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Matlock Bath: Illuminations & Venetian Fête in the 1950s
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Frank Clay's Castle, one of the set pieces from the 1950's.
A set piece from the 1950's by Frank Clay: S. B. Clough, photographer
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The decorated boats




Floral Fete 1908



History of the Venetian Fête, now the Venetian Nights.

Matlock Bath's annual Illuminations, also known as the Venetian Fête or Venetian Nights, were introduced as a way of extending the tourist season into late August and September and, more recently, even into October. The first Venetian Fête took place on 14 September 1897, when a "grand regatta and illuminated Venetian Fête was organised by a committee, comprising the local tradesmen of Matlock Bath". There was "a magnificent display by fairy lamps, Chinese lanterns, etc. on the Lovers' Walks"[1].

One-off spectaculars, such as Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations[2], that included illuminated boats, fireworks and candles floating on the river had been staged since the 1828 when the rocks were first lit up in Matlock Bath[3] and from around 1835 in Matlock Dale[4]. In 1842 the rocks of Hag Tor, Wild Cat Tor, Lover's Leap, etc. were lit by Bengal lights, with floating rocks on the Derwent. This was for the amusement of the sons of the then M.P. for Nottingham and their friends who were staying at the New Bath. For the finale several cases of crimson fire were lit on the Bath Terrace, with the lights provided and supervised by Benjamin Bryan, Senior, who had used them at the Royal Devonshire Cavern[5]. During Wakes week in 1861 there was a Fête, with fireworks and the rocks lit by coloured fires[6]. A large Chinese balloon, surrounded by coloured fires and fireworks, ascended during a magnificent display in 1869 that was watched by 10,000 people. Coloured lights were lit simultaneously on all sides of the hillside by some fifty men[7]. In 1882 it was decided to hold a regatta and illuminate the rocks, the Pavilion Grounds and Heights of Abraham on Monday 11th September[2]. Similar events had taken place at marriage of Prince of Wales in 1863 and the visit of Emperor of Brazil in 1872[8]. So the Venetian Fête of 1897 wasn't a new idea, but had evolved from these events earlier in the nineteenth century.

Illuminations.

"At the end of the last century [19th century] it was decided to light the Lovers' Walks with fairy lights. These were bucket lights, like little jam jars, and were designed to burn for 1-3 hours. The Jubilee Bridge used to be illuminated by small gas lamps[9]". The weather was fine in 1899, when an estimated 10,000 people were present. A series of concerts and entertainments began punctually at seven o'clock and, as dusk approached, the whole of the Lovers' Walks and promenades were illuminated, lit by 5,000 fairy lights and Chinese lanterns[10]. A year later the band kiosk on the Prom was a blaze of coloured lamps; that year the committee included Messrs. L. Pearson, Frank Higton and B. Bellamy as hon. secretaries[11]. "Fairyland by night" was the verdict for the 1902 Fête[12]. The following year there were two Fêtes, one in May and a second in September. The May venture cannot have been the first as the local paper commented that there had been a failure some years previously and the Matlock Bath Venetian Fête Committee had been dubious about running another such event in May[13]. Two Fêtes a year continued until about 1913. The earliest decorative motifs were simple shapes - stars, triangles, circles etc.[9]

Set piece   Set piece
Mediaeval tumblers, September 1951
Frank Clay created between 14 and 20 set pieces in the first year he was involved with the Fête.
Photographs taken by S. B. Clough


"Frank Higton, Mr. Walker Hall and Fred Fowkes were the real beginners of the Venetian Fête and Joe Oliver was also heavily involved ... Between the Wars Mr. Walker Hall, who was involved with the Venetian Fête until 1939, had a budget of £20 which included the cost of the boys running around with tapers to keep the candles alight. His £20 didn't include Fireworks[9]". Financing the Fête was a recurring problem and in 1937 the Committee discussed whether or not the Fête should be organised again as it proved to be a heavy financial burden when the weather was bad[13]. "Pre War [WW2] the event was held as a one night stand on the first Saturday night in September[9]".

Post War Revival.

When the event was revived in 1950, the candles along the Lovers' Walks were replaced by electric lighting. The annual event, organised by the Matlock Bath Venetian Fête/Nights Committee, became extremely successful in the 1950s when the web mistress's father, Frank Clay, painted the set pieces and when Wilfred Wright was responsible for so cleverly lighting them. "Wilfred worked slavishly during the months preceding the event. ... The committee had bought a secondhand set piece from Blackpool of a little girl skiing down a hill but they decided it wasn't the way they wanted to go. Wilfred had been involved before the War and asked me [Frank Clay] if I'd be prepared to help when we were working at the same property[9]". "After the first year of my involvement, when the Fête was a great success, the committee decided to extend the display period. The organisational factors - police, electricity supply, council, &c. - had been ironed out and the 'Illuminations' were underway[9]".


Farmer Giles
Frank Clay with his set piece "Farmer Giles", no date. Photo by Harry Gill.


There were several problems in running a one day event, which eventually led to changes. One was staging it on the river, as bad weather and sometimes flooding had always disrupted proceedings. Extending the season in 1952 helped counter this, and the event became the Illuminations and the Venetian Nights. The second was coping with the sheer number of visitors; sometimes the crush was so bad that the Jubilee Bridge was totally blocked. As early as 1903 there had been a proposal to use the ferry at the top end of the river as a way of lessening the heavy traffic over the bridge[13], but the ferry wasn't designed for large numbers. The papers often reported that the gates and turnstiles leading onto the Promenade and been closed because the area was full. In 1954 the Committee ordered a temporary steel bridge to relieve the congestion[15]and eventually a permanent footbridge linking the Derwent Gardens with the Lovers' Walks was erected, though this did not happen until after the Illuminations had left the Promenade. The final problem was that of discarded rubbish and one person has described, as a child, seeing rubbish knee deep along the Parades on the Sunday morning after the Fête, which had to be removed before the Bath could return to normality[13].

Inside the Holme Road Workshop, September 1951.
Photograph by Harry Gill.

Preparing for both the Venetian Fête and the Illuminations took a long time and everyone involved had to work extremely hard.

During the summer months the Holme Road workshop that my father used for his business was a hive of activity. My father was hugely creative and produced hundreds and hundreds of designs during his seven year involvement.

In the photograph we can see some of the set pieces for that year, with George Ludlam, a local teacher, sitting on the floor. Mr. Ludlam was largely responsible for cutting out the shapes that had been outlined on the boards. If you look carefully at the left hand side of the photo you can see a large tin box, on top of which are some of the numerous jars and tins of paint used on the set pieces.

  Workshop


My father's subjects included well loved characters from popular children's books of the time, ranging from Lewis Carroll's "Alice" and the "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party" to Enid Blyton's "Noddy and Big Ears". Nursery rhymes also appealed to the children, with characters like Old Mother Hubbard and Jack and Jill. There were dwarves, elves, Dick Whittington, Disney's "Snow White", the Man in the Moon as well as The Mekon, Dan Dare and Digby who were characters in the "The Eagle" comic. Larger set pieces included The Men From Mars and the United Nations Band as well as the Willow Pattern Story.


Mother Goose, September 1951.
Set piece by Frank Clay, early 1950s
Sinbad the Sailor.
The web mistress has the original sketch for this,
but it is undated.


Set piece of chimps by Frank Clay, early 1950s Set piece of chimps boxing, by Frank Clay, early 1950s
Chimps were firm favourites, left on a bicycle and above in the boxing ring.
I have a few sketches of chimps. Frank also painted a chimpanzees tea party as part of the same series but, unfortunately, I don't have a photograph.


Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill
Set piece
Dick Whittington, 1955
 


Willow Pattern  

The Willow Pattern Story, about 1953.

Frank Clay, with his son Robert assisting, is shown working on the set pieces. George Ludlam is sitting on the floor.

The Willow Pattern Story is a fable of English origin, illustrated on blue and white china plates. Here we see the Mandarin's beautiful daughter Koong-se escaping over the bridge with her lover Chang, the Mandarin's Secretary.


For quite a few years the hardboard replica of Big Ben shown below remained the first thing visitors saw on crossing over Jubilee Bridge to the Lovers' Walk side. And the castle high up above the bandstand, which was 16 feet by 16 feet, was also there for some time (see photograph at the top). Pretty good considering the pieces were painted on hardboard. My father may have painted the front, but his children were amongst those who painted the backs to protect the pieces from weather damage.

Set pieces Set piece
From 1954.
Dwarves, a windmill with rotating sails, "Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Three Men in a Tub ... the butcher, the baker , the candlestick maker" and Big Ben. Note that Remo Tinti, as the butcher, is sitting in the middle. The windmill (in colour) was displayed in a different location the following year. Several of the later set pieces moved in some way.
From "The Derbyshire Times" and "The Windmill", a post card.


Erecting the lights must have been a hazard in itself as the "wooded slopes and limestone tors of the Lovers' Walks" were lit up. There was also, on occasion, the additional problem of the river. During late August 1954 the workers were "soaked to the skin, toiled away in the driving rain ... to complete the layout of the illuminations for the official opening on Saturday, but all the time the river rose ominously. The swollen waters mounted at the rate of more than a foot an hour until the river was about eight feet above the normal summer level, and work had to be suspended while some of the designs and set pieces near the water's edge were made safe. Men waded into the water to prevent them being washed away"[16].

There was a formal switching on ceremony of the Illuminations, often performed by well known people in the district, such as the local M.P. or the Duke of Devonshire[17]. A week later one very special Saturday evening's entertainment - the Fête itself. The town band played in the band stand, there was an enormous firework display accompanied by the "Ooos" and "Aaah's" from both the bandstand and the crowd on the Promenade, plus the competition of the wonderful decorated boats. Visitors streamed in, many using the train service from cities such as Manchester and Derby. In the 1920s they had arrived by charabanc, until the charas were replaced by buses and later private cars. The Promenade was always very crowded and visitors also lined the roads on the hillside above.


"Matlock Bath would be a poor place without the Illuminations"
George Tansley, former hon. secretary of the Matlock Bath Illuminations & Venetian Nights committee, about 1976[18].

Set piece
Snow White and the Seven (Musical) Dwarves, 1955
Set piece
Witch's house, possibly 1955 or 1956.
Set piece
Old Mother Hubbard, 1956

Matlock Bath Workshop, 1956
Robert and Valerie Clay, with George Ludlam, their father Frank and "The Mekon".

The Prarie Belle, one of a series of postcards.

The Promenade, (North) Matlock Bath Illuminations

Set piece
Various dwarfs having a good time. Note the rabbit playing the triangle and the mouse.
Although some of the cans are hard to read, the largest one at the back reads (backwards) more oil.


The Man in White.

My father produced an advertisement for Remo Tinti which was attached to the back bumper of his car, shown right; it would undoubtedly be banned today. It was a large painted cartoon of Remo made of hardboard and with a circular plate bearing the words "The Man in White". This was the nickname created because he wore a white suit in his role as band conductor and compere, something he did brilliantly.

"I [Frank Clay] was performing at the time in Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Gondoliers' in 1956 and the idea occurred to dress the attendants in that sort of costume. A watered down 'compromise' was decided upon - to provide a white suit for the compere - and "The Man in White" was in business[9]".

Remo's contribution to the event was massive, both in generating funds with appeals to local businessmen and with his unbridled enthusiasm to ensure visitors enjoyed themselves.

  Remo, the web mistress remembers this beigng taken


The Illuminations and Venetian Nights are still popular annual event in Matlock Bath, and now last for several weeks. However, for the purposes of this page the text covers largely only the early development of the Venetian Fête and Venetian Nights and its resurgence in the 1950s, up to and including the time of my late father's involvement. There have, of course, been gaps in continuity since the Venetian Fêtes began in Matlock Bath; the most obvious being the war years.

Illuminated boats, originally lit by candles in tiny glass jars, have always been a hugely important element in the success of the Fête. These are discussed on another page.

The 1968 Programme.

This was the second year the Illuminations and Venetian Nights had been held in the Derwent Gardens. A new bandstand had been built but the footbridge was a still thing of the future.

Selling programmes was entrusted to Matlock Bath's youngsters who received tiny sum of money for each sale. Woe betide you if you had accidentally given someone the wrong change. It was docked from your total. The programme price, at 6d, had remained unchanged since the mid 1950s.


Opening

 


Can you help?

If you have any old photographs in your album of the set pieces done in the 1950's, please email the web mistress


Related pages.

Venetian Fête (now Venetian Nights), decorated boats

The Band Stand on the Prom

Matlock Bath High Tor, by Frank Clay

South Parade & The Pitchings, a drawing, by Frank Clay

Frank Clay, artist. Examples of the work of a Derbyshire artist. This page is elsewhere within The Andrews Pages.
Travelling to the Venetian Fête or Venetian Nights - view some railway posters.
See 1960's letter from the renamed committee elsewhere on this website (linked at the bottom of that page).
Matlock Bath: Charlotte Farnsworth, Poetess - Charlotte wrote a poem about the Venetian Fête.
Celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897

 
Ken Smith has provided the following from his collection. Sinbad, chimps and Jack and Jill were added in September 2010. "The Windmill", "The Prarie Belle" and "The Promenade, (North) Matlock Bath Illuminations" are all postcards, added August 2013.
All other photographs were part of the Frank Clay collection, and are now owned by Ann Andrews, including those from "The Derbyshire Times" articles about the Illuminations published in August or September, 1954, 1955 and 1956.
Compiled from family archives and additional information provided by and © Ann Andrews.
Written and researched by and © Ann Andrews. Intended for personal use only.
 

References (coloured links lead to on site transcripts or other information):

[1] Several newspaper reports refer to the Annual Regatta and Fête, including in "The Derby Mercury" 22 September, 1897 and the "Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald" of 18 September 1897. The event should have taken place earlier in the month, but was rained off ("The Derby Mercury", 8 September, 1897). The river was flooded and it was unsafe to enter the water unattended. Whilst Benjamin Bryan, in his book "Matlock, Manor and Parish" (1903), refers to the celebrations that took place to mark the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 and describes "a procession of illuminated boats on the river and simultaneous illumination of the walks by coloured fires" he was not describing a Venetian Fête. A regatta was not held at the time of the jubilee. Bryan, unfortunately, does not mention Venetian Fêtes although several would have taken place before he wrote his book. Regattas had been held in the village since 1875. See: Matlock Bath: River Derwent, 1914.

[2] Read the reports about Celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897

[3] Read the report on Matlock Bath and Scarthin Newspaper Cuttings, 1828.

[4] Matlock Dale: High Tor and High Tor Hotel, 1950s includes a description of the illumination of High Tor in 1835, written anonymously by "a Correspondent of the Derbyshire Courier".

[5] "The Derby Mercury", 24 August, 1842.

[6] "The Derby Mercury", 18 September, 1861.

[7] "Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald",14 August 1869. Display of fireworks and illumination.

[8] "The Derby Mercury", 30 August, 1882. See: Matlock Bath and Scarthin Newspaper Cuttings, 1882.

[9] Reminiscences of the late Mr. Frank Clay, from his private papers and notes owned by the web mistress. His first memory of the Venetian Fête was in 1913.

[10] "The Derby Mercury", 6 September, 1899. The "Derbyshire Times" of 9 September 1899 said the 1899 Fête had only been decided on a few weeks beforehand when "it was decided to hold another al fresco adornment of the banks of the Derwent which proved so popular in the past". An earlier issue mentioned that it was "too late for a regatta". By this the paper must have meant that it was too late to organise a regatta, rather than it being too late in the season. The "Belper News" (8 September 1899) described the Fête as an annual event. Just as it had been in 1897, the 1899 Fête was organised by a committee, comprising the local tradesmen of Matlock Bath.

[11] "Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald",1 September 1900. In the 1901 census they were all living in Matlock Bath. See the Bellamy family's census entry | Frank Higton's census entry | Louis Pearson's census entry.

[12] "Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald",13 September 1902.

[13] "Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald", 9 May 1903.

[13] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 28 January 1937.

[15] "Derbyshire Times", 26 August, 1955. The paper carried a separate report on how the Grand Pavilion had been saved from fire damage when a vigilant P.C. had discovered a fire in a shed behind the Pavilion that was used to store litter in the summer months.

[16] "The Derbyshire Times", Friday 26 August 1955. Mr. E. B. Wakefield, M.P. for West Derbyshire, switched on the lights that year. In his speech he "humorously remarked that the Venetian Nights started in the year in which Mr Broome and himself were born (1903)". Mr. Broome was the then President of the Committee. Whilst the Arkwright Cup became an integral part of the Venetian Fête in 1903, they had really begun some years before, in 1897.

[17] "The Derbyshire Times", Friday 24 August 1954.

[18] The spoken words of George Tansley, from the "Kit at Large" programmes produced by Radio Derby in the 1970s.