A Norwich tradition
Norwich’s Easter Fair continued to be held on the market place long after the cattle sales had been moved out to Hall Road. In fact it was only the construction of the Castle Mall shopping precinct (which began with an archaeological dig in the late 1980s) that finally banished the roundabouts and sideshows to Chapelfield Gardens.This is, by the way, an unsuitable venue where those large and heavy machines and heavy footfall plays havoc with the grass. In the old days the roundabouts and steam organs could be accommodated from Agricultural Hall Plain right through to Golden Ball Street with no damage at all.
My father loved the fair. He wasn’t mad keen on the Ghost Train and he had no wish to enter the boxing contest. The fat lady who killed rats with her teeth wasn’t his style of entertainment. In fact he was a cultured man whom you would expect to prefer an evening indoors listening to string quartets. However, he had a soft spot for the fair. He would take me round the stalls, smashing plates, shooting at targets with wildly inaccurate air guns and trying to shy coconuts. But what really charmed and fascinated him were the fairground engines with their twisted brass columns holding the canopies, and the gently whirring generators over the smokebox doors. Back in the 50s and 60s there were several of these engines still doing a real job of work.
Most people passed them by; they really were more interested in the naked lady. But back in the days before electric light had reached the countryside, when there was no television and the wireless was the preserve of the moderately well-off who could manage an accumulator, the bright and shiny fairground engines were magical. In the 1920s George Cushing (who later built up the Thursford Collection and began the phenomenally successful Christmas Show) remembered how the arrival of the fair transformed rural Walsingham into a bright and exotic land. My father would have first remembered the fair in about 1920. Norwich had electric light and gas lamps by then, but there was no wireless even for the very rich until 2LO opened in 1922. The fair did not transform Norwich to such an extreme extent as it would a country area like Walsingham, but it was still a major event.
Many of the rides were made by Savage’s of Kings Lynn who made a point of supplying the fairground trade. They had started in a small way in the mid-nineteenth century supplying engineering products and traction engines to the agricultural industry. Their progression to specialised fairground equipment happened in the 20th century after several changes of ownership.
As I said, it was all about fairground engines as far as my father was concerned. These worked very quietly compared to their diesel engined successors. They rocked slightly as the piston slid to and fro; their wheels were chocked up with wooden wedges. Governor span round and round on top of the boiler and wisps of steam lingered on the cylinder. The paintwork was typically a rich deep red, setting off the polished ornamental brass. Green and yellow engines there were too, but all the colours were bright.
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