Memories of the Co-op Fete − Ipswich's 'best day out ever!'
PUBLISHED: 19:30 09 December 2019 | UPDATED: 13:24 12 December 2019
Back in the day (before Netflix, Alexa and YouTube) it was THE social highlight of the summer
"That was our one and only day out in the year - dad always giving mum the money to take us around the fair while he spent all the time at the boxing ring," says Pat Wright. "Fireworks in the evening and then a taxi home. That was the highlight of our day - a ride in a car. Pure luxury!"
You might not "get" it if you're not dyed-in-the-wool Suffolk, but the annual Co-op Fete was for many folk THE highlight of the summer. In an era before Facebook and zillions of TV channels - when a cassette player was the ultimate in musical sophistication - this largely-free day-out thrilled like little else.
It seemed the whole of Ipswich (plus people from outside the borough) headed to Christchurch Park on a summer Saturday that invariably dawned sunny and warm. Or is it that we just remember the days that enjoyed good weather?
The organisers always laid on a bumper bill of entertainment. There were bands, dancers (sometimes in medieval costume), athletic races, dog shows, motorbike displays, feats of skill and balance, flower shows, police dog agility displays, Morris dancers and more.
For many youngsters, foregoing sweets for weeks in order to save their pocket money for rides, the big draw was the funfair, with its noise, flashing lights and hint of a different way of life.
"I loved this when the fair boys used to get on the back of the car and spin it," wrote Linda Wyartt when we posted a picture of a fairground ride and invited people's memories of the fetes.
There was candy-floss, too. And then the evening ended with a big firework display at the bottom of the hill. There can't have been many people who didn't go home happy.
Certainly Sandie Quinton, from Woodbridge, has "Fabulous memories of the best fete ever", and Karen Batchelor, of Ipswich, recalls "I always had to win a goldfish. My poor old nan always got me one."
Pamela Mary Cook-Corbran, who now lives close to Buffalo and the US-Canadian border, says: "Went every year. Loved everything about the fete - the dog show; fireworks - plus had my first date with my husband there. It was a real treat for us."
Back to Pat Wright, who as a child was taken by parents Ellen and Bill Bell.
"We lived in a tied cottage in Nacton village and, yes, were poor," she tells us. "There were four children and my eldest sister wouldn't have come to the fete with us as she had already left home. I had two brothers, Doug and Vic.
"I reckon I was about eight or nine when I went to my first Co-op Fete. I can never recall having a proper holiday but my parents loved us, fed us, and cared for our welfare. So in that respect we were rich.
"Dad, by the way, was a farm labourer working six and a half days a week.
"I can remember that the taxi fare from Lloyds Avenue (Ipswich) to Park Farm, Nacton, was ten shillings. Since my dad's bring-home pay was around the four-pound mark, that was a lot of money."
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Gabrielle Howard: "My memory is of dancing & singing on the stage in front of the mansion as I was in the Co-op Juniors for many, many years up until the late '60s. I'm 67 & still do a dance class or two."
Andrew Farthing: "I remember seeing The Spinners there one year. There was the ABA boxing down near the war memorials. Fur and feather shows. Great all-day event."
Paul Sherman: "The evening entertainment in the early (years) consisted of a folk/jug band. I think they were called the New Lost City Ramblers, or something of that ilk. They were later replaced by Mr Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band. Those were the days!"
Roger Upson-Smith: "The Triangle Motor Cycle Club put on a motorball football match, plus stunt riding, in the arena. Also, I remember helping the Ipswich model aero club with the control line models."
Patty Olyarchik: "When I was a kid I was so tall I walked with my head down. Every time we went to the fete I used to find money on the ground."
Up the Pole
As far as I'm aware, the Co-operative and Labour Party sports day and fete had been held in Ipswich's Alexandra Park from 1923, and then in Chantry Park from 1934. Christchurch Park later became its home, until a much-loved era came to an end in 1980.
The East Anglian Film Archive has clips of some events, including amateur footage of a sports day and fete from 1930.
It includes a men's sprint race, a contest to eat a doughnut on a string, a skipping competition, and a race for women with balloons and sticks. There's also a men's hurdle race and a throwing contest.
Folk in the fancy dress competition featured someone dressed as an advert for CWS soap, another as a postbox, and other people advertising cigarettes. Wouldn't happen now.
There's also footage of the Co-op Fete in, almost certainly, 1950 (on Saturday, July 8). The schedule included Johnny Caross's Up the Pole act, in which he balanced on top of a high pole and struck acrobatic poses. He was mobbed by autograph hunters at the end of his performance.
There was a display of model aircraft, a sack race, Punch and Judy show, dog show, a male-voice choir, Spondon Carnival Band (from Derby), and a display by Ipswich Motor Cycle Club.
The Co-op Fete really was central to our summers (particularly childhood summers) and laid down indelible memories.
Wendy Sadler won't forget. "I used to go to the Ipswich High School in Westerfield Road, opposite the park, and it was always exam time when the fair was being put up.
"The music was such a distraction. I'm sure that's why I never did very well…"