Battersea Fun Fair has been overlooked in the history of the Festival of Britain. But for many years, before Thorpe Park or Legoland, this was London’s amusement park and touched millions of lives over its 24 year existence.
Here NICK LAISTER and TOBY PORTER look at the history and we publish some extracts from his new book on London’s first modern amusement park – which was closed down when five children were killed and 13 injured in the Big Dipper tragedy of 1972.
Battersea Fun Fair opened in May 1951 and outlasted most of the prestigious exhibits on London’s South Bank.
The fair could well be seen as Britain’s first theme park – pre-dating Disneyland by four years.
It was themed around an imaginary Olde England and a futuristic theme.
Battersea Park was chosen as the venue for the lighter, more frivolous side of the Festival of Britain. It was the brainchild of Festival mastermind Gerald Barry.
He felt the ideas being developed for the South Bank rather too clinical for his tastes, with Barry accusing architects and scientists of “running away with it”.
At the time, the proposed Pleasure Gardens section of Battersea Park was still in use as post-wartime allotments and a cricket pitch.
It was designed for just one year’s operation – but survived for more than two decades. According to Becky Conkin’s Architect’s Journal article Fun and Fantasy, Escape and Edification, the Pleasure Gardens offered visitors an “amusement park, a children’s zoo and pet corner, two theatres, one dedicated to music hall performances, the other to ballets, revues and marionettes, a fanciful tree-top walk, a Mississippi Showboat, and a huge tented performance pavilion”.
The Fun Fair occupied only nine acres out of the 37-acre gardens. It was smaller than most of the major seaside amusement parks like the 1924 Wembley Exhibition, Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach, Margate’s Dreamland and Southend’s Kursaal.
But it was bigger than Great Yarmouth’s nine acres.
But Battersea was affectionately regarded as London’s seaside fun park. Its location in the capital could draw on a huge population and remains, even today, better remembered than most lost coastal parks.
Co-author Nick Laister, who has previously written about amusement history and was instrumental in rebuilding Margate’s historic Dreamland amusement park, said: “The story of Battersea Fun Fair has always fascinated me.
It is probably now sadly best remembered because of the Big Dipper tragedy in the early 1970s, but the park had a colourful history.
“I have been researching this book now for about 17 years, contacting people who visited the park or who worked there.
“These people have told me some incredible stories, and some even had photographs of the park, which are being published for the first time in this book. I am delighted that we are able to finally see it published.”
The rides removed at the end of the first year give a flavour of what the 1950s regarded as fun: Whittingham’s Ark, Hoadley’s Maxwell built Toboggan, Mont Blanc, Bubble Bounce, Boomerang, Loop–O–Plane, and the Sky Wheels.
But there were almost 2.5million admissions the following year.
The organisers constantly updated the mix of rides and always incorporated the latest attractions, making it a showcase for the whole country.
In the park’s initial years there was a very attractive ambiance created by the artistic and floral displays, but the approach changed.
New for 1954 were John Crowle’s Gallopers, Harry Gray’s Swirl & Chairs, J. Ling’s Moon Rocket and Botton’s Dive Bomber. Fresh Juvenile rides included a Double Decker and two Peter Pan attractions.
Head of the operation Leslie Joseph explained that the Gardens and Fun Fair were to be less arty and more gaudy.
He said: “This is what people expect and we intend to give them what they want. We aim to pack the rides and shows much closer together to create a more exciting atmosphere.”
In the centenary year of Battersea Park’s grand opening by Queen Victoria, 1958, Diana Dors opened the Fun Fair on Saturday, April 5, where she unveiled a special champagne fountain. New rides included the Globe Of Death and Harry Gray’s Flying Saucers Wheel.
In 1960, John Biddall’s Hurricane Jets was the year’s new attraction. It survived at Battersea until the park’s closure in 1974.
More than 10,000 bags of popcorn were sold during the Easter opening. During the week starting May 23, Sammy Davis Jnr was filmed in the park for his ABC TV spectacular.
Choreographer was Lionel Blair, for the hour-long musical with an ITV transmission on June 11, 1960.
Co-author Robert Preedy, who has written several books on the history of amusement parks, roller coasters and cinema, said: “I was on duty at BBC Radio London on the afternoon of the Big Dipper accident.
“I was part of the team that had to organise a reporter and a radio car to the site for live reports throughout the afternoon.
“This book entailed many hours of research at the British Library, combing the World’s Fair and national newspapers. There are many books about the Festival of Britain, but none on the Festival Gardens and Fun Fair.
Hopefully our book fills a gap.”
From screams of joy, to the screams of terror…
Battersea’s most famous ride was the Big Dipper, a notable presence on the park’s skyline that attracted long queues.
It was the London Eye of its day. The Duchess of Kent and her children took a ride in the three-car wooden rollercoaster in its opening year, while the Bolshoi Ballet climbed aboard in 1965.
But late in the afternoon of May 30, 1972, tragedy struck. Thirty one people had boarded a three-car wooden train.
As it reached the top of the first incline, some 15 metres above the park, it was prematurely detached from the drive chain.
Despite the best efforts of the brake man, the train slipped backwards under its own momentum on a 1 in 3 gradient. At the bottom, it hit a tight turn and derailed. The lower carriage was crumpled by those behind. Two teenage boys and an eight-year-old girl died at the scene, and two other children died later.
Carolyn Adamczyk, a passenger on the ride during the accident, said: “As soon as we started shooting backwards everything went into slow motion. I turned around and saw the brake man desperately trying to put the brake on but it wasn’t working. Most of the carriages didn’t go around the bend, one detached and went off the side through a wooden hoarding. People were groaning and hanging over the edge. It was awful.”
The disaster led to a review of fairground safety, and several charges of manslaughter. Prosecutors described the ride as a ‘death trap’, citing dozens of flaws and safety concerns. Despite the accusations, the park’s general manager and the ride’s engineer were both cleared of the charges in November 1973.
It wasn’t the first mishap on the ride. In May 1951, an empty car derailed, knocking over a parapet. Nobody was hurt on that occasion, although several passengers were marooned for 20 minutes.
A similar incident to the fatal crash seems to have occurred in 1968, when a woman broke her arm. In May 1970, £400,000 worth of damage was inflicted on the ride following a suspected arson attack. It was closed for two months.
A post-crash investigation revealed 51 faults on the ride.
Not one person or any party was held responsible nor found guilty of causing the accident – a shocking verdict after the loss of five young lives.
The Big Dipper was permanently closed and dismantled soon after the 1972 accident. It was replaced by a more modern steel roller coaster known as The Cyclone. But the iconic dipper’s retirement led to a swift decline.
Coupled with development wrangles, the fair’s fortunes dwindled until it finally closed in 1974. Temporary fair-grounds would occasionally set up in the park throughout the 1970s, but a permanent attraction like that established in 1951 would never again take root.
Battersea Fun Fair operated for the final time on Sunday, September 22. Many of the classic rides were advertised for quick sale as the site had to be cleared by early October.