Ella Ravilious, Curator of Documentation and Digitisation at The V&A and daughter of James Ravilious shares her memories of the fairs, festivals and growing up in North Devon.
‘Town and village fairs and carnivals went from being impossibly exciting when we were children to something we learnt to have a veneer of scorn towards as we got older– but we still all went along. The events themselves would also have elements of self-mockery, such as the float shown here warning of the dangers of not complying with the local folk custom of turning the Devil’s Stone. There were also remnants of the old anarchic roots of fairs and festivals as a time when tables were turned, roles were reversed, and the powerful were mocked. Town mums might get together to perform synchronised sexy dance routines in the street, dressed as Abba or as Mrs. Mop – or men would do the same in drag; fancy dress costumes and floats would mock government figures or current news events. One memorable year a farmer set up ‘Flazzard* Bingo’, dividing his field into squares and allowing onlookers to bid which square the cow would relieve itself on. This took some time, as I remember it, so a whole crowd was gathered round the fence for hours waiting for the puzzled cow to heed the call of nature.
Fair week was a time of practical jokes among the adults, and enormous care and effort going into pranking each other – the effort being a big part of the joke. But the mayhem element was always tempered with genuine community spirit from others round the town, with always somewhere for the old or ill to sit all day in company and drink tea, always activities for the children, and always displays of local talent like cake baking, flower arranging and other arts and crafts.
The fair where we were would attract people to come from out of town, some of them returning for successive years. The Devon term for these outsiders was ‘grockles’, and although they were semi-welcomed, it was always clear who ‘wasn’t from round here’. These tensions would come out on the last night of the fair, when a town-wide water fight would erupt from early evening onwards. This was always grockle children versus local kids. Adults bopping along to the street disco would periodically get the odd water bomb in the ear, meant for some fast-disappearing child behind them.
One of the most popular events of the fair opening was the money scramble. Children would be divided by age and each group in turn would enter a roped-off square under the Town Hall windows. A dignitary (or sometimes the fair queen) would throw handfuls of small denomination coins down at the children, who would fight for them in the street below. The final round would be mixed age children scrambling for pound coins or 50ps. this would usually lead to bruises and stamped on fingers – and a big pile of children which had to be untangled at the end - but a hard-earned handful of change for sweets and water bombs for the luckier participants.
Childhood memories are mostly unreliable as it is, and stories told from previous fairs have a tendency to get embellished a bit more for every new listener, but these photographs show us a little of how it was to be a child in Devon in the seventies and eighties.’