All the fun of Barnstaple fair

Barnstaple pleasure fair, pictured here in 1934, was situated at North Walk from 1877. It moved to S

Barnstaple pleasure fair, pictured here in 1934, was situated at North Walk from 1877. It moved to Seven Brethren in 1996 to make way for the Civic Centre. - Credit: Archant

The Gazette looks back at some of the fair magic that has thrilled generations of Barumites.

Barnstaple fairground historian Martin Burridge.

Barnstaple fairground historian Martin Burridge. - Credit: Archant

ALL the fun of the fair returns to Barnstaple this week.

The Great Omi, cira 1950.

The Great Omi, cira 1950. - Credit: Archant

For generations of showmen and women, it’s an annual pilgrimage that spans the centuries.

Abe Danter's Star Shape Air ride at Barnstaple fair.

Abe Danter's Star Shape Air ride at Barnstaple fair. - Credit: Archant

And for Barnstaple man Martin Burridge, the visit of the fair adds another magical chapter to a history that some say is as old as the town itself.

Martin, 61, writes for World’s Fair, the showmen’s weekly newspaper, and is currently writing a book about Barnstaple Fair history.


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He has amassed an extensive collection of photographs while researching Barnstaple Fair celebrations as far back as the 1800s.

Many will be on display during an exhibition in the Guildhall on Friday and Saturday this week and the Gazette spoke to Martin to find out more about what makes Barnstaple Fair week such a special date in the town’s calendar.

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Martin, whose first memories of the fair were formed as a 10-year-old in the early 1960s, said: “I’ve been collecting for the last 40 years and have had an interest in the fair since I was a child.

“I used to always go down for the pull-on day on the Sunday to watch the lorries start arriving.

“I spent a lot of time on the North Walk showground and ended up doing a lot of jobs for the showmen.

“My mother used to earn a few extra bob doing their laundry when they were in town.

“It’s held an interest ever since,” added Martin, who visits fairs all over Devon and Somerset and was made an honorary member of the Showmen’s Guild Western Section in 2002.

“The fair is over 700 years old and up until World War One, it was held to encourage farmers to come into Barnstaple to pay their annual bills – the only time they’d come into town all year,” explained Martin.

The three-day fair opens today (Wednesday) with a ceremony at the Guildhall. As is tradition, it will be toasted with spiced ale made from a secret recipe by the town beadle. A white glove will be shown from the window all week to symbolise the hand of friendship.

“Traditionally, Wednesday was the cattle and sheep fair, Thursday was the horse fair and Friday was always known as the pleasure fair,” said Martin.

“In the 1800s, dancing bears, freak shows, marionette shows, wrestling and boxing shows were popular.

“It wasn’t until the late 1860s that the first fairground rides began to arrive, such as a pony-powered merry-go-round.

“In the 1870s, steam arrived and the Hancock family were the first pioneers of the ‘big’ rides. They brought with them the first ‘galloping horses’ and ‘motor scenic’.

“They also introduced the first cinema to Barnstaple in the form of the bioscope in 1897,” added Martin.

As part of their ‘Palace of Varieties’, the Hancocks used to film the men coming out of Shapland and Petter and then show the film at the fairground that evening. They used to do a roaring trade, not least because they showed a lion act between films.

In the 1890s Anderton and Rowlands came to the fair for the first time – a firm that still has strong ties with Barnstaple fair to this day.

The Cullompton-based showmen brought the first Venetian gondolas to the town in 1905 and soon expanded with a fine fleet of steam engines.

“In the 1920s their ‘Golden Dragons’ and ‘Chair-o-planes’ were popular attractions, as were Sam McKeowen’s boxing booths which remained until the mid 1980s,” said Martin.

Other showmen with long associations with Barnstaple Fair include David Rowland and Sons; Billy Whitelegg, Thomas Whitelegg and Sons; the Danter family, the Rawlings; the Locks and the Clements. Even holiday park founder Billy Butlin began with a stall at Barnstaple Fair in the early 1920s.

“Thomas Whitelegg brought the first waltzer ride to the town in about 1935. They also had dodgems, Noah’s ark, Monte Carlo speedway, a big wheel, and later the Hurricane Jets, Octopus and Trabant.

“At around the same time their main business rivals Anderton and Rowlands introduced the public to the Wall of Death, which featured motorbike riders doing trick stunts around a circular wall,” said Martin.

“Freak shows such as The Great Omi continued to entertain in the 1950s and Pyjama Johnny’s spinner prize stall was a popular draw.”

Today, one of the biggest attractions to come to Barnstaple is Abe Danter’s giant Star Shape Air, a favourite at some of Europe’s biggest fairs.”

The German-built ride arrives on six lorries and takes a day-and-a-half to put together – it even comes with its own crane.

Barnstaple Fair takes place at Seven Brethren Bank until Saturday.

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