A marching band, followed by four horses pulling some beer, a red dragon, some bagpipers, and an acid trip inspired milk float, all walk down a street in Walthamstow in 1964. No this is not the opening to a joke, but just some of the parade on display for one year of East London’s legendary carnival.
The colourful celebration of dancing bodies, military might, and fantastical creatures was a regular fixture in Walthamstow since the late 19th century when the Children’s Harvest Carnival was set up by the Elm House Conservative Club at Rectory Manor House, Church Hill, in aid of the Walthamstow Hospital, according to Guardian-Series.
By 1900, the Walthamstow Carnival was a regular procession along a nine mile route which everyone marked by decorating their homes. Footage of later events show people pouring out of their houses onto the street to watch as the floats ambled past, decked out with weird and wonderful frills.
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(Image: Jeff & Brian Flickr/Creative Commons)
Throughout the early 1900s the carnival still served an important role in fundraising for the local hospital, renamed Connaught Hospital in the late 1920s. The annual fundraising reached as much as £10,000 in today’s money. It kept going across the 1930s but ground to a halt as war broke out with Germany in 1939.
It would not be until 1947 – when Brits were still suffering post-war a depression and rationing – that the carnival reappeared, and by the swinging sixties the carnival was back in full pomp, with a whole week of the calendar dedicated to the celebrations. Shops and businesses were part of the event, and the brief tourism burst was undoubtedly a boon to the local economy.
While footage of the carnival in 1910 shows a few horses, a band stuffed into a car, and a rag tag group of cyclists, by the 1960s the carnival was clearly enjoying a new lease of life in a more liberated Britain. In the same breath bystanders watch a half naked woman bathing in balloons and a bunch of beauty queens pass, before another set of women follow holding oversized diplomas.
The carnival tells you what Brits were thinking about at the time. There’s a float carrying Gerry Anderson’s fictional nuclear powered combat submarine from the TV show Stingray, premised on the Cold War tensions rife after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Another float carrying nurses and patient in a hospital bed shows the importance placed on the NHS. There’s also children performing upside down on gymnastic equipment piled onto the back of flatbeds, a show of strength and pride in the future of Britain.
There’s also controversy with a political riff on Alice in Wonderland. It appears Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament activists are riding a float emblazoned with Alice and the Atomic Tea Party. The image of the Mad Hatter facing down another sword wielding reveller across a comedically long table was just as resonant then as it is now with big bombs and trigger happy despots.
Within half a century the carnival had transformed from a stuffy group of soldiers and tradesmen – akin to the medieval Lord Mayor’s procession – to a politically and culturally conscious statement, offering a glimpse of what mattered to East Londoners in the 1960s and to Britain as a whole.
Sadly the carnival died out over time with the last record of an event appearing on the organisational website in 2008. However, there was a visiting carnival in 2020 and 2021 after Notting Hill carnival was cancelled in West London. Go Wild-life Carnival took place in estates in the four towns of Chingford, Walthamstow, Leyton, and Leytonstone, bringing the usual acrobatics and dancing you would expect.
For now it seems Walthamstow will have to settle for smaller and less regular events unless residents and businesses are willing to organise among themselves to line the streets with colour and music again.
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