The History of Midsomer Norton Illuminated Carnival

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Part One – How Midsomer Norton Illuminated Carnival Started

Britain had been at war for six years and though things were far from normal they were beginning to get better and the people in the towns of Midsomer Norton and Radstock were looking for something to help brighten and lift their spirits.
It was 1946 and in Glastonbury an advert was displayed in the local press publicising “A Grand Carnival Parade” at Street on Saturday November 16th 1946.
The seeds were sown and in our twin towns a committee of businessmen led by Messrs Maurice Davis, Kindersley, Goodliffe etc was set up to run a “Torchlight Carnival” through the streets of Midsomer Norton.

The first Midsomer Norton carnival was duly scheduled for Friday November 12th 1948.
It was bigger and better than anyone had hoped, a dazzled Somerset Guardian reporter watched it from Bob’s Palais balcony. His report said it was a “gay & beautiful sight” – the crowded roads, the stalls and the bright lights of the fair. High above everything rose the Big Wheel with its slowly-turning mass of coloured lights vividly reflected in the waters of the river………….Yes, Carnival had arrived!

The streets were lined with fairground games and amusements all along the pavements of the High Street, very much like today’s July Mardi Gras. It must be remembered that the floats in those days were not much bigger than the generator trailers on today’s efforts.
Electric lighting was very sparse, therefore it was a torchlight parade with young lads from organisations such as the Boy Scouts walking alongside the entries with flaming torches to add light to the entries whilst also helping to generate a great atmosphere.
Some of the entries not only had mounted people on the float but some were walking alongside as well, a thing not allowed today.

The Carnival had arrived but just like today a considerable amount of work had been done in the months leading up to the event. A Carnival Queen was needed and for many weeks a dance was held in all the villages in the district to find a representative from each village to go forward for the final Queen selection. It was ballroom dancing in those days and the music was played mainly by the bands of Arthur Marshall, Bernard Emm and Don Webb in halls sometimes packed and sometimes half empty, even then contestants were often reluctant to come forward. Some weeks even two or three dances took place throughout the District as the many villages were covered, even down into the Chew valley as far as Bishop Sutton. Then came the main dance at Bob’s Palais where the Queen was selected from all those picked at the various local halls. Win or lose all were to have a ride round the route in the open topped shell shaped coach; all dressed up in their dance dresses whether it rained or stayed fine. The first Carnival Queen was Miss High Littleton, Mary Filer.

Many of the local firms started carnival clubs such as Blatchfords & Standard Check Book but entries too came from the neighbouring towns of Wells & Glastonbury as well as some such as The Golden Lion (now under a new name) and the Lime Kiln from Bridgwater.

After all the hard work to get a Carnival Queen the real work now started which showed just how much the people in Midsomer Norton badly wanted a carnival.
Back in 1948 Midsomer Norton was like an island surrounded by railway lines. No matter which main road you used to get to the town a low railway bridge blocked your way from the two main railway routes running through the towns, so an ingenious way to get the floats into & out of the town was devised.
In those days Wells carnival ran on the Wednesday with Midsomer Norton on the Friday, the committee members themselves had to go to Wells and bring the floats back to Midsomer Norton via Chilcompton then taking the lane to the town opposite the Cooperative store at Chilcompton and hitching each float onto a crane in the Shepherd’s Saw Mills at the top of the hill. They were then lowered down on to the level and driven on to the park up in Midsomer Norton. The park up in those dim and distant days was along Paulton Road in Midsomer Norton and from there did a circuit of the town.
On carnival evening the float personnel would descend on the town from their homes to take part in the wonderful procession, then leaving their entries for the committee members to get the entries back to Wells so they could go on to Glastonbury for the Saturday night.
The now legendry carnival spectacle spread from there with North Petherton also starting a carnival, everyone in all the towns were looking forward to the nights for many weeks.

At this time each carnival was on it’s own, but that was about to change with Midsomer Norton one of the initial towns to form the Somerset County Guy Fawkes Carnival Association. In addition the Midsomer Norton Cup was donated, which is still in use today and is the County Cup for 1st place “Feature”. The Wessex Grand Prix Carnival Circuit also presents a Midsomer Norton Carnival Cup which is the trophy for the overall winner of the Formula Two Class.

1960 was just around the corner and sadly it brought the demise of carnival in Midsomer Norton. If you were interested enough to want to see the show you travelled to Wells who now took the Midsomer Norton night of Friday as their own.
Even though the momentum had gone from Midsomer Norton it was not so elsewhere. In about 1970 carnival came to Shepton Mallet who took the Wednesday night, which had previously been the Wells night and down at the seaside Weston-Super-Mare decided on a winter carnival at about the same time using the Monday after Glastonbury. The attraction here was the Winter Gardens where a grand end of season dance took place, which became so popular that tickets could not be sold on the door after a while and were strictly limited to the competing clubs – something’s never change!!


Part Two – Illuminated Carnival Revival

For fourteen long years carnival was asleep in the Midsomer Norton area until a small group of people interested in carnival started a club in the town in 1974 calling themselves the Midsomer Norton Carnival Club (later The White Hart). They built a self-drive unit as a float (the motor was incorporated into the float and the float was driven as a lorry) and had a theme around the most popular children’s TV show of the day, The Wombles.

They entered every carnival possible in the area, now called the Wessex circuit and came away with first prize at each and every one. Unfortunately the winning stopped on the county circuit but they were undaunted. To raise money to run the club during that winter they hired themselves out at various venues, one of which was the Farrington Gurney Primary School Christmas party. Allen Curtis being a noted musician in the area was asked by the local school to go to Farrington’s Memorial Hall to provide the music for the night.

The Wombles entranced the kids and a successful night was had by all. During the evening club members, Pete O’Neil, Tony Howe, John Dando etc all agreed that it was about time we once again had a carnival in Midsomer Norton.

In 1975 the Somerset Guardian soon carried an article calling a meeting to take place at The White Hart to see if a carnival could be revived. Although the carnival club called the meeting they did not wish to run it as they were committed to their club and running a float.

A large attendance resulted but as is usual no one wished to be an officer and it looked as though it might fall through.

As someone who had helped instigate the meeting Allen Curtis was asked to take the chair but said he would consider the role of Vice Chairman. This was accepted but a chairman was still needed and out of frustration Stan Gill, who was the barman, shouted he would take on the task. The committee was on the way with Liz Curtis, elected secretary and Nigel Dando as treasurer. The trouble was the chairman was behind the bar and was unable to take the meeting so as his deputy the vice-chairman had to take over.

It was decided that a carnival should take place and a formal application was written to Pam Reed the Somerset County Guy Fawkes Carnival Association secretary for permission to join their select competition. Everyone left happily with the thought of putting right what had happened 15 years before, however as the meeting ended Stan Gill asked to swap roles with Allen who now became the official Chairman.

Almost immediately a meeting was called to plan the route forward. Midsomer Norton had to draw the clubs to the carnival and if it were not allowed to re-join the Association it had to have a plan B, much like today.

At this time the prize money was ridiculously low, almost a pittance and it seemed a good way to attract the clubs so prize money of £1000 was put up.

Then came the call from the Association, their AGM was being held at Shepton Mallet early in February and Midsomer Norton were invited to put the case forward.  At this time High Street was very prone to flooding and unfortunately it happened again with pictures shown on the TV. This led one bright spark from Bridgwater to ask where the event would take place, on the road or on the river. Unfortunately we were told they could not let us enter then but after they had seen what we had to offer they would reconsider. Pam Reed certainly helped the secretary with information and Cyril Amor from Shepton met Midsomer Norton several times to give advice and had a couple of our members to judge their carnival to give them some experience.

With the rejection Midsomer Norton had a big job in front of it and ran all sorts of events and door to door collections around the area to raise the prize money, even picking up new committee members on the way. October came and adverts for entries for our first carnival queen were sent out. Gillian Hand from Stratton-On-the-Fosse became Queen at the dance in the old community hall which was absolutely packed, the £1000 had been raised with still the income from the dance it all seemed so perfect.

The police of course had other ideas and put every obstacle in front of us even at this late stage. The chairman spent hours running around in police cars explaining the plans and getting consent. Then they said that all floats would have to go into Mardons car park and go down to the start at 6.00pm fully loaded with personnel. A few days before the event negotiations took place with the police and to our amazement the crazy idea of going down loaded was thankfully squashed.

Carnival day came and it was a great delight to look up towards Mardons in the late morning to see a giant horse. It was the entry “Somerset Shire” from Bath Bridge C.C. in Bridgwater (now The Griffins). Carnival day had arrived but more fun was yet to come. Everyone assembled at Mardons for 3 o’clock as the police had relented so as the first float moved to take to the start, “The Pheasant” from Wells, pulled the front axle of the trailer off, right across the road in front of Norton Hill School blocking everything. Everyone helped to clear the road so the rest of the floats could get down to the start.

We had a large number of entries but it was obvious everyone would not come and even up to the last minute members of the committee were lobbying them in Shepton.

The carnival went off successfully in spite of the fact that none of the committee had any experience whatsoever of floats etc let alone running a carnival. It had been a steep learning curve, with still more to learn but had made friends among many of the Association representatives that still last through till today.

Our presentation dance at Paulton Rovers was successful and our funds were on the up so it was decided that in case of bad weather at future carnivals we aimed for 3 years money in reserve, even so a sizable donation was presented to our chosen charity.

Over the next couple of years the clubs could see their prize money was safe and the carnival started to grow. All but one of the tableau clubs, several feature clubs as well as comic and juvenile entries now came from Bridgwater.  It was virtually a county carnival but there was one black cloud on the horizon. Again the police stepped in insisting all entries must go back into Withies Park, which was now the park-up, and wait until they gave permission to move them. This meant clubs trying to get out of Midsomer Norton up over Norton Hill at one even two o’clock in the morning. In the end after one damp night the committee were resigning one by one, they were all at the next meeting though. It was becoming evident as the Bridgwater clubs slowly left us that you could never run a County Carnival using the streets of the town.


Part Three – A New Future

Speed was becoming a nuisance in the High Street and Wansdyke Council decided that action would have to be taken. Part of their scheme is still visible at Stones Cross where they narrowed the road on the bend into the High Street, which even before this had not been an easy turn for a loaded float because of the adverse camber. They also planned to put several speed humps down through the length of the High Street which with a number of other factors including the dispersal problems was going to make the running of the carnival very difficult, so a decision about a new home for the procession had to be taken. Wherever the carnival went it would upset someone but there was unfortunately very little choice, this was the start of the carnival through Westfield.

Funds as usual needed to be raised throughout the year to top up the resources and many events were put on in the district including a big “Push Ball Competition” for several years on Welton Rovers Ground and a couple of  “It’s A Knockout” at Paulton Rovers. They were well supported by Carnival clubs from all over the circuit area who supplied the teams.

In time the fundraising ideal of a Youth Marching Band Contest was suggested and was the start of the new big mid summer event, which was an almost instant success.

Midsomer Norton did not lose out as about the same time the carnival moved to Westfield the Youth Marching Band Contest or Band Championships moved to a Sunday and to help get clubs to the town who were performing at nearby contests the Mardi Gras was started. Something that started very small is now in most peoples mind as well liked as Carnival and attracts in excess of 10,000 people on just the Saturday alone.

In 2003 both the Mardi Gras and Band Championships came together under the umbrella of the Mardi Gras Festival Weekend which with the addition of the welcome evening on the Friday now extended the event over three days or nearly 32 hours of entertainment.

Although Midsomer Norton is not allowed to re-join the Somerset County Guy Fawkes Carnival Association and subsequent competition it still attends the meetings and offers its services when ever possible. During the fire fighters strike of 2002 many meetings were held across the region to put in place contingency plans so the carnivals affected could continue as normal. With this in mind Midsomer Norton informed the towns of the private fire crew who were working closely with us to provide professional dedicated fire cover for the event with its small fleet of fire appliances. In the end the cover was only used at Midsomer Norton Carnival and when they were not at the carnival they provided the invaluable emergency cover on the M4 and M5 motorways in our region for the Avon and Somerset Police.

Our members also regularly help other carnivals with marshalling at many of the carnivals on both the Wessex and County circuits, notably at Wells where John Sage has manned the bad corner at the Market Place every year since about 1980.

Today our carnival is well supported by our local clubs and several entries from the Wessex circuit as well as many single/groups of masqueraders from across the carnival community and while some of the other clubs don’t attend you can still pick out certain well known faces in the crowd. The lobbying for entries starts well before the carnival with members of the committee travelling over both the Wessex and South Somerset Circuits in the quest to attract further entries every year.

In May 2003 our carnival questionnaire was launched with over forty copies being sent directly to clubs and masqueraders, in addition it was also carried as a supplement in the Southwest Carnival Newsletter and available electronically on the our Web site. This questionnaire gave the carnival community the chance to let us know what it thought of, and indeed how they would like see our carnival evolve. In turn this information played a valuable role while working with Midsomerset Gangs and Features Carnival Association to secure the much desired divisional park-up at Wells (see our website for the full results).

This was followed up with our post-carnival questionnaire to all those that took part in our carnival to establish the effect of the changes on the clubs and masqueraders.

Since the start of the new millennium Midsomer Norton has seen an increase in both full members and associate members while also strengthening the important relationships with Midsomerset Gangs and Features Carnival Association, Somerset County Guy Fawkes Carnival Association, the local community and the wider carnival community all of which are vitally important to secure the future of Midsomer Norton Carnival for another 30 years.

Since being re-formed Midsomer Norton has been involved in the following notable events:

  • Norton Radstock Queens Silver Jubilee Celebration                             1977
  • Pontin’s National Festival of Fun & Music                                                1982 to 1994
  • Reading Military Tattoo
  • Nat-West Festival Of Youth Bands Royal Albert Hall                              1982 to 1990
  • City of Birmingham Centennial Celebrations                                           1989
  • Birmingham International Military Tattoo, National Indoor Arena         1989 to 2003
  • National Festival of Police Bands, National Indoor Arena                     2000
  • Opening Ceremony European Youth Olympics                                      1995
  • London International Tattoo, Wembley Arena                                          2000 – 2001
  • Norton Radstock Millennium Celebrations                                                           2000
  • PaultonVillage Millennium Celebrations                                                 2000
  • National Music Day, Keynsham
  • Radstock & Midsomer Norton Christmas Festivals                                  2001
  • French Market, Midsomer Norton                                                                2002
  • Dickensian Evening, Midsomer Norton                                                     2003
  • St Georges Day Parade, Bristol                                                                   2003
  • And many other local events