All the Fun of the Fair

Each year, Messrs Thurston’s Fair visits Kempston. Today the fair is held in Addison Howard Park. However, in pre-war days it was held in the Boot Meadow off the Bunyan Road and I would like to record a few memories of those days.

The rather narrow entrance to the Boot meadow was across the road from the Children’s Home, and in early September I used to stand and watch the Fair lorries loaded with disassembled amusements of all kinds. The Showmen’s traction engines were especially interesting. These were large engines with four shiny brass poles supporting a roof and side boards. Coloured lights were fitted all round the edges of the boards which bore a slogan such as ‘Mighty in Strength and Endurance’ and ‘Thurston’s Funfair.’ On top of the boiler just behind the chimney was mounted a huge electric generator, which when fixed with a belt drive from the flywheel produced lighting and power for the Fair. An extension chimney was fitted when stationary and generating electricity to take the smoke away. All the engines were beautifully painted, and often provided power for Fairground organs. You can still see some of these engines and organs today at summer Traction Engine Rallies.

During the Fair Week business at The Boot boomed as customers sat outside on warm summer evenings with the Fair in full swing until late. There were Roll a Penny stalls where you rolled a penny down a sloping groove on to a top covered in squares. If your penny was clear of the margins you won the amount stated on the square.

Darts were a popular pastime then and most homes sported a dartboard and a kitchen door full of chips around the board perimeter. At the Fair you had to score 65 or over to win a prize, which means that you had to get a double or a treble with one of your not very good darts.

Then there were the three strength amusements for the young men.  There was the punch bag machine. Put a penny in the slot, pull the rugby ball style bag at the clock gauge, as hard as you could, and see what reading the dial gave. Then there were the coconut shies, facsimile nuts standing on end in a cup of sawdust on a pole. You had three wooden poles. Hitting the target was difficult enough, but to dislodge one and win a real coconut was a little more difficult, but quite a few of the Kempston lads could do it. Finally there was the ultimate strength test, hit the anvil with a giant mallet, drive the weighted slide upwards to ring the bell. You had to rake your coat off to do this properly.

There were also the Hoop-La stalls, the better prizes being a bit further away and on a slightly bigger plinth. My Dad’s speciality was the Ball in the Bucket stall. You had to throw a table tennis ball into a white enamel bucket at a discreet distance. My Dad taught me how to win. When you threw and hit the bottom of a bucket the ball would bounce straight out. The secret was to stand to one side and hit the side of the bucket and the ball would stay in.

The two big amusements were the Jollity Farm and the Dodgem Cars.  The Jollity Farm was a garishly painted fast moving undulating roundabout. The seats in the Roman Chariots and cars were all well padded with plenty of hand rails to hold on during the ride.  Perhaps the most thrilling ride was on one of the motorbikes or even on the pillion with someone else. I can still remember the amusing registration marks on those bikes. One was URA 1.  The Dodgem Cars were perhaps the ultimate ride. They were all two-seaters and there was almost always a smell of smoking rubber and a burning smell of sparks from the wire contact roof. The Fair staff often had a car on its side for running repairs.

Right at the bottom of the meadow were the Swing Boats. These were two-seaters, and standing up and working very hard I have seen these go to almost vertical on Saturday nights.
The whole area of the Fair was lit up as if it was daytime.

The confectionery specialty was the Fair Rock in brown very sweet chunks with a darker outside stripe pattern. Seaside style rock was also available.

They also used to sell “Statty Balls” at the Fair. These were very soft balls almost the size of a tennis balls covered in a lightweight rainbow netting, stitched at the top and bottom, with a three foot long piece of elastic attached to the top of the ball. For fun you could hit your friend lightly on the back of the head and retrieve the ball, courtesy of the elastic.

I slept in the back bedroom, across the wall from the Fair. I could see the bright lights and hear the hooters and siren which announced the beginning and end of the rides on the big amusements. Popular music of the day was played throughout the evening and amplified. These were all 78rpm records and I can particularly remember ‘Ma, he’s making eyes at me’ going full blast.

At the end of the Fair Week, everything was taken apart and packed onto lorries and trailers. I often watched them leave for the next location, the big Showman’s engines towing several trailers out into the Bunyan Road. One day I saw a length of wall come down at the entrance. This happened occasionally and the wall has been patched up several times.

Doug Rowland July 2011