The Children’s Fete
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From its beginning in 1843, the Mechanics’ Institution held an annual ‘Soiree’ in the Works at the New Year. By 1855 the event had moved into the Institution, in the Village. But as the workforce grew, even this hall was not big enough – it took all of two days to serve cake to all the children!
So in 1866 Swindon’s first ‘Juvenile Fete’ was held in the summertime, in the GWR Park. There all the town’s children, including those from the workhouse, could enjoy a day of rides, entertainments and – of course – cake. Every child under the age of 14 was admitted free and given a slab of fruitcake and a cup of tea, as well as one free ride on the roundabouts. At the fete there were roundabouts, swingboats, coconut shies and a wide variety of sideshows. The fete would always conclude with a great fireworks display.
In 1904, a record 38,000 people attended the annual event with some 3.5 tons of cake and 1,200 gallons of tea being distributed amongst the crowd. Cutting up the cake was such a tremendous task that Mr. Harvey, a foreman in the Works, designed a slicing machine to speed up the process. Except during the Great War, the event – which later became known as ‘The Children’s Fete’ – ran every year until 1939, when the Second World War put an end to it.
Not forever though, because you just can’t keep a good party down. In 2002 it was revived by the New Mechanics’ Institution Trust and continues again today.