
Cake time was a regular and by all accounts scrumptious affair. At first buns were distributed to the children; later it was half-a-pound of fruit cake.
This was “carefully cut and wrapped beforehand by an army of adult female volunteers”, says historian/author Mark Child in The Swindon Book. In 1891 the ever inventive GWR concocted a typically innovative labour-saving device especially for the juvenile fete… a cake cutting machine.
The summer soiree peaked in 1904 when 38,000 people – more than three-quarters of Swindon’s population - piled through the park gates. Three-and-a-half tons of cake and 1,200 gallons of tea were cheerfully consumed.
Group photos of the thronged park became a popular mainstay. On a raised platform, state-of-the-art Brownie at the ready, Juvenile Fete photographers over the years captured some of Swindon’s finest crowd scenes from the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
Just look at their faces, lap up the fashions… the women in their flowery bonnets, the men in caps and straw boaters. They are positively beaming. These images are full of laughter and grins, with the occasional disgruntled tot tossed in. Everyone was togged up in their Sunday best… even though the fete always took place on a Saturday.
A few hours later the said images were displayed in a tent for purchase… yes, they could turn it around that quickly, even in the early 20th Century. “A fitting memento of a grand occasion,” observed historian Peter Sheldon in his book, Golden Lions and Silver Screens.
Hannah, a graphic designer with a focus on community related events says: “We are trying to bring in as many of the traditional attractions as we can. We are even arranging free cakes for the kids.”
Hopefully, the 2014 event will recapture the atmosphere of those sepia tinted days, although it is interesting to speculate how the Victorians would have reacted to the eclectic mix of rock‘n’roll, soundtracks, soul and acid jazz that will be provided at Saturday week’s fete by DJ Bobby the Persuader, fresh from Glastonbury.