“Storm clouds gathered over the Irish sea, a small boat tossed on the restless waves; and among the passengers, one man looked back towards Ireland, and the home he had left to escape political unrest. The storm overtook the boat, and off the coast of England it was wrecked. Only two men survived. One of them, John Collins, found his way to Chester and joined the world of horse-dealing, a trade that was already known to him.”
Pat Collins account given by Pat Collins himself to C.H.Lea, the Birmingham Correspondent of World’s Fair in 1936.
Collins then went on to describe how his mother Norah, left him and his two brothers in search of their father. She had chased him around the country to finally catch up with him in Kidderminster. Having decided on their future together she returned to Ireland to pick up her children, so that they could settle in Cheshire. “By the age of nine one of the sons, Patrick, was managing a roundabout for his father, and by the time he was 21 he had helped his father earn up to £20,000. Patrick was eager to start on his own, but his father, John, was not in favour and objected to his family splitting up. Pat had to borrow the money to go his own way.”
The showman Pat Collins was born in Chester on 12 May 1859 and enjoyed telling a good a tale and bending the truth. Most of this story is fiction. Pat seemed to enjoy embellishing the facts, particularly concerning his mother leaving him and his brothers in Ireland, when the truth be told they were all born on this side of the Irish Channel.
He was born in a small house at Boughton Heath, his father was John Collins who married Norah McDermott.
John and Norah Collins had 5 children: John, Patrick, Michael (who died young after being kicked by a horse), Margaret and Johanna. Pat’s earlier life often suggests that he came from nothing and started with nothing. Pat did nothing to contradict it, however he did have a humble background. He was educated and attended St. Wedburgh’s school and his mother encouraged him to learn to write and read, however this was difficult with the family travelling around the country.
At the age of 10 years old, Pat left school and was travelling the fairs of Cheshire, Lancashire, Shropshire, and North Staffordshire with his father and brother. His father’s yacht ride was big enough to hold twenty people at a time, and had to be hauled from town to town by two horses. Accompanying this was a new children’s hand-turned roundabout. When the yacht was built it was swung by Pat and his brother, John, by pulling ropes alternately.
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Pat married Flora MacDonald Ross on the 20 July 1880, when he turned 21 years of age, in the Parish Church of Liverpool and they moved to Walsall in 1882.
During Pat’s first decade in Walsall, he leased land at Shaw’s Leasow (or Shaw’s Leisure) where he ‘rested’ his van, his horse and the children’s roundabout, in these first couple of years he established himself as an accomplished Showman and by 7th March 1886, had earned the right to attend the Walsall and Bloxwich Wake simply by turning up and letting his reputation do the rest.
However, this was all to change in 1890 when the Walsall Corporation Act gave new powers to the local council, including one which concerned the licensing of “fairs”. The new act empowered magistrates to close a fair if “Great rowdiness and immorality was taking place.” Which was often a common sight at the earlier fairs, as hard-working individuals were on days off from work to “let off some steam on a religious or Bank holidays”. Pat now had to apply to the local council for a licence. The individual who won the licence to run the fair was called the “Lessee”. The Lessee would then display their own rides and amusements and rent out pitches to other showman for a small price, allowing them to set up their attractions.
Walsall Corporation put the lease for the September Fair (one which Pat always attended and ran) up for tender. Pat tendered £10 for the lease, but was outbid by a Mr Williams of Putney, who was expected to hold the fair on land at Midland Road. This didn’t stop Pat, he had been running the fair for several years and decided to proceed without the licence and hold his fair on the ground of Shaw’s Leisure. He provided his own attractions and persuaded others to join, offering rent free pitches for his unofficial fair, and leaving Mr Williams with no tenants, as they had a free pitch with Collins. When the fair finally came to a close, Pat Collins was charged with ‘unlawfully holding a fair, and violating clause 126 of the Walsall Corporation Act 1890’.
John Cooper the Town Clerk, asked two policemen to go to the “unofficial” fair and collect evidence of what was going on, as well as attending himself. They found the largest fair they had ever seen in Walsall, with crowds of people turning up to enjoy the festivities.
Pat was summoned to attend court and hear the charges made against him and the unofficial fair. A great amount of time was spent arguing over the definition of the word “fair”. Pat Collins’ defence argued that a “fair”, according to the act, was about trading and not providing amusement or pleasure. The prosecution argued that it did relate to pleasure fairs and that no trading had taken place, hence why it was an illegal fair. Collins’ defence then asked the two policemen to come forward to give evidence. The police had indeed bought items from the fair (one ice cream and one ginger snap) so trade did happen and therefore the fair was perfectly legal.
The prosecution then argued that Pat Collins had collected rent from the tenants, and when the tenants were called to give evidence, they stated that Pat Collins hadn’t charged or accepted any money from them for being there. Nevertheless, Pat Collins was found guilty and fined £5 plus expenses. An appeal was lodged, and the case was reviewed by the Queen’s Bench.
Pat established himself remarkably quickly and within a decade was the leading showman in the Midlands, owning several steam-driven fairground rides. In 1889 he was one of a group of showmen who met at Manchester to form what became known as the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain.
In 1908 he was elected the president of the Showmen’s Guild and, in partnership with its first general secretary, the Reverend Thomas Horne, he played an important role in developing the organisation into an influential national body. By this time, it was generally acknowledged that he had few equals, if any, in the travelling funfair business. He ran fairs across the whole of the Midlands and occupied positions at the most important fairs, such as Nottingham Goose Fair. His travels were not limited to the Midlands, however and he made annual appearances at fairs in Lancashire and Yorkshire
Due to the attention of his court case in April 1918, he decided to run for local councillor of Birchill’s Ward after the previous councillor, William Halford, moved to the position of alderman. Pat won his seat and was councillor for 5 years. Pat’s personality played a great deal in his political years. He was a well-known local celebrity, and commended for being hard working, and for his generosity and concern for the under-privileged.
After his time as a Liberal Councillor in 1930, Pat was still attending many council committee meetings, and eventually asked to become chairman due to his experience, dedication and knowledge. On June 16 Pat became Alderman of the borough of Walsall. 3 years later pat’s wife Flora was taken ill and died on April 8 1933. 6 years later, Pat finally retired from his council duties and being Alderman at the age of 80 – just before world War II began. Pat felt he hadn’t the energy to “ride out the storm” and returned to managing his fairs.
Keep the Flag Flying
Pat Collins died just before the end of 1943. Many people wondered about the size of the Pat Collin’s estate and what was to become of it now that he passed away. The estate was left to several people who became trustees. Clara Collins (Pat’s second wife and business secretary whom he married in 1934), John Cotterell, Harry Coad and James Cooper. Cotterell and Coad were solicitors that that had worked for Pat for many years. Clara found herself managing the travelling fun fairs for the trustees, and ‘keeping the flag flying’ until she died in 1962.
Elias Harris (the original rider of the Wall Of Death attraction at Pat Collins Funfairs) married Pats granddaughter Margaret. In 1934, Margaret sadly died, and Elias decided to leave the Collin’s Fairs. Some years later, just as the war finished, he met and married Evelyn Baker and returned back to show land with his Wall Of Death, and back to Pat Collin’s Funfairs.
Anthony Harris the son of the late Elias and Evelyn Harris, was born 22nd April 1940. While living with his parents, at a young age Anthony Harris learned what it took to be a showman from his father. By trying his skills as a Wall of Death rider, Anthony amazed all by picking up the art so easily.
Anthony took control of the Lightning Skid, the Octopus and Jets (all rides owned by his parents). Anthony showed all the traits of a fine showman. With his father and mother as mentors Anthony and his family were sure to go far. From 1976 – 1983 Anthony Harris jointly owned Collin’s Funfairs with Pat’s grandson Patrick Collins. Anthony’s rides included a second Lighting Skid, Twist, Supreme Waltzer and Para-Glider rides. In the summer of 1983, at Rowley Regis, Anthony took full control and sole ownership of Pat Collins Funfairs. Along with his sons, he has kept the flag flying to this day.
Pat Collins Black Country Fairs
There were three fairs in Tipton, one at the beginning of the season and one at the end. These were the Tipton Wakes. The third happened when the Tipton Carnival happened, and John Collins (Pat’s Brother) provided the fair.
A wake was held here almost at the end of the season, usually at the beginning of November. The equipment and amusements would stand at West Bromwich before moving to Tipton and then “home” to the yard at Bloxwich.
Pat Collin’s fair was usually held on the ground by Mounts Road and was on at the start of May. It included a lion show, and boxing booth.
The Bloxwich wake was held on the “Third Monday in August”. By 1898 the Bloxwich Wake was fighting for its life, with opposition to the wake stronger than ever and was finally abolished. However, in commemoration of Bloxwich Wakes, Pat created the “Collins Grand fete and Gala”. It hosted a fair, menageries, a circus and several other performances and acts. It was held in the middle of August every year.
Fairs in Walsall have a history dating back to the charters in 1220 and were established as trading fairs in June and September. In 1627, by Royal Charter, the dates changed to February and an Onion Fair in September. With a third appearing at Easter.
Wolverhampton had three major fairs a year. Christmas/New Year, Easter and Whitsun. Pat was the lessee of these fairs by the 1890s and was joint lessee with his brother john for the Easter Fair.
Pat acquired his own ground in Willenhall alongside the Walsall Road overlooked by St Giles Church. There were two annual fairs here, the Wake itself in September and a spring fair before Easter.
Blackheath celebrated its annual fair in September and was number 2 on the circuit after Brierley Hill. It took up residency in the Market Place.
The autumn fair in Dudley often coincided with Blackheath, but the town also enjoyed a spring fair.
The fairground took resident in Porters Field and appeared just after the Dudley fair in the autumn.
The Darlaston Wakes took pace directly after the Bloxwich wakes and occupied the August Bank Holiday weekend, with many attractions just moving directly to Darlaston from Bloxwich.
Oldbury Wake was at the end of August/early September and the fairground was in-between Cuxson Gerrard Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and the foundry and engineering works of hunt brothers Ltd.
Our new circus and funfair exhibition at Wednesbury Museum with smaller displays at our other sites will be ready for you to visit when we are open again!
Alex – Arts and Projects Officer.