Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Fair at Plymouth

Regular fairground attractions appear on Plymouth Hoe every year especially during the school holidays. The fair has been visiting this part of the city for well over 100 years. The original site was at West Hoe and popular rides back then included the Helter Skelter, the motor car switchback, the carousel and the swing boats. There were also rifle ranges, a coconut shy and stalls where you could throw a ball to win prizes. Many of the photos shown here come from Hancock's Fair which was touring in the late 1800s onwards. Hancock's Fair of 1910 included side-shows, roundabouts, switchbacks and competitions including a beauty show, a baby show and a wrestling match. Also appearing that year was Professor Bianchi who was described as 'the greatest foot equilibrist in the world.'
The fairground was destroyed by fire during 1913 as suffragettes protested against the arrest of Mrs Pankhurst. The Western Gazette of Friday 9th December 1913 reported:
'A large timber yard in Richmond Walk, Devonport, was totally destroyed by fire on Monday morning and great damage was done to property adjoining belonging to Hancock's World Fair. Suffragettes literature was found on the scene of the outbreak, which is the place where Mrs Drummond and other militants recently awaited the landing of Mrs Pankhurst from America, not knowing that she had already been arrested.
Some of the occupants of the World's Fair's vans had narrow escapes. Miss Hancock was in great distress on Monday. 'We are completely ruined,' she tearfully told a press representative. 'About £3,500 worth has gone and we have not a penny of insurance. Times have been very bad lately and we thought we might save the premiums. When the suffragettes were here to rescue Mrs Pankhurst, I said they were brave women and I got into trouble for it. I think now that they are only cruel, selfish women.'
Hancock's Fair must have recovered from their plight as reports in local papers show them still touring in the 1920s.
By the 1930s, the fair had a new venue but not all were in favour. In June 1935, the council deliberated about allowing the fair on the main part of the Hoe during Regatta week.
Alderman G Scoble stated: 'I have had a good experience of fairs and I have reached the conclusion that the public desires these fairs. Much of the sting of the old complaints has been removed. Instead of blaring trumpets, we will have the sweet music of amplifiers. There will be no nuisance except chip-potato paper and a few things like that. Seeing that we have a Lord Mayor now, we should celebrate the occasion properly with a fair on the Hoe. Nothing would be more enjoyable than to see members of this council on the hobby horses. If the fair is a necessary evil, let us have it on the Hoe.'
However, Alderman Cornish was less than happy with the proposal. He stated: 'If you have any sense of decency, you will not allow this orgy to be perpetrated on what visitors call one of the finest places in the world. An alternative would be to have the fair in the Guildhall Square.'
Alderman G P Dymond also objected stating: 'I remember the last time this fair was held on top of the Hoe, it was said 'Never again!' The disfigurement lasted so long that people were disgusted to think that we allowed the fair to take place on the Hoe at all.'
Other councillors protested about the 'hooliganism and loose play' at the fair on previous years but it was suggested that there should be full police supervision.
After listening to all of the arguments, the council, in its wisdom, decided to allow the fair to take place.
Over the years, the fair has lost none of its appeal and the rides featured are many and varied. Throughout the 1970s, one of the most popular touring fairs was Whiteleggs which will be remembered fondly by many.
As a kid I loved such rides as the dodgems, the cyclone, the waltzers, the big wheel and the big dipper but it would take a lot to get me on one of them nowadays!

Monday, 27 October 2014

Plymouth's Great War by Chris Robinson

My own book about Plymouth in the Great War came out recently and is now available in Waterstones, WH Smiths etc if you want to get a copy. It is also available at Amazon here.
In a day or so, Chris Robinson's book about the First World War, which is called 'Plymouth's Great War - The Three Towns in Conflict' is released and looks a stunning publication. It's packed with photos of Plymouth, the troops and the people of the city. Many of the photos haven't been seen in print before and, like all of Chris's books, it looks an incredible read.
I haven't seen a picture of the cover anywhere, so here's an exclusive. The book is 272 pages and will be published by Pen & Ink Publishing  on October 28, 2014, ISBN 978-0956985873.
I'm pleased to see another book, other than mine, about Plymouth and the First World War and I'm looking forward to reading it very much.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Stanley Gibbon's postal origins

I recently received a very interesting email from Jonathan Hill in Exeter. Although it's known that Stanley Gibbons was from Plymouth, little seems to be known about the origins of his stamp collecting business although it's recorded that his father, William, owned a chemist shop in Treville Street and that Stanley had an interest in stamps from when he was a boy and joined his father's business after the death of his eldest brother. His father encouraged his stamp collecting hobby and a stamp desk was set up within the chemist's shop.
Jonathan's email adds to the story:
'Hello Derek,
I was very interested to read your information about Stanley Gibbons
on your blog (
My father Geoffrey Hill, who was born in Plymouth in 1903, used to tell
me about the family's pawn broker's shop they had in Devonport. I
recall my father's grandfather (my great grandfather) was in partnership in the business with a man called Stanley Gibbons, when one day in the 1870s
a sailor came in through the door and threw a canvas kit bag onto the
counter. It was full of Cape triangular stamps. My great grandfather,
being only interested in jewellery, silver and similar antiques,
wasn't impressed, but Gibbons was. He bought the lot from the sailor,
eventually splitting from the business and going to London to set up
as a stamp dealer. I've never read this anywhere else. I haven't got
immediate access to the family tree (it's in storage somewhere), so I
can't say what my great grandfather's name was. I have no reason to suspect my father made this up and hope that one day I'll find out (and prove)
more! The family were antique dealers and pawn brokers in Plymouth
from Victorian times until the Blitz (where the family shop was totally destroyed!).
Best wishes, Jonathan Hill (Exeter).'

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Frankfort Gate

The area of Frankfort Gate, together with the nearby premises, was once a bustling shopping area for all the family. Today, it has been 're-branded' as the West End (probably by the same committee that re-branded Plymouth as 'the Ocean City') but was previously just called the 'bottom end of town' by many people. It's still reasonably busy but not so much as it once was.
In the late 1970s, the area, where Toys R Us stands today, was just cleared land which was used as an open car park for most of the time and on certain days, as an open air market. It sold a variety of items such as household wares, shoes, clothes, prints and mirrors featuring the images of Elvis, the Fonz or Starsky and Hutch or, if you were more classy, Southern Comfort. I'm sure that Chris Dawson had a stall there selling items from a large lorry.
Walking across the stretch of land led you to the Odeon Cinema in Union Street which, at the time, had a huge mural of Marilyn Monroe on its side (I wish I had a photo of it). The cinema was hugely popular together with the Drake and the ABC by Derry's Cross.

A zebra crossing took you across the road from the car park to Jack Cohen's Joke Shop. Every boy loved the shop which sold itching powder, stink bombs, inky soap and a variety of other practical jokes and pranks which were played on teachers and parents daily by naughty schoolboys. Jack served in the shop and was lovely to everyone. Further down the street was the Green Shield Stamp shop. Green Shield stamps were given away with everything including shopping and petrol. These were then stuck in a booklet and when you had enough, you could redeem an item from the shop which included things like garden gnomes, clock radios and teasmades as well as many larger items such as lawn mowers. The Co-op also issued stamps which could be redeemed for cash (50p for each book filled).
At the bottom of Frankfort Gate, was a shop selling collectable stamps which stood there for many years. Boys were very keen to collect stamps, as were adults, and apart from stamps the shop also sold albums and other related items. Shops selling collectable coins also traded in the area. Many of the common hobbies of the 1960s and 1970s have now long since died off.
Nearby was Bonus Books. They sold second-hand books but also took your old ones in part exchange for others. The great draw for kids was that they had many annuals as well as comics, including endless American ones, which featured superheroes such as Spiderman and Superman.
Then there was the Poster Shop which always seemed to have a poster of Debbie Harry in the window. As well as posters, they sold badges featuring the names of all the latest bands as well as various other stuff, some relating to the cartoon dog, Snoopy. The shop was open for many years. Many shops sold posters at the time and Pace Posters, now long forgotten, were very popular. These could be found in newsagents everywhere and adorned all kids' bedroom walls.
Further up was the London Camera exchange where you could sell or trade-in your old camera for a better one or exchange it for various lenses or other equipment. They also sold films, developed photos and sold other camera accessories. The shop was always full of camera enthusiasts, as was the nearby Wightman photography shop in Market Avenue.
On the corner, nearest the market, was the only charity shop I can remember in town at the time. Oxfam wasn't quite like it is today. It sold clothes as they were donated, none were washed, and the shop had its own peculiar pong. For people who enjoyed visiting, it was easy to find items or clothing dating, sometimes, back to wartime. The whiff of someone's old clothes was always a givaway on the bus back home which mixed with the smell of endless cigarette smoke (sometimes from the driver).
On the other side ot the street, as in Union Street, there were various second-hand shops selling things like old televisions, reel-to-reel tape recorders, cine projectors and records and record players. All redundant now due to the digital age.
Across the way, was the indoor market which was always incredibly busy and sold fruit and veg, clothes, pets, jewellery, collectables and knic-knacs. Many kids had a rabbit, hamster or budgie as a pet in the 1970s and the market was the place to get them. The second-hand record stall was very popular and records could be bought or traded in. The stall was there for at least thirty years and had a huge 'wanted' poster, featuring a cowboy and gun, requesting your old records.
Leaving the back door into Cornwall Street, a short walk took you to Woolworth's. Many items seemed to cost 6/6d and they sold everything you needed as well as paintings, one of the most popular being seagulls flying over a Cornish coast (only seen in doctor's waiting rooms nowadays!) I was reminded recently that Woolworth's also had its own photo booth and for 20p you could get a strip of four photos. There was always a queue for the machine but people weren't getting their photos taken for driving licences or passports, it was just the novelty of having your photo taken and seeing it instantly. The photo booth at Bretonside was equally as popular.
Leaving Woolworth's and heading back down to Frankfort Gate, there was just time to pop into Dewdney's to get a pasty. They came in one flavour (meat and potato) and there was always a cat sat in the window. A huge queue would lead out of the shop, which was always packed. It was one of the few fast-food shops of its day. It's just as popular today although the cat's long since gone.
Of course, the area has changed greatly over the years and many of the shops that were once there in the 1970s have gone forever. Today, there's more tattoo shops, takeaways, phone and computer shops and all the things needed for a modern life. Times change but many of the old shops are still fondly remembered.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Derry's Clock and car park in the 1970s

Here's an interesting photo of the open-air car park beside Derry's Clock in about 1971 (please click on the picture to enlarge it). It's interesting to see all the old cars (all would now be classics) including Ford Prefects and Escorts, Morris Minors, Austin 1100s, Minis and many more.
It's interesting that the wrought iron entrance to the old underground toilets (or pissoirs as they were originally called) still survive in the photo even though they were bombed in the Blitz.
On the left can be seen Derry's Clock and, on the right, is the brick building housing the popular picture house, the ABC. The concrete wall in the middle of the photo was where the queues would form for the cinema when ever a popular film was on. The queue would stretch right back and around the corner. When I was a boy, I remember joining these queues several times to watch Roger Moore in Live and Let Die, Gary Glitter in Remember Me This Way and Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way Was Loose. Most were great films apart from the Gary Glitter one which was awful and my visit to see it is mentioned in my book, A 1970s Childhood.
Of course, the area today is under the Theatre Royal and its adjacent car park although it doesn't seem too long, to me, that it was all just like this. The older you get, the nearer the past seems!

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Memories of Glenn Miller

Deryk Maker kindly wrote to me recently with his memories of seeing Glenn Miller in Plymouth in 1944. I wrote about Glenn's visit to the city in a previous blog which can be found here:
I enjoyed reading Deryk's memories very much and I've reproduced his email here so everyone can enjoy reading them:

Hello Derek,
As it is now 70 years since I was lucky enough to attend the Glenn Miller concert at the Odeon Cinema in Plymouth on the 28th August 1944 you might be interested in my recollection of the occasion. At the time I was on a Engineering Cadetship course at the then Plymouth
Devonport Technical College, prior to entering the Navy.
I had heard that the concert was open to armed services personnel
only, so rather in hope than expectation I donned my Home Guard
uniform and cycled from my 'digs' in Milehouse down to Frankfort
Street where I was fortunate to not only gain entry to the cinema
packed mainly with US soldiers and sailors but also to stand against a
side wall close to the stage and with an uninterrupted view.

After so many years my memory of the whole programme is now rather
vague but it was my first unforgettable experience of seeing a really
big and famous band in action. I believe the band's lead singer Johnny
Desmond and close harmony singers The Modernaires or an equivalent
group appeared, and at least one of my favourite numbers Tuxedo
Junction, featuring the unison, bite and precision of the brass

section was played, while the distinctive mellow harmony of the saxes
and clarinet was also well in evidence, but whether that good example
of the latter sound, At Last was included I can't recall. The whole
atmosphere was electrifying and the capacity audience clapped, stamped and roared their approval.
The concert finished in the early hours and I emerged from the cinema

to find that my bike had been stolen! - No matter! As I wearily
trudged my way back to Milehouse I reflected on the musical thrill of
a lifetime that I had experienced. I often wonder whether any other
civilians managed to attend too!
Kind Regards,

Deryk Maker.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Smeaton's Tower's colour scheme

When the idea was first suggested to move the lighthouse from the Eddystone Reef to Plymouth Hoe, it wasn't popular with everyone. Many felt that it would ruin the look of the area and a obelisk already stood on the proposed site. The council turned down the idea three times but finally gave into the wishes of the people and the Trinity Board headed by the Duke of Edinburgh.
The Duke laid the foundation stone on the Hoe on 20th October 1882 and the lighthouse was opened to the public on Wednesday 24th September 1884.
Once on the Hoe, Smeaton's Tower was painted in the colours we see today, with a red lantern and red banded stripes. This colour scheme lasted until 1937, when it was decided a new paint scheme would be adopted to coincide with the coronation of George VI.

The Western Morning News of Tuesday 13th April 1937 reported on a council meeting discussing the matter:

Criticism of the plan to paint Smeaton Lighthouse green and stone colour was made by Mr Harry Taylor. Mr Taylor said the present colours of the lighthouse were known to thousands throughout the world and to paint it green and stone colour would alter the entire appearance of the tower. Mrs J Pook seconded. 'With all the alterations proposed on the Hoe, we shall hardly know the place presently,' she said. Mr P Ross defended the proposal and said the new colours would make it look more like a lighthouse. Mr Leatherby said at the moment the lighthouse looked more like a barber's pole.
A voice: 'Take it away, then.'
Mr Leatherby: 'I would, willingly, and I would take away a good many other monuments if I had my way.'

Mr Leatherby said the colours recommended would be more artistic.

The new colour scheme was adopted and lasted into the 1960s when the tower was repainted white with the lantern part painted red, some time during or before 1962. A black band was painted around the base of the lighthouse. This colour scheme lasted until the late 1970s but by 1980 (probably for the Drake 400 celebrations), the original red and white banded colour scheme, which we see today, was once more adopted.