Steam show highlights spark memories

steam engine

I decided since I have been watching videos of The Great Dorset Steam Fair and not getting to the shows I would regularly see, and since they have such ample material posted, I should share some of their material with you.

Among the posts are highlights from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013, and one on their Heavy Haulage display, the displays at night, tractor pulling and more.

The one with the most material on the show is titled An interesting documentary and features the show chairman Mike Oliver. The article is introduced by John Wharton, who I am presuming is the son of the late Jack Wharton, one-time owner and restorer of the engine named “SUPREME.”

The engine was built in 1934 for Mrs. Deakin, and had been stripped of her showland fittings during the war and put to work as a road locomotive hauling heavy loads to ports for shipping over to the war zone.

Powerful machine

She was well equipped for that work, producing more than 100 horsepower and making 25 or more mph on the road.

But back to the story. Jack Wharton appears on videotape laying on high praise for Michael Oliver, who he calls “The Dorset Dynamo.”

Chris Edmonds puts in a section describing his roles. He has done some writing including a short book titled A Little and Often, which is a phrase describing the proper way to fire a boiler. His first encounter with steam was when he was a baby in a pram (baby buggy) and a spark from a passing train set his blanket afire.

Over a few years, he saved his pennies and at the age of ten or so bought a Burrell traction engine for his own birthday. Those days engines were selling for thirty or forty pound sterling, namely scrap price.

He discusses show activities which were races often in the early days. He mentions a “Beer in a Bucket” race but gives no details, so you’ll have to wonder along with me, how that was done.

Today, regular working is most often done like threshing, sawing, plowing and pulling heavy loads up a grade.

Large engines

One commentator mentions loads of 80 tons and later 100 tons. Normally, three or four large engines were used with one at the back for braking. The loads are carried on large heavy trailers — often drop deck with two axles of dual wheels at each end.

One special unit has ten axles and is used under a locomotive for a load. Other common loads are big transformers, boilers and a Sherman tank. Other people involved a country-type musician called Dr. Busker, who bangs out time with a pole or cane with jangles and maybe bells on it.

Other old-timers include Dr. Giles Romanes, who was involved in very early rallies, Fred Dibnah, who wrote a well-known book of his experiences driving a roller to shows, and Jim Sarney, another well-known owner and operator.

Growth of steam

Mike Oliver relates some history of what is called the Great Working of steam engines, saying it started about 1969, with about 25 engines and grew at maybe 10 percent per year to 75, then 100, now about 150.

He mentions doing anonymous research in the car park, where he is a stranger and determining that the big, brightly-painted showman’s engines, often with accompanying fairground organs, are the favorite of about one-third of attendees, with plowers another third, and the heavy horses and crafts, another third.

He observes that they have found it is important to keep all the members of the family happy with their favorite activities so they have a good variety.

The fairground organs, as he calls them, range from small hand-cranked machines to huge trailer-truck mounted extravaganzas. These are often fronted with exposed pipes and figures with batons and such that keep time with the music.

Full performance

In addition, there is often a stage where live dancing girls perform during the music. One group is called the Pauline Reeder Dancers. They often show a lot of leg and full or mini skirts.

Organs are built by Mortier, Gavioli, and Mahrenghi. They can take as much time and money to restore as a steam engine. The heavy horses are likely of several different breeds but they seem to favor ones with fancy feathered feet, which are very showy.

The threshing machines are often built by Ransomes or Fosters, and are top-fed as opposed to our end-fed machines.

One unusual machine to me is a special one that does not break the straw and bundles it like a binder at the back for thatching. I have seen a program on thatching, where two men walk into a ripe field of the particular grain and it is chest high.

That special thresher dumps out the grain as usual and sprays the chaff and shorter straw into a second pile. Fairground rides have apparently been at shows from the beginning with roundabouts or Merry-Go-Rounds being perhaps the most common.

They also often have what they call steam Yachts, which are large boat-shaped cars in pairs, which swing back and forth. Dodgems cars just like ours are another common ride along with Ferris wheels and so on. A more recent addition has been military Displays from “The Great War,” meaning World War I.

War displays

With cannon and trenches and engines painted Olive green and lettered in white W/D for war department. The show venue was originally at a near village called Stourpaine Bushes and now at Tarrant Hinton, which may be a village or a farm.

When I was first interested in British shows, the West Of England show was at a place called Sinns Barton, which I later found out was a farm. The Tarrant Hinton site is some 500 acres, so there is a lot of moving in and setting up done before the show starts.

Mike relates that they had bad luck with weather for about nine years from 1974 to 1983, and people used to ask friends “Are you going down to Stourpaine and play in the mud?”

They seem to have caught the tractor pulling bug, perhaps from us with a weight transfer sled and lots of smoke and noise.

There is remarkably little coal smoke as they prefer a good grade of Welsh smokeless coal or coke. They used a lot of coal in city gas plants and so coke was an inexpensive by-product available for fuel.

Sentinel wagons, in particular, were designed to burn it. At another time, Mike Oliver gives some interesting statistics. He estimates some 15,000 people are on the grounds as vendors, operators and other displays.

The toilet bill (porta-johns) is 32,500 British pounds (about $42,900), 20,000 pounds for pensions, 2,500 pounds for police protection, 7,500 pounds for ambulance service, 5,000 pounds for the fire brigade, and 50,000 pounds for rental of the grounds.

Prepaid tickets bring in some 100,000 pounds and vendors and traders — a similar amount.


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