Wearside Echoes: Festival tattoo made its mark

Sunderland members of the WRAC (Women's Royal Army Corps) who took part in the 'Phantom Guard' marching display at the Ashbrooke Military Tattoo in September 1951. The tattoo was a week-long event that formed part of the national 'Festival of Britain' held that year.

Sunderland members of the WRAC (Women's Royal Army Corps) who took part in the 'Phantom Guard' marching display at the Ashbrooke Military Tattoo in September 1951. The tattoo was a week-long event that formed part of the national 'Festival of Britain' held that year.

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THIS year marks the 60th anniversary of an event which involved Wearsiders in their thousands – the Festival of Britain.

STRICT rationing was in force and post-war rebuilding work still in its early stages when the Festival of Britain was announced as a “tonic for the nation” in 1951.

Designed to “cheer up Great Britain” after the terrors of battle, as well as being a celebration of the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the festival paved the way for events across the country.

“One such event was a week-long military tattoo, which was held at Ashbrooke 60 years ago in September 1951,” said local historian David Allan. “More than 27,000 people watched the performances.”

Councillors at Sunderland Corporation came up with the idea of the tattoo, to mark the Festival of Britain in “spectacular style” and £1,500 was splashed out on undercover seating for spectators at the sports ground.

Castle scenery was even brought from Denham film studios in Buckinghamshire, at a cost of £150, to provide a backdrop to the performances and extra cash was spent on tents and searchlights too.

“Superlatives have lost their effect, because they are overworked,” reported the Echo on June 5, 1951. “But they are not likely to be used for the Military Tattoo, as the facts speak for themselves.

“It will be bigger than anything of its kind previously staged in the North East, will cost £6,000 and almost 2,000 people will be taking part. The majority will be Wearsiders for this is a local show.”

Wearside Territorials took a leading role in organising the tattoo, with the RAF physical training team topping the bill. An RAF drill display, a motorcycling team and five bands also performed.

Members of the Sunderland-based Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) played a major part in the event too – providing a unit of Phantom Guards to march at the tattoo.

“My mother, who was 18 at the time, was part of this Phantom Guard,” said David. “The tattoo was performed each evening for a week and was hailed a big success.

“It was particularly special in another way, too, because it is where my mother and father first met each other. My father-to-be, who was in the military band of the Scots Guards, was also taking part.

“I think I recall him once saying that, during the event, his unit was stationed at Brancepeth Castle, near Durham. Apparently, my parents first met in a cobbled lane behind the Ashbrooke ground.”

The opening night of Sunderland Military Tattoo took place on September 1, 1951. Thousands of Wearsiders flocked to Ashbrooke to witness the military spectacular and the Echo reported: “The flash of a crimson maroon followed by the clash of cymbals, as scarlet and blue uniformed bandsmen marched in precision, signalled the opening of Sunderland’s first military tattoo.

“Beneath an almost cloudless sky, thousands of visitors were thrilled by the most spectacular and stirring pageant ever seen on Wearside.

“Produced on a lavish scale, with more than 1,000 performers taking part, it was a fitting culmination to Sunderland’s Festival of Britain celebrations.”

Other highlights of the two-and-a-half-hour spectacular included marching and dancing by the North Regional Highland Pipe Band and “faultless” parades by the Sea, Army and Air cadets.

A tableaux based on famous pictures of infantry going into battle, followed by a “withering assault on a defensive position by the infantry of today” were also featured.

“After the first rehearsal, it was considered that five searchlights and 20 floodlights were inadequate for so large a ground,” said David.

“So three searchlights, with generators and cables, were rushed from Catterick and placed on platforms of 40ft by 15ft, a job requiring 3,000ft of timber.

“Normally it would have taken a fortnight for the task – but extra men were drafted in and overtime worked and the searchlights were ready for the opening night.”

The tattoo, however, was not the only event hosted in Sunderland to mark the Festival of Britain. An illuminations spectacular, parties, concerts, marches and even trips to London were also held.

Tram 61, originally delivered to the Sunderland fleet in 1902 and rebuilt in 1933, was decorated with festive light bulbs as part of Wearside’s patriot celebrations too.

“After the 1933 rebuilding of the tram, it became unique. There were no other trams in the country with its very distinctive shape,” said Sunderland Antiquarian Society member Bill Hawkins.

“The Tramways Department referred to it as a ‘Turret Car’ or ‘Gondola Car’ and it was intended to be a popular sight-seeing car.

“But the public had other ideas. The small upper saloon, with an open door at each end, was inclined to act as a wind tunnel, so the car was quickly christened ‘The Ice Box’.

“When it was scrapped, the lower saloon was put in Barnes Park for use as a shelter, where it survived for 20 years.”

Bishopwearmouth Church Choir also helped to make the Festival of Britain celebrations go with a swing – after being invited to sing at the Festival Church in London.

Dorothy Pickering, daughter of choirmaster Clifford Hartley, said: “My father took the choristers down to London by train. It was a very prestigious event and was even broadcast by the BBC.

“It was my half-day off from Knightalls, the furniture shop, so I was able to listen to the concert on the radio. It was very, very good.”

Former members of Sunderland Girls’ Training Corps have good reason to remember the Festival of Britain too – as 23 officers and cadets travelled to London in July 1951 to take part in a parade.

The Wearsiders joined more than 3,000 GTC girls from across the country for the prestigious event. Jean Scott, of West Boldon, was among those who marched along Horse Guards Parade on that hot, sunny day.

“I was 14 when I joined the group, which started at Grange Park School and then moved to Bede School,” she later recalled. “We took part in a tattoo, went camping and also helped in hospitals.”

* Do you have memories you would like to share about the Festival of Britain? Write to Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER.