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Waltzing on the Market: memories of Ilkeston Fair in the 1960s.

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Blog written by Max Biddulph

J. P. Collins Waltzer Top Market 1957

J. P. Collins and Sons Waltzer De Luxe, Ilkeston Market Place, October 1957.www.picturethepast.org (copyright uncertain

As the days shorten and September moves into October, Ilkestonians look forward to Ilkeston Charter Fair which, along with Oxford St Giles and Loughborough Fair, is unique in England as one of our few remaining great street fairs. This year’s event will be held between the 19th and 22 October, 2016, and will celebrate the 764th granting of the Charter by Henry III in 1252. As a young person growing up in the town in the 1960s, my memories of the fair in those days are multi-faceted, one of these being as a ‘rite of passage’ or key aspect of growing up. For some of my mates their ‘rite of passage’ was daring to swing the cars as Billy Williams Big Wheel rotated at full pelt, bracing themselves for the stomach-churning moment when you went over the top, eyes level with the roof of the Town Hall, then thrown back and feet swinging level with your chest. For me though, it was a more social kind of ‘rite’…how many people could be accommodated in one of the Waltzer cars on the Saturday night of the fair? Before coming to the answer let me trace the antecedents of this moment via the rituals of Ilkeston Fair back then.

Looking back the conversations in my family were peppered with discourses about the fair at this time of year. Early morning mist and spiders webs in the garden dripping with condensation would be met with observations about ‘fair weather’…’won’t be long now’. My Grandma told many stories about the Fair in the 1920s and 30s. She recalled Johnny Proctor and his great scenic ride the ‘Glittering Peacocks’ and the story of how her errant daughter when visiting the Lion Show, had succumbed to temptation when one the great beasts turned around in its cage and its tail momentarily protruded through the bars. The prospect of such a tantalising invitation was too much for a little girl and of course she tugged it. Neither the lion, or the show proprietor or my Grandma were very amused. Grandma could also recite the formula for ascertaining the timing of the fair ‘first Thursday after the first Sunday following the 11th October’. Thus the event was firmly cemented in our minds.

Coming back to the Waltzer and my rite of passage, casual observers on Ilkeston Market Place of the time may have been unaware that we were graced by one of the most historic and technically significant Waltzers ever to travel England at that time. It was travelled by James Patrick (J.P.) Collins and Sons who were tenants of Pat. Collins, the leasees of the ‘Top Market’ ground as it was referred by showmen. Its annual tour took it from its winter quarters in Wrexham to the fairgrounds of Lancashire, Birmingham and the Black Country before appearing in the East Midlands for the ‘back end run’ for Ashby Statutes, Burton Statutes, Nottingham Goose fair and finally Ilkeston.

Although the ‘Tilt-a-Whirl’ had a appeared in the USA previously, the origins of the Waltzer as a ride on the British fairground go back to the 1930s when Charles Thurston, the great showman of England’s eastern counties in conjunction of R. J. Lakin, ‘roundabout and scenic railway builders of Streatham’, London took out a joint patent in 1933. The Thurston-Lakin patent masks the fact that the manufacturing was actually done as a partnership between Lakins and the Musselburgh-based firm of Maxwell’s who in turn contracted out the heavy engineering on the ride to Morrison’s of Leith. This Anglo-Scottish partnership produced a complex, sophisticated and scrupulously engineered ride for its time, enabling it to be assembled and dismantled many times over, rendering full mobility.

Thus, this Waltzer, the very first machine to be made in the UK, first opened for business at Bush Hill Park, Enfield on 28th July 1933. It was travelled by Charles Thurston until 1939 but remained out of action during the 2nd World War before being sold to J.P. Collins. The 1950s and 60s were its hey- day and both the ride and transport were immaculately turned out by J.P. During the 1950s the ride had been transported by a fleet of prime movers and trailers but this was rationalised in the 1960s to form a convoy of three loads. A six wheel Foden flat lorry carrying the platforms towed the ride centre, an eight wheel Leyland box lorry towed the truck carrying the cars and finally a Mack tractor towed the magnificent 30’ Orton and Spooner living wagon and 2nd caravan. In common with other British Showman, Collins’ had taken advantage of the pool of surplus military transport at the end of the war and the Mack was transformed from it’s military camouflage into its fairground livery of crimson lake (the traditional showman’s maroon) with cream and gold lettering.

Given the strict requirements controlling the movement of vehicles for the Charter Fair, the Waltzer convoy came into town in a series of stages. The first holding point where all the transport assembled was Furnace Road at Gallows Inn on the Sunday before the Fair. On the following day the loads carrying ride transferred to West End Drive the final holding point before the 7am pull on to Ilkeston Market Place on the Tuesday. As a pupil at Kensington School at the time, I can vividly remember the sound of J.P’s transport labouring up Nottingham Road. It was instantly recognisable and distinct from the usual traffic noise…sadly the design of my classroom meant that the windows had opaque glass in the lower panes to detract from any distraction from outside. The upper panes were clear though…imagine the excitement as the words ‘J.P. Collins and Sons Waltzer De-Luxe’ which ran along the top of the car truck, momentarily came into view. The Mack and living van were the last loads into town pulling into the White Lion Square car park at the junction with Market Street – here they occupied a prime position, showcasing the big maroon living wagon. In my eyes it somehow had the air of ‘nob row’, accommodating the living quarters befitting the proprietor of one of the most prestigious rides on the Fair.

At the end of school on the Tuesday us kids could not get up the town fast enough to watch the build-up of the fair. The Waltzer was a monster to build up, mostly done by blood, sweat and the manual labour of a team of 6 men. By 4pm it had progressed to the completion of the bottom part of the ride with the platforms and centre completed. This is evidence of its extraordinary design and engineering and the machine would not be ready for opening until another full day’s work had been completed. Contrast this to its 21st century counterpart, which can be ready for opening in a matter of hours rather than days.

Following the civic opening at noon on the Thursday, Ilkeston Fair in the first half of the 60s was then open for three further days with a charity night being held for the British Legion on the Monday. For many fair-goers the peak moment arrived on the Saturday evening when the atmosphere would be electric, the contrast between the darkness of an autumn night against the warmth of the fair, acting as a big draw. The fair would be packed with people and back then the demand for outdoor entertainment seemed insatiable. The showman of course also registered this moment in the form of a business opportunity, with a 2/6d ticket going up for each ride.

J.P’s Waltzer would be heaving on the Saturday night, people standing all around the edge, eagerly waiting for the ride to stop so that they could secure a car. When the ride got going the atmosphere was second to none, the rafter lights would flash as the platforms picked up speed. Initially the cars would not spin, an elaborate braking system operated by a manually controlled lever attached to each platform held the car stationary, making the loading and unloading of punters safer and easier. Once in motion though, the gaff lads who took the fares would release the lever and they of course, were the masters of ‘finger-tip control’ that positioned each car at the optimal angle on the run up to a hill to get the maximum spin as it went over the top. Actually, the word ‘spin’ does not adequately capture the bodily sensation experienced on the ride – extreme centrifugal forces pushed the body to the back of the car rendering any kind of movement impossible. I could never understand people who rode again and again, one ride per night was enough for me. So this brings me to my rite of passage and the social experience I described in my opening. I think the maximum number we got in one car, bearing in mind they were much bigger than contemporary ones, was…12! It would no doubt be seen a health and safety nightmare today but to us it was all part of the fun.

The fair is always ‘here today and gone tomorrow’. The last time I saw the Mack and living van convoy would be in the late 60s, when one Sunday lunchtime (the Monday British legion night had stopped by then), I watched the toad train slowly negotiating the traffic islands in White Lion Square before heading off down Nottingham Road. Although the ride stopped travelling in the early 1970s following the retirement of Kevin Collins, J.P.’s son, it’s spirit however lives on and some things in this story are constant to this day. Pat. Collins fairs remain the leasees of the ‘Top Market’ and each year they present their ‘Supreme Waltzer’ a much later twentieth century ride also made by Maxwells of Musselburgh.

If you have a story to tell about J. P. Collins Waltzer, why not share it at the Fairground Association of Great Britain annual Model Show and Exhibition on Saturday, 22 October 2016, 10.00am - 4.00pm at Erewash Museum. This will be held in conjunction with the Musuem’s 'Fairgrounds of the Past' event and a book for writing memories will be available in The Hayloft.

 

 

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