Preparations are underway for the 150th anniversary of Swindon’s longest-standing community event. 
BARRY LEIGHTON talks to the organiser

IT stands alongside Swindon’s ear-splitting railway hooter and ‘Trip’ – the annual holiday when the GWR works shut down and virtually everyone cleared off to the seaside – as one of the town’s great institutions.

Now preparations are underway to celebrate the 150th anniversary this summer of Swindon’s most historic community event, The Children’s Fete at The Park in Faringdon Road.

The organisers have just secured a £10,000 grant from The Big Lottery Fund which will provide the core costs for what promises to be a colourful jamboree that also reflects the town’s heritage on Saturday, July 9.

They are now looking for sponsors to add some special touches including traditional attractions which hark back to the fete’s 19th Century origins, such as a wooden helter skelter and a Victorian style carousel.

Organiser Hannah Parry said: “This is going to be a really significant event. The 150th anniversary is a huge milestone. There can’t be many events around that go back this far and have so much heritage. We want to make this a really big day in Swindon, just as it was for so many years from Victorian times.

“We have a lot of plans in mind but we’ll need some help from sponsors to turn them in a reality. There are so many exciting things we can do. We aim to deliver what should be a really great day for Swindon,” she said.

Around 10,000 people are expected to attend the free party that will run from 12noon until 10pm when Swindon’s oldest park will be “filled with music, dance, theatre, circus, cinema, arts, crafts, sports, funfair rides and other fun and games for all ages.”

The organisers are also seeking voluntary helpers along with local performers and arts, cultural and community groups wishing to take part “either through performance or running workshops on the day.”

The event coincides with the momentous 175th anniversary this year of the birth of New Swindon – the town we know today that grew up around the Great Western Railway factory which opened in 1841.

“It’s quite a coincidence really, but one which presents the opportunity for a great year for our town,” said Hannah, an experienced organiser who has worked at a string major events including Glastonbury.

The Mechanics’ Institution’s Traditional Annual Children’s Fete – to give the 2016 affair its full title – dates to 1866 when first generation Great Western Railway workers decided to stage a communal event for their children.

The Juvenile Fete, as they called it, became the most eagerly anticipated date on Swindon’s calendar as The Park was regularly crammed almost to capacity with more than 30,000 people.

The event’s popularity hit a peak in 1904 when an estimated 38,000 people squeezed through the gates – more than three quarters of Swindon’s population.

Attractions included fairground rides, swing-boats, Punch and Judy, coconut shies, clowns, fortune tellers, tightrope walkers and plate spinners which all took place against a backdrop of a booming brass bands and other music.

During the soiree’s initial years free buns were distributed to children under 14 which later became half-a-pound of fruit cake that was divvied-up by a unique cake-cutting machine concocted by those clever chaps at the GWR works.

By the turn-of-the-century, three-and-a-half tones of cake and well over 1,000 gallons of tea were cheerfully gobbled-up and gulped down at the annual bash.

Images of the Juvenile Fete were captured by local photographers such as William Hooper (1864-1955) who set up their gear on raised platforms and took dozens of group shots which they then displayed in their tents for sale.

Fireworks signalled the finale but it was a big bang of another kind – World War Two – which brought the curtain down and the final fete took place on Saturday, August 12, 1939.

Neither the inclination nor the cash was available to revive the event during the economically tough post-war years.

However, it finally made a comeback in 2003 and has been held intermittently ever since – with the 2016 happening set to be the biggest since Hitler’s intervention.

  •  THIS year’s fete is being run along the theme ‘Coming to Swindon.’  
    “What made Swindon great, and made the place work, is that as a New Town people came here from all over the UK and later from other countries,” said Hannah.
    She said that throughout the day they hoped to tell the story of how groups of people made tracks for Swindon and helped create its community.  
    “We are looking for groups or individuals from the Polish, Italian, Jamaican, Indian sub-continent, Afro-Indian, Portuguese, Goan and Nepalese communities, and any others not mentioned.
    “They may like to perform or hold food stalls which will help us celebrate the culturally diverse town we have today.”
    As well as main stage performances there will be a community stage for smaller groups or schools who wish to perform while the organisers of the annual Swindon Shuffle will be running a live music stage.  
    Hannah added: “We want the event to represent Swindon’s community in the widest sense possible and we’re open to all sorts of ideas of how people might like to be involved.”
    *Anyone wishing to get involved – either as a sponsor, performer or helper – should contact: or 01793 520592.