This in depth history article is kindly supplied The Ryde Social Heritage Group from their newsletter Volume 3, Number 4, October 2008, The Ryde Social Heritage group have a much larger archive of the Ryde Carnival which is available to view during their Heritage Open Days. Some additional text has been taken from our original history page and added to this article, we will also be adding some historically interesting photographs.

Although the first Ryde Carnival was held in 1888, it was mainly as a result of the highly successful and hugely popular event of the previous year, marking the Queen’s Jubilee and which she herself attended. The County Press of 30 July 1887 shows that many worries were the same as today: “The weather, though somewhat threatening in the morning, cleared up as the hours advanced”… Some 3000 children were assembled at one o’clock, and each received a Jubilee Medal, a mug, cake and Osborne biscuits. A grandstand to seat 800 was erected in the Esplanade Gardens and at a quarter to six the children were gathered there with the dignitaries, ready to greet Her Majesty. (What had occupied them for the previous five hours?).

The main part of the report, however, is taken up with florid descriptions of the decorations around the town mentioning Union, George, Castle, Dover, Melville, Lind and High Streets, amongst others. “Turning from High Street into Union Street it is quite possible that Her Majesty experienced a surprise aural as well as visual; for, stationed on ledges on either side of the second floor windows of the establishments of Messrs Gibbs and Gurnell, on the east side of Union Street, and of Mr Richard Colenutt, on the west side were Highlanders in full costume, playing on bagpipes patriotic Scotch airs as Her Majesty passed by”…… and the Queen displayed “smiling looks”!!! Crowns, flags and red and green drapery were the order of the day, with many banners displaying mottoes such as “God bless our Queen” and “Victoria, gracious, noblest Queen”.

“Festoons of flags” were everywhere and St. Thomas’ Square was a “pretty but rather bewildering spectacle”, with a ring of masts connected with coloured flags. On the Town Hall, “lines of flags reached from the clock tower to the roof, a crown was placed in the apex of the building, along the balcony were red hangings with yellow fringe and there were several shields and trophies”.

At night, the decorations were illuminated, and one which deserves mention is “the front of Mr Gustav Mullin’s Royal Photographic Studio, a prominent item here being a splendidly illuminated transparency of the Queen, surmounted by VR and a representation of the Imperial crown in variegated lights”.

The evening culminated in a torchlight procession, “headed by the Volunteer band, which was followed by the fire brigade….on a car, bearing torches. Other cars followed bearing. ..Indians, cavaliers, brigands, clowns, generals, Moors, and Turks in motley groups.. …Until a late hour the streets, were thronged with spectators, who were loud in their expressions of admiration at the brilliancy of the illuminations, which probably transcended anything of the kind that Ryde had seen before”.

On page 8 of The Isle of Wight Observer of Saturday, 18 August 1888, appeared a report of the first ‘true’ carnival. The article began; “Last season the public appreciation of a torchlight procession and masquerade led to the idea suggesting itself to Mr W Gibbs and Mr Gustav Mullin’s that the same sort of thing carried out to a fuller extent would please the public still more. They thought, too, that by calling the affair a Carnival they might induce a large number of the general public to join in the fun.” The theme was mainly kings and queens of England, although Robin Hood, Red Riding Hood (complete with performing wolf) and twelve ghosts also made an appearance. Once again the Volunteer Band and the Fire Brigade led the way, many of the shops and houses along the route were decorated, and the evening ended with a bal masque at the Town Hall.

In 1889, despite the complaint that many people “did not join in the fun themselves”, Queen Victoria, accompanied by Princess Beatrice, saw fit to come to Ryde once again to witness the spectacle. It is reported in the Observer of Saturday, 17 August, that, as the procession was forming in Lind Street, “Her Majesty scanned the grotesque figures which met her gaze with an amused smile”… So she was amused once again!! Even more so when “Captain Conway at the head of his troupe of 12 ghosts (figures all in white, and with white conical caps), proceeded to the top of West Street, and stood in line: as the Royal carriage passed the ghosts gave a very unghostly salute in military style, and both the Queen and the Princess Beatrice seemed very amused at the odd incident”.

This year lime lights were used in the procession, which illuminated the costumes to great effect. One of the most admired cars represented Britannia and the four countries – John Bull, Paddy, Sandy and Taffy, and according to the reporter this tableau “took the cake”. A car representing ‘Asia’ followed: “Mr Mullin’s, as a “heathen Chinee” would hardly have been recognised by his own mother. Mr Tenison Smith would have made a better Turk if he had had more whiskers. Mr Coles was the model of a Tartar (he is not a tartar in real life, however,)” ……….. Characters from children’s literature and Shakespeare were also represented this year, as well as Father Christmas “in a perambulator”. Once again, the festivities ended with the dance at the Town Hall, which continued until 3am, and which was attended by devils,clowns, bards, knights, hussars, courtiers and many more, the costumes being supplied by Mr Walter Waller, of 84 Tabernacle Street, London, EC, “who charged very reasonable rates and gave general satisfaction”.

In 1895, a street collection was held in aid of the Royal Isle of Wight County Hospital, the idea of Mr A W Jackson. The collectors were given “a long canvas tube, with a funnel at one end, (leading to a box), and the whole was fixed to a pole, and painted yellow, with blue bands of ribbon”. The sum raised was £18 5s 3d, and “the total weight of the money collected was 59lbs”. History does not relate whether any of the collecting boxes broke under the weight!! There is also a report this year of some protestors, taking “stronger measures than usual to display their feelings….. ..A meeting was held just outside the YMCA at the hour the procession was advertised to start, when addresses were given by Rev W Menzies, Mr Knight, (secretary YMCA), Rev W Fuller and Mr Edgar Matthews……..One of the speakers (Rev Fuller) in the course of his remarks said he was the father of children himself and he would sooner see them put in the deepest grave ever dug than that they should take part in the procession which had just passed. It was very difficult to hear all that was said, as a number of buglers did all they could to drown the voices of those taking part in the meeting.”

The account of this year’s Masquerade Ball again makes interesting reading: “Amongst the most original dresses was that of Miss Nora Jesse, who made a very effective “Wasp”, presumably without a sting”. Others costumes mentioned include: “Mr Haliday, Sir Walter Raleigh; Mr A Barton, Mephistopheles; Mr J Vardy, Dick Turpin; Miss Hounsell, Water Lily; Miss Waller, Lampshade”…… This ball had a better attendance than the previous year, £20 3s being taken at the door.

Other Island towns were soon following in the footsteps of Ryde by holding their own carnivals. Shanklin was active in 1890 and Ventnor in 1891. Regattas took over from carnival for a few years, but things got off with a bang in 1934. A carnival firework display in Simeon Street Recreation ground was watched by an estimated 5000 spectators.

Between 1906 and 1934, there were no Carnival processions, Regattas took over from carnival for a few years, but in 1934 it restarted, complete with Spotting Competition. The Carnival Office was in 7 Cross Street, Ryde.  The King and Queen of Carnival arrived by air at Ryde Aerodrome, from Portsmouth, where they were greeted by Mayor Hayden and the Mayoress, before transferring to a charabanc to be driven into Ryde. The Times of 1 September 1934 reported the Dagenham Girl Pipers also traveled by air “from Heston to the Isle of Wight on Wednesday”. The Rev J W Graves, founder and manager of the Dagenham Girl Pipers, accompanied the party to the Island.
About 300 children were assembled in costume and there were many trades people entering tableaux in the parade. Also taking part were The British Legion, ‘Old Bill’, St. John’s Women’s Institute, ‘Arts and Crafts’, The Mead Lawn Tennis Club, ‘1906 – still going strong’, and the Rowing Club ‘Ryde, the success of the waves’.

It was said over 5000 people watched the fireworks in the recreation ground, which included a set piece depicting a naval battle. A carnival dance was held at St. John’s Road Drill Hall, which was deemed a hugh success, the music being provided by the Black Diamond Rhythm Boys.

The County Press of Saturday, 19 January 1935, contains the proposal of the formation of a Ryde Carnival Association “for the permanent control of the carnival”, and it was decided that the first week of September should be Carnival Week, an idea considered to bring as many people as possible into Ryde towards the end of the summer season, which still holds true today…… 120 after it first began….or should it be 121?

Ryde Carnival 1935 © Ryde Carnival association
Photograph of the 1935 Ryde Carnival at the bottom of the High Street, a judge can be seen in the right hand side of the photograph standing on a chair.

The 1935 carnival week, 2 to 7 September, included a lucky number competition and an athletic sports event . Two separate programme’s were produced and sold for 2d (2 old pennies) each.

The Dagenham Girl Pipers returned for a second year and performed on the Western Esplanade on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The children’s procession left Partlands at 2.30pm on Tuesday followed by an All-Island Baby Show at 4pm and an Inter-School sports competition. The Buccaneers held a treasure hunt on Wednesday and there was a ‘Grand Community Singing Concert’ in the evening.

The main carnival was at 3.30pm on Thursday followed by a firework display and Carnival Ball. The Great Fete and Funfair was held at the Recreation Ground at “Considerable cost” for the three days Tuesday to Thursday. Children’s ‘Season Tickets’ cost 1/- (one shilling) giving admission to the Ground at any time during the week.

The Isle of Wight Fire Brigades’ Federation Annual Competitions took place on Friday 6 September 1935 at Partlands, Ratcliffe Avenue, Ryde; the first time in 32 years the event was held at Ryde. Chief Fire Officer H Jolliffe of Ryde was the Arena Master and pumps from Ryde, East Cowes, Newport, Sandown, Shanklin and Osborne House took part in five different exercises during the afternoon. The Ryde British Legion Band played selections to entertain the crowd who paid 6d (six old pennies) children 3d (three old pennies) to watch the competition.

The Carnival continued on an annual basis to 1939 when the war forced a break in the proceedings and it was not until 1949 that a full carnival was staged again.

Fire breaks out at the Illuminated Carnival 1960
The Carnival of 1960 was led as usual by Archie Warren astride his grey mare Freda, who had 12 carnival parades to her credit. This was despite the fact that Archie had been involved in a riding accident on Ryde Sands only five weeks previously. However an unusual event caused it to be remembered more than most, as the @pre-hysteric Era’ float entered by Warner’s Puckpool Holiday Camp and peopled by holiday makers,caught fire on its way along Melville Street, resulting in two cave men being hospitalised.

Warner’s had two entries in this year’s procession – the aforementioned featuring a 60 foot long dinosaur, with a cave on a following float, and a ‘South Pacific’ entry, from the St. Clare’s camp. Both entries won a cup – the Puckpool entry won the Percy Cup as the tableau, and St. Clare’s won the Walls Cup for best holiday camp float. That float comprised a 30 foot US sailor with numerous characters from the film and stage musical.

The Puckpool dinosaur was made of wood, hardboard and canvas, “with a sponge bath mat tongue hanging from gaping jaws”, according to the Isle of Wight Times of 8 September 1960. A number of happy campers had had an unusual addition to their holiday, by screaming into beer mugs, which was then recorded to provide the roaring sound effects for this procession. The neck and head of the beast moved independently, and 400 holiday makers were persuaded to accompany the animal on its way through Ryde.

On reaching Melville Street, flames suddenly swept through the dry foliage covering the cave, and setting alight the clothing of the competitors. Their screams alerted the driver, who stopped the lorry and tackled the fire with an extinguisher, whilst onlookers pulled burning debris from the float. Two camp staff, Peter Benn and Neil Henrickson were detained at the County Hospital with burns.

This was to be one of the last years that all the holiday camps entered floats in the carnival processions, a traditional which finally ended in about 1966, but not before King Kong made an appearance in1963. The tallest float in the procession was the monster “great black ape-like creature glaring down on the crowds, arms outstretched” entered by Warner’s Woodside Bay camp.

Having survived the main procession without mishap, and enthralling the crowds, King Kong was scheduled to take part in Saturday’s Illuminated procession but “the central character lost his head and was unable to appear -en route with dozens of “Flintstones” cavemen and women, the gorilla was decapitated by an overhanging tree branch”. ‘Surgery’ was attempted without success and the float was forced to withdraw and return to camp.

1966 saw the police help out on “Heartbreak Day” . Having already had a through soaking in the main Thursday procession, many children returned the following day for their own Children’s parade. For the first time the assembly point was moved from Partlands to Dover Street which turned out to be more of a blessing than anyone could imagine. Just as the procession was about to move off on its new shorter route, ” a thundercloud burst. Hopes and costumes sagged… And already there were tears among the toddlers as the rain pelted down”. The judging was to have taken place in the open recreation ground. The police came to the rescue and cleared a route direct through the shopping centre to the Town Hall, “turning an official blind eye to the usually strictly enforced one-way traffic system”. The children were able to get quickly under cover but many disappointed faces surveyed the wreckage of their costumes. The carnival spirit returned quickly when it was announced everyone would get a prize.

1968 saw not only the 80th anniversary of the carnival but also Ryde Borough Centenary. . The first tableau in the procession was Ryde Queen’s floral ‘Gondola’ designed by borough Surveyor, William Rowbotham, and completed just before the procession by the borough gardeners. There were some 10,000 blooms used with the figure ‘100’ picked out in Helianthus in two foot high letters at the centre and French Marigolds depicting the borough crest at the rear. Dahlias, Begonias, Esther Reeds and potted plants all from the Corporation nurseries made up the display.

The Isle of Wight County Press on 14 September, reported; “In the borough centenary year, Ryde carnival established two records. Both the children’s procession on Friday week , and the illuminated procession on Saturday had more entries than ever before. Favoured throughout by quiet weather with no rain, all three processions and outstanding displays at the arena made the 1968 carnival one to remember”.


1976 Ryde Junior Carnival Queen

1976 was a special year of Ann Barrett RSHG’s Research Team Leader, her daughter Sharon was chosen as Ryde Junior Carnival Queen, her Maids of Honour were Helen Scovell and Melanie Harris.

The carnival week started with a Whist Drive in the Town Hall, followed the next day by performances from the Massed Bands of Ryde and Cowes Concert Bands. The children’s and main processions both took place on Thursday 2nd September followed by a Victorian Soiree at the Western Parade, Ryde Esplanade and the Grand Carnival Dance at the Town Hall. The week finished with the illuminated Procession on Saturday 4 September.

Moving on to the build up for the Centenary year of 1988, it is interesting to note that among the committee of that period. Three names appear of stalwarts, still involved with the Association today being Gloria Minghella, Brenda Livingstone and John Steele.


100th Anniversary of Ryde Carnival 1988

The Isle of Wight County Press on 9th September 1988 reported; “Ryde Carnival Week more than lived up to expectations as something special to celebrate the centenary of country’s oldest carnival”. For the first time, the event was broadcast live on the radio by Ocean Sound, and featured the music of the Bournemouth Carnival band, Wight Legionnaires Marching Militaire, Isle of Wight Nautical Cadet Force Band, 1st Cowes Girls Brigade Band, TS Explorer Nautical Trainning Corps Band, 1st Newport (The Old Guard) Scout Band, Fareham Drum and Bugle Corps and the Isle of Wight Boys Brigade Band.

There were nearly 120 floats in the main procession on Thursday 8 September and over 70 for the Saturday night Illuminated carnival. Ryde’s past carnival queens had been tracked down and invited to take part in the parade, about 20 accepting. They were the honoured guests at a reception hosted by the carnival committee at Simeon Street, Recreation Ground.

William Gibbs and Gustav Mullin’s could not have imagined their idea would put Ryde firmly on the map as being one of the biggest end of season spectacles in the country. Who could imagine it has now reached it’s 120th anniversary year and is as popular as ever!

The next decade showed a small decline in interest for the Carnival and it became very difficult to run, in fact there came a period when it looked like the Association would cease to exist. As part of the regeneration programme in Ryde, which started in 2000, carnival projects were developed and managed by the Isle of Wight Council Arts Unit with support from Kinetika Arts International, Masquerade 2000, Mahogany Arts, Rampage and the Isle of Wight Councils own Carnival Arts officer Frankie Goldspink.

With a number of these carnival arts development projects and an increased enthusiasm within the town, the carnival has grown significantly over the last five years. In 2003 the Illuminated procession took place before a large crowd.

2004 saw a wonderful procession with many bands, the Queens from around the Island on their beautiful floats and the schools of Ryde, who excelled themselves with fine costumes and floats.

2005 took Ryde Carnival to greater heights, with more local schools and community groups entering the processions making them bigger and better than previous events. The quality of entries into the carnival was second to none and with the addition of our special guests Masquerade 2000.The special relationships developed with local artists and international artists look to take this wonderful spectacle to even greater heights during the coming 2006 season. The Ryde Carnival Association are now able to carry the carnivals on to bigger and better things with some new and exciting changes being made for the future.

2006 saw more local schools and community groups from the whole island joining the processions. Again during the Ryde Arts Festival Parade we welcomed International Carnival Artist Umberto Cinquini who with 3 scholarship students produced a small animated float “Paint the World”, this float also joined us for the Ryde Main Carnival. During the parades were were also joined by the students who took their Level 3 NCFE Carnival Arts Course the first in the country. We were also pleased to see a return of the wonderful Masquerade 2000 who provided a fantastic ending to both the Main and Illuminated carnivals. We had new groups visiting us from the mainland and welcomed Foxhill Carnival Club and Blue Angels Majorettes. Despite the weather we all had a wonderful time and would like to thank everyone who supported us through the day on Saturday even though our planned afternoon of entertainment was rained off.

2007 saw some changes to the carnival with the children’s procession being moved to it’s new day of a Friday, giving a straight run of three days of carnival. The weather was kinder to us in this year and we had some fantastic entrants to the carnivals. Again Foxhill Carnival Club and Blue Angels Majorettes joined in our celebrations, but one of the most interesting groups was Pure Lime who with The Carnival Centre and Rampage put on a traditional Mud Mas to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery, this took our carnival back to some of its earliest roots where simple costumes were used and mud (or in this case chocolate) to cover the body with allowing freedom from every day life. We also had some beautiful costumes from the Arts Festival parade which were designed by Lincoln Rahmut and Sandown’s Mas Fusion came and joined us.


120th Anniversary of Ryde Carnival 2008

The association ran the carnival processions in three days, the Main on Thursday headed by a specially commissioned costume “Celebration” designed for Brenda Livingston the Procession Officer, which headed the procession. The children’s was held on Friday.

Saturday’s Illuminated procession provided a fantastic finale to the 120th anniversary carnival week. A mix of the traditional queen’s tableau, local organisations and pedestrian entries with the new spectacular costumes of Mas Fusion community carnival group, samba bands and stilt walkers entertained the crowds as the parade wound its way through the town in style.

The multi-coloured procession included members of Notting Hill’s Flamingo Arts, Luton Rampage, UK Children’s Art Association and many local schools.

In a special tribute of the anniversary, the bands of Wight Diamonds, the Vectis Corps of Drums and Medina Marching Band marched ahead of the procession and stopped in the town centre to play together before leading the parade into Union Street and the Esplanade.