From horticultural exhibitions, flower arranging, bee keeping and handicrafts to, parachutists, escapologists, motorcycle displays and camel racing, the Dagenham Town Show has become an iconic event, renowned for bringing the community together. This display explores how the history of the Town Show, and how popular culture and what people do for fun has changed since the middle of the twentieth century.
Three Towns Show
The Dagenham Town Show as we know it began in 1952. Previously, Dagenham had participated in the Three Towns Show with Romford and Hornchurch. Bad weather on the show weekends meant that these early shows lost money, and led the other two towns to withdraw after 1951. However, during a meeting of the (Special) Show Committee of Dagenham Borough Council in December 1951, it was declared that ‘We regard the expenditure as well worthwhile to sponsor an event which is now and annual feature of some importance, and one which serves to bring residents together’.
Early years of the Dagenham Town Show
The first day of the 1952 Dagenham Town Show is said to have brought at least 9,000 visitors. There was an entry fee of shilling and sixpence, but the good weather and attractions, such as handicrafts and – the most popular of all – horticulture, clearly made it worth paying. This included flower displays and fruit and vegetable competitions. By 1954 attendance had risen to 33,000 visitors. This was also the first year that the Road Safety Carnival became a part of the show, paving the way for the procession we are familiar with today.
The Fairlop Fair
The shows that took place in the early years were reminiscent of and drew inspiration from the Fairlop Fair, which took place in Hainault Forest from around the 1720’s right up to 1900.
The Fairlop Fair was started by Daniel Day, a block and pump maker from Wapping, who often travelled to Hainault, to not only collect the rent from property he owned in the district, but also to meet up with friends under the Fairlop Oak. He soon decided to extend his generosity to anyone who wanted to join the party, providing them bacon and beans. Gradually fruit and gingerbread sellers, entertainers and others were drawn to the old tree and the fair became an extensive event.
In 1765 the local constabulary reported that ‘a great number of people meet in a riotous and tumultuous manner, selling ale and spirituous liquors and keeping tippling booths and gaming tables to the great encouragement of vice and immorality’.
For many years the dog show was a very popular part of the Town Show, with a variety of classes. There was even a prize for the dog with the ‘most appealing eyes and expression’ in 1966. There were competitions for both homing and fancy pigeons, as well as mice and rabbits. Animals remained a large part of the show for many years, with the horse show having almost two hundred participants at one point. In 1980 the arena programme even included three camel races!
There has always been something for everyone in the way of entertainment at the Town Show. Over its 60 year history, some acts have been simply unforgettable. Stuntmen, parachutists, trick motorcyclists and human fireballs are just some of those who have wowed the crowds in the main arena in recent years.
In 1994 the entry fee was removed, and for the first time the show didn’t have an arena: this was replaced by ‘strolling musicians’ who performed freely around the park. The arena was reinstated in 1997, and the next two years had a somewhat worldly theme to the musicians on stage. The arena included African percussionist, Ben Badoo and a recital by a Russian Violinist in 1998 – hardly the typical entertainment in Dagenham! During the same year there were also many tribute artists to people such as, the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner and Rod Stewart.
The parade has been a pivotal part of the celebrations ever since the Barking Carnival came together with the Town Show in 1954. Thousands of local people would gather to watch the floats and strolling big heads, before a spectacular firework display.
As the end of the twentieth century progressed, the parade became more and more spectacular with around a hundred floats decorated by local businesses, organisations and charities, which made their way to the showground from Old Dagenham Park via Church Elm Lane, Ford Road, Board Street, Heathway, Oxlow Lane and Rainham Road North. However the star of this procession was undoubtedly the Carnival Queen and her Royal Court.
Rain, rain go away!
The Town show hasn’t always run smoothly, though. Unfortunately the weather has often put a dampener on the festivities. In 1958 four marquees were blown down by 70 mile per hour winds on the Sunday. Also in 1995 the committee had to replace tables and chairs that had gone missing during the show at a cost of £722, meaning there was less money for musicians and definitely not enough to run an arena programme.