Memories of Wem Carnival

Nancy Wilson

Carnival float in 2008
The Wem Carnival, according to 'The Story of Wem' by Iris Woodward, was first held in 1911. Those early end-of-summer tableaux were described as ‘original and full of colour’, they took place on the Brewery Field and paraded on a short route around the High Street and Noble Street and were held on a Wednesday afternoon, early closing day, in late summer.

The second world war put an end to all frivolous activities but at the end of war in 1945 a group of ladies organised a victory celebration on the Wem Rec., in remembrance of past happier carnival days. One of these ladies was a dinner lady at the Noble Street School, her name was Emily Astley. Emily had moved to Wem from Whitchurch, with her husband John and their young family, in 1938. Emily had been involved in the Whitchurch and other local carnivals from being a young girl and had performed in dance troupes.

Emily was eager to put together a dance troupe in Wem and the Victory celebrations offered that opportunity. Emily’s own daughters were in that first dance troupe and one of those daughters, Nancy Wilson, shares her memories about that and past carnivals with us in this edition of Memory Lane.

“That end of war celebration had a very carnival type atmosphere. I remember jazz bands playing and Mr Ellis brought his van on the Rec., he played gramophone music from the back and Josie Rutter sang songs for us.”

Remembers Nancy. “Everyone clubbed together and food was provided on a long table. It was a memorable day and enjoyed by everyone. The Rec. was full of people, there were fancy dress and plenty of competitions to entertain us all. The dancing troupe my mum coached was called the Victory V Girls. I remember we wore a red V on a blue top and our skirts were made of butter muslin.” Nancy remembers that the Victory V Girls were invited to take part on the Gay Meadow Carnival Celebrations in Shrewsbury later that same summer. “That felt really special, we were all so proud to be marching in Shrewsbury and I remember every one cheering us on. There were quite a few American soldiers there too who all seemed to have cine cameras, I have often wondered if anyone might have an old film reel of us all.”

Jubilee Band in Aston Street

Nancy’s mum, Emily, coached dance troupes for a number of years. “ Some of the girls names I remember from those early troupes are: Gwen Evans, Cicely Thorley, Shirley Heft, the Woollams girls, Moira Lear (her mum sewed all the costumes) and Thelma Groom and her sister.” Nancy said that at a lot of these families stayed committed to helping with the carnival right up to the present day.

Nancy married in 1951 and soon she and her young family were taking part in those early revived carnivals. “The carnival began to parade again through the town during the 1950s.” said Nancy, “ We would all begin on the Brewery Fields, behind Noble Street, marching bands and jazz bands along with dance troupes from as far as Liverpool and the Potteries would come. Along with a few floats and individuals in costumes the processions were quite long. The procession went up New Street, onto Summerfield Road, onto the High Street around Noble Street and back up New Street to turn into the Brewery Field.” Nancy said, “In the 1950s the carnival was held Wednesday early closing and there was just the one procession. The carnival was a highlight of the summer and brought a holiday atmosphere to the town with most people turning out to watch."

"Those early carnivals had a lovely atmosphere and I do think that this continues in today’s carnival making the Wem carnival so special.”

Organising any event needs dedication and hard work and the carnival committee over the years has not lacked in these. Nancy remembers that just like today no sooner had one carnival finished than you were thinking of the next. “My mum put such a lot of hard work into coaching her dance troupes, I think she was very disciplined but it was needed if you were to turn out girls all having to remember a dance routine and wearing a smart costume. Competition was very strict and still is today, troupes were judged on their dance routine and also their appearance, it was a nightmare for my mum in those early days keeping collars, cuffs and gloves white. I didn’t appreciate it too much until I began to run a dance troupe of my own when the carnival restarted again after a break in the sixties.”

Nancy explained that for a short time the carnival didn’t take place but a new committee was formed and Nancy proposed the carnival should be the first Saturday of September which is the date used to the present. “It was an exciting time their was a lot of enthusiasm again for the carnival and it was easy to attract the dancing troupe competitions again, marching bands and dance troupes were very popular in the late sixties and through the seventies.” “I trained girls from St. Peters School, the girls were aged between 6 - 12 and just like my mum I had to be quite strict to get them up to the standard expected for competition. We appeared at all the local carnivals, points were awarded for performance, entertainment value and appearance. Millie Lear helped to make all the girls costumes. We would buy bulk rolls of material from Richard who had a stall on Wem Market. Crimpeline was a great material. I remember one troupe had yellow crimpline dresses and purple capes, we also used a lot of pump whitening.”

It is obvious when talking to Nancy that she really loved her time working with the girls and teaching them to perform. “It was hard work keeping the girls interested and also raising the money to keep the troupe going, I finished working with the troupes at the end of the seventies but have remained involved with the carnival through all of the other clubs that I have belonged to.”

Nancy became a town councillor and one of her proudest moments was when as Mayor in 1996 she led the carnival procession. “The carnival has been woven into my life I have some friends and memories from each one. I have loved taking part on the floats for the Gold Band and Flower Club. I enjoyed the time when we did a walking tableau of 'Carry on Camping' we felt very daring but had such a lot of fun. At times it took weeks of our lives the whole family would be working to get costumes and floats ready for the big day, but it is always worth it when you get out there in to the procession and feel that ‘Spirit of the Carnival’.”

Long live ‘The Spirit of the Carnival'.

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