Southend Calling is a film history of Southend Carnival told by the people of Southend.
[ Opening scenes on Southend seafront, summer 2012 ]
Southend-on-Sea’s famous Carnival is for many the highlight of the summer season, still going strong after more than 100 years.
[ Archive footage and images of Southend Carnival ]
From the 1930s until the late 60s our Carnival was the longest, the biggest and most spectacular seaside carnival anywhere in the British Isles.
[ Song ‘Southend Calling’ playing over archive images from Southend Carnival ]
We said we’d have a band here for the week and pay for it, a big band that stopped all the traffic, but people liked it, it was great, it put Carnival on the map a bit more.
All proceeds went to Southend Hospital and that’s why there was so much enthusiasm.
And we had to go down to the Palace Hotel and meet the film stars and talk to the film stars. Helen Cherry was one of them in my year.
It didn’t feel like air-headed, or empty-headed, it seemed like you’d been entrusted with something really important, like you’d been recognised as being able to represent the town I think.
The early years
Southend’s world famous Carnival started at the beginning of the last century in 1906.
[ Black and white images from Lifeboat Day ]
At the time the Borough staged two annual fund raising events, Lifeboat Day and Regatta Day. On Lifeboat Day the town’s lifeboat was drawn through the streets of the town by six shire horses loaned by the Lukers Brewery. The proceeds from these early processions went to support the Victoria Cottage Hospital in Warrior Square, just off the High Street.
[ Black and white images from Lifeboat Day, 1920s ]
All the way along people were shouting to the crowds and shaking their money boxes and saying, ‘help the Hospital, help the Hospital.’ In those days the Hospital was at the bottom of Warrior Square, it was the old Victoria Hospital, and then later on of course they built the new General Hospital where it is today.
In those early years Carnival was always held on a Wednesday afternoon.
They had to make frequent stops for the horses, because they were pulling such heavy set pieces. By the time they came to Southchurch Avenue the horses were finding it an enormous job to pull these great things up the steep hill and over Brewery Road Bridge, so what they did they cut it short, they made the Carnival procession finish up in the Kurzaal car park.
[ Black and white images Carnival images of Luker’s float ]
The Carnival in its present form didn’t evolve until 1923, when the newly formed Carnival Committee decided to hold a one day fundraising event in conjunction with the town’s Regatta Day. This was a great success raising over £1,000 in one day.
[ Black and white images of ‘Every Little Helps’ Hospital Carnival ]
Subsequent events proved equally successful, and in 1926 the Voluntary Hospitals Carnival Association was formed.
[ 9.5mm black and white home move footage from Chalkwell Park Fair, c 1934 ]
Chalkwell Park was a regular venue for Carnival activities, with many of the fancy dress and children’s’ events being held there.
[ Black and white Carnival images ]
In 1928 Ena Bone became Southend’s first Queen of Carnival at a ceremony which took place at the Carnival Fete in Chalkwell Park. The whole community became involved, and in 1931 347 local shops and businesses took part in the Best Dressed Window Competition.
[ 9.5mm home movie footage of Carnival day, 1931 ]
Between 1926 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, no less than £65,000 was raised for the Victoria Cottage Hospital and the newly built Southend General Hospital on Prittlewell Chase.
Of course the Carnivals were fantastic, they really well.
See the Carnivals in those days, before the War, were run for the benefit of our own Hospital, all proceeds went to Southend Hospital and that’s why there was so much enthusiasm.
There used to be about five bands marching with them, and then all the floats were beautiful, how they used to do them up. It would take you a couple of hours to watch it.
These pre-War Carnivals established a trend of national as well as local businesses and institutions taking part in the processions. The Southend Gas Light & Coke Company entered every year and were regular winners of their class.
[ Image from the 1930s of the GLC’s Animal Cage float ]
In the picture that came out of the cage I was walking beside the driver, it seemed to be as though it was around the Ridgeway somewhere, coming down the Ridgeway and coming down on to the Western Esplanade. The cage itself it really was an enormous effort. It was usually built on a low loader which they’d hired from Grimweeds [? 6:22] for the week. Of course I was only about 11 or 12 at that stage, but by the time we’d had those on [ costumes ] for the whole of the Carnival it was quite hot.
[ 9.5mm home movie footage of Carnival Day 1931 ]
By 1930 the Carnival Queen Selection Ceremony moved venue, and quickly established itself as a high spot of the Carnival calendar at the Hippodrome Theatre in Southchurch Road.
[ Image of Tru-Tone Southend Carnival Song ]
The Carnival Committee was never short of ideas for promoting Carnival and generating funds. The Carnival song, ‘Southend Calling’ was written by Basil Stewart. In 1936 a recording of the song was made at the Astoria Cinema in the High Street, Guy Hindell played the cinema’s mighty Compton organ, and Mr Herbert Sharpe sang. Copies of the recording were available for sale during Carnival week.
[ ‘Southend Calling’ playing over black and white Carnival images ]
‘The bells are ringing out today The bells are ringing out today To everyone So come and join the fun We say to everyone, oh come and join the fun Southend Calling Southend is calling Carnival is on parade Celebration, illumination It’s a day of hot parade Leave your sorrow until tomorrow Joy and laughter reign today Frills and laces And painted faces It’s a day of the big masquerade Queen of [? 8:34] she will ride Maids of honour by her side [?] of tiny [?] Gold and [?], old and grey Wonder comes from every [?] Twenty bands will join the might cavalcade …’
[ Black and white Carnival images ]
During the Second World War the Carnival Association Committee became the War Efforts Committee, and Carnival style entertainment was provided at the band stage. No procession was permitted but in 4 years of hostilities more than £16,000 was raised to speed our victory. In addition, three million cigarettes were collected and sent to local prisoners of war. When troops began returning from the conflict a rehabilitation scheme was setup by the Carnival Committee.
In May 1943 ‘Southend Calling’ was just one of a number of items in a morale building programme broadcast to troops across the world on the BBC’s Home and World Services.
Into the 1950s
[ Black and white images of Southend Carnival Associations’ Bungalow Estate ]
From 1948 the focus of the Carnival’s fund raising was the construction of the Southend Carnival old peoples’ bungalows. In 1951 Carnival Queen Rosalie and Deputy Queen, Jean, helped to erect the signboard on the recently acquired land.
The first bungalow was opened and occupied in 1952; 18 bungalows in all were built on the estate at Eastwood near the Woodcutters.
You know things like the Carnival bungalows, the Carnival Estate, I didn’t even know that existed beforehand, I had no idea. The people there were as if we were royalty, inviting us in to proudly show us their homes. Absolutely extraordinary, it was wonderful, but all the time we were terribly conscious of being important, not for us but for what we represented, for Carnival and for Southend.
[ Image of Duchess of Kent at the official opening ceremony ]
The official opening ceremony was conducted by the Duchess of Kent on the 15th of May 1955.
[ Images from Southend’s Festival of Britain, 1951 ]
In 1951 Southend’s Festival of Britain procession notched up another first for the when millions of people across the country watched the procession televised live. Brian Johnston and three giant BBC television cameras visited the town to cover the event. It was estimated that 5 million people across the British Isles saw the procession. One of the highlights of the procession in 1951 was the Kursaal Flyer.
[ Image of Kursaal Flyer ]
Somewhere along the way we built the Kursaal Flyer. That was a huge train which was based on the locomotive in a 20th Century Fox film.
The film was ‘Ticket to Tomahawk’ and it provided the Kursaal with its most spectacular travelling advertisement.
We used to put an exhibit in Carnival every year, we used to sit around the table in the boardroom and dream it up between us. We had a showboat, we had a long flat top articulated vehicle and on it we had two swings swinging with pretty girls in it, that sort of thing; we had a large yacht with a mast, but that didn’t go down very well because the mast was long, but it was a magnificent thing. Then I’d seen this picture with Betty Grable and I fancied this engine. I wrote off to the film company, I said, ‘could I have some stills, I’m thinking of building it for a Carnival’, they wrote back and said, ‘yes sure’, and they sent me about a dozen stills, and our architect, Spinker, who’s now dead, he drew it and we built it.
We found a small organ, which is very difficult, a Ciappa, an Italian organ, electrically played with drums and a little conductor, it played all these, ‘No Business Like Show Business’, oh it was a fabulous thing.
We got tremendous publicity from it, although you can never gauge what worth is, publicity, but lots of people knew of it and liked it. That became so popular that big stores used to ring us up, it was borrowed by Gamages, remember Gamages, and Selfridges for publicity runs around London. We had to get a special permit from the RCC, as it was in those days, to run it through London as an advertising vehicle. It used to make headlines wherever it went, it was a fabulous thing. We used to take it to other Carnivals, we took it across to France to Calais to their Carnival.
By the 1960s the Southend Carnival was recognised as the longest and most spectacular Carnival procession in the country.
[ Images of the Carnival from the 1960s ]
[ Howards Dairies’ Float ]
I used to do the Southend Carnival, we used to go, us girls from Jill Welbourne [? 14:04] School were chosen to go on the floats for Howards Dairies, and this was amazing. We did it for at least 4 / 5 years. What was so wonderful isn’t the fact that we were in the Carnival on the float, but they did the best food that there’s ever been. They did rolls with ham and cheeses and everything in that were wonderful, crisps, and to us girls in the 50s this was pretty wonderful, probably it was better picnics than we ever had anywhere, and these wonderful little bottles of orange juice.
They used to do milk first of all, but because it used to be hot in those days for Carnival we didn’t used to like the milk, but they did used to do flavoured milk, and they used to do pretty little cakes, so that was the best part. We used to eat the food before they’d even started the judging. The first thing we used to do was to go on the float and look for this box that was hidden somewhere, because we would know that was our tucker.
They were wonderful times. I can remember going on there in a swimming costume one year and I thought I was an American film star; it was green with black spots. Unfortunately we thought we were the bee’s knees, but the boys used to throw their pennies, they used to actually try and hit us with them, so we would be smiling away and suddenly you’d get clonked on the side of the head with a penny, and the boys would be laughing, but it was lovely.
[ Black and white picture of Howards Dairies’ float ]
One of the pictures I’ve got here, we turned up one year and we were mortified, because gone was this pretty, beautiful thing, and we were completely covered in costumes, Dutch costumes, and there was a huge cow with a great big udder hanging from it and a bottle of milk. We found this really quite embarrassing because people were shouting out quite a few things, ‘which end is the cow?’ My friend, Jean, bless her heart, sitting in the middle, had to hold this baby, a mock baby, and she didn’t like that either because in those days you didn’t want somebody to see you with a baby, so of course they were saying they thought it was hers and all this, that and the other, but lovely times.
[ Colour Carnival images ]
In addition to the floats and pedestrians some of the top bands in the country took part.
Mr Moorhouse was the Vice Chairman and I was the Publicity Officer for Carnival for many years, and in those days we really took a lot of money in the Carnival. We brought a lot of new things to the Carnival. We did actually. Teddy Longman was the Chairman of Carnival then, a very nice old chap, we said, ‘we’ll have a band here for the week and pay for it’, a big band, like the Vancouver Boys Band, 40 of them. We marched it all around the town all through the week. We took, the ‘Carnival Queen’s State Drive’ we called it to Shroebury, and another one to Leigh, and another one to Westcliff with the band on a Wednesday afternoon, it stopped all the traffic. People liked it, it was great. It put Carnival on the map a bit more.
[ Black and white images of Vancouver Boys Band ]
The Vancouver Boys Band became a popular attraction at Carnival events, appearing in processions from the early 50s until the early 70s, usually as an escort for the Queens’ float.
one year I was told that Vancouver Boys Band were coming over, and in those very innocent day you’d associate anything American / Canadian with the films, so it was quite wonderful.
They were going on the seafront and they wanted a girl to come on from the audience, and I had to be at the back of this, and when they said, ‘come on, will somebody come and dance?’ I had to put my hand up. This quiet little thing I was, I was quiet in those days. I had to come in and I had to stand in the middle and start dancing around. They were just wonderful times.
It was just brilliant, it was just amazing. The atmosphere was fantastic. They were so good; I remember them I really do. I remember jiving to them, they played a full set they were brilliant. We all fell in love with them because they were so young and good looking in fabulous uniforms.
[ Colour images of Carnival ]
The thing I remember most about Carnival was they used to throw such a lot of money in those days, and we girls used to spend our time trying to dodge. I remember being hit on the middle of my forehead, which was very painful, by an old penny, which was quite a large size. Of course the Sea Scouts used to collect the money as it fell in the road. I think they still do that, collect the money up. It was a very long procession and it was really packed.
Parade fantastic, weather fabulous, and the crowds were thick from Leigh to the Kurzaal. It took over 2 hours. The procession was an unbelievable experience. My left eye was hit twice by coins, people used to aim them at us you know in those days.
We were very protected as youngsters. I mean the dances used to go until about 11 or midnight. These young men would ask you to dance and then they’d stay and chat, they might say, ‘what do you do?’ One particular chap, he wasn’t a very good dancer, when he asked me what I did I said, ‘I taught dancing’, and with that he left me on the floor and disappeared. I think he was aware that he perhaps wasn’t a very good dancer.
Southend’s Carnival has never been just a 7 days in summer event, for weeks prior to the big day families and groups across the Borough start planning and building their prize winning floats. For Southend’s many amateur dramatic societies Carnival was a regular event on the calendar.
[ Images of Little Theatre Club’s Cornucopia, 1959 ]
To start with the first idea the Cornucopia. My husband took on the job of doing the design and the building of it. We built it up in some spare ground, not far from Chalkwell Park somewhere. I mean it was enormous, it was huge it really was. It just went under the Pier Bridge, when you get to the Pier it missed it by a few inches, very little. It was designed deliberately that way to give the audience the wow factor at the time. We won the trophy, which I’ve got here from Holmes & Smith. That was the first year we won the trophy.
[ Colour Carnival images ]
[ Image of W.O.D.S’s float ‘Oh Susanna’ ]
We did floats every year. We’d spend ages. We’d go to rehearsals and everybody would sit at rehearsals making paper flowers ready to put on the float, because there were hundreds that would cover the float. I think when I very first started we could actually have the lorry a couple of weeks beforehand and get it done. There was always great fun and great camaraderie going along and decorating the float, everybody being there, taking photos.
[ Image of W.O.D.S’s float ‘Old Tyme Music Hall’ ]
That was ‘Old Tyme Music Hall’. We’d got a piano. The thing to do was to have music, because music would attract the people, and again these costumes which were made for the shows that we used in the Carnival are still going strong, still being used by companies 20 / 30 years later. It was just so much great fun, so much enjoyment.
[ Colour carnival images ]
We were all there. It was brilliant. We were all there on Saturday morning getting ready for the afternoon procession. It was fun because people had brought sandwiches and drinks in. You’d be working and getting stuff on to the back of the truck but you’d also be enjoying yourself. That was when the Carnival used to start at the top of Leigh Cliffs.
I was always amazed at how many people had taken the trouble to come down, that was always brilliant. The number of children and their faces, the little children and even the older ones, although they probably wouldn’t like to admit it, when you could see their faces light up when something interesting came along. They were all clutching their money, because they used to provide change for children, the parents could go and collect a handful of change so that the pennies would last a lot longer, they were all clutching them, so when somebody actually gave you or put a coin the bucket it was usually a hot coin because they’d been holding it for so long.
[ Image of Little Theatre Company’s ‘Flower Drum Song’ Float, 1966 ]
Finally, I mean we did another one after that, we did ‘Flower Drum Song’ which had masses of flowers in that, a huge amount of flowers, and we were all Chinese in that. I dyed my hair black for that one.
We did, a lot of us did actually dye our hair.
You didn’t think of buying wigs in those days.
You just thought, oh I’ll have it dyed. That was another lovely float.
[ Images from the Torchlight procession ]
Oh Torchlight was brilliant. It wasn’t normally quite as big as the main one, because not everybody could afford to keep their float for a whole week to do two, so it wasn’t as big, and also people that came to visit wouldn’t necessarily visit for the Torchlight one. It was smaller, but it had a lovely atmosphere to it because everybody’s float had lights on it and the music. We didn’t have the fireworks in those days, the fireworks at the end came later, but there was a big party atmosphere. It started once you got to Liftons’ Way car park.
The Torchlight always looked spectacular, because you had all the lights on as well and then a lit-up van would come along, a truck or whatever, seeing people in costume at night, the whole thing, it was just like a show for them. It was brilliant.
The 1980s and Beyond
[ Colour Carnival images ]
In the 1980s the Association turned its attention to other campaigns such as ‘Bust’, the breast screening unit, the Fairhaven’s Hospices, and Chalkwell Avenue and Southend Lifeguards.
[ Images from Southend seafront, summer 2012 ]
Today Carnival is just as popular, still attracting record crowds to the town. The style has changed over the years and now has a more multicultural feel, reflecting the times, yet behind all the changes there remains the same ethos, uniting the town and supporting local and national charities.
[ Closing images of Southend Carnival ]