On Whit Monday 1893 a reporter on Wolverhampton's weekly paper thought he would come into the office to take advantage of the public holiday to catch up with some work. He expected the town to be empty as the weather was fine and the railway companies had laid on many excursion trains to whisk Wulfrunians away for a day by the seaside. Public bank holidays were a new thing - as were large urban populations with disposable income that could be spent on pleasure.

Coming into Wolverhampton at nine o'clock he was amazed to find the town full of people and bustling with activity. Two events were drawing vast crowds - the horseracing at Dunstall and the funfair built up on the market patch: the latter probably being visited on the way to and from the former! Both events attracted street traders and hawkers - particularly Italian ice-cream sellers from Salop Street, and gypsies from the Besom Yard. Ice cream was something of a novelty and was known as "hokey-pokey". It could be bought for half an old penny. Another recent innovation was the travelling photographic booth. Several of these surrounded the fair and long queues of Wulfrunians waited to have their "likeness" reproduced by the latest technology - providing they could sit still long enough for the image to be formed.

For many years the fair was located in the market square, where the Civic Centre stands today.
Looking down from the steps of St. Peters Church and across the market patch towards North Street, all one could see was the colour, movement and excitement of the packed fairground. Whistles, organ music and the cries of the thrill seekers filled the air. Our 1893 witness to all this was old enough to remember the "good old days" when the earliest fairground rides began to appear on the fringe of trading fairs and markets - small hand-turned roundabouts and sets of swings. Victorian technological progress had changed all this with the application of steam power to every problem.

The market square was full of large steam powered riding machines of the latest types - there were "Mountain Ponies" that tore up and down hills and vales as they swept round; there was the "Sea on Land" which was such a violent ride it was guaranteed to make you sea sick as you sat in your little boat tossed on mechanical waves; there was the "Roley-Poley" or "Razzle Dazzle" which threw you about like a pancake in a frying pan while it gyrated; and there were the majestic "Gondolas", covered in carved and gilded woodwork revolving on a switchback track. Even swings had been enlarged and mechanised - the "Steam Yachts" were not for wimps!

Some of these machines were lit by electricity, a "marvel" in 1893. 

The current was produced by a steam-driven generator mounted on a horse-drawn cart. Smaller rides and stalls were lit by naptha flares and oil lamps once darkness fell and the whole fair remained busy until well after midnight. Our observer noted that as the day went on small children were replaced by bigger and older children! He was also told that a large riding machine might take £100 in a day - all in pennies.

The market square. From an old postcard.

Had our observer stayed on the market patch after the fair had closed he would have noticed another "marvel". An army of men appeared from nowhere and quickly and efficiently dismantled every piece of equipment, loaded everything systematically onto wagons. Numerous teams of horses appeared and took the loaded wagons to the railway goods yard, or left Wolverhampton by road. By the next day the market patch was cleared and ready to reopen as the town's retail market.

Never once did our reporter ask the name of anyone involved in this business - these people who came from nowhere opened a huge fair on Saturday and Monday and had gone again by Tuesday. Ladies from St. Peter's Church had tried to get to know the fairground folk by inviting wives to attend a tea party on Sunday afternoon in the new "institute" built on the corner of Exchange Street, and the showmen were familiar faces to many local tradesmen. But in all other respects they were anonymous.

A view of the fair. From an old postcard.

Looking back over a century later we can now identify the showmen by name and begin to tell the story of their lives and their business. But it was something that was given very little attention at the time - and that is why the Wolverhampton newspaper report of 24th May 1893 is so noteworthy. We now know that the man who leased the market patch three times a year to bring the travelling fun fair to the centre of Wolverhampton was Pat Collins, assisted by his brother John.

Towns had assumed responsibility for leasing fairs as local government organisation and legislation developed as the nineteenth century progressed.

Pat Collins had been born in Chester in 1859 but had made the Black Country his home from 1882 onwards, although he may have visited the area with his father during the 1870s. He founded his fairground empire in Walsall, realising that the Black Country wakes provided him with a ready-made circuit of fairs that ran from August to October. In larger Black Country towns like Walsall and Wolverhampton he negotiated leases for fairs that were close to the dates of traditional charter fairs - fairs that had their ancient origins in seasonal market events. 

The Super Speedway ride at the Black
Country Living Museum, Dudley.

In Wolverhampton Pat was allowed to hold his fair on the market patch at Easter, Whitsun, and for a period running from Christmas to New Year.

Every year through the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s these fairs became bigger and better. Pat loved to organise a spectacular event and always invested in the latest, fastest and biggest attractions. Towards the end of the 1900s he brought his huge bioscope (travelling cinema) shows to Wolverhampton. In May 1908 a reporter wrote: "Again the fine organ of Pat Collins is the outside attraction at his large cinematographic show, and the fit up of the concern, together with his attendants, attired in black frock coats and silk hats, offer a completeness so neat and artistic that, from a monetary point of view also, success is at once ensured. Besides he has his full equipment, with his racing motor cars, cockerels, horses, looping the loop etc.".

The Super Rifle Range at the Black
Country Living Museum, Dudley.

This was the golden age of the travelling fun fair and Pat Collins continued to travel these classic attractions right through the following decades while adding everything that was new and up to the minute. By Whitsun 1936 an incredible variety of rides, stalls and shows could be found on the market patch, ranging from a freshly painted switchback, the Dragons & Peacocks dating from the turn of the century, through to a ride like the Waltzer that was barely three years old. Shows ranged from exotic animal and human freak shows, the like of which had been travelling for centuries, through to the ever-popular boxing booth.
When Pat Collins returned to Wolverhampton the following year he was told that Whitsun 1937 would be the last time he would be allowed to present his fair on the market patch.

The following Christmas/New Year he opened on the Brick Kiln Street Patch and there he stayed for almost the next thirty years, opening three times a year throughout the War with his famous "black-out fair". By the 1960s Pat himself was long dead and the family firm was losing many of its traditional pitches.

The Crazy Mirrors attraction at the 
Black Country Living Museum, Dudley.

In Wolverhampton the fair began a period of being shunted around by a Council that offered various poor sites between Broad Street, Falkland Street and Stafford Street. Ultimately the firm gave up coming to Wolverhampton, creating something of a vacuum in the fairground world. By now other family firms were waiting to move in. In particular the Jones Family had started appearing in local parks, supporting local carnivals etc. It is now the Jones Family that bring the fairs to Wolverhampton, opening several times a year in West Park, as well as East Park, Wednesfield, Bee Lane etc. The closest the Pat Collins firm now comes is his annual appearance at the end of June in Hickman Park, Bilston.