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Various authors - the Fair visits Exeter

The Easter Fair was always held on the site known as Haven Banks. It was a time of great excitement. We used to be taken on Easter Monday.

Dragon ride

The fairground was run by Anderson and Rowland. To me as a child it seemed huge. The biggest attraction was a dragon ride; it was beautiful, large dragons with jaws painted in glorious gold, red, yellow and blue. You sat on red velvet seats and went around at great speed. The main steps lead up to a tremendous organ, big golden pipes with a model figure of a conductor and drums and cymbals , all clashing out with moving figures. Much of our time was spent just watching, and listening to the organ. The steam hooter would blast off to signal the start and finish at each ride.

The Cakewalk

Our next stop was the Cakewalk which was a moving platform with brass rails to hold onto. You had to walk up one side and back the other. The difficult part was getting off at the end. Then there was the big horse carousel with magnificent steeds on brass rails which we clutched tight as we went around, and up and down. All the horses had names printed on them; we would look around until we found a name we liked.

Shiny Monsters

The big steam engines were another big attraction: free to watch. They supplied the powerful lights and driving all the equipment. These were shining monsters, bright with paint and again lots of grass work cleaning, with huge driving wheels and belts.

Food Stalls

There were stalls selling Easter fairing, sugar almonds and gingerbread: a real Easter treat. Another stall would sell windmills, tickling feather sticks and little celluloid dolls done up in paper carnival clothes. Among the other food stalls was a hot chestnut man and of course a hand cart selling chips in a newspaper cone. We always soaked the chips with vinegar which then ran out of the bottom of the cone.

Side Shows

The side shows had a wide variety of attractions: there was a boxing booth with boxers who would challenge anyone from the crowd and the freak shows. My sister remembers one which was billed as the 'The Crab Woman'; inside was a woman with a head poked through a crab shaped cushion.

The flea circus always drew a crowd just to see fleas hopping about in a ring covered in sawdust set up on trestles. The fleas had to pull a little cart and one had a paper aeroplane shape on its back; it was called Lindbergh, after the American flyer. Customers were warned not to steal the fleas and were offered 3d a time for each flea they could produce suitable for training.

Fathers proved their strength

Fathers all had a go to prove how strong they were by hitting a knob with a large mallet and trying to ring the bell at the top of the board. My father and his friends would always have a little competition on this with lots of laughter when the strike only went halfway up. Around the sides were the usual rifle ranges and coconut shies. Easter would not have been Easter without a coconut I don't know if my father was a good shot or if it might have been cheaper for him to have bought one, but it was always carried home in triumph. Should he knock down two with two balls he was more or less told not to go knock down any more. The nuts would be put more firmly into the sawdust stand. The Hoopla stalls had their boxes of chocolate which were too big for the rings to go over and little glass cruet sets and Kewpie dolls which were celluloid and brightly painted.

Wall of death

In later years of course came the Wall of Death, a arena of high wooden walls on which the men would ride motor cycles, starting at the bottom and gradually reaching the top. The noise and vibration were terrific. They even had motorbikes with sidecars with a woman passenger. It was a dangerous job and many riders have crashed from the wall. This of course drew large crowds and demanded even more risky stunts. We had our own thrill driving around in the Dodge 'em cars. It was more the case of bash 'em, as the game turn into a challenge of who could bump most cars.

Fairs, fairs, fairs

Fairs were held behind what is now St Thomas Pleasure ground. We used to get into the field from Okehampton Street. There was the Ocean Wave, the Gondolas and the horses all run from steam engine. The man who stoked the engine looked after all the machinery and kept everything going. On the Saturday night after late closing about 11.00 all the fair people got to work taking everything down and packing it all away and on Sunday then moved out, usually to Taunton and Bridgewater. They had it all worked out that did the same round of places each year.

Rival barracks

We had two barracks at that time: the Devonshire Regiment was at the Higher Barracks and the Royal Horse Artillery, known as the RHA, were at Topsham Barracks. Most nights when the fair was on, the soldiers used to go there after having a drink and there was always a fight in the fairground between the two lots.

The RHA used to wear a riding breeches, tunic and leggings or putties, hobnail boots with spurs on. They would take off their belts and bandoliers to use in the fights. It was a rough place to be and when they got started on anything went: boots, belts, fists or anything they could grab hold of. They were taken away if they got caught by the Redcaps who patrolled in the High Street.

Foul play

When the Boxing Booths was on the fairground there was usually soldiers and sailors or drinking layabout who would go into the ring to try and last three rounds for quid. But they never won because the referee belonged to the fair and the boxer used to do all sorts of things, like lean on them and commit fouls which the ref wouldn't look at. Freddie Mills started in a Boxing Booth and I remember a big black chap called Owen who used to be around.

Prizes Galore

When we were walking out before we were married I used to try my luck with the darts – they were 3 for 3d – and the shooting, well, all the things you could win prizes on. And we had a box filled with dogs, horses, birds, almost every animal you can think of, all made of a sort of chalk and painted over. If it was a wet day the field was a sea of mud and it come up over your boots and trousers, but the fair went on just the same.

Newcombe's Yard

There'd be a roundabout, swinging boats, hoopla and a little toy store all in at Preston Street, Newcombe's Yard. In that yard every Christmas and Easter time we've been taking in plenty of money. The equipment was my mothers and fathers. Mother and father was sort of an old noted family. If someone wanted to borrow money, they'd run to Mum.

Fair People

Me and my brother Bert, we had a little organ, and 'e used to turn the organ and then I'd turn the roundabouts. If I can remember rightly there was two thousand pieces in each horse on the roundabout. There were certain sort of all patched.

Mother and father used to go round the fairs, you see. I slept underneath the shooting gallery, that was my birthday present. Each time I had a birthday I was given a stall to look after: hoopla stall when I was 10 years old, that was in the yard. I've bin to the grounds and roundabout the fairs with them as well when I got older. But I'm afraid I didn't get much chance: mother had eight children each time she had a child, I used to have to stay home and see to that, you see.

Confetti and Ticklers

I used to go down on Exe Bridge and I'd sell a bag of confetti or anything like that. And us used to go to Ryde's and make our long paper brushes; all different colours you used to have the paper, the ticklers. Used to get all the old bits of newspaper. We used to have to go up and make they in the attic, and sell them on the street. Of course they was only a penny each then.

If ever I talk to anybody now and they looks at me: "Oh my God, you ain't Maud Newcombe with the roundabouts and the swinging boats?" I says, "yes." We were really known down there.


These memories are taken from the contribution of several Exeter citizens to the People Talking project that was created by Jenny Lloyd in 1976. The full transcript, and other People Talking memories are available at the West Country Studies Library or the Devon and Exeter Institution.


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