words BY NICK HUDSON
While an earthquake struck Ariano in Italy – killing 1,500 people – no less momentous steps were being taken in a room at the Cock & Bear Inn by Nuneaton Borough’s old Manor Park football ground on the evening of Tuesday, July 23, 1930.
The town’s very first carnival committee meeting was called by Eli Deeming and saw seven people in total attend with Mr W White accepting the post of chairman.
Those present at the far-reaching gathering, in addition to Messrs White and Deeming, were Mr A Jacques, Mr J H Smith, Mr A Keiser, Mr C Orton, Mr H Wood and the press showed interest – covering the occasion, too.
The committee had got together to “put into practical form the various suggestions which had been floating around the town all the year”.
With great enthusiasm it presented to the Nuneaton public an infant carnival – a babe that was soon to grow to astounding proportions, and which, according to newspaper reports at the time, was to “shock the district out of its near-traditional lethargy.”
Nuneaton Carnival had a lot to live down as Birmingham’s famous historian William Hutton once visited town and described it as being “in the dominion of sleep.”
The original date of the first carnival was set for Saturday, September 13 in 1930 with the express resolution that the monies raised were “in aid of the Nuneaton General Hospital (the old Manor) with a small percentage to go to St John Ambulance and the Red Cross Society.”
The August 20 meeting of the committee proved significant with more members co-opted and it was no joke when a Mr F C Ripp was appointed organising secretary, having come into his first meeting straight from a cricket practice still wearing his Nuneaton Cricket Club blazer.
The meeting organised concerts and dances with the use of the King Edward VI Grammar School field and Riversley Park secured. The classes for the carnival were built up, prizes worked out, deputations sent to Coventry for advice from its carnival committee there and the new rules were framed.
Number two on those rules stated quite clearly “that the object shall be the raising of funds, year by year for the benefit of the Nuneaton General Hospital”.
This rule was still the main one on board for the carnival during the 1930s and the slogan ‘Every Copper Helps’ was adopted and plastered around town and district, immediately capturing the popular imagination.
The slogan’s origin came from hospital matron, Miss B M Partington, who also drew the sketch of the “bobby”.
On Saturday, October 18 – less than three months after the inaugural meet – the first Nuneaton Hospital Carnival was staged. Even the weather, with the exception of one sharp shower, proved clement for the time of year.
The procession started in King Edward Road and saw thousands of townspeople showering coppers on the collectors and cheering the inaugural queen, Ann Seal – and her maids of honour – Doris Bambury, Edna Clarke, Marjorie Colledge and Phyllis Green – who were elected by newspaper vote with Alf Clarke being the first King Of Mirth.
The crowning ceremony was performed by the then Mayor of Nuneaton, Dr L E Price, in beautiful sunshine in the grammar school’s field, where later, the judging of floats and entrants took place.
Another custom. which has continued into the 21st century, saw the mayor, Councillor Price, initiate “kissing the queen”.
For the first time for over a generation the carnival staged a public ox roasting, while other sideshows kept the public in party mood. Many scoffed at the idea that the event could raise anything like £1,000 – but the final tally for carnival day was three old pence short of £1,428.
On Tuesday, November 18, Alderman Edward Melly, the honorary secretary of the hospital who had a ward named after him and co-incidentally was founder and first curator of the Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, received a cheque to the value of £1,100 from Mr Ripp, at a dinner held at The Newdegate Arms Hotel in Nuneaton.
Founding secretary Eli Deeming was presented with a suitably
inscribed clock in recognition of starting the first Nuneaton Hospital Carnival.
The following year saw an even bolder event staged on Saturday, July 18 with the marshalling of the procession moved from King Edward Road to an area around Central Avenue, Corporation Street and Graham Street – and the judging and gala events switched to Weddington Cricket Ground.
There was a huge crowd in Riversley Park at the crowning of the queen, Phyllis Gibbs, whose maids of honour were Vera Cox, Millicent Ward, Mary Haynes and Phyllis Green. Fannie Timmins, who made queen in 1933, should have been a maid but was unfortunately ill for the 1931 event.
The enterprise of the carnival committee was again well rewarded. When the accounts were straightened up, it was seen that another £1,000 would be available for the hospital with the 1931 event producing £516 in street collections (against £485 the year before), £140 from the greenhouse (£146), programmes £79 (£90), ox-roasting £97 (£100) and dances £42 (£140). The charges of admission to the Weddington ground, however produced £100 which was not available the year before, to bring total receipts up to £1,295 10s. 1d, against £1,427 19s. 9d.
In 1932 – the third event – some 1,300 entrants took part, up from 987 the previous year.
The July 9 carnival won universal praise from townsfolk; there was a picture spread in the national newspaper, the Sunday Graphic on the following day – but the local ‘rag’ of the time, the Nuneaton Observer, showed less of a friendly face to the event.
A few days after Mary Haynes was crowned queen – attended by maids Phyllis Gibbs (the previous queen ), Iris Barratt, Vera Cox, Fannie Timmins, Dorothy Widdus and seven small drummer boys – the ‘Ob’ took the event to task.
It described how the pageant, with the procession stretching for three miles, was “thin on humour” – and went on to ask the questions: “What has happened to Nuneaton’s fun-makers, have they run out of ideas so soon?”
Despite the wigging from the pages of the weekly newspaper, the event realised £1,005 – still above the £1,0000 mark – and totalled almost £3,000 in three years of giving by Nuneaton people during The Great Depression, which was an unbelievably tough time compared to what is seen as a recession-hit world of the last two decades.
One year in the Thirties really stands out – it was 1937. Kathleen Holden took the queen’s tiara with maids Grace Alton and Joan Bowers while chairman Walter Deans made the customary appeal to raise £1,000 for Nuneaton General Hospital.
From the records, it looks like the carnival should have had no problems with reaching that peak as the event was blessed with NINE working committees which all had chairman, including a collections chief called Mr Frank ‘Tut’ Moore (later Alderman) who was to have great influence over the town politically in the following four decades.
That year there were 44 carnival vice presidents, with 16 of them working GPs and another five surgeons.
One of those surgeons and a vice president of the 1937 carnival – Sir Beckwith Whitehouse – will probably go down as the most famous person connected with the committee in the event’s 82-year history.
The incredibly busy old Manor Hospital consultant, who also held the positions of honorary gynaecological surgeon to the Birmingham United
Hospitals (the General Hospital in Steelhouse Lane and the
new Queen Elizabeth Hospital out at Edgbaston); honorary
surgeon to the Maternity Hospital in Loveday Street, Birmingham; as well as consultant at the Lucy Baldwin Maternity Hospital,
Hammerwich; Sutton Cottage Hospitals; the Smallwood
Hospital, Redditch; the Guest Hospital, Dudley; and Walsall General Hospital; had been knighted by King George VI that year in the Coronation Honours for his services to medicine.
The likeable Midland physician had covered himself in glory in the early part of his career during World War One. Within a fortnight of the declaration of hostilities in August, 1914, he was in France, where he served as officer-in-charge of the surgical division and surgical specialist to the No. 8 General Hospital, Rouen, and the No. 56 General Hospital, Etaples.
For four years he served as a member of the Radium Commission. No one appreciated more the value of radium in the hands of the gynaecologist, but he was well aware of the risks and dangers of its injudicious use, and set these out with his usual care in what he wrote on the subject.
In 1929, when the Royal College of Obstetricans and Gynaecologists was incorporated, he became a Foundation Fellow.
After his knighthood and just weeks before the start of World War Two in July 1939 – Beckwith Whitehouse was elected to the top drawer of his profession – as president of the British Medical Association.
The election gave him great pleasure and pride, and the knowledge
that he had behind him the whole-hearted support of the local
professionals, including his Nuneaton colleagues.
Sadly, after returning from a BMA meeting on July 28, 1943 – he was taken ill and died suddenly at the age of 60.
The carnival ran until the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, with Olive Harvey the queen that year.
During WWII, there was a moratorium on carnivals – although monies for the hospital continued to be raised. Some £400 was collected towards mobile X-ray machines in 1942.
The town still had queen-crowning ceremonies with Thelma Stringer (later McKeown) taking the honours in 1943 and 1944 and Thelma Hunt enjoying the moment in 1945 when Britain celebrated victory in VE and VJ days and the end to six years of deadly conflict.
After the Second World War there seems less consistent enthusiasm for the big occasion. Carnival records show intermittent events in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Vicki Booker was the queen in 1947, while 17-year-old Joyce Lloyd was elected a new Nuneaton Road Safety Queen the following year.
Grace Wilson was carnival queen in 1952 – as Queen Elizabeth II began her monumental, unbroken 60-year reign on the British throne.
In 1957, housewife Heather Golding, 23, held the grand distinction of being crowned the Jubilee Charter Queen of Nuneaton – with the town celebrating 50 years of being a borough.
And then we move forward to 1963 and the start of the revived Nuneaton carnival.
Alderman Reg Hadden, who took the responsibility of being the society’s chairman, told the town in the carnival programme notes: “Years ago the Nuneaton Carnival was an annual event. The decision to revive it has been received with keen enthusiasm.
“It is the desire of the committee to make it the gay and colourful event it once was.
It was a huge year for the town’s event with many of names most associated with the ‘modern’ carnival jumping on board the charity bandwagon.
Mr Hadden, the grand old man of the local politics and a popular local book shop owner, took the chairman’s seat for what would prove a record-breaking stay with the carnival committee; Eric Lewis was vice chairman (and later chairman) while Jim Burley and Ed Kitney also took crucial roles that year.
Pride of place in 1963 went to founder of the revived event – and general secretary – Yvonne Ready. She proved a tower of strength until tragically being killed in a car accident at bottom of Hinckley Road, Nuneaton.
Sam Hoverd started a long run as King of Mirth with local musician Tommy Walkden filling the duties of Herald.
The 1963 event was unique – in that it lasted a week, beginning with the crowning of 18-year-old Madeleine Ann Brown, from Gipsy Lane, Nuneaton, on Monday, May 13.
The carnival incorporated the opening of Friary Youth Centre on Abbey Green on the Tuesday; a fun fair on the Wednesday; fashion show on the Thursday; a charity ball on the Friday and procession and gala on the Saturday.
A total of £1,350 was raised and split between three local charities – the League of Friends of Nuneaton Hospital, the British Red Cross Society which was in its centenary year and the Mayor’s Appeal for a Running Track.
The prizes weren’t bad in those days either – with the teenager winning a holiday for two at Butlins, jointly provided by Sir Billy and Nuneaton Co-op Travel.
By the 10th revived carnival in 1972 – now 40 years ago – some £15,500 had found its way to charitable courses via the event and those original committee stalwarts were all still there plus Bill Newell as the gala producer.
That year saw current carnival queen manager Petrina Davies, a representative for the Nuneaton Pantomime and Revue Society, as one of the two maids to the Co-op’s Anita Harris – who was crowned carnival queen.
The ’72 event was a two-day affair with Wild West and stunt car themes on the Saturday at the Pingles gala and the battle of the bands on the Sunday.
One of the highlights of the stunt show was Evening Tribune photographer Tony Hewitt, not shy in telling press colleagues of his rally driving and mountaineering exploits.
His fellow workers at the Whitacre Road newspaper dared him to join the stunt show – and he did, riding bareback on the boot of a Ford Anglia as it careered around the old Pingles gala arena.
There were no such histrionics in 1978, when Nuneaton’s very own TV star – Larry Grayson – was given the honour of crowning 18-year-old Gail Clarke as queen.
The following year’s event, on June 9, when 17-year-old Tracy Grant was queen, had wrestling as the star billing with Jackie ‘TV’ Pallo the top turn.
A decade later in 1989, Dawn Tye was the teenage queen but Ann Lowe stole some of the headlines as the first Queen of Mirth.
The female form of merriment continued in the following two years with Daphne Brettle and Cheryl Reeves.
The record-breaking King of Mirth proved to be the first one – back in 1930. Alf Clarke held the position until the outbreak of World War Two in 1939.
Other long-serving committee stalwarts all held the post of chairman – Reg Hadden in the 1960s and 1970s; – Roger Moreton in the 1990s with the current chairman Robin Thomas completing 10 carnivals as the event’s overlord in 2012. He will also have seen 30 years service with the event by the end of this year.