The Beeston Festival

In the first half of the nineteenth century three totally unconnected events were to prove significant in the formation of, and the popularity of The Beeston Festival. These were:

1 The acquisition of the Beeston Castle and Peckforton estates by the Tollemache family and the subsequent building of Peckforton Castle between 1841 and 1850 by John Tollemache, later to become Lord Tollemache. Both of the former Townships of Beeston and Peckforton were, and still are as Civil Parishes, within the ecclesiastical parish of Bunbury.
2 The establishments in Bunbury, of the Prince Albert Lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows in 1840, clearly named after the marriage of Prince Albert to Queen Victoria on 10 February 1840, followed by the initiative of the Oddfellows of the district to establish a Widows' and Orphans' Fund. The Beeston Festival was, for many years, to be the principle source of income for the fund.
3 The opening of the Chester to Crewe Railway in 1840.

On 25 June 1844 the Organising Committee, under the Presidency of Mr John Cawley, of Ridley Hall, produced the first Beeston Festival. The Chester Chronicle of 1844 described the scene, as follows:

"Extra trains at a very low charge were placed by the Grand Junction railway on the Chester and Crewe line. The train which left Chester at half-past ten in the morning conveyed about 500 people and everything was managed with great punctuality and regularity. The vast cargo was soon disembarked, and the company were preceded up the hill by the excellent band of the 6th Regiment of Foot, which had been kindly granted for the occasion by Lt Col. Mitchell. A large train also arrived from Crewe. Boat loads of participators in the day's festivities arrived per canal at the same point from Nantwich, Middlewich etc., many of them accompanied by bands of music. The bazaar was tastefully laid out on the hill, and the stalls were well filled. By twelve o'clock there was a vast concourse of well-dressed persons, the females preponderating the number of men. Various refreshment stands and booths were set out in all directions. The initial attempt revealed a net profit of £94."

The report continues:

"In 1849 Mr William Bird (Beeston Hall) was President, with a Committee consisting of Mr Thomas Cawley (Priestland), Mr E Davenport (Spurstow Hall), and Mr John Cawley (Ridley Hall). Subsequently Mr Thomas Cawley was Treasurer, and Mr Edward Davenport President for many years, and much of the success of that time was due to the efforts of these three gentlemen."

The Minute Book of the Beeston Festival, for the year 1849 states that the following succinct resolutions were passed at the Meeting held at the house of Mr Woolley, Bunbury, this 4th day of June 1849:

1 That J Tollemache Esq., MP. be solicited to allow Beeston Castle for the use of our annual Festival.
2 That the Beeston Castle Festival be Monday and Tuesday the 18th and 19th June next.
3 Mr Thomas Cawley of Priestland be President for this year.
4 That the Festival be advertised in the Chester Papers forthwith.
5 That there be Posters and Circulars Printed and circulated without delay by Mr Dickinson of Tarporley.
6 That the entrances first day be 1/-each and second day 6d each for entrance in the Castle.
7 That there be a refreshment tent to be composed of Brandy, Port, Sherry, and Bottled Porter, Ginger Beer, Solder [Soda] Water but no other Intoxicating Liquors.
8 That Miss Cartwright make the Bread the same as last year.
9 That Mr Fenna and William Woolley supply the Tea and Sugar in equal portions.
10 That Mr Cole from Liverpool superintend the Tea Department. [Beverage]
11 That Mr Stubbs be engaged for the Beeston Castle Festival if he will come on reasonable terms.
12 That Mrs Corbett have the refreshment tent on the Castle at the forthcoming Festival.
13 That Messrs. Bird, Davenport and John Cawley superintend the Tea department on the occasion. [Presumably the food and not beverage]
14 That Messrs. R Johnson, J Ledsham, S Nickson and Geo. Ravenscroft be the receivers of tickets and cash at the Door.
15 That Mr Mac Dermott and men be required to attend at the Festival.
16 That Moulton of Chester have a Hutt and arrange standing at the Festival on the usual terms. [Is this a euphemism for toilets?]
17 That there be Ham and Porter for the refreshment of the Committee.
18 That this meeting stands adjourned until next Monday on Beeston Castle at 2 o’clock pm.

Broadly similar arrangements were made in 1850 when the Festival was on Monday and Tuesday the 24th and 25th of June when Mr Edward Davenport was Chairman. Again the minutes for 1851 are largely identical except that an appropriately named Mr Teasdale made the tea under the superintendence of Mr John Cawley and Mr Edward Davenport who were jointly in charge of the tea tent. Mr William Bird was the President for the Festival on 23 and 24th June 1851.

Perhaps rather curiously the Minutes for the three years neither make mention of the Oddfellows nor of the overall accounts. In 1851 Mrs Corbett (whose address was Beeston Station) was reengaged for the Refreshment Tent and she was to supply the Committee members with lunch at 2/-each and the other men at 1/-each, ale and porter at three halfpence per glass. By 1851 it would seem that the Committee realised that the Festival had came to stay for they gave Mrs Corbett £5 for her tent which appears a purchase rather than rent. The 18th resolution of 1851 is particularly interesting:

"That the Editor of The Illustrated London News be solicited to say what expense it would be to Sketch the Castle at the evening Festival with the Peckforton Castle."

Evidently the solicitation of the editor of The Illustrated London News was successful and an article duly appeared complete with an engraving of the two castles. The article stated.

"BEESTON CASTLE. On Monday and Tuesday, the 23rd and 24th ult., the annual festival in aid of the widows and orphans of the Peckforton district of the Independent order of Odd Fellows Manchester Unity, was held on these picturesque and romantic heights; and the weather being highly favourable to the charitable objects of the assembly to enjoy the festivities of the occasion.

Several Marquees had been erected amid the ruins of the Castle, and every accommodation had been provided for supplying refreshments and for the amusement and entertainment of the visitors. Horobin’s band was stationed on the lawn, and poured forth the most enchanting strains; and the elegant quadrille, the fascinating polka, and the waltz were for hours enjoyed with uninterrupted delight by the greater portion of the company. About 2,500 visitors were present on the first day, and among the company was John Tollemache, Esq., MP, one of the esteemed representatives of the southern division of the county of Chester, and the proprietor of the enchanting domain, and his amiable lady, both of whom appeared to participate in the happiness which they had the means of conferring upon the multitudes around them, as well as Wilbraham Tollemache, Esq., Miss Tomkinson, of Dorfold Hall, and various members of the most influential families in the neighbourhood. The proceeds amounted to £200; and for this salutary addition to the funds of the Charity, the Order is mainly indebted to the excellent arrangements of Mr Bird (the president of the meeting), and Messrs. Davenport and John and Thomas Cawley, the managing committee. To Mr Mac Dermott, the Special High Constable of the Hundred, much praise was due for the good order preserved, Never on any former occasion was there such a display of female loveliness, and the Chester Courant adds: "Eloquent as our friends are on the opposite side of the Mersey in praise of the beauty of their Lancashire witches, we think they will on this occasion, make the admission that they were beaten hollow by our Cheshire lasses.""

The engraving of the event is most revealing for it shows an area of much activity without the entrance gates in the vicinity of the present-day castle car park. A second region of activity complete with be-flagged tents and hut is close to the upper ward of the castle. In the area beyond the second gateway it seems, with a little imagination, that a cricket match is in progress. Evidently in 1851 there were fewer trees and much less bracken.

The income from the Beeston Festivals must have been sufficient to satisfy the needs of the Oddfellows Widows and Orphans Fund as at least two other good causes had donations made to them. These were £33 to Chester Infirmary at an unknown date, and the whole proceeds of the 1868 Festival, amounting to £178, was donated to the Bunbury Church Restoration Fund. This donation would have been very welcome following the major church restoration of the early 1860’s when the nave was re-roofed and the earthen floor replaced with the still-existing tile and boarded floor.

A rather curious article appeared in The Chester Chronicle edition of 25 June, 1870. The article is too long to reproduce in full but among other items, the quality of the tea beverage served at the Beeston Festival is eulogised. As the following extract shows liquid tea was drunk in a separate tent to where the more solid tea was consumed:

"The uniformity in the quality of all that is supplied has been achieved only after much patient labour; and when people tell of the difference in the flavour of the tea, it is perhaps as well they should know that every package of tea is treated and that any that does not ‘draw’ properly is rejected. The approved is put into two common receptacles, and as near as human ingenuity can effect it, the tea is of one strength; the boilers being filled at regular intervals. The hot water is poured upon the tea, the leaves of which, lying on a strainer, have room to expand and give off that delicious aroma which is so much prized by connoisseurs. While the tea-making is confined to one tent, in another adjoining the operation of cutting up the plain and currant bread goes on; matrons who were employed when the festival was in its infancy, handling their knives deftly, and slice after slice from a score of hands is as speedily gathered on to plates." [Not that much has changed in the tea-tent since 1870!]

Further on the article continues:

"Owing to that touch of Nature which makes the whole world kin, everyone exhibited a disposition to be obliging at the tea-tables, and there was that strict propriety and decorum which usually marks the attendance on the first day." [In other words it got rougher on the second day!] "The stable amusement was dancing, the bands of Horabin (Manchester), and Hassall (Nantwich), discoursing the sweetest music for the votaries of the nimble-footed muse. Those who were not disposed to ‘trip it o’er the green,’ either made the ascent to the inner keep of the old castle, and there looked down the mysterious well, or made the descent to the ‘sand-holes,’ to explore those cul-de-sacs in the dim light of tallow-candles. Some turned their attention to archery, others to the more muscular sport of Aunt Sally, while ‘whispering lovers’ sought the umbrageous foliage on the declivity of the rock, and, reposing on a carpet of bracken, whose varied green contrasted with the purple bells of the foxglove, breathed vows more readily believed than easily kept.

The second day - well, everyone who has been to Beeston Festival knows that the company is not so ‘select’ the second day, and for that matter it is not to be expected that it should be. It embraces a class to whom a holiday like that, which costs, if they are rigidly economical, only a shilling, is really a treat. The servant lads and lasses for miles around will walk to Beeston, while trains convey thither a fair proportion of working people from the towns, to whom the saving of a shilling is an object, if only to expend in a different way. This was no doubt the view taken by many of the 3,570 who were admitted to the Castle grounds on Tuesday, for long before the brass band played the National Anthem some had sunk to the ground exhausted. It may be that their exhaustion did not arise from fatigue, but from something stronger than tea. But it can hardly be that the refreshments supplied at Mr Corbett's tent were more potent on the second day than on the first. We should rather credit the incapable with a disposition to ‘drink and be drunk,’ and that had at least the negative benefit of not doing harm to anyone beside themselves. There were a few who had not reached this stage awkward hobbledehoys, who were annoying people by their bucolic wit and ribaldry. One very sharp rustic had been taking a peep down the well, and was pluming himself on having cheated the 'showman' out of a penny, when a policeman appeared upon the scene and told him he had better pay. It was amusing to see the shuffling of the half-drunken clown when he found himself face to face with ‘the strong arm of the law,’ which overpowered him. This and a few similar incidents, including a fight or two, of course, were the worst features of the festival."

Several other examples of misbehaviour were described and the account continued:

"There was no serious breach of behaviour even on the second day, so far as the tea-tent was concerned. There, everything passed off quietly and orderly. Upwards of 1,800 persons partook of tea, and to supply them 1,148 lbs. of plain and current bread, 135 lbs. of butter, 128 lbs of sugar, 21 lbs. of tea, and 138 quarts of milk were used. The amusements both before and after tea were similar to those of the previous day, except that kissing-rings were more numerous and set dances fewer."

The Bunbury Parish Magazine of June 1896, carried two articles about the Beeston Festival. The first advertised that the Festival would be on 23 and 24 June (the Tuesday and Wednesday of Wakes Week) and then described the Beeston Festival of 1895 which

"was a failure financially, owing to the terrific thunderstorm, we are pleased to notice that the widows and orphans did not suffer the Committee being enabled to grant the usual allowances from a small reserve, supplemented by the proceeds of a series of entertainments promoted by the local Lodges throughout the winter. The amount distributed at Christmas last was £125 11s 5d, among 105 widows and 40 orphans the balance of the fund being now £52 5s 11d."

It is not clear if the 105 widows and 40 orphans were solely from Bunbury Parish or from other districts as well. The second article was by the retired Rev William Lowe, vicar from 1861 to 1893 who claimed to remember the Festival from 1850, some 11 years before his incumbency. Lowe wrote,

"The multitudes who now flock from all parts of the country had scarcely begun to come. It was more of a family gathering of all neighbours for ten or fifteen miles around, so that everybody knew nearly everybody else. The tents at that time had not been introduced, so that when the weather was fine there was nothing to detract from the beauty of the scene. The groups of dancers seemed to the traveller, as he approached, like a series of beautiful flower beds in motion. But where now are the merry dancers and the friendly groups of that time?"

Lowe's description does not, however, agree with the article and engraving of The Illustrated London News of 1851 described earlier. It would seem that Lowe's memory was none too reliable.

Early in the twentieth century it became apparent that the Beeston Festival was not as viable as it was in previous years. In 1903 the Chester Chronicle quoted Shakespeare's Hamlet by asking the question. "To be or not to be?" The organisers struggled on until 1906 which was the final year of the Beeston Festival. The same newspaper, in the edition of 23 June 1906, summarised the situation thus:

"After the institution has lingered on for two more years we arrived at the unfortunate answer that no more is the historic crag, despite all its natural beauty and attractions, to assist the deserving fund of the widows and orphans of the Oddfellows of the district. For 63 years, through the kindness of one Lord Tollemache after another has the picturesque landmark been placed at the disposal of the committee, and it has never doubted, after the unexpected success which greeted the introduction of the function, that as long as such privileges were granted to the committee by the owners of the Peckforton estate the festival would increase in popularity year by year. But the times have changed, and events with them. Instead of the six or seven thousand pleasure-seekers invading the district and making alive the romantic slopes of the hill, on Tuesday and Wednesday we saw a few individuals scattered here and there on the hillside, and but for the strains of the Over Band and the erection of the various tents, it would have been hard indeed to have conceived that a festival was in progress. The common reason given for the failure of the festival year after year has been the cropping up of fetes and flower shows in every little hamlet and village, and as the success or failure depends entirely on the weather in such functions, the close association of Beeston Festival with rain and thunder in previous years has to a great extent responsible for its downfall. The festival, which is now known locally as Bunbury Wakes was a continuation of the old-style Bunbury Wakes. .... Two old personages, one being Mr Job Thompson of Tiverton, and another an old lady, both of whom were brought up in the district and recollected vividly attending the first (1844) festival in their childhood. Mr Thompson, who was at the festival this week was thus at both the first and last, and besides giving many interesting details as to the first year of the event, he relates many interesting incidents in connection with the castle, including the burning of an ox on the summit on the Coronation of the late Queen Victoria. Another old gentleman, who had missed only one festival during the whole 63 years came specially over from Alderley on Tuesday."

The article continues by stating that the initial festival yielded a net profit of £94 and the 1905 festival lost £24 7s 7d. During the 63 years of the Festival a total of £6,279 was raised and distributed.

The article concludes with:

"Although Beeston Castle may be thought an ideal place for a fete, the committee have found many drawbacks. Athletic sports could not be provided as on a flat ground, while various other attractions have been introduced without success. Again the haulage up the hill has been enormous, and that has taken a great deal of the profit. The balance sheet of the widows' and orphans' fund shows a balance of £4 16s 6d for last year. On Thursday the tents and plant were sold on the hill by Mr Joseph Wright."

So ended the 63rd and last Beeston Festival organised by the Oddfellows.

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