Two women who were children in the 1920s and 30s told me what Torrington May Fair meant to them. They still remember how excited they were. At a time before there was television and a wide variety of activities and entertainments, May Fair was a great event in their lives.
They loved taking part in the floral dance and organised their groups of four soon after Christmas. The dancers would start out from the pannier market led by four local butchers in their best butchers’ apparel and their wives who wore elaborate dresses and hats. Everyone bought a balloon and the boys would prick them all before you started! In those days the dancers went up South Street, along Halsdon Road, down New Street and back along Potacre Street and Cornmarket Street to the square, followed by the May Queen and her attendants in a horse and cart driven by Tommy Hearn and decorated with gorse. The floral dance took place twice, morning and afternoon. They remember the children from Sydney House taking part in the afternoon, all wearing sun bonnets. They were frail children and exhausted by the time they had finished. They also remember a group of foreign visitors taking part in the dancing one year, wearing their own national costume. They had a wonderful time but did their own version of the dances. Eventually, Miss Mortlock, who was headmistress of the Board School, went over to them and said, ‘Do you mind?’ as they were completely dominating the whole event!
They remembered the excitement of the fair:
‘We were thrilled by all the rides, the colourful lights and the music. The fair was owned by Granny Lock and all the local lasses were smitten by her handsome, swarthy sons. “Go ‘ome and leave my boys alone!” Granny Lock used to shout, while her sons just looked amused.’
By 1939 the programme had expanded considerably. After the floral and maypole dancing and the crowning of the May Queen in the morning, an open-air boxing tournament was staged at the Vicarage Field in the afternoon. In the evening, the final for the Torridge Association Football Cup between Ilfracombe and Holsworthy was held. A Royal Naval band was in attendance throughout the day. On Saturday there was a cross-country race over Castle Hill and a river boat race from Town Mills to Taddiport. In the evening, a carnival brought the celebrations to an end and the funfair continued into the night.
The Bishop of Exeter attended the 1939 May Fair and contrasted the festivities in Torrington that day with what was happening in other countries in the build up to the Second World War. He said no doubt the times were serious, but to be serious did not necessarily mean to be solemn, and people would probably go back to the serious business of life all the better for having forgotten, for a day at least, what was going on elsewhere.