Freak shows and fire eaters at the Whit Fair
As Preston's traditional Whitsuntide fair returns to the city centre, local historian Keith Johnson recalls the famous showmen who entertained thrill-seekers in the early years of the event
These days, the former Whitsuntide Fair, which dates back to the early years of the 19th century, rolls into Preston for the Spring Bank Holiday celebrated on the last weekend of May. In its earliest days it was held on the land known as the Orchard before the Covered Market was erected there. Since 1875, a portion of the fair has normally been held beneath the Victorian canopy of the market, although this year and in the future that will not be the case as the area undergoes renovation. If we glance back to 1869, a couple of incidents show us the perils of Preston’s Whitsuntide Fair where thrills and spills were commonplace. A reporter informing us that on the opening day of activities the Orchard was crowded with sideshows, booths, hobby horses and roundabouts galore. Suddenly, one of the hobby horse machines, driven by steam power and crowded with more than 50 persons, came to a shuddering halt as one of the principal support beams snapped in two. People went flying in all directions yet, miraculously, apart from being shaken, and in some cases battered and bruised, riders and spectators survived relatively unscathed. Mind you, the hobby horse machine itself was an absolute wreck as it was carted away that night. A couple of days later, on a visit to the menagerie, a little boy full of curiosity began to playfully stroke a large tiger through the bars of its cage. The animal suddenly stretched forth one of its paws and seized the lad by the neck. Fortunately, the lion tamer was on hand to rescue the boy from his perilous position and watching spectators breathed a collective sigh of relief. Among the early local pioneers was cabinetmaker George Green, who lived in Back Lane. Back in 1860 he went into the fairground business when a customer failed to pay for a stud of carved hobby horses due to be exported to America. Enterprising as he was, he built a merry-go-round of his own to utilise the wooden figures. It was the start of a link with the world of the showman which would span the centuries and lead to five generations of the Green family providing funfair fun for Preston folk. John Green followed his father in the fairground business and, for a time, combined his fairground work with running the Farmer’s Arms public house in the town. The business was certainly expanding and, by the 1920s, they had a miniature railway and an American Caterpillar ride with the revolving carriages suddenly covered with a canvas hood which brought shrieks and shouts from those beneath. For the next generation of fairground folk, romance brought the Greens and Mitchells together when Robert Green wed Eleanor. A roving caravan life followed for these fairground folk and the Whitsuntide Fair in Preston remained the most popular on their calendar. Up to a dozen people were regularly employed, erecting and maintaining the roundabouts throughout the season and Robert took great pride in the elaborate murals and scroll work which he painstakingly decorated his roundabouts with. The Greens with their Caterpillar ride, Shaw with his Monorail and the Mitchell’s Speedway and Noah’s Ark – along with numerous other round-about owners – were joined by many a sideshow with the likes of the sword swallowers, fire eaters, lion tamers, riders on the wall of death and performing fleas bringing in the crowds. Likewise, no Whitsuntide Fair would have seemed complete without Hughes’ Boxing Booth, Sedgwick’s Zoo, Professor Anderton’s Magic Show or even Harrison’s Parched Pea Saloon. Before the Second World War the fairground peep shows were as popular as the roundabouts, with crowds flocking to see the fat lady, the thin man, the tattooed woman, the pig faced lady and the ever popular India Rubber Man, who was able to lift the skin from his chest until it partially covered his face. If you lasted three rounds with one of Bert Hughes’ boxing booth fighters then you got 10 shillings – an irresistible challenge for any young tough. The challenge of the hoopla stall, the bid to get the ping pong ball into a goldfish bowl or three darts into different playing cards all added to the fascination of the fairground – and all for a coconut or a goldfish. One fairground attraction popular to all is the ‘Roll-a-Penny’, but back in 1931 it was declared illegal by the Preston magistrates. Four stall holders were hauled before the court for keeping stalls for the purpose of betting and gaming with coins. The magistrates convicting the defendants and imposing a fine of Â£1 on each stall holder. When old Bill Mitchell died in July 1947, aged 77, the memories came flooding back for generations of folk who had enjoyed the thrills of his fairground attractions. He had started on the Preston fairground as a youth and in his will he left a Â£10,000 fortune. Some of his money had been left to him by his father who had started the business some 80 years earlier, although most of his wealth had come from the threepenny bits, tuppences and pennies squandered by fairground visitors galore. Older folk in Preston, Blackburn and throughout Lancashire recalled with fondness the earlier days when his large horse drawn vehicles rumbled through the streets at holiday times. He had retired to live in Blackpool in 1941 with his wife, Melinda, and she described him as a generous man who earned his money by giving pleasure to people.Another family who became forever linked to the Preston Annual Fair was that of Richard Dewhurst who, as long ago as 1870, started to travel around the county’s villages with a small roundabout turned by a mule. As his sons grew up, their fairground contribution increased and, besides providing coconut shies and shooting galleries, the family invested in a magnificent steam-powered roundabout which had a multitude of leaping, fiery eyed horses and an impressive steam organ in the centre, which played an endless melody of marching and waltzing music. Once James Dewhurst had control of the travelling show, it became the one all Lancashire flocked to see and enjoy. Every spring, the Dewhurst cavalcade of caravans and wagons set off on its seasonal tour around the Lancashire countryside. There were swing boats, hobby horses and a multitude of sideshows to catch the eye of the country dwellers in the villages that it visited. The annual visit to the Preston Whitsuntide Fair was a highlight of the Dewhursts’ year; the town remaining their base when winter came. Their encampment being originally where the Preston Market Hall now stands before a move to Ripon Street. After service in the Second World War, Harold Dewhurst took over the running of the family business and began transforming the fairground power supply from steam to electricity. It led to a spell of post-war prosperity and pleasure for another generation of fairground visitors. Alas, by 1960 escalating costs forced the Dewhursts to call time on their fairground life and they retired to their caravan home behind the high-fenced wooden stockade which was their Ripon Street base.It seems the fairground has spanned the centuries and continued, despite the criticism from some quarters. According to the showman Alfred Testo some 80 years ago, it brought a spirit of light-hearted nonsense and frivolity, a whirl of surprise and thrills, and a riot of noise and humanity. This was the man who brought the headless woman illusion to Preston along with a troupe of women wrestlers. The most difficult task he reckoned was flea training, only one person in a million being capable of performing that task. Fortunately, his daughter was a marvel at it – with good eyesight, a steady hand and unending patience. No doubt the travellers of old would look with amazement on the hi-tech advancements of the present day pleasure rides as they arrive in the city on their low loaders and trailers to provide another holiday of thrills and spills. Like those pleasure seekers of the fair long ago you can still have doughnuts, candy floss, ice cream, hot potatoes, parched peas and sticky toffee.