Showmen fear it could be the last waltzer for Preston after they admitted defeat today in their bitter battle to keep the 200-year-old Whitsuntide Fair in the city centre.
Fairground families, some of whom have supported the historic event for generations, finally conceded they have lost a year-long fight to pitch their rides on the Flag Market and surrounding streets over the coming Bank Holiday weekend.
But after a frustrating game of dodgems with the Town Hall over where the fair should be staged, the showmen fired a defiant parting shot at the city council, saying: “You’re going to miss us.”
Councillors have offered Moor Park as an alternative site, claiming the annual funfair has outgrown its usual spot, especially now the new market hall has taken over part of their traditional site.
Yet, even though the Showmen’s Guild (North West) says it has a Royal Charter protecting the fair, it has “reluctantly been forced” to agree to the move after 12 months of a not-so-merry-go-round.
Now many of the regulars are threatening to boycott the new venue on May 26-29, claiming poorer crowds at the out-of-town site could make it a loss-maker.
“Some years we just about break even in the city centre if the weather isn’t good,” said John Silcock, whose family have been regulars at the Whit Fair since the 1930s.
“There are three other fairs on Moor Park every year and we know they are not as well-supported as the city centre. Not by a long chalk. So, from what I’m hearing, the Whit Fair might only be about a quarter of the size it would have been.”
Councillors say the event, which this year is planned over four days instead of three, is too big for its central site. An offer by the showmen to create an overspill of stalls on the council-owned car park at the rear of the Old Black Bull pub was rejected - even though rental could have more than covered the loss of a day’s parking revenue.
“It’s very sad,” said Kirk Mulhearn, from Garstang, who is chairman of the Showmen’s Guild (NW).
“We all know that on a Bank Holiday Preston is like a ghost town. But when the fair is on it’s buzzing. Shopkeepers want us there and so do the public. But unfortunately the council don’t.
“I’m sure they will miss us. But what can we do?
“We know the strength of every fairground location and it will be financially less viable for us on Moor Park. So inevitably some people will make the judgement that they can’t afford to go there and find somewhere else for the Whit weekend.”
John Silcock estimates owners of the bigger rides face at least £2,500 in fuel, transport and staff costs for the four-day fair, on top of the rent to the council.
“It takes a lot to break even, let alone make a profit,” he said. “Going to Moor Park where the crowds are smaller means there is every chance, with a bit of good old British weather, that we could be out of pocket.
“We have tried so hard to get the council to see this, but they have steadfastly refused to even meet us unless we agree first to a move to Moor Park. They have had a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude.
“Some of the rides and stalls will reluctantly go because they were depending on this for Whit weekend. But no-one really wants to go there.
“The people of Preston want the fair in the city centre, the local shopkeepers do because it boosts footfall on the Bank Holiday weekend. But for some reason the council want to push us out of town - a fair which has been going on at its traditional venue for 200 years.
“We are just hoping that the people of Preston will kick up a fuss, tell their councillors how they feel and try and change their minds for next year. But we aren’t holding our breath.”
A Preston Council spokesperson said: “We are looking forward to this year’s Whit Fair at Moor Park and have full confidence that the Showmen’s Guild will provide the city with another great attraction.”
A tradition which dates back centuries
The decision to move the fair out of the city centre breaks a tradition which dates back centuries. The Showmen’s Guild say its origins date back to a charter granted by King Henry II in 1199, making a fair on the central site more than 800 years old.
But it was only in the early 1800s that it became a funfair with rides and amusements. There were sideshows and booths, freak shows and fire-eaters, roundabouts and swings, steam-powered rides and even a tiger in a cage.The original fair was held on an area known as The Orchard, which is roughly at the top of what is now Orchard Street and incorporated land which later became the covered market.
When the larger of the two canopies was built, fairground rides were positioned beneath it over the Whit weekend. In later years the smaller market canopy was also used, with the fair extending along Birley Street and on to the Flag Market.
During the Second World War air raid shelters were positioned on part of the Flag Market, but the fair continued undaunted. The fair used to benefit from the traditional Whit walks through the town centre, with the crowds who turned out to watch moving on later to enjoy the fairground rides.
Last year it had to be scaled down because of the building work going on for the new indoor market. Now there are fears it will be scaled back even more because of its relocation out of town.