Oxfordshire Weekly News

Wednesday, July 28th 1875


The annual rural fête in aid of the Great Western and Bristol and Exeter Railways' Provident Society Widow and Orphan Fund, was again duly celebrated on Wednesday in Nuneham Park, which was kindly placed at the society's disposal by the generous owner, Mr. E. W. Harcourt.

From the first moment the announcement was made that Nuneham had been selected none doubted that the fête would be in every way successful, and especially when it was remembered that on the last occasion of its being held there the profits amounted to the enormous sum of £1,200. The fête on that occasion, however, was favoured with conditions which this time did not exist. In fact, the weather on Wednesday was the most wretched that could be conceived for the month of July. From early morning the rain poured steadily down, and at noon there was no abatement, and no probability of any. The special trains leaving Oxford at 12.20 and 1.25 were comparatively empty, and the gloom upon the faces of the few who were not deterred by the weather, but who had, nevertheless, given up all thoughts of any real enjoyment, was painfully apparent. Matters appeared to be still more dismal when the dreary little station at Culham was reached, and the long stretch of roadway leading to the park presented itself - a veritable quagmire. There was no help for it but to brave the rain, which had now increased considerably, and to plod heroically through the mud and slush. Arrived inside the beautiful park it required a great effort of imagination to believe that the "Fête of the season" was really being celebrated there. A few touts were certainly visible, and several other slight structures of wood and canvas, and some hundreds of persons were crouching together beneath the shelter they afforded, while others huddled in family groups around the gnarled trunks of the stately and venerable elms which grace the magnificent scenery, but the thousands of holiday seekers, in genuine holiday attire, and with the familiar holiday expression upon their countenances, which have been seen at the fête on former occasions, were sadly wanting. The rich long grass was sodden, the rain pattered relentlessly, and drenching showers now and again descended from the trees, as their leafy and luxuriant foliage was disturbed by passing gusts of wind. The occupants of the refreshment booths endeavoured to forget their misery in sundry potations of ale, which they quaffed almost savagely. In vain did the bands of music vie with each other in their praiseworthy endeavours to prevail upon the gathering to ignore the weather; in vain did sundry comic artistes by their mimical drolleries attempt to dispel the universal gloom; and in vain did some score or more of young men hold their umbrellas, and saunter through the grass, heedless of the thorough soaking which was inevitable, declaring that they enjoyed the rain immensely, - the weather was decidedly master of the situation. As the later trains arrived the number present was gradually augmented, and the fair contingent coming down in barges from Abingdon and Oxford helped further to swell the numbers, until there were probably from 2.000 to 3,000 visitors in the park. Of these the greater part were, as might naturally be supposed, young people, but elderly dames and their aged partners were somewhat numerous. Scores of youthful mothers, carrying the inevitable baby, were also there, and their laudable anxiety to shield their infant progeny from the ceaseless rain would have been highly commendable but for the reflection that they might have remained at home. Towards the middle of the afternoon the sky suddenly cleared, and a glimpse of blue was soon followed by cheering rays of sunshine, the rain having apparently done its best and its worst. The effect produced was marvellous. A crowd of some 300 persons was speedily gathered in front of the raised platform tenanted by an excellent company of London music-hall celebrities, provided by Messrs. Walter Gooch and Alfred Young, and their varied performances elicited roars of laughter, and hearty applause. The large enclosure met apart for dancing was the scene of gay and animated whirl, and was witnessed by a large company, Putnam's Quadrille band providing excellent music. The varied charms of the delightful scenery in the park were now also sought out, and thoroughly enjoyed, the exquisite beds of foliage plants in the gardens surrounding Nuneham House being specially admired. From the hill over-looking the river a magnificent view of woodland and meadow was to be obtained, while at the foot of the hill lay the river itself, swollen by the recent floods, and rushing along with a strong current, which to small craft was almost irresistable. The water glittered in the sunshine, and the barges moored to the temporary landing stage rocked to and fro in feeble imitation of a small steam tug in the chops of mid channel, while on their decks bevies of dancers moved briskly to the strains of some two or three skilfully manipulated stringed instruments on board. The bands of the 20th Middlesex, and the 3rd Gloucestershire Artillery Volunteers, were also in attendance in other parts of the grounds, and played choice selections of music with taste and credit. Numerous other amusements were provided, including "archery," "cricket," "magic post office," from which sentimental young men and maidens were able to get love letters from all parts of the world at two pence each, and which it scarcely need be mentioned did a good business. There was a bazaar stocked with innumerable articles, useful and ornamental, and ably presided over by Mrs. Elve and Mrs. Watson, who were assisted by numerous young ladies, all of whom worked with a will, and succeeded in making a good sale. A wheel of fortune was largely patronised, the unlucky speculators bearing their losses with praiseworthy fortitude. Finally there were the more simple and inexpensive amusements, known as "Aunt Sally" "knock-em-downs," &c. Each and all of these were indulged in to a fair extent, considering the timeliness of the company, and thus two hours of merriment and sunshine glided rapidly by. About half-past five the sky began to lower ominously, and a storm which could be heard to "sing i' the wind," was evidently brewing. A huge cloud, looking "like a foul bombard that would shed his liquor" - a cloud that could not "choose but fall by pailfulls," rapidly rose overhead, and then discharged its contents in a perfect deluge, while the thunder pealed in majestic grandeur. The votaries of pleasure were forced to seek shelter of tree and tent, and bewail the unpropitious weather. One eccentric individual gave it as his opinion that "it Moody and Sankey's doings, for we had not had any good weather since they came," a sally which caused a little diversion. The few unfortunates of the gentler sex, who were not provided with umbrellas. presented a most pitiable appearance, the artificial flowers and finery in hats and bonnets being thoroughly soaked, the whole mixing in a pulp, from which trickled little streams of a queer coloured liquid down their fair faces, to their own evident discomfort, but to the intense amusement of some among the selfish few who were well sheltered. This storm lasted nearly an hour, and had the effect of dispersing the company very quickly after it had spent its fury. The barges started off on their voyage against the stream with their precious freights on board, dancing and singing right merrily, while those who were, perforce, compelled to travel by rail, trudged off to Culham station. Arriving here it was found that both platforms were crowded with excursionists, all of whom appeared to have a desire to travel by the same train, and in spite of coaxing and threatening on the part of the much tried officials, many of them persisted in entering the wrong carriages, and were only rescued just as the train was on the eve of darting. The adjoining inn was well packed with those who were doomed to wait for late trains, and the vocal efforts at harmony were productive of a perfect Babel. On the station platform, in an out-of-the-way corner, lay a woman in a beastly state of drunkenness, while her husband was sitting near her in a similar condition. On the whole, however, there was but little drunkenness during the day. One individual, whose fancy strayed in the direction of a lady visitor's purse in the park, was caught in the attempt to extract it from her pocket, the handcuffs speedily encircled his dexterous wrists, and he left the park in the company of a gentleman in blue. He will be brought up at the Oxford County Hall to-day. This was the only case of pick-pocketing, so far as is known to the police.

The refreshments were supplied by Mr. G. H. Browning, the Refreshment-rooms, Paddington. Provision was made for upwards of 30,000 persons, and the contractors will therefore sustain a great loss. The various departments were under the respective management of Messrs. Morgan, Fox, A. Alsop of " The Westbourne," Allen of Hammersmith, Butt of Oxford, and Cheese. The fête committee were, for the Paddington district, Messrs. Adkins, Bradley, Craig, Durdle, Gelion, Kibler, Mason, Powers; Slough, Mr. Noble; Reading, Messrs. Grimes and Watson; Oxford, Messrs. John and King; Swindon, Mr. Weston; and Gloucester, Mr. Kirk. The arrangements were carried out admirably, and especially those for the Oxford district by Messrs. Johns and King. The secretary, Mr. Arthur C. Elve, was most untiring in his efforts to promote the success of the gathering.

By rail the majority of the pleasure seekers were as usual conveyed, and long special trains ran from all stations in connection with the Company's system, but most of them practically empty. Remembering the scene of the past few years the deserted appearance of Oxford station, which was quite guiltless of any apparent accession of traffic, took one altogether by surprise. That it was fête day was only shown by the numerous empty trains which, having discharged their passengers at Culham, had been sent to be stored at Oxford, and the engines of which were gaily decorated with evergreens, flags, flowers, &c., that from Cheltenham was much noticed, and appeared by far the best decorated, the engine being entirely wreathed in evergreens and flowers, while some of the carriages in connection with it were also ornamented. On reaching Culham station, which we did in the midst of a pelting rain storm, we found the ordinarily picturesque and pleasing road to the Park ankle deep in mud, and the lands on either side flooded to a most serious extent, owing to the rapid rising of the river, which was literally "running a flood." General interest seemed to be taken in some of the fields, which appeared like lakes studded all over with tiny islets, the explanation of the phenomena being that the waters had surrounded the haycocks, which were piled ready to be carried when the makers were surprised by the overflow. When it is added that the corn on all hands was dreadfully beaten down, it must be conceded that the trudge to the Park was anything but cheering. We were preceded in this pleasant tramp by a few couple, of the young folk, sharing the Gamp, the drippings wherefrom as a natural consequence fell on both - a discomfort apparently not heeded under the circumstances, and on the road were met a few elderly dames and their cavaliers, the men appearing to agree with those of the tenderer sex that they had had enough of it.

It was expected that the route by river, from Oxford, Abingdon, Wallingford, &c., would have been very popular, and we hear that scarcely a boat of any kind was to be hired a fortnight ago in either this town or Wallingford, while most of the Oxford craft were chartered before hand. But, alas! the rain. Not a single amateur oar who had promised to row his lady-love to the lovely domain which was the scene of so much misery on Wednesday, kept his word, or was desired to do so, and the deposit money so cheerfully paid was gladly forfeited rather than brave the journey in such weather and on such a stream, so that instead of being crowded with flotillas of gay craft of every build, from the unwieldly house-boat to the swift outrigger or swallow-like canoe, the river was unusually deserted. Three houseboats from Oxford went down, each bearing but a scant number of passengers, though they were probably the most popular mode of conveyance in use. They were respectively the ‘‘Neptune,” taken down by Mr. Arnatt; the “British Queen,” the venture of Mr. George West ; and “the Nelson,” which was plied by Mr. Bossom, boat builder; and besides these it is doubtful if half a dozen craft could have been counted at Nuneham Lock. The houseboats went down in style, owing to the tremendous current, which was almost unprecedented for July. As might have been expected, the return journey was far slower and more arduous, and the weary voyagers did not arrive home until a late hour.

The road was similarly deserted, and nearly if not quite innocent of vehicles, the only means of transit employed being a drag from Oxford and two or three less pretentious vehicles from Abingdon, Faringdon, &c. Fortunately no accident of any kind occurred. The subjoined statement will show the object and position of the society, which was established at Paddington in the year 1846: -The trustees are Sir D. Gooch, Bart., M.P.; G. Saunders, Esq, ; and James Grierson, Esq, ; the treasurer being G. N. Tyrrell, Esq., and the auditors Messrs. Bloomfield and Harvey, with Mr. Arthur C. Elve as secretary. The servants of the companies contribute to the fund the sum of 2d. per week, the payment of contributions for two years making a member free; the payment to widows is 4s. per week; children under 11 years of are, if two, 1s. per week, above that number 6d. No election is required to place widows and orphans on the books after the decease of the members should they be free. The fund is not debited with any amount for management. At the close of the year 1874 there were 343 widows and 280 orphans on the books; the amount paid during the year 1874 to widows and orphans amounted to £4,080 18s , and the total amount received on account of contributions from members was £2,555 13s. 6d., shewing that the Society is dependent upon extraneous aid, there being an increase of expenditure over receipts during the past year of £1,525 4s. 6d. There are many gentlemen who give an annual donation to the fund, but the annual Fête is mainly depended upon, and on the last occasion of the Fête being held at Nuneham Park, it realised a profit of £1,200. At the close of the half year ending June 30th, there were on the books 355 widows and 282 orphans, shewing an increase of 12 widows and 2 orphans. It will be seen from the foregoing that the society is deserving of the most hearty and cordial support, and that its worthy promoters merit every encouragement.

Admirable order was maintained in the park by the police, under the able supervision of Deputy Chief Constable Fernsby.

Transcribed by Colin and Daniel Taylor, 2019