COLUMN: Looking Back with Pete Colman

A carousel and Murphy's Gondolas on Ripon market square around 1898.  (S)
A carousel and Murphy's Gondolas on Ripon market square around 1898. (S)

With the fair on the market place missing from this year’s St Wilfrid Procession, Pete remembers the golden age of fairgrounds and circuses.

As a child growing up in the 50s some of my fondest memories were times spent at the fair and circus that seemed to visit Ripon on a regular basis in the summer months.

The fair would not only be on the market place but would also use the old parking ground (Sainsburys) and York Yard at Bedern Bank. Charlie Doughtfire would also use York Yard to repair and repaint his fairground equipment in the workshop there.

Jimmy Corrigan’s fairs also visited Ripon; he was also popular at Scarborough with his penny arcades. Some of the rides I remember were the speedway, carousel, ferris wheel, dodgems, and helter skelter to name but a few.

There is one ride which in my opinion is named inappropriately for a fairground ride and that is the waltzer, which first appeared in 1933. My own experience was not an enjoyable one to say the least. I ended up looking a lighter shade of green and being violently sick after being spun round by an over enthusiastic ride attendant.

Fairgrounds would also have game stalls such as dart-a-card, hoopla, roll-a-penny, penny falls (please don’t bang the machines!), coconut shys, and not forgetting penny slot machines. You would either pull a handle or shoot a ball bearing around a track, sometimes these machines would give packets of sweets as prizes instead of coins, such as Polo Mints. The last time I played the penny slot machines was after being ‘clagged’ around the ear-hole by the attendant for jamming the machines, which allowed players to keep getting a payout.

The jamming had actually been caused by the lady who took her turn before me. She left with a purse full of pennies and all I got was a sore ear – I never played those machines again.

The shooting gallery was popular. It had finger box targets with swag (prizes) such as chalk dogs or rubber skeletons. You could also win a coconut if you could cut the string they were hung by with a shot.

Fairgrounds were also a great place to take your girlfriend, wooing her by winning a cuddly toy or goldfish, then a trip to the hall of mirrors, seeing the fortune teller then a quick snog on the ghost train (proper courting, that was!).

I also remember the boxing and wrestling booths that came with the fair where you would see all-comers up against a professional boxer. I think local lads were paid £5 if they could knock out the boxer in three rounds. The boxing booths had brightly coloured frontages displaying the names and faces of boxing heritage. At the peek of their popularity there were 100 fairground boxing booths in Britain with professional boxers like Randolph (Randy) Turpin and Tommy Farr starting their career in the boxing booths.

Fairs always had that nostalgic feel to them, with fantastic music thumping out and the smell of hotdogs and candy floss drifting around you. Fairgrounds have sharply declined in popularity over the last few decades, which is a shame but I will always have the memories of the great times spent there. When the circus comes to town it’s a nostalgic journey into the origins of ultimate expressions of human showmanship. They even made a record about the circus in the form of ‘Nellie the Elephant’ – it was by Mandy Miller in 1956.

The circus – or the big top, as the Americans call – it would stay at North Bridge, Paddies Park and Ripon Racecourse.

Sometimes the circus would arrive by rail before setting up alongside the River Ure. I remember seeing lion and tiger acts, wire walkers, trick cyclists, trapeze artists and clown acts in circuses that visited Ripon.

Billy Smart’s ‘The Guvnor’ was often seen on television with his circus having more than 40 horses, 15 elephants and a variety of wild and exotic animals in his show.

There were other well-known circuses such as Bertram Mills and Chipperfields, with top clowns Coco and Charlie Carroli seen on most of the televised shows.

Earlier this year dog act Ashleigh and Pudsey won the television show ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. This kind of act probably originated in circuses (sorry Ashleigh, they were doing these kind of tricks 60 years ago).

My mother remembers on one occasion while walking my aunt’s dog near to the circus the lady in the paybox offered to buy the dog because it would make an ideal addition to her act. Fortunately for my aunt, my mother declined the offer and the dog never got to join the circus.

Some Gazette readers might remember the one-legged diver seen at Paddies Park diving from a great height into what seemed a very shallow level of water.

Today’s circuses, of course, don’t have the animal acts of years ago but are still full of good family entertainment. I’m just glad I was lucky enough to have been around when going to the fair and circus was something very special.