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Changing Times | Plenty of fun turned town’s seafront into stage

I was down near the beach recently and watching the children’s roundabouts, various sand pits and other sites. I thought back to what was available in the past here in Bognor Regis.


In the very early 1900s, there was entertainment provided by Uncle George and his Concert Party, who had entertained at Margate for the previous seven years. From this period, it was also possible to have a ride on a paddle steamer from the pier.


In front of the Royal Hotel we had Samuel Mather, the sand scratcher, who would create various images that could be viewed from the prom. Visitors would then throw down coins for him to collect, which also provided children with the opportunity early in the morning to search around to see if any coins had been missed.


Also in this vicinity we had Frank Bale and his living Marionettes. In the 1920s he was also known as the Bognor Clown. He worked with his daughter, Vi, and their dog, Tozer. Their pitch cost £1 per year.


He played to the crowds three times a day at 11am, 3pm and again at 6pm. He also played a number of musical instruments, including banjo, guitar and was a juggler as well.


There were many shows available, both on the Pier and in the Esplanade Theatre, but with different acts available. There was a group known as The Gay Cadets, sporting a similar naval image and who were a song and dance act.


From the pier we had the ‘professional divers’, who would sometimes dive into the sea with a display of their skills. One resident recalled to me: “They would see me diving off the end of the pier, but they did not know the full story.


“I had to walk to the end of the diving board, until my toes went over the end. It was scary and I was then 40 feet above the beach. He would then come up behind me and lift me over his head onto his back.


“Thus my feet would be at the back of his head and I would be laying the length of his spine. I would hang on very tight and have to tell him when I could actually see the diving board. He would then tell me he was going to jump, and I should just put my hands down by my side so that I would shoot to the surface, which of course I did.


He paid me 2s 6d (12.5p) per jump. He also went around the crowds collecting money saying it was to raise money to buy me a bicycle at the end of the season, to get me to school. Needless to say, I never saw the bicycle.”


Another memory I was provided with was from two people who were keen kayakers in the 1950s. At that time, they were two of only six people in the UK who were able to do an Eskimo roll in a kayak.


They were approached by the British Canoe Union to give demonstrations of kayak rolling in an attempt to bring kayaking to the public eye.


Between 1956 and 1958, they arranged to do demonstrations at the end of Bognor Regis Pier each weekend. They started at Easter and operated to the end of the season.


There was no funding to assist them, so in an attempt to minimise costs they camped at a farm in South Bersted, the same farm from where the speedboats were stored, who offered rides from the end of the pier. They would transport their kayaks on a daily basis from the farm to the pier and then return them to the farm.


Their kayaks were made of wood and canvas as was usual in the 1950s. This reflected a truer form of an Eskimo kayak than the later glass fibre or, indeed, the spun plastic versions. The participants in these demonstrations included their wives and children.


The two men worked on the water in rolling their kays and performed other odd tricks. One wife would give a running commentary for the spectators who were viewing the spectacle. The other wife would pass around a hat in an attempt to recover some of their costs.


Their show would start by launching from the limpet-encrusted steps that led down from the end of the pier into the water. These steps were frequently the cause of a number of scratches and minor cuts which stung all the more when in the sea.


The two children, aged nine and 11, were also in the water helping. They would wrap themselves around the stern and body of the kayak imitating seals that had been killed by the Eskimos in their hunting expeditions which were tied on to the kayaks. They would then roll the kayak as the children held on tight, sometimes rolling three or four times.


There were also miniature cars on the beach that you would hire and race along the beach. A famous seaside sight were, of course, the donkeys, both here and around the UK.


They were available to hire for a walk along the beach. One of these operators also had goat carts, in which children could sit behind the goats.


Today, we look at the large Butlin’s centre but, from the 1930s, they had their amusement arcade on the seafront in which their early dodgem cars were available, as Billy Butlin brought the licence for them into the UK from the USA. Further along the prom, he also had a small zoo to be explored.


Looking back many of these activities have gone from the scene because of the changing attitudes of people, health and safety and also the changing views of entertainment.


We still have amusements, but the shows have been superseded by the larger shows presented with acts who have emanated from TV shows, rather than learning their trade from travelling around the seaside shows for their experience.

Posted in Lifestyle.