This extract from ‘Pat Collins- King of Showmen’ by Freda Allen and Ned Williams, Uralia Press, 1991, appears by kind permission of Ned Williams. It should be noted that the text was written at the beginning of the 1980s and that new information may have come to light or circumstances changed since then [notably on Pat Collins’ lion tamer Captain Clarke – Ed.]. For more about Ned Williams and his work see his website: http://www.nedwilliams.co.uk
Pat Collins and the Bloxwich Wakes
By Ned Williams
A great deal of attention has already been given to the Bloxwich Wake as it played a central part in the life story of this great showman (Pat Collins). He attended the Bloxwich Wake from the first year he made the Black Country his home in 1882. At that time it was still held on The Green (now Bloxwich Park), and Pat’s “base” was in WaIsall. But from then on the fair in Bloxwich, and Pat’s life, were on a collision course.
The Bloxwich Wake was held on the third Monday in August, and the Darlaston Wake was held a week later. There were over twenty ‘Wakes” held by different communities in the immediate area at slightly different times. By the 1890s there were many who wished to abolish the events altogether because they were associated with too much drinking, rowdyism, and enjoyment.
The new concept of an August Bank Holiday led many to hope that the Wakes would be replaced by this single holiday. Employers hoped there would be an end to the confusion and absenteeism surrounding the many different Wakes happening at different times. Local Councils went to the Home Secretary with a “Consolidation of Wakes and Fairs Scheme” in 1897, and the local paper (Walsall Observer?) wondered if 1897 would be the last of the Wakes in Bloxwich, and elsewhere. The showman, no doubt, hoped otherwise. The wakes, all within a short distance of each other, spread from late Summer to late Autumn, and made it worth his while investing in large riding machines which could be moved around the network of towns and villages that made up the Black Country.
By 1898 the Bloxwich Wake was fighting for its life.
Official opposition to it was stronger than ever. It was held on land near Church Street, and, again, the local paper thought it might be the last. The Bioscope had been present (Edison’s Cinematograph, but presented by whom?) and Pat presented his Gondolas, roundabouts and menagerie. There were more stalls than ever and the event was well supported.
As the Summer of 1899 approached everyone watched the situation with interest as, at last, it seemed the Wake had been abolished. But Pat was not beaten. On 12 August an advertisement appeared in the Walsall Observer announcing: “Collins’ Grand Fete and Gala to be held ‘in commemoration of the Bloxwich Wakes’.” Pat had leased a large field, Tenter’s Croft, near the Pinfold, and conveniently close to the tram terminus. The “Fete and Gala” was different in that customers had to pay for admission to the ground, but once inside could enjoy a large range of free entertainment jugglers, clowns, high wire acts, etc. as well as pay for the rides, which included the Gondolas, the Mountain Ponies, and the “Electric Jumpers”, i.e. the mechanical Gallopers. Wall’s Cinematograph Show was there, as well as Purchase’s menagerie.
The crowds flocked to the “Fete & Gala” in larger numbers than ever. So much for abolishing the Wake! Pat had undertaken much fly posting over a wide area, and must have been pleased with the result. A reporter from the Walsall Free Press was dismissive of the rides, they were the “usual business” but he went on to say: “There were the usual conglomeration of fat women and other monstrosities, live alligators, snakes, peep shows and boxing booths. But preeminently in the fair stood Purchase’s Menagerie which is certainly well worth a visit, where the intrepid lion tamer Beaumont is engaged, and who goes through some outstanding performances with the animals, notably entering the den with the untamed Wallace son of the original Wallace of Wombwell’s time … If the numerous scars exhibited by the tamer are any criterion of the stories he told me, then he has had many severe encounters with the animals under his charge.” The final chapter of this story was that a lioness gave birth to cubs on the Tuesday, and the new enlarged lion family moved on to appear on its own pitch at Rushall for a couple of days.
Thus a new tradition was established. From then on, Pat Collins always held his “Fete & Gala” at Bloxwich in the middle of August every year on the field by the Pinfold. If the Council had been instrumental in banning his Wake it is ironic to note that Pat leased the field from a Councillor Alderman Lindop. Punters continued to pay admission to the Gala, and the tradition of providing a wealth of free entertainment became firmly established. By the turn of the century this included not just the clowns, jugglers, pole and wire acts, but also balloon ascents, parachute drops and firework displays. The advertisements every year list the attractions in detail and would form the basis of a detailed history of the Gala alone.
The ‘Wonderland Show” was brought to Bloxwich in 1907, and this brought with it the establishment of another tradition the Sacred Music Concert on the Marenghi organ on the Sunday when the Gala was otherwise closed. Pat also introduced a “benefit night” on the final evening of the Wake. In 1907 that was held on the Wednesday, adding an additional night to the fair’s usual run. but some years later it reverted to Tuesday night. The first occasion raised over £63 for the local Hospital Fund. Sometimes this money was taken from the admissions, sometimes from what was spent on the rides and stalls. If the latter was the case, it was quite well known for Pat to “twist the arm” of a tenant, if not satisfied with the contributions being handed over!
The Galas continued to be held throughout the First World War. As well as running Hospital Benefit Night, Pat also ran a “benefit hour” every day during the 1918 Gala to try and raise money for a £500 fund being established to help local boys who had fought and become prisoners of war.
Meanwhile, Pat was “closing in” on Bloxwich. In 1911 he had been able to purchase the field on which his Gala was held. Between the field and the southern end of Bloxwich High Street was Lime Tree House. In fact one entrance to the field was via a track alongside the house. Several notable folk had lived in the house, including Alderman Ingram, one of the “Fathers” of Walsall Council. In the years before the First World War it was occupied by Richard Thomas. Sometime during the War, Pat obtained the Lease on Lime Tree House, and he and Flora moved from Chester House, by the Gondola Works, to Bloxwich.
In 1918 some of the land at Shaw Street (the Gondola Works) was sold and the headquarters of Pat’s organisation began its gradual move out to Bloxwich, which was not really completed until 1933. In 1926 Pat purchased Lime Tree House, and it remained his permanent home until his death there in 1943.
The land behind Lime Tree House became the site of the Gala, winter quarters, and, eventually, a vast sprawling yard where retired fairground equipment “faded away”. Returning to our story of the “Gala” it soon became known as the “Wake” again, and the field from 1920 onwards was called the “Wakes Ground” (technically something it had never previously been).
In 1922 the Walsall Observer interviewed Pat to mark his 40th attendance at Bloxwich Wake. Pat recalled:
“When I first attended Bloxwich Wake as a showman the fair was pitched on the Common, the site of the present Bloxwich Park. Those were strenuous days, when more often than not, the use of fists was the only possible argument. Wakes Week was invariably synonymous with great rowdyism. Rival factions would meet on the Common and, stripped to the flesh, would fight for hours until they were almost unrecognisable. A Wake without dozens of fights would in those days have been no Wake at all. When the rowdies had fought themselves to a standstill, their only remaining sport was to try and take it out on the showmen. The man who could not fight soon went to the wall.
… Roundabouts in those days were quite primitive affairs, originally pushed round by hand … The advent of steam made great changes. Lighted by the old style naptha lamps, the merry go rounds with their new engines, went at a speed that had never before been known. Prominent among the other attractions was the Ghost Show … parts of this show are still preserved at the Gondola Works … and Boxing booths were very popular. It was in these that the rowdy element more often than not met their match”.
In 1899 the reporter had been rather impressed with Beaumont and the Lions at Purchase’s Menagerie. Later, in the 1920s Pat was travelling his own Menagerie, usually described as Mrs Collins’ show. The lion tamer was Albert Williams, known to the world as Macomo. The inter war years also featured a number of artistes who came to Bloxwich year after year, such as Professor Cadman, and his Punch & Judy show, and Professor Bert Powsey who specialised in making a high dive into a small tank of water four feet deep. In the 1930s artistes who appeared at amusement parks during the summer would be brought to Bloxwich for the Wake, and then perhaps appear in the Midlands again when the Onion Fair was on.
In 1932 a lion, formerly thought to be in Mrs Collins’ Menagerie, but now discovered otherwise, escaped, while wintering in Bloxwich, and made his way to a house in Church Street. The lion went in through the back door and made his way to the front room. The man of the house made a quick exit …. while his wife thoughtfully shut the door to the room. The lion was later captured and returned to his quarters! When Flora Collins died in April 1933, it seemed that the Menagerie was going to be closed down. However, when Bloxwich folk made their way to the Gala in 1933 they were able to watch the lion … in new employment … running around inside a “Globe of death” …dodging a trick cyclist! Or perhaps it was the cyclist trying to dodge the lion?
The quest for something new throughout the 1930s brought many strange “acts” to the Wakes. In 1939 the star of the show was a Swiss Giant, Violo Myllerinne, who at the age of 22, was 9ft.10 inches tall.
The Second World War more effectively interrupted the life of the Wakes than its predecessor, and after the War, the spell had been broken. Clara maintained the links with Bloxwich, and was President of the local Carnival Committee and later Walsall John occupied the same position for a while.
The Wake or annual fair in Bloxwich on the Collins’ ground, continued until 1970, when the ground was sold to Asda for the construction of a supermarket. John left Lime Tree House for Blackpool, and the house was retained as an office for a time. The sale of the ground and the eventual demolition of the house to provide a car park in front of the new supermarket brought to an end the long association of the Collins family with Bloxwich.
August 1971, the Fair was held on its new site at the junction of Goscote Lane and Harden Road, under the management of Anthony Harris. It was advertised as “The Biggest Wakes ever to visit this area”, but the rain turned the site into a sea of mud, which added to the local feeling that the “real” Bloxwich Wake was dead and gone forever.
The fair was repeated for a year or two on the Goscote Lane site, but today Anthony Harris presents a Pat Collins Fun fair annually in Bloxwich, in the Memorial Park in June. However, there is little to link this today with what had once been such a significant event in the Pat Collins calendar.