Brian Walker on the Hackney Marsh Fun Festival

The name says it all, it was a festival on Hackney Marsh and it definitely was Fun!

Well actually, the glib statement above does not do this annual event justice, and although the culmination of months of preparation and planning was held on the Marsh, the “Spirit of the Festival” reached out to all corners of Homerton and Hackney.

The first Festival was in 1974. In those days Homerton was very different to what it is today; industry filled many of the streets. Huge factories like Lesney’s Toys and the Metal box Company dominated the workforce and lots of the traditional housing was being demolished to make way for the vast new housing estates we now see. Schools, nurseries, churches, pubs, clubs and the old market gave the area its own character. All these groups immediately became part of the the Festival.

The two day event on Daubeney Fields was preceded by a magnificent carnival around the streets of Homerton, this carnival was what most of the preparation was for with local groups and tenants associations spending weeks building floats and making costumes. The enthusiasm was infectious, the most unlikely people joining in and simply having fun. On the day of the Carnival, traffic was stopped as floats and walking groups made their way to the start. The big companies had impressive professionally made works of art; the schools always had, naturally, lots of kids sitting on lorries and even milk floats, all of them dressed in their own creations. Walking groups gathered, a few horse and carts arrived and even individuals dressed up and perhaps pushed a pram decorated with balloons.

On the field, as soon as the procession arrived, the Fun Fair started, grinding out music as the swings, big wheels and roundabouts flashed the thousands of lights that adorned them. It was a unique atmosphere.

During the many years that the Festival took place, hundreds of performers, bands and circus acts appeared throughout the weekend. Some of the acts that come to mind are the Great Indian dancers, a huge and exciting dance group of Sikh ‘Warriors’ who made you hold your breath as their swords flashed dangerously close to each other, The Greatest Show on Legs, a hilarious and daring group of men who performed ‘The Balloon Dance’ in the nude, always threatening to show what was behind the balloons, until they finally did, and Prof. Tommy Shand, who had a trail of kids following him as he tramped around the field playing his saxophone that produced bubbles from its horn.

A lot of local reggae and ska bands arrived, some quite famous like ‘Black Slate’, and local heroes 7th Heaven, and of course the wonderful ‘Jah Globe’. A church service always started the Sunday festivities and the fun started again. It was not unusual to see and hear a Punk Band competing with the Hackney Philharmonic Orchestra, or a gospel choir next to a raunchy jazz singer. In the food area, Indian Curries, vegetarian food and West Indian delights vied with Jellied Eels and Cockles, and Nye Bevan Tenants never ever let us down by providing a good old cup of tea and a game of Bingo.

One Arena Spectacle was more spectacular than planned, “Johnny Concho’s Wild West Show” was in full swing, the ‘townsfolk’ defending the jail from a band of mounted raiders, the crowd roared as Johnny Concho’s followers set off a fusillade of pistol fire and roared even louder when the guns set fire to the hay bales and eventually the whole town, reducing it to ashes. There were more cheers as the Fire Brigade made its entrance. The festival made all the papers next day.

All this fun and enjoyment had an effect that is still felt today, because of the vast numbers of people moved by the wholesale demolition of the area, new communities were formed when they were rehoused. All new communities are uncomfortable with each other, some people finding themselves living near people from different countries and of a different race, the festival simply introduced all these groups to each other, with friendships being formed that are still going today. It was difficult to be stand-offish to someone dressed as a baby, swigging pints of beer in the Pram Race, especially if you were dressed as the Mum, swigging even more pints of beer!

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