1987 – My Fair Ladies

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“Write me 2,000 words on the Fair Days you reported when you were with the Bo’ness Journal”.

The request was delivered in that no no-nonsense manner so typical of former Town Councillor Willie Rodger, a man who has done so much for the town of Bo’ness and it’s magical Fair Festival in the 30 years I have known him.

“Do you mean 2,000 words on each Fair?”, I replied, thinking of an 18,000 word epic and all-night candles flickering beside my typewriter.

“No, no”, said Willie. ‘Just a wee bit about every Fair you covered.”

That promptly cut me down to around 200 words per Fair – and, frankly, that’s not nearly enough when you start to recall some of the most memorable days of your life.

Can it really be 30 years ago when I went to live and work in Bo’ness? Looking at my wedding picture of 1957 and one taken in the Spring of 1987, there’s no doubt about it. Oh! those cruel hands of time.

It was indeed 1957 when I started with the Journal – but it was in August and I had just missed “Vera Bow’s Fair”. I was soon to learn that so many topics of conversation revolved around the Fair and to this day, I still talk about “My first Fair” or if the year 1961 crops up, for example, “Aye, that was the Grangers’ years”.

Yes, for a Falkirk Bairn – an “incomer” who was always made to feel so much at home in Bo’ness – the Fair is still the day if days and it’s an honour for me to look back in this way on my nine Festivals and on “My Fair Ladies”.

July 4, 1958, was my first Fair and a real Sunshine Festival for charming 12 year-old Helen Donaldson of 61 Hadrian way, a pupil of St. Mary’s Primary School. It was one of the hottest Fairs on record, with 25 fainting cases, but still a never-to-be-forgotten occasion when Provost John Graham escorted Dr Mary Laidlaw after she had performed the crowning.

The Chief Lady was Yvonne McLaughlin, Queen of the Fairies, Carol Downs, Queen fo the Flower Girls, Catherrine McGowan and Queen’s Champion Simon Morgan.

Pow’s won the tableau for the seventh year in a row with a fabulous giant elephant, 15 feet high, beside the Taj Mahal – and James Braes and Sons erected and dismantled the coronation dias in record time.

That was 1958, when a new Ford Popular was £443 and a bottle of whisky 37/6d (£1.85p) – and when Tam Dalyell, 25 was chosen as Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles.

The next year brought some pre-Fair problems. Bo’ness Harbour and Dock, West Lothian’s only seaport, was finally closed after a 19-month battle – and the Journal printers went on strike, allowing us to print only a four page penny edition the size of the Beano.

Sadly, it seriously affected our coverage of the 1959 Fair when Mairi Pritchard (17) of 53 Graham Cresent, was the Academy’s Queen. But it was still another great day, with Mrs. H.C. Ballantine, wife of the well-known foundry director, performing the crowning. Chief Lady was Margaret Suttie, Queen of the Fairies Frances Tully, Queen of the Flower Girls Margaret McFarlane and Queen’s Champion Alex Smith.

Just 18 days after the Fair, the Bo’ness Tenants’ Associattion gave up their year-long fight against the SSHA over a 7/6d weekly rent increase – and the Journal went back to normal size on August 7.

It was Kinneil’s year in 1960 with June Grant of 32 Livingstone Drive as Queen and Esther McPherson as Chief Lady. Mrs George Gould, wife of the Academy art teacher, crowned the Queen and principals on the day that stayed dry until 6.30p.m. were Grace Young, Queen of the Fairies, Valerie Buchanan Queen of the Flower Girls, and Raymond Paul, Queen’s Champion.

There was a nice family touch about the 1961 Fair, the Grangers’ year. Not only was Alex Buchanan the Provost but the lady he accompanied to and from the coronation platform was none other than his wife, Edith. And the Provost wore brand-new council robes that day.

The day was warm and sunny and young Nancy Cuthell (12) of 1, Shore Place, Grangepans, was a lovely Queen, representing Grange School. Her Chief Lady was Marlene Meikle, Queen of the Fairies Jean Bennie, Queen of the Flower Girls Jean Stewart and Queen’s Champion Lawrence Downie.

Just before the Fair, there was stunning news from 14 families in Castleloan when the Coal Board decided to evict them because the husbands were no longer employed at Kinneil Colliery. A total of 50 children were involved. What a miserable Fair memory for them.

The Journal went on to front page news on June 16 for the first time in it’s history – and racing car driver David Good a 27 year-old one-armed dairyman from Newbury, Berks, won the Kinneil Hill Climb.

Bo’ness Public School held sway at the 1962 Fair when Elizabeth murphy of 36c Hadrian Way was crowned by Mrs. George Renton, wife of the Burgh Surveyor and the man who had been Festival Director for 11 years.

Rumours swept the town that the traditional 11a.m. crowning had been switched to the afternoon and that an Academy teacher was keeping his class indoors until 12 noon unless they took part in the Fair. All the stories were unfounded, however.

The familiar figure of James Cuthell was missing from the bandstand. He was ill and Bo’ness and Carriden Band were conducted instead by Joe Hempstead, their own conductor.

Young Elizabeth’s Chief lady was Ainslie Houston, Queen of the Fairies was Bertha Marshall, Queen fo the Flower Girls Margaret Snedden and the Queen’s Champion David Aitken.

Another abiding memory of 1962 was Grange School’s presentees, the fabulous Black and White Minstrels. The colour and precision of those 17 youngsters was a joy to behold.

A sad sequel to the Fair was a trail of vandalism in the early hours of Saturday morning with the worst damage being caused inside the Public Library.

The 1963 Fair produced its own slice of unique history when 15-year old Margaret Donaldson of 61 Hadrian Way, Grahamsdyke – a pupil of St. Mary’s Junior Secondary – was chosen as Queen.

For hadn’t Margaret’s sister, Helen, been Queen five years earlier. That was my first Fair, of course, the glorious Sunshine Festival of 1958 – and now we had added another dimension to the annals of Fair folklore by naming the first-ever Fair Queen to follow her sister to the throne.

Helen now 17, was thrilled as Margaret and it was a plaesure to meet the whole Donaldson family again. Now, sadly the girls’ parents, George and Mary, are no longer with us, but they surely took with them a host of Fair Queen and Ex-Queen Memories.

Margaret was probably luckier than Helen from a weather viewpoint, because the 1963 crowds witnessed a quite miraculous change in the elements. Whereas 1958 had been warm and sunny before, during and after the big day, Margaret Donaldson’s Fair was in danger of cancellation.

Rain had poured down incessantly for 30 hours but just before officials were discussing alternative plans, it stopped at 9.30 a.m. on Friday and stayed dry all day, although still cold. It also poured down again on Saturday, but the uncanny dry break allowed Provost Bob Ross to invite Bo’ness Registrar Miss Neva Pritchard to carry out the time-honoured coronation.

Popular Bo’ness character, Councillor John Collee gave the running commentry and other principals that day were Jean Martin as Chief Lady, Evelyn Tooey as Queen of the Fairies, Agnes McGill as Queen of the Flower Girls and Ronald Gourlay as Queen’s Champion.

Away from the Fair, 1963 ended on a high note at Kinneil Colliery with the 1,100 miners breaking output records in one week, their highest-ever weekly, daily and output-per-manshift total of 7,165 tons, 1,510 tons and 34.25cwts. respectively. Yet just over a year earlier, the pit was nearly closed when millions of gallons of flood water steamed into the works and output-per-manshift slumped to four cwts.

The year 1964 saw two Queens in the area during the summer – for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth opened the Forth Road Bridge on September 4, a £19.5 million project that was to prove a great tourist attraction as well as a vital opening-up link between Edinburgh and Fife.

But it was the Fair Queen who stirred the town of Bo’ness more in 1964 – and that was senior Academy pupil Jean Baillie (17) of 1 Ochilview Road, Maidenpark, a lovely representative of our town’s senior seat of learning.

On a pleasant, sunny day – until around 3 p.m. at the Revels – Jean was crowned by Mrs Margaret ( Peggy ) Hamilton, a retired teacher who had taught at the Academy for 30 years.

Other charmers on duty that day were Janice Renton as Chief Lady, Kathleen Eaglesham as Queen of the Fairies, and Emily Hempstead as Queen of the Flower Girls. The bold Queen’s Champion was Tom Anderson.

One of the judging surprises that year was the placing of Pow’s annual classic tableau into THIRD place. Their “Pinky and Perky” was superb creation but, for once, it was pipped.

A national newspaper strike mean’t that there was no coverage of the Fair, except in the Journal of course!

In 1965 came a host of innovations and claims of “the best-ever Fair”. The sun steamed down gloriously throughout and with Provost Charles Snedden the man behind the Festival’s new look, we had the perennial majesty of the crowning in Glebe Park and a fabulous brand-new Queen’s Revels in Douglas Park with a Royal Box for the first time and a special Command Performance of top-quality entertainment.

The Queen was delightful, fair-haired Ruth Frank of 167 Dean Road, an 11 year-old pupil of Kinneil Primary – and another Bo’ness teaching legend, Mrs Josephine Turnbull, of Braemar, Braehead, performed the crowning role that Miss Hamilton had done in 1964.

Marion Grant was Chief Lady, Dorothy Penman Queen of the Fairies, Carol Miller Queen of the Flower Girls and young Joe Johnston was the Queen’s Champion. There was a record entry of arches and house frontages – and Pow’s were back to winning form with a sensational Santa Claus and reindeer tableau.

On a personal note, I hold the ’65 Fair in great affection, as does my wife Christine. Our son, Bruce – now reporting with the Journal and Gazette in Linlithgow – was a member of the Queen’s Bodyguard that day and having a six year-old presentee forged another link with Bo’ness that will never be broken.

What was to be my last Fair as Journal reporter was Jeannette Neill’s in 1966 – and again the claims were made that it was even better than 1965. Such comparisons are probably inevitable but there are so many personal reasons for one Bo’nessian preferring a particular Fair to any other that it’s unfair to put a “best-ever” label on any year. Still, 1966 was something special.

A public appeal to buy new crown, sceptre and robes for the Queen raised £460, much more than the £300 required. There were new floats for the Royal principals instead of horse-drawn landaus and a 50-foot high tableau for the Queen. There was a Fair E’en torchlight procession and the first-ever Kirkin’ of the Queen service in Carriden Church.

The sun scorched down on the charming young Queen Jeanette Neill from Grange School as the new crown was placed on her head by Mrs. James Cuthell, wife of the great Fair stalwart and musical conductor.

Jeaneete’s Chief Lady was Ann Grant, Queen of the Fairies Janey King, Queen of the Flower Girls Jennifer Roby and Queen’s Champion James Brookes.

It was the 58th Fair in 69 years, my ninth and last in a working capacity – and Provost Charles Snedden, in a letter to the “Journal”, thanked all who had helped to justify the claim that this annual pageant was the “premier Children’s Festival within the United Kingdom.”

As I made my way to Falkirk and the Falkirk Herald the following month, I remembered those words. Today, 21 years later, Charlie and I still agree that. Long live the Fair!

Ken Waddell, Group Editor of The Falkirk Herald

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