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Feather's Miscellany: Keighley Gala Day

John Waddington-Feather recalls the excitement and joy of Gala Day in Keighley.

Some of my readers are curious about the real town – Keighley – on which my Keighworth Tales are based and whose characters I draw on; and there were some very colourful characters living there when I was growing up. So in this little piece of autobiography I hope I capture Keighley in its heyday before the collapse of the textile trade and the mass immigration of the 1960s when the character of the town was changed. My piece is about the one day in the year when Keighley let its hair down and enjoyed itself – Gala Day.

It started in the 19th century when Keighley had grown to become a borough and funds were needed for the newly built Victoria Hospital; Gala Day was launched to help raise money and, as far as I’m aware, money raised on Gala Day still goes to the local hospital, now a splendid building some miles out of Keighley and serving a much wider area.

Gala Day took place in June when the weather tried hard to be at its best and the days were long and to be enjoyed to the full. The sun didn’t always shine (it always had a job making an appearance in Keighley); nevertheless, the good folk of the town never let a wet day dampen their spirits. If the weather turned awkward, the procession which begun the day simply marched on regardless through the rain: even though the tableaux on the backs of lorries, the brass bands, the morris dancers, the young troupes of cheer leaders, the Bradford Kilties Pipe Band and all the crowds lining the streets watching them were sodden.

The long procession which lasted more than an hour assembled at Lund Park on the southern end of the town and ended at the northern end in the much larger Victoria Park, once the grounds and mansion of a wealthy mill owner. On its way there it meandered through the main streets lined with cheering crowds who threw pennies into buckets carried by men and women, many in comic fancy dress, walking on foot by the floats. At the tail-end of the procession came the council garbage men cleaning up the droppings left by the immaculately turned out Shire horses pulling some of the floats.

Keighley Prize Silver Band headed the procession in which other bands took part: Haworth Silver Band, the Black Dyke Band, and one or two from over the Pennines in Lancashire. Then there were clownish wiffen-waffen bands playing tommy-talkers and homemade instruments like washing boards. In later years eye-catching teenage cheer-leaders took part, showing their shapely legs as they danced along. Another colourfully dressed group of players was the Bradford Kilties wearing traditional Scottish dress, red-faced and playing their bagpipes for all they were worth. And finally there were the scout bugle and drum bands.

In between all this music and dancing came a long flotilla of floats, lorries and horse-drawn carts, carrying an assortment of tableaux manned by Sunday Schools, youth clubs and other organisations. There was generally a float with a young buxom woman on it dressed as Britannia, looking very splendid with her helmet, shield and spear. Somewhere in the procession the fire-brigade, police and St John’s Ambulance Brigade marched in line; and at the very end of all this came the mayor and corporation, dressed in their fur-edged robes and tricorn hats, beaming and bowing to the electorate; plump councillors and aldermen full of good food even in those austere days of rationing.

My godfather, John Hird, owned a brewery right in the centre of town and my family had a grandstand view of the procession from his office as it passed by. The bands always paused outside the brewery to play my godfather’s favourite hymns, for he gave very liberally to the hospital and other charities. Once he’d acknowledged their playing with a wave from his office window, off the bands went again blowing and drumming for all they were worth.

And so the procession, a lively and noisy artery of joy, rolled on to Victoria Park, throbbing through the town till it reached the park where prizes were given for the best tableau and fancy dress. Then more celebrating got under weigh during the afternoon and evening. And how those townsfolk enjoyed themselves as they packed into the park!

All during the previous week fair-ground folk and gypsies had been arriving in their brightly painted caravans and trailers and setting up their stalls, their dodgems and swing boats, their peep-shows and fortune-telling booths. Local tradesmen were there also selling their wares: fish and chips, pies and peas piping hot, brandy snap and candy floss, tea and chocolates, a couple of beer tents, all on tap to satisfy the appetites of the milling throng cramming into the park and determined to enjoy themselves.

In the middle of all this a stage had been erected where acrobats performed and the finals of a boxing competition took place. In another part of the park races were run by competing schools and a silver cup was presented by the mayor to the winning school team. And all the while two bands played their hearts out in a couple of beautifully crafted Victorian wrought-iron bandstands, refreshed at regular intervals from the beer-tents.

The jollifications went on well into the night and early hours of the next morning. Once dusk had fallen a magnificent firework display lit up the sky. It ended with the playing of the National Anthem and a portrait of the monarch in fireworks, which marked the official end of Gala Day; but youngsters continued enjoying themselves in the fair-ground for hours afterwards. And in the darker recesses of the park, in the shelters and now empty bandstands, young lovers mooned out their hearts.

Gala Day was enjoyed by all to the very end, before the dull routine of work in the mills and factories and offices took over Keighley again for another year on Monday morning.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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