One of the most entertaining traditions in Harwich and district is the annual Guy Carnival, participated in or watched with enjoyment by many local residents and visitors each year.
Over the years the route of the procession has changed significantly, but the event still maintains its uniquely ’local’ characteristics.
History of the Harwich Guy Carnival.
The Guy Carnival started over 150 years ago in 1854 when workers at the Royal Naval Shipyard (Harwich Dock) and builders on the new quay decided to commemorate their work by holding a procession, but similar to a public demonstration, It was then called the Shipwrights Carnival and was led in those early days by torch bearers.
Some participants carried model ships with candles stuck in them and others donned “Sandwich Boards” which carried slogans and poems which made fun of their bosses (this was known as guying) And so the carnival got its name. Money was also collected in the early days and shared between The naval workers and the poor of the town.
The Essex County Standard and Eastern Counties Advertiser tells of Protestant Harwich recollecting Guy Fawkes in November 1855. The juvenile portion of the community brought out various specimens of guys and carried them through the streets, chanting ‘remember, remember the fifth of November’ This continued throughout the 1850s and 1860s, but in 1862 the annual procession had started looking more like a carnival, rather than just a Guy Fawkes celebration. Some of the people in the procession carried Chinese lanterns, torches and a number of participants wore ‘highly grotesque and fanciful costumes’. The Royal Naval Shipyard employees (now Harwich Dock) were taking part with their band and ‘Guy representations’ by 1878, they also carried lighted torches attached to poles. Earlier in the day, the children of the town had paraded their own guys.
This continued through the late 1800s and had become the Shipwrights Guy by 1890. The procession past through the streets of the town and collected money from houses, shops and businesses. The carnival, now larger than in previous years, featured many people in costumes and not just the Royal Naval Shipyard apprentices. The Shipwrights had built scale replica models of ships that had been built at the yard, reportedly ‘lighted by numerous torches and lanterns’
Mrs Margaret Doubleday, born in 1899, revealed in her 1985 memoirs that the carnival was started by the men employed by Harwich Shipyard and Parkeston Quay, who raised money for themselves for Christmas, plus local charities. Many people appeared in the same costumes year after year and the procession was headed by a brass band ‘probably the Salvation Army’. There was also a collection of lighted torches burning a substance which left lumps of burning sack in the road.
Mr Grenville Tyrell, the man who revived the Guy Carnival in 1952 and 1956, doesn’t believe the true origins of the event have, or will, ever be ascertained. He recalls seeing six foot models of fully-rigged sailing ships that were carried on a type of stretcher, illuminated from within by oil lamps and carried on the shoulders of the Navy yard employees. Some of these models were kept until well into the 1930s.
Some of the Guy Carnival pithy pars programmes from the 1930s featured photos and details of the event. In one programme they unmasked that ‘no one knew when the carnival began, but it was most certainly the Navy Yard apprentices that conceived of it. Through the ill-lit, cobbled streets the revellers meandered, their illuminated ship models of canvas, piece de resistance of the show, standing out boldly in the gloom of a winter night’.
Newspaper coverage from the early 1900s sheds no light on the carnival’s origins but stated that the procession had been a leading feature in the town for some time.
So, where did the term Guy come from?
It is agreed today that Guy means ‘to make fun of’ or ‘poke fun at’ or to ‘ridicule’. This has at least been the case since 1956, when the Guy Carnival was revived by The Harwich Round Table. The idea is to highlight something topical – a local topic, a local person or a local news item.
Before 1927 the carnival was the Shipwright’s Guy. Shipwrights were apprentices from the Royal Naval Shipyard, now Harwich Dock. There is no evidence before 1927 that the idea was to highlight and make fun of local issues or local people.
The event was sometimes referred to as the Guy Fawkes Carnival over the years.
Up until 1938 the carnival was held on two dates, the 5th November (Guy Fawkes night) and the 9th November. This is another plausible source for where the term ‘guy’ originates. Ray Gladwin and Peter Wildney of Parkeston Quay Marine Workshops made the first bigheads that appeared in the carnival. Using some of the abundant materials at the quay, they constructed the heads using wire, brown ‘post’ paper and lots of papier-mâché. After the heads were built they were painted and glossed by the workshop painters.
The original crew that paraded with the Parkeston Quay bigheads were John Warner, Ken Lord, Jeff Stokes, Les Hazelton, George Harper, Irvine Richmond, Chris Barker and Derick Neal. After the 1950s the numbers of bigheads increased and were no longer just made by the Workshops at Parkeston, as people from across the town built their own.
Everybody has their favourites, but some of the famous big heads include Herman Munster, TV chef Gary Rhodes, Wallace and Grommit, Dennis the Menace, Goofy, Bob the Builder, clowns, mad cows and Dr Evil.
The Shipwright’s Guy was a well-established event by 1900. It was described by the Harwich and Dovercourt Free Press as a celebration of pomp and circumstance, with many flames and fireworks and ‘sectarian spirit’. The concise little article added that the event had been a leading feature in the town of Harwich for sometime, but for exactly how long wasn’t mentioned. Despite the admirable support for the event in the early days and the respectable monies raised for the East Suffolk Hospital, it was never an official event and was arranged by the Royal Naval Shipyard employees. This is very likely the reason for its lack of in depth news coverage, with little more than a paragraph for the event at the back of the newspaper each November. However as the amount of money donated at each event increased incrementally, its charitable cause made it more worthy of a mention. £17 8s was collected in 1901, compared with £44 17s in 1903 including a notable donation from Mrs Vaux and F Napier-Clavering Esquire! The procession began in the market place in Harwich and included many people in costumes with collecting boxes, plus representations (they weren’t called floats in those days) usually carried on a type of stretcher lit by candles. Effigies of local figures were also prevalent. Advertisements for the event started to appear by 1909, when the coverage in the newspaper grew.
The community of Harwich was far more homogenous then, so it was no surprise that the pomp and circumstance included Mr W McLearon the Mayor, a pillar of the community in those by-gone days. The tradition continued into the era of King George V, supported staunchly by locals that were keen on donations to the poor, the needy and mostly the hospital. The First World War hiatus did nothing to prevent the carnival from being revived in 1919, as this was a manner of bringing much needed financial assistance for local hospitals to treat people. It also came as some relief for those who lost husbands and sons in battle. £134 was collected from the two processions and the local newspaper even printed the names of those that had kindly donated.
By the 1920s the event was larger, but still didn’t feature the topicality that it did in later years; there were representations of national icons such as kings or queens, but only with modest hints of public figures being masqueraded. In 1923 the Harwich and Dovercourt Standard believed the event ‘would ever live’, yet by 1925 the event was ‘not what it used to be’ and ‘feared over’ as reported by the same newspaper. By 1926 the event was still going, though minus the usual enthusiasm, but enough, according to the carnival secretary Mr P Skargon, to stop it dying completely. This prompted a rethink by the organisers. Taking the carnival back to its roots suddenly provided rehabilitation and the 1927 ‘comeback’ proved that Harwich people wanted the carnival as much as ever.
You would be wrong if you thought that comebacks were only for celebrities. The Guy Carnival’s first ‘comeback’ was in 1927, when a committee of local traders, councillors and volunteers completely reorganised the procession. It was renamed the Harwich and District Guy Carnival, receiving plenty of support from local people and raised much money for both the Ipswich and Suffolk Hospital and the Harwich hospital. The event was still held on two nights, a tradition that was part of the original procession,
one close to the 5th November and one on mayor-making day, the 9th November. The procession would feature the Mayor’s Corporation, journeying passed the house of the new Mayor when he would appear in his garden on a podium and make a short speech to the people in the procession. The rejuvenated procession with elements of the old-style carnivals brought back the community spirit and the sweet cause of charity. Pictures of the event were now appearing in the local newspapers and larger adverts were being put up about the town, which contained the Pithy Pars.
The Second Guy Carnival at Harwich, in aid of the Ipswich and Harwich Hospitals, was held on Saturday 8th November 1930 with much success. The streets were crowded. The huge procession followed very much on the lines of the Wednesday night, Mr. Charles Archer again being Marshall. There were all the opening tableaux, with the addition of a most interesting one made by the captain. Officers and men of Train- Ferry No. 2. It was a magnificent model of the Ferry.
The Mayor and Corporation were represented in the procession, and at Dovercourt they made a call on the Mayor-elect (Mr. R.A. Ward), who, with Mrs Ward, welcomed them at uplands. The prizes were distributed by Mr. P.J. Pybus, C.B.E. M.P.
The second night of the Harwich and Dovercourt Guy Carnival for the Ipswich and Harwich Hospitals on Saturday 7th November 1931 was a great success. There were nearly 150 children in fancy dress. Some of the tableaux were striking. Mr. P.J. Pybus, C.B.E, MP Presented the prizes.
Saturday night’s Guy Fawkes carnival for the Ipswich and Harwich Hospitals at Harwich and Dovercourt was a great success. The Mayor (Mrs R. Hill) was president, Mr C. Keep chairman, Mr. A.E. Price vice-chairman and in charge of the fancy dress parades, the Rev. J. S. Hole hon, collector; Messrs, E.E. Hills and Moseley were organising secretaries, and Mr A.T. Booth was general hon, sec. The tableaux included some novel designs. The men of the Trinity had a coloured dragon, 28ft long, which was “captured at Awkward Ness Beach.” and which performed snake-like evolutions with blazing eyes and protruding tongue.
Mr. E.J. Keeble, Great Oakley Hall, had a magnificent show of British produce, and Mr. Ike Hart, the octogenarian of the carnival, introduced a scene of Old Harwich with “Custom House Alley” which formerly stood on the site of the Great Eastern Hotel. Messrs, Robinson and Reynolds introduced an excellent model of the Irish Sweep. The railway checkers representing the out-door Quay staff of the L.N.E.R., had a clever model of the Rocket 1821. There were also the usual fancy dress characters.
This photograph was taken on the afternoon of November 5 1932, in the yard of H.H. Bradford, builder of Mayes Lane, Ramsey. The firm’s lorry had been decorated for an entry in the Harwich Guy Carnival procession with my father George Allen in “drag” to the left and Arthur Rowland” blacked up with top hat and tails to the right. The theme of the float was “Pattrick’s Shaft”, a tall chimney all that remained of a Victorian cement factory which towered into the sky at the east end of the Hangings. H.G. Allen.
Thousands of people watched the 1933 Guy Hospital Carnival at Harwich for the East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital and the Harwich Hospital. At the Fountain the children were judged for fancy dress, the awards being won by Kathleen Measures, Mavis Richards, Gwen Royland, Iris Fisher, Betty Fisher, Baby Cooper, Pat Peintze, Ruby Flatt, Doris Newby, John Harris, Stanley Reason, Brian Clow, Arthur Game, Roy Moore, Eric Bennett, Raven Good, Robert Higgins, Bridie Lens, Doris Marchant. Many others received consolation awards.
1935. A Guy Carnival was held on Tuesday, the proceeds being for Ipswich and Harwich Hospitals. Mr. Reg Dowson was hon. secretary. The tableaux were above the average. There was a parade for children prior to the arrival of the big procession at the Fountain.
1936. The second of the Guy Carnivals at Harwich, in aid of the East Suffolk and Ipswich and Harwich Hospitals was held on Monday, another large company of prettily dressed children took part in the fancy dress competition, and special prizes were awarded to John Hayward (page), Raymond Christmas (Turk), Roydon Moore (Dutchman), Brenda Rowland. Muriel Tyrrell (Victorian lady), and Joan Peachey (hearts and hands for the Hospital). Tableaux prizes were awarded to: 1, Messrs. Fisher and Woods (White Elephant): 2, Messrs. E. Saunders (Friction Library): 3, Parkeston Quay Checkers (Home, Sweet Home).
The 1937 carnival apparently didn’t live up to people’s expectations, with a dedicated few participating. There were beautiful and witty tableaux, and the Parkeston Pier Band introduced the King and Queen of Carnival. The prizes were distributed at a second carnival on Tuesday.
The news of the burgeoning World War in late 1938 somewhat put a dent in everything a few days before the event, resulting in just two tableaux taking part. A virus had also spread in the community among local children, causing the organisers to cancel the children’s fancy dress. The Harwich and Dovercourt Standard made the bold, and premature, statement that the 1939 carnival would be bigger and better than ever. There were no more carnivals until 1945!
1945 saw an attempt to revive the carnival, but so little money was raised from the first of the two processions that the second one was cancelled, despite the publicity and preparations for it.
When the carnival was brought back in the 1950s, a major feature of the procession was the Parkeston Quay Marine Workshops Band. The Marine Workshops worked at Parkeston Quay repairing ships and ship parts, and also played musical instruments. The big heads were made by the Workshops, often making caricatures of employees, as well as famous characters. The town actually had a summer carnival for many years, where the big heads would always make an appearance, and would often partake in other carnivals around East Anglia.
The Harwich Standard described the 1951 Parkeston guy carnival as a “Hilarious night” with about a dozen floats taking part. typical of the tableaux featured in the carnival was the dock river showboat with members of the Parkeston social and welfare committee on board. Hundreds of “revellers donned the most grotesque costumes” and took collecting Boxes. proceeds of the event went to the “old folks Christmas fund”. Flags were strung across the streets and the weather stayed fine and dry for the occasion.
It was a local man called Gren Tyrell, who in 1952 was Officer Commanding the 519th St Nicholas Company of the Church Lad’s Brigade that revived the old carnival. With assistance from friends that had been involved with pre-war carnivals, the old Harwich custom was back on its feet again. The event (held in November) received a reasonable amount of coverage in the local press and raised a respectable amount of money. But the revival lasted barely two months, as the North Sea floods at the end of January 1953 destroyed all the equipment that the Church Lad’s Brigade had bought with the money. Most of Bathside (where they were based) was ruined by flood damage, and the carnival once more disappeared.
The Harwich Guy Carnival had yet another revival in 1956, brought back by Harwich Round Table. Gren Tyrell, who had revived it in 1952, was the chairman of the community service committee for the Table and decided that a revival of the Guy Carnival should become the Table’s fund raising project. They purchased a Workman’s Bedford Minibus for £800 and renamed it the Harwich Round Table Community Coach. Its purpose was to allow local residents to travel and see their sick friends and relatives at the Black Notley Hospital, in Essex. Mr Tyrell suggested that proceeds from the carnival could pay for the maintenance of the vehicle, but other local charities would also benefit from the money raised. A major press campaign to promote the new carnival began in August 1956, with articles appearing in the Harwich and Dovercourt Standard on a regular basis throughout September and October.
The first ever ‘pre-carnival’ meeting was held at the Anchor Hotel on 3rd October 1956, where many local firms and organisations expressed their intentions of participating. Despite the ruling by the police that the procession was not allowed to halt in the High Street in Dovercourt, the event was given the green light. Late night extensions were granted for local pubs by the Harwich magistrates, enthusiasm was renewed down at the Marine Workshops in Parkeston Quay where they had been preparing a float. A plea was put in the Standard for youngsters to come forward and carry the flaming torches to light the procession. A week before the revived carnival it seemed there was more interest than anyone could imagine!
When 3rd November came there were 25 floats, hundreds of fancy-dressers and thousands of locals lining the streets in support of their new carnival. The standard of tableaux entered was so good, that the judges made seven of them equal third! It exceeded everybody’s expectations and was described as a first-rate community effort. £192 was raised by the comeback, which eventually was divided between the Harwich Old People’s Welfare and the Harwich Round Table Community Coach. The comeback rejuvenated much support from the town. The Marine Workshops reformed their band at Parkeston Quay and played in every carnival for the next twenty years, young boys and girls flocked to help carry the torches every year and the Guy Carnival once again became one of the most popular winter events in Essex.
The community coach was driven at the front of each carnival from 1959. There has been a Guy Carnival every year since 1956, and it was all thanks to the Harwich Round Table.
Many hundreds of people who turned out to see the Guy Carnival procession raced home when the rain began in earnest shortly before the guy burning. Making their debut in the carnival were 41 Club who scored a hit with their tableau “Marina Mariners’ Yacht”. Which was placed first in the non-commercial class. The dilapidated “yacht” was supposed to be the first arrival in the proposed yacht marina at Harwich. “The Old Woman in the Shoe” was the subject of Harwich, Dovercourt and Parkeston Co-operative Society’s float. The old woman, dressed in flowing skirts, stood guard by her house, while her many children, dressed in long white frocks, with little bonnets on their heads, clustered around her. Many of the floats poked fun at the local council’s more controversial plans, and the bathing pool was a firm favourite.
Outstanding replica of the old Harwich wheel crane on the Green won Harwich Dock Company first prize in the large class, for the second year running.
Company employees were dressed as the convicts who used to turn the wheel of the crane in bygone days. One unfortunate “blackguard” hung from the end of the wooden crane, with the words “sacked” in white paint on his straw stuffed back.
This picture shows several Harwich big heads standing next to Hollywood star, Jayne Mansfield, in 1959! Big heads have grown in popularity over the years, and organisers admit that there were years when the number of big heads in the procession was thin on the ground. In 1997 Rotarian Terry Howlett made a plea for people to come forward with big heads that had been dust covered in the loft for years. The result was an increased presence of big heads.
Each year local businesses, organisations and community groups prepared their tableaux to enter in the torchlight procession. Regular participants included Tickopres, Vacuumatic, E. Saunders & Son Builders, Royal Naval Armament Depot, NALGO, Dovercourt Rugby Club, Harwich Corporation Employees group, Harwich Further Education Centre, and many others.
Over the period 1961 to 1964 Peter Westwood was directly involved in entering two tableaux’s, one from Parkeston Primary School and one from the Sir Anthony Deane Secondary School. The later comprised a skit, ‘The Hikers’ Feat’ based on an overnight hike from Dovercourt to Mersea Island that senior students had recently completed that senior students had recently completed.
In 1963 Peter Westwood and Charlie Diaper provided the mobile ‘Hot Dog Stall ‘to circulate in the procession. The Hot Dog Stall was mounted on a farm trailer and towed by an unpredictable tractor. The entire journey around the route comprised a series of jerks, jolts and false starts as the tractor tried, fairly unsuccessfully, to maintain the same forward momentum as the other vehicles and the walkers. Every jerk sent hot water, hot fat and onions slurping out of the pans and on to their feet. But never mind, by the end of the evening they had made the grand sum of £ 24.11.5d on hot dogs to contribute to the Community Services Fund of the Round Table and the Community Coach Fund.
Harwich Dock Company, the place that started the Guy Carnival, became the place it is today in the early 1960s, when the quay was developed and renamed. It opened in Christmas 1963 and both the bosses and employees wanted to show the town that they had community spirit. Their first float in 1964 was a giant plastic model of Moby Dick, with a mouth that opened and closed, powered by a hydraulic crane. There was a small model of a car in the mouth of the whale, accompanied by jets of water that sprayed from the whale’s mouth. They are renowned for their magnificent float entries over the years, and eventually built up friendly rivalry with fellow carnival entrants from Parkeston Quay and The Vacuumatic.
The three of them were large companies that could afford to spend lots of money on extravagant props for their floats. The Dock’s tableaux were so good they were even asked to enter floats in other carnivals in Essex.
In 1975 the Navyard Wharf built a scene from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and showed the dwarfs repairing the holes in the streets of Dovercourt. In 2000 they sent Thunderbirds 1, 2, 3 and Lady Penelope’s pink Rolls Royce along to save the town from bad weather, floods and poor public transport. In 1978 they decided to use Star Wars to somehow highlight the plight of Dovercourt swimmers, for which they picked up a prize. Their 1998 float entry was a magnificent pirate ship, complete with crocodiles, guns, mast, smoke and pirates. They were poking fun at ferry company Stena, whose High Speed Ferry had experienced many mechanical problems that year.
One of their slogans said ‘From the Caribbean we made good speed, we heard that Stena was in desperate need, of another ship to do her run, so sail with us and have more fun!. Other Dock themes have included a replica of the Tread wheel Crane, the children’s television show F Troop, Paint Your Wagon, Robin Hood, Julius Ceaser, Dad’s Army, Trumpton, Harwich’s Saint Nicholas church, ‘Pummy Rose’, the battle of the Chinese take-aways and in 1983 they made a wonderful, life size model of a paddle steamer. It took them nearly three months to make and rumour has it that someone from the Ministry of Transport had to visit the dock to ensure that the tableau was safe!.
The 1980 Harwich Guy Carnival took to the streets with a record number of floats – despite a relentless freezing cold wind. The 45 entries wound their way slowly around Harwich and Dovercourt and the footpaths were packed with smiling people soaking in the excitement and happiness of those on the floats. The proceeds from the 24th carnival organised by Harwich Round Table – £1,810 from street collections and another £ 490 from raffles and programme selling. Winners of the trophy for local topicality were the Carnival Dozen, their float depicting The Doris, Captain Calamity and crew. British Rail A Shift won the prize for the best large organisation’s float. Their theme was the Mayoress’s Charity Appeal for a new incubator for Harwich Hospital.
Made up of the Quay workers. The PQB was established before the Marine Shops Band, and always headed the procession. The Marine Shops band had a position in the middle of the parade, the PQB wore a military style uniform …… red tunic,and blue trousers with a red stripe down the seam. The headgear varied from year to year and ranged from a pillbox to a lifeguards helmet. On the other hand the Marine Shops wore a variety of different costumes. How do I know this? Simply because I was one of the PQB mascots, and paraded with them on numerous occasions. The PQB also had its own social club at the High Street end of Orwell Terrace, and provided a venue for parties and other events.
During the late 30’s the procession was formed up and controlled by two marshals, Alf Fisher and Bill Woodcock,They led the procession, and dressed in naval style Uniform,frock coats ans cocked hats. (c). Royal F.A Moore.
Formed in 1934, the band was originally invented to lead the Harwich summer carnival, and eventually began playing a part in Guy carnivals from 1937. They had their own club, based at the High Street end of Orwell Terrace. They disbanded at the outbreak of World War Two and were around for the beleaguered 1945 Guy carnival, but went on to attend carnivals and events outside the town. The Parkeston Quay Marine Workshops Band saw the 1956 comeback of the Guy Carnival as the perfect chance to show off their big heads.
Like the carnival itself, the band had been out of existence for some time. Jack Horwood was a member of the ‘Stour Wanderers’ band before World War Two, and it was his idea to revive the Marine Shops band (they were in fact the main carnival band as far back as the 1920s and even earlier). The bands’ first new, public engagement was the revived 1956 Guy Carnival. The idea proved more than successful and before 1957’s carnival came around, workers were adding their names to the ever-growing list to join the band. There were 48 members and despite shift-work at the quay, 40 usually turned up at each function. The biggest turn out for the workshops band was 1959, when 44 bandsmen took part in the carnival. Right through the 1960s, Parkeston Quay Workshops band were the main attraction at carnivals, not only Harwich but all over the county. Led by drum major, Ron Avis, they attended functions at Basildon, Colchester, Chelmsford, Harlow, Felixstowe, Southend, Brightlingsea, Witham and Grundisburgh. They even performed for Hollywood star Jayne Mansfield at Ilford in 1959. They had endless engagements and successes. In 1973 drum major Ron Avis, chairman of 12 years, had felt the band needed fresh blood and he stepped down. The band attended 139 carnivals and fetes, and Mr Avis attended 119.
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Acknowledgements: Chris Root, Wendy Taylor, Harwich and Manningtree Standard, Harwich Society.