Monday, 24 March 2008

Fairground folk at the Wirksworth Tap Dressings

The previous posts about fairground photographers made me think more about fairgrounds and fairground folk in general. I recalled seeing some marvelous images of old photographs of fairground stalls on John Palmer's Wirksworth web site, and contacted both John and the original submitter of the images, Brenda Pearson. They have kindly given their permission for me to reproduce the images here. Brenda's photographs actually come from an album which belonged to Elizabeth Nowell-Usticke née Wright, daughter of a Wirksworth wine and spirit merchant, who was married there in 1889. They are a series of albumen prints, possibly taken by an amateur photographer, and labelled with the date 1886.

The festivities in Wirksworth were described in an article which appeared in The Derby Mercury on 23rd June 1886. They appear to have been centred around the Wirksworth Tap Dressing festival, which is featured in two of the photographs, and appears to be similar to the well dressings which still take place elsewhere in Derbyshire.
WIRKSWORTH TAP DRESSINGS.
This ancient festival, a popular gathering with Derby people as affording an opportunity for an agreeable holiday, took place as usual on Whitsun-Wednesday. The custom is one that springs from the Romans, who dressed their springs in adoration of the God of water, and its celebration appears to be peculiar to Derbyshire, as in no other county that we are aware of is the ceremony kept up. As far as more modern days are concerned the Wirksworth Tap Dressings is one of the oldest festivals on record. The celebrations were discontinued for some years, but about 18 years ago the custom was revived, and now forms one of the "red letter" days in the calendar of many Derbyshire people. Of course a great deal depends on the weather, and a cloudy and threatening sky after the many variable days we have lately experienced, prevented numbers of people from taking advantage of the reduced fares offered by the Midland Railway Company as an inducement to enjoy an outing, but in spite of that three or four long trains, heavily laden, landed their living freight at Wirksworth, all from Derby. This was exclusive of excursions from Nottingham, Sheffield, and Burton, besides visitors from the neighbouring villages. On the whole, however, the number of visitors was put down as rather less than usual - wholly on account of the atmospheric conditions. A casual visitor, however, would be unable to draw these invidious comparisons. Crowds of visitors thronged the old-fashioned little town, and made it wear an animated appearance, such as is only observed once a year. The inhabitants themselves appear to view the festival more as a matter of business, and everybody seems prepared to turn an honest penny in some form or other. Providing tea for visitors was the favourite mode, but this business was sadly overstocked, judging by the flaming red and yellow bills in the window of almost every other house setting forth that "accommodation for tea and hot water" was to be had within. The band of the E (Wirksworth) Company D.R.V., and the Wirksworth Brass Band, furnished music during the day, and conducted visitors round the town. The grounds at the Lees were kindly placed at the disposal of the committee by Mr. W. Sealy Fisher, and there a gala was held, the amusements consisting of selections of music by the Wirksworth United Band, performances by a troupe of minstrels, known as the Black Diamond troupe, and dancing on the tennis court, to the music of Mr. Hollins's (Derby) string band. This proved a great source of attraction at the gates. In the Market-place were assembled the usual contingent of shooting galleries, shows, &c. With regard to the dressings, Mrs. John Cooke, of the West End, again suceeded in carrying off premier honours, being awarded the first prize of 10l. for an elaborate erection, of a much more pretentious character than any of the others. In the foreground was a small covered fountain, standing on a square base, having four pillars at the angles, each dressed in moss, with moulds of blue pansy petals, supporting four arches in daisy chaff. On the top of the arches lay a tablet in dark moss, on which was a vase with a square base in moss, with stem in scarlet geranium petals and circular bowl in white daisy chaff. At the back was a large Gothic drinking fountain, consisting of right and left bays, with centre piece on which was worked an Oriental design, with a large stork in white daisy chaff, standing amongst herbage and foliage worked on a ground of sarlet geraniums. Over the centre might be seen the words - "Bless ye the Lord," in letter of red berries on a wite ground, and in each bay a large vase in yellow everlastings, containing lilies and sunflowers worked on a green ground of parsley. Mr. A. Hawley, Dale-street, obtained second prize, 8l., for a well-executed representation of an Oriental fountain; Mr. L. Hardy, Tissington, was third with his North-street decoration, for which he received 6l.; and Mr. John Clough fourth, 4l., for a design in oldwell-street. Prizes were also offered this year for the best street garland, and after a strong competition, the first and second prizes fell to J. Yates, West End, and W. Macdonald, Market-place.
All five of the photographs displayed here were taken in or near Market place, shown in this recent satellite image from Google Maps.

Image © 2008 & courtesy of DigitalGlobe, Infoterra Ltd. & BlueSky
Wirksworth Town Center - Market Place, West End & St John's Street

The first two photographs in the series are of Market Place, taken in a roughly northern direction, and having numbers 4 to 6 (Market Place) forming the backdrop. John Palmer has a more modern diagram showing an elevation of these buildings here.

Image © & courtesy of Brenda Pearson
Image 1 - Wirksworth, Market Place, 1886 ?

(a) The coconut shy, or "cocoa nut bowling street" as it was referred to in the 1891 Census, is in the foreground, with the coconuts resting in rings affixed horizontally to the ends of sticks. There appear to be two alleys, arranged in an east-west direction, at right angles to St John's Street.

(b) The stalls in the middle ground have presumably been set up to sell something, and have awnings to provide a modicum of shade. It is possible that there are trays on the trestle table, containing something like confectionery. One man and four women, including two with children standing or seated on their laps, are tending to the stalls, with their backs to the photographer, but there don't appear to be many customers. At the right hand end of this line of stalls, a seated man and a standing girl, both wearing hats, appear to be tending the coconut shy. He has his right foot on the rail which marks the throwing position for the further of the two alleys. To the right of this, on the eastern boundary of the coconut shy, is another covered stall, with numerous boxes on a table, tended by a man standing with one hand behind his back. In the right hand background, on the east side of St John's Street, are more covered stalls, and a large crowd of men, women and children who are walking, browsing the stalls, or talking in small groups. The buildings on the east side of St John's Street are those shown as numbers 1 to 13 in this elevation drawing.

(e) In the background, behind the large lamp post, is the charateristic facade of the Red Lion Commercial Hotel, which still forms a backdrop to modern day Wirksworth, as shown in another elevation drawing on John Palmer's site. The building immediately to the left of The Red Lion appears, from the satellite image, to have since been demolished.

(d) To the left of the lamp post, and largely hidden by the presumed confectionery stall, is what we would nowadays term a merry-go-round, but in the 1891 Census was called a "roundabout [with] horses." The conical roof with a circular plan and a ball at the peak can be seen sticking up above and behind the awning of the confectionery stall, and through the stall part of one of the horses can even be seen. The building to the left of the merry-go-round is number 6 Market Place.

Image © & courtesy of Brenda Pearson
Image 2 - Wirksworth, West End, 1886 ?

The fore and middle ground of this photograph shows the top end of the two coconut bowling streets (a). Canvas sheets have been erected to catch errant projectiles, held up by long poles and guy ropes extending back towards the confectionery stall, just visible on the right hand side of the photo (b). A group of five children are sitting, lying, and in the case of the youngest, standing, in the space between the two bowling streets. Presumably they were there to put back coconuts knocked from their perches, but at the time the photographer clicked the shutter, they were far more interested in the brass band playing and marching up Market Place westwards towards West End. The band members (c), partly obscured by five adult onlookers standing immediately to the left of the confectionery stall, are marching from right to left across the photo, with some keen children running alongside. In the background are numbers 4 to 6 Market Place.

More in the next post ...

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