When the winch was released I was terrified and would have paid five pounds to get off!
I didn’t go to many fairgrounds, because there were not many around when I was young. One reason for this was that Tynemouth Borough Council wouldn’t allow them to be held on council land. This only changed during the war, when the ‘Holidays at Home’ scheme was introduced by the government. This meant that people would be able to have some form of entertainment locally in the Borough.
The first fairground I can ever remember going to was the Spanish City at Whitley Bay, when I was nine years old. There have been all sorts of letters recently in the local press saying what a wonderful place it was. As a youngster of nine I thought it was a bit of a dump, and my opinion hasn’t changed over the years. Never mind, others think it was a wonderful tourist attraction.
As I said, my first visit was when I was nine years old. It was in 1939, just before the war started. It was a rather bitter-sweet occasion really. I went with my cousin, who was more like a brother to me, and it was the day of my mother’s funeral. A lady was asked to look after us for the day whilst the funeral took place. She was really quite a nice person and earned her living teaching music, she was also the organist at the local Methodist Church. My cousin went to her for lessons and I think that’s how she knew us, but I’m afraid she knew very little about small boys. This must have taken place during the school holidays because my mother died on 11th August 1939. It was the last summer of peacetime.
We went to her house, where she lived with her mother, and had lunch. Then we travelled on the bus to Whitley Bay. Eventually we managed to steer her towards the Spanish City. She wasn’t the type of person who would normally go to that type of establishment, she being a Methodist. Anything appertaining to gambling was OUT! You couldn’t Bowl the Pennies – remember the stall with the small squares marked out with numbers on them. If you bowled your penny down and it landed on a square and it wasn’t touching any of the sites, you got the amount of pennies printed on that square (but you very rarely won). Also, the Hoopla stall, where you had to get the ring over the column to win the prize placed on its top. The rings were so neat that it was almost impossible to do. The showman always made a point of putting a ring over a column slowly, by hand, to show that it could be done.
Well, any of those sorts of games were taboo. You could go on the Ghost Train, the Helter Skelter or any of the roundabouts, but no games of chance. I am sure there was no way we would have got her on the Dodgem Cars, and she wouldn’t have let us go on by ourselves at our age.
The idea that Whitley Bay was a crowded tourist resort at that time is not true. In fact, it was almost deserted. Having said that, one must remember that there was a considerable shortage of money in the area in those days. Work was beginning to pick up again but people like my father and many others had been out of work for a long time during the depression. I can remember my father saying he only had two days of work in two years. That was looking for work on both sides of the river every day. So as you can see there wasn’t much money around to spend on fairgrounds.
I can recall the Ghost Train and the Big Dipper. Nothing like the ones you see at Blackpool, that hurtle you down at about 100mph. The one thing that sticks in my mind is the small mechanical crane. It was in a glass case full of soft toys, with a chute in the centre. You had to manoeuvre the crane over a toy and try to pick it up, then drop it down the chute to retrieve it. I don’t know of anyone who ever managed to get a toy.
Getting back to the licensing of fairs etc in Tynemouth. Those responsible to the issue of them were the General Services Committee. An item from the minutes of 29th July 1939 reads: “Request for a Fete or Collection for the Lord Baldwin Fund for Refugees. (I assume this was a fund to help refugees from the Spanish Civil War and Jews escaping from the Nazis. Quite a considerable number came to this area in those days). This request refused by the Committee.”
The next item I found was dated 30th June 1943. When the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, in conjunction with the “Holidays at Home” scheme, asked if they could hold a fair within the Borough. The Committee said they would consider the application, but no decision was taken. Again, on the 21st of April 1944, under the “Holidays at Home” scheme, the Committee refused permission for a fair to be held. No reasons are ever given for these refusals. Yet, on 26th April in the same year they granted Toogood & Jobson permission to hold a fair on the land bounded by West Percy Road and Waterville Road. At a fee of £50.00 plus water to be paid for. (The Corporation owned the Water Company in those days). I can remember being at that particular fair.
On 26th March 1946 there was another fair held on the same site. The fee had now been raised to £150.00, with no opening on Sunday and all rulings to be approved by the Chief Constable of Police. The Committee must have thought Toogood & Jobson had made too good a profit from the previous fair!
I can also remember an event that took place at Lawson’s Farm, located at the junction of Balkwell Avenue and West Avenue, where the top end of Norham School playing field is today. This was all farmland right down to Alnwick Avenue before the war. A chap had erected a high tower platform that seemed huge to a small boy of seven or eight. He would climb up to the top and dive into a tank of water covered in flames. The splash of him entering the water would put out the flames. I don’t know how they charged the spectators, I assume they went round with the hat. Later I remember my father telling me that he had read in the papers that the man had been killed. Apparently, the wind had diverted him and he had hit the side of the tank and died of his injuries. This took place before the war.
The last time I was at a fair, it was the Shiremoor Children’s Treat. My daughter went to Murton School and all the children would meet there and then march up to the Treat with their parents. The last fairground ride I was ever on was called the Paratrooper. You sat in a seat with just a metal safety bar across in front of you. You were winched slowly to a height. I said to my daughter “now, don’t be frightened”. When it was released, I was the one that was terrified, I would have paid five pounds to get off!