You all know I’m fascinated by Chasewater and it’s history – but there’s a period of history that’s not too well documented or understood, and is full of myth and foggy reality: The Amusement Park era from the 60s.
At that time Town Councils across the UK were awash with money and frankly, self important men and this was an era of municipal organisations investing heavily (and often overreaching in doing so) in leisure projects they had neither the experience nor resources to manage.
Cannock Council nearly got it’s fingers severely burned in 1973 with a now frankly laughable plan for a medieval theme park called ‘Merrie England’ put forward by Eric Morley. The plan fell through and the site later became an opencast coal mine and is now, emblematically enough, Poplars Landfill.
This era came to an abrupt end in the mid-1970s: The cash dried up, the facilities provided were fading or unsuccessful, and managed by people with no relevant experience and little money. The public’s tastes were broadening with foreign travel and cheap package holidays, and the increased mobility the car afforded made better attractions further away more appealing.
I think on the whole the period ended dramatically in the flames of the Summerland fire in Douglas on the Isle of Man in 1973 – a disaster at a brand new, brutalist, hi tech ‘sun complex’ that killed many through negligent design and poor management. The Summerland saga scared many councils away from such forays and spending on them slid to virtually nothing.
It’s a personal mission of mine to not let the Summerland Disaster be forgotten.
So when Brownhills Urban District Council came to a peculiar, opaque arrangement with the government to ‘buy’ Norton Pool’ in the 1950s (an arrangement that seems to have been very much less than an outright purchase) and Councillor Norman Waine declared the new attraction be called Chasewater promising a decidedly high class affair, there were indeed high hopes and optimism as I wrote about in this article.
There is no doubt Chasewater was attracting punters and very busy throughout the 60s even though the final project provided the ghastly things we were supposed to be avoiding, but I doubt it ever made money for the council, who came to regard it as a money-pit. Photos of events at Chasewater in the period are iconic and show a hugely crowded place that people were enjoying.
People have great memories of the period, and I often see them lamenting those days, and sad we don’t have them now. There tends to be a little natural rose-tint to them: I remember Chasewater in the mid-1970s from my childhood as being a windy, down at heel and decaying place, that none the less was a fun day or afternoon out, very much akin to our seaside. But salubrious it was most definitely not.
In recent weeks, David Evans came across this article in the Birmingham Post archive, from the 29th June, 1971, which shows how bad things were becoming, even then:
Festival faces closure
Birmingham Post Brownhills Staff
Tuesday 29th June 1971
The annual Chasewater Festival at Brownhills seems unlikely to continue after making a ‘Substantial loss’ for the fifth successive Year.
A special meeting of Aldridge-Brownhills Chasewater Committee will be held during the next two weeks to decide whether to cancel the second day of the festival planned for September 12. Only 1,000 people attended the first day of the festival on Saturday. Losses have been estimated at £1,000. Takings amounted to less than £500.
Coun. Douglas Whitehouse, vice-chairman of the Chasewater Committee, said last night: ‘Somebody will have to give me a very good reason why the event should carry on after such a shocking attendance on a fine day.
This year councillors decided to hold festival events on two separate days in June and September in an attempt to make a profit.
A grand was a lot of money for Brownhills Council to lose back then. You could buy a house for that. This was a serious failure.
I’m still reeling that the Birmingham Post expected us to believe it had a ‘Brownhills staff’…
It was clear though that the annual festival staggered on for a few more years, although not without trouble. While searching myself, I found this somewhat remarkable article from later the same year, from the second day of the festival, but even then, the crowds were clearly still disappointing.
Has this town always been nuts, then? It seems so.
AMY SILENCES CHANTING SKINHEADS
ACTRESS Ann George, who plays Amy Turtle in the ”Crossroads’ A.T.V. series, faced a gang of chanting ‘skinheads’ when she opened the Chasewater Festival on Sunday.
When the actress stepped up to perform the official opening ceremony in front of the 4,500 crowd the gang started chanting ‘Amy Turtle is our Queen’.
But like the formidable character she portrays on television, Miss George refused to be rattled. She told the skinheads to quieten down and they did, allowing the actress to carry on with the ceremony.
After urging the crowd to enjoy themselves and come in greater numbers next year, Miss George was presented with a bouquet of flowers.
Cllr. Richard Arkell, Chairman of the Aldridge and Brownhills Urban Council, said that she was wonderful and stopped what could have been a very nasty scene, which could have ruined the ceremony.
The festival this year – attended by only 1,400 people last year — included a horticultural show put on by the Aldridge and Brownhills Society for the first time.
Mr. John Walker, Parks Superintendent and Show officer, said: ‘There were more than 600 entries and with this first combined show we seem to have hit the right formula.
‘The attendance figures prove this, but the brilliant sunshine and warm weather also helped,’ he added.
There were many sideshows and trade stalls and there were two exhibitions by the Lichfield and Brownhills Cagebird Society and Brownhills Motor Sales.
During the afternoon various events took place and just before the opening there was a display of parachuting by the Herefordshire Parachute Club.
‘Spartie’ an international cartoonist from Nottingham entertained the crowd with his comic sketches.
Favourites with the children were: Pierre and his vintage car, who is a comic clown and is also a nephew of the great circus clown Charlie Cairolli, Harry Codes a Western gunslinger and knife thrower, and Johnny Whitecloud, a fire eater.
One of the highlights of the afternoon was a First World War dog fight by the Bilston Aero Model Club, and also there was a musical display by the Norton Canes Gaytones Jazz Band.
I am, like anyone, sad for the passed days of Chasewater when whole families pitched up for a paddle, a go on the fair, chips and bingo in the amusement arcade. But sadly, those days have passed, and so has that version of us, as a society. We have wider horizons now, and Chasewater is now being probably what it’s best at: A popular country park with burgeoning wildlife.
What do you remember of Chasewater Festivals, the park or the busy days? Perhaps you worked there, or worked on the project as a whole. I’d love to hear from you.
I include an article below I wrote earlier in the year regarding the spirit of optimism the Chasewater was borne from. High hopes indeed.
Comments are invited as always. Comment here, or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. You can always of course tug my sleeve on social media.
Back in spring I wrote:
One of the most loved and respected contributors to the Brownhills Blog is the great Reg ‘Aer Reg’ Fullelove, historian, commenter, author, poet and honorary Grandfather of the blog.
Reg regularly digs out stuff for the blog, and it’s with pleasure I can share the press clippings below about the very beginnings of Chasewater as a municipal park rather than a post-industrial canal feeder reservoir it was then, and the big dreams our civic fathers had, yet as time proved not the experience to implement.
Reg gave the following clippings to David Evans who kindly transcribed them for us. Note that Brownhills Council didn’t buy the reservoir or land outright, the actual arrangement in practice was complicated, and still is. The actual ownership of Chasewater was then complex and one day I’ll research it fully. it is of course now in the care of Staffordshire County Council since Lichfield District Council baled out of the dam works in 2011.
We’ve touched on this before in this article, with more optimism from the council of the day, and old pal of the blog Stuart Cowley remembered his childhood at Chasewater fondly in this article here and a follow up here.
The articles are below:
Brownhills Council to buy Norton Pool for public lido
Express and Star, 14 July 1955
Scheme to convert Norton Pool, a spacious stretch of water between Brownhills and Chasetown into a public lido, was carried a stage further at Brownhills Urban District Council’s meeting last night. rejecting an amendment for reference back, the council approved purchase of the pool, with adjacent cottages, from the British Transport Commission for £ 5830.
It was also decided to constitute all the councillors a Norton Pool Development Committee “ to go fully into all matters concerning the acquisition, development and amenities of the pool”
Councillor Dr F R Roberts becomes chairman of this committee
After referring to coal still to be mined under the reservoir and to other technical considerations relating to the proposed development Councillor Harrison, a former surveyor to the council, urged that these proposals should be gone into before the council purchased the property and not after.
“The history of the pool, he said” was not encouraging. years ago there was attempt to popularise it with service of manually operated paddle boats. They ended in decay, submerged in the pool. Next a yachting club was formed but this died a natural death” Pointing out that the council also had under consideration schemes for developing Holland Park, provision of a sports centre and public baths and sewerage schemes for Brownhills and Walsall Wood, Councillor Harrison said he did not think the district could stand a million pounds expenditure without one copper’s increase in rateable value.
Norton Pool, now Chase Water begins a new life
Local press report 11 May 1956
Known for generations as Norton Pool, the reservoir water covering about 200 acres bounded by Brownhills, Chasetown and Norton Canes – was christened Chase Water on Saturday.
Dr F R Roberts, chairman of the Brownhills Urban District Council’s Norton Pool development Committee, which by stages is to transform the water and surrounding land into a lido, confessed to a “genuine thrill” when he renamed the pool which publicly launched his committee’s venture
Surrounded by unkempt land and disfigured by a background of pitheads and pitmounds, Norton Pool had admittedly been of unprepossessing appearance, but a vision of what Chase Water is destined to become was conjured up by Dr Roberts.
Describing the council’s plans to provide an attraction for the whole of South Staffordshire. Dr Roberts said improvements to come included adequate approach roads, screens of trees to conceal unsightly vistas, seven miles of pleasure walks around the shores, interspersed by lawns and flower beds, swimming facilities, a paddling pool, a model yacht pool and chalets and refreshment pavilions.
Welcoming the council’s guests Councillor H V Fereday, chairman of the Brownhills Council said his aim was to convert what had been a desolate place into a “ veritable paradise , not spoiled by coconut shies, skittle alleys and the like. We have the advantage that this place belongs to the community and we have no vested interests to placate or compensate”
“We of the development committee have seen a vision and intend to pursue it and bring it to reality. There is much to be done, but we are convinced this enterprise can and will be a source of joy to all who use it.”
Representatives of neighbouring local authorities were among the Brownhills Council’s guests and the many water sports enthusiasts present included members of Cannock Chase Sailing Club and South Staffordshire Hyroplane club. Exceptionally squally conditions caused several craft to capsize during a programme, which included a yachting race and displays of other craft.
There are some interesting questions here, which I’ll leave readers to muse on mostly, but I am intrigued by the mention of South Staffordshire Hydroplane Club. What happened to them?
To go with this, here’s an image from Lichfield District Council’s archive, supplied by top council officer Gareth Thomas in 2012. It was taken from a general aerial survey of the area undertaken for the council, so catching Chasewater busy was coincidental.
This picture was taken on June 9th, 1963. It was a Sunday, and Chasewater – was packed. A big funfair is on the go, boats are on the water and there are cars and people everywhere. I note the water level to be quite low. It’s quite late in the afternoon looking at the shadows, which are being cast to the east.
This is clearly a special event – does anyone know what it was?