As a child I remember the excitement of going to the fair. When I was very young it was the small permanent funfair at Roundhay where there was a Helter-Skelter, some swing boats and a small roundabout with boats and buses on for the very young. I remember the joy of climbing the little stairs to the top deck of the little bus and it was something that my own children enjoyed when they were little. Not much changed over the years and at first Roundhay had a number of attractions. There was a maze, but this was removed in the 1970s, due to an incident that occurred there, rowing boats on the big lake and a small launch that took large numbers of people around the lake. I believe Roundhay School had a couple of boats on the big lake, which were used by the naval cadets. My very earliest memories also included trams arriving at their terminus and the large shed there. This became a cafe and kiosk when the trams were replaced with buses. There was also the Lido, an open air swimming pool near the back of the lake. People have commented on the photographs of this and I went once or twice and even on the hottest days it was freezing cold. It also was removed, which is a shame, but probably the cost of the upkeep was prohibitive as there were so few days in a year when it could be used. There wasn’t a cafe above the boatshed in these times, but when the tram-shed was demolished they built the cafe above the boatshed.
When I was young the little fair was quite satisfying, but as I got a bit older we would go to Woodhouse Feast, near Leeds University, on Woodhouse Moor. These names obviously hark back to olden times where celebrations and feasting would take place to mark holy days and the like. The moor was close to the outskirts of Leeds City and was a suitable place for traders and tinkers to sell their wares, entertainers to ply their trade and for the locals to celebrate and have some fun. It also provided an opportunity for the young to meet and court, and for locals to purchase items not available at other times of the year. When I attended the feast, it had developed quite a lot, but still it was an opportunity to have fun, meet other young people, show off and spend money. As a child, we loved the lights, the sounds, the crowds and the smell that a fair brought. The workers appeared exotic, as they had a darker skin than most Leeds folk, used copious amounts of hair cream, wore tight black jeans and had tattoos. They called to passersby to get them to buy their wares or to try their hand to win a teddy, or in those days, plaster of Paris ornaments. There were roundabouts, Waltzers, swing boats, dodgems and a host of contraptions that would scare the living daylights out of you as a young child, but for teenagers, they were an opportunity to demonstrate your masculinity by fearlessly hanging off the bars as you were spun around, or by bashing your dodgem head on into another and laughing at the joy of it. The girls would been enraptured by the bravado of the fairground boys who danced between the whirling horses, collecting fees, darted between the dodgems, and hung off the bars at the back and walked backwards collecting money on the waltzers as the floor went up and down. They never missed a beat, they were poised, relaxed, masters of impressing teenage girls. There were local lads who would emulate their feats, but due to lack of practice, they never quite cut the mustard.
For us kids, it was hook the duck, darts into playing cards, air rifle ranges, bran tubs, coconut shies and ping pong balls into goldfish bowls. The most sought after prize was a goldfish. The poor creatures were hanging in plastic bags and if you were lucky enough to win one, you would carry it around as a prized possession until you got home. My parents took us to the pet shop at Harehills, where we would buy a bowl, a little weed and goldfish food. With two brothers there was a good chance that we would get at least one or two on a visit to a fair. In most cases the poor fish would be lucky to live out the weekend, but the good news was that we were prepared for future fairs, with the bowl and equipment already waiting. In fairness, there were one or two fish that were clearly made of sterner stuff than the usual goldfish and they survived for much longer periods. I can remember well being entranced by their shimmering scales and their fluid movement around their restricted new homes.
It was not just the rides and prizes, the whole experience was a whirl of lights, sounds and smells. The ground underfoot was trodden into mud and you had to carefully step over electrical cables that ran from generators that thumped a rhythm in the background, almost drowned out by the blaring music of the time. Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bill Hayley, Elvis and the like filled the air and added to the excitement. The fair was the facade of celebration, but lurking behind were the caravans and homes of the workers. Some were chrome, bright paint and affluence, but most were fairly run-down. Lorries, trucks and vans were waiting to carry them to a new location after only a few days.
The senses were overloaded and smells of food wafted everywhere, tempting us to buy and taste their wares. Toffee apples, brandy snaps, doughnuts, ice creams, all were available as well as the truly magical candyfloss. The machines that spun the sugar were entertainment on their own. Lurid dyes were added, bright pink, green, yellow. They were sticky, sweet and must have cost almost nothing to make, but managed to extract the few remaining coins we had. It was a tired, but happy family that would return to the car, nurse our fish or other prizes and drive home.
There was a similar fair that would annually arrive at Roundhay Park. This dwarfed the permanent amusements, but I am sure they didn’t mind the extra trade the main fair brought. This fair would be set on the rise up from the big lake and the tram shed. It could have been the same as the one from Woodhouse, but I don’t think so. It had all the same sort of entertainments, and one I had forgotten was the strength testing machines. There were two main types. The originals used a large wooden mallet that was swung and hit a post and the strength was recorded on a gauge. The strongest of blows would sound a bell. The second type, which I think came later, involved a punch ball. You thumped the ball as hard as you could and it recorded the power on a large dial. The strongest blows would similarly sound a bell. These were another alternative for men and boys to demonstrate their physical prowess in front of potential admirers.
I do remember one specific incident on the dodgems when I was a teenager in the late 1960s. A group of us were there and it was an afternoon session that wasn’t particularly busy. There was a group from Allerton Grange on some of the others and I was on one, as was my friend. Only about half the cars were running and there was the usual lad in the kiosk controlling the power and another who was collecting money and policing behaviour. Times had changed a little and front-on collisions were supposedly banned. (Health and safety gone mad) This clearly hadn’t been taken on board by the assembled teenagers and there were a lot of crashes, cheers, cries and general mirth. At the back of the car was a rod that went vertically to the wire netting that supplied the power to the car. At the top of the rod was a metal shoe that dragged along the netting, keeping the contact and the power supplied. I suppose this was the one part that wore out frequently and I think they just slotted onto the pole. On this occasion there was a lad in one of the cars. There was a shouting and crashes, almost drowned out by music, but then I saw, almost in slow motion, two dodgems collide with great force. The rear end of one lifted and then crashed back down. It must have been a freak occurrence, but the metal shoe jumped off the top of the pole and fell onto the boy driving. The side of the shoe struck him on the forehead, just above the eye and then blood poured out and his face turned red. It all happened in a fraction of a second. The man in the kiosk must have seen what happened. The power was turned off and the cars just stopped. Everyone’s attention was drawn to the poor lad. The man from the kiosk ran over, carrying what looked like a tea towel and he clamped it onto the forehead of the now sobbing lad. Nowadays, I am sure there would have been first aid kits and first aiders, but then there didn’t appear to be. He was helped out of the dodgem and led away. I suppose an ambulance must have been called, but I didn’t see it and within seconds the dodgem was pushed to the side, power was restored and the show was back on. My friend and I saw him several weeks later and he was proud to show us his impressive scar. He was very lucky not to have lost his eye and I have no idea whether any inquiry into the accident happened, but maybe not. Parents were not as quick to sue as they are nowadays and accidents were more accepted without anyone needing to be blamed.
During the day the fairs were reasonably safe and respectable places, and this was the case in the evening, when children were still about. Later at night, however, I believe fights often broke out between local groups of boys and the fair workers. This may have been the result of jealousy, as the workers chatted up local girls. I never really saw this, but there was a reputation that the fair lads had knives and would use them. As the fifties and sixties moved through there were also confrontations between teddy boys, mods, rockers and later skin heads. Adrenaline, testosterone and teenagers are a dangerous mix and I am sure that it has always been thus.
The fairs were always short-lived. There was a day or two of setting up and after five or so days, the fair was dismantled and they disappeared for a new venue, to return in another year. When they had gone, the ground was left trampled and weary, but in a surprisingly short time it recovered and there was not a trace except for the memories of those who had attended.