Going Walking: Warrington Walking Day and its Fair

Photo: Warrington, July 1996.
Warrington, July 1996.

The Whit Walks and Walking day fairs that still survive in Lancashire and Cheshire originate from the Sunday School movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Although the most prominent of these events today is Warrington Walking Day, held traditionally in the first week of July, the earliest known "Walks" can be traced to Manchester around 1800. Walking Days or Whit Walks as they became known sprang out of the Sunday School movement first pioneered in 1784. The idea behind this movement was to free the children:

Who worked under wretched conditions during the week in the manufacturies ... were on Sunday allowed to run wild and free from all restraint.

To celebrate the anniversary of the Sunday School movement in Manchester the founders decided to assemble the children in St Anne's Square and parade through the Market Square to attend church. Although these parades became later associated with the Whit holidays and walks, the main features of the walks, the parading of the churches, still remained an intrinsic part of the tradition in Manchester well into the 1950s. Although Warrington Walking Day owes its origins to one individual rather than a particular movement, the other events held in Bickerstaff, Padgate, Stockton Heath and Rainforth, can be seen in the context of this earlier tradition. The greatest of these was Warrington Walking Day which started as a counter attraction to the annual races held at Newton. Between 1832 and 1834, the Rev H. Powys instituted the anniversary of the Sunday Schools. Like the organisers in Manchester the event became an occasion on which all the schools would go in procession to the Parish Church to hear a service and sermon, and afterwards retire for refreshments. However, the Rev. Quekett writing in 1865 to the Warrington Guardian, infers that the tradition began as a counter to the vice and iniquity of the races held at Newton which were attended by local parishioners. By 1858 it had become an annual festival, a holiday for the young people of Warrington:

A day sacred to running and racing, to rollicking and frolicking, to romping, dancing, jumping, riding, climbing - in fact everything except working.

The Walks would consist of the different church schools walking in procession throughout the town and starting early on the Friday morning. From 1857 they were joined by the local Roman Catholics and by 1908 all the different religious denominations in the town would have taken part in the walk. However, it was not until 1920 that all followed the same route. Prior to then the Church of England procession was the only parade that met in Bank Park and marched past the Town Hall. Despite various attempts over the years for the churches to walk together, it was not until 1995 after the IRA bomb had exploded in Warrington, that this was finally achieved.

The linking of an annual fair to the Walking Day festivities in Warrington is more difficult to prove. Little appears in local reports, with the exception of a reference from 1895, where a resident James Oakes recollects the children saving coppers to spend

with the army of vendors ... who invaded the town during the early hours and traded in hokey pokey, brandy snaps and gingerbreads.

Records for a fair associated with the Walking Day event in the World's Fair are also scarce and little mention of a fair can be found until the 1940s. However, according to an independent report published on Warrington Walking Day in 1970, the midsummer holiday associated with Walking Day has historical roots dating back to 1255. The annual midsummer festival was granted a Royal Charter by Henry III and stated that the fair be held annually on 6th, 7th and 8th of July. Subsequent Charters granted in 1277 and 1285 extended the period by five days. Therefore, for six centuries before the introduction of the Walking Day festivities the people of Warrington had traditionally held a midsummer fair. Although entertainment would have always been associated with the annual Walk, little documentary evidence has been uncovered prior to 1945 of the families who attended the event. However, the photographic record for fairs at Warrington can be traced back to 1919 when the Silcock Brothers attended a fair on Chester Road with their Yachts and Galloping horses. Regular reports do appear in World's Fair from 1949 onwards when the Burnley Cyclist began to include reports of Padgate, Stockton Heath and Warrington in his column of events. The Walking Day Fair became associated with Victoria Park and Alford Park, known as Catholic Fields, and appears to have always been organised by Silcock's of Warrington. Big Ted, Lawrence and Arthur, the original Silcock Brothers had presented "Holidays at Home Fairs" at Victoria Park during the Second World War. However, it was only after 1945 that the annual Walking Day Fair was held in Catholic Fields and Victoria Park. This was largely due to the association with the previous Holiday at Home fairs held in the Park. In 1949 the Burnley Cyclist reports that:

At Victoria Park, Warrington, Silcock Bros had a grand array of amusements for the Walking Day festival. On Friday, the main day, business was good. The lovely orchestrations were like new. The Swirl organ having a picture of a circus parade over the top. The Dodgem has a big organ at the side, which is a treat and the Arc with Arthur in command is a popular machine on each tober it visits.

The fair became larger and by 1952 had doubled in size and included rides presented by the Silcock Brothers, J. J. Butterworth, J. Ryan. E. Morley, W. Shaw and F. Thompson among others. Other Walking Days such as Padgate and Stockton Heath, although not as a large as Warrington, have always been well attended over the years and can claim a similar pedigree to both Rainforth and Bickerstaff. The run of fairs that make up the Walking Day Fairs traditionally start with Rainforth, and became known as the "tea party" run in Lancashire. According to the World's Fair reporter writing in 1967, the Silcock family's association with Padgate started in 1915 when they first presented fairs in the area. In 1955 the Burnley Cyclist reports an exciting incident at Padgate Walking Day fair:

I heard of a gallant action by the showmen during their visit to Padgate. Nearby an aeroplane came down in a crash-landing. The showmen rushed to the spot and managed to get the airman clear. They were Fred Brewer, J. Cook, J. Smith, Henshaw Bros, young Ted Silcock, and one or two others.

[image] Warrington, July 1997
Warrington, July 1997

The present day Walking Day fairs are still traditionally held throughout June and July every year. The traffic is no longer stopped from entering the town, shops no longer close and the showpeople claim that the event is not the attraction it used to be. However, despite the downpours of recent years, thousands of people still regularly attend the events with their children. The tradition is looked forward to in anticipation every year and despite objection over the past few years:

Walking Day is much a part of the tradition of Warrington, that public opinion is against any change of the event to another day or its abolition.

I would like to thank the staff of Warrington Library for their help when researching this article and for use of early photographs of the Walking Day parade.