Feature: do you remember the Lights of Leamington?
It was a festival which some claim rivalled the Blackpool Illuminations in terms of its splendour and popularity.
The Lights of Leamington, held in Jephson Gardens between the summer and autumn in the 1950s and up to 1961, was said to have attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to the town over the years.
An exhibition inspired by the festival launches at the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum today (Friday) and the Courier and Weekly News has been able to look back on the event with the help of a man who worked at it in his younger days.
Frank James, 82, of St Helens Road in Whitnash, worked as an electrician for the event, first when he was 17 and later when he was in his twenties.
He said: “There has never been anything else in the town quite like it and that is a shame when you see other towns like Blackpool’s lights events are still going strong.
“The Lights of Leamington was certainly a spectacular event. It attracted people from all over the Midlands and even further afield and the town was so busy at weekends while the event was on.
“I always look back at those days with great fondness I wish the event could have carried on.”
Frank is a founder member of the Leamington History Group which has published an article about the Lights of Leamington on its website.
The article says that thousands of coloured electric lights transformed Jephson Gardens into a wonderland for both children and adults and that in 1952 it was reported that the event attracted more than 300,000 visitors to the town and 20,000 on one Saturday alone.
One of the jobs assigned to Frank was the installation of lighting in the large cedar tree overlooking Willes Road, which he did by climbing a series of six inch nails hammered into the trunk - something which today’s health and safety regulations would no longer allow.
The festival was first held in 1952 and would run from late July until early October.
It would include firework displays, open-air dancing, musical acts and entertainers - some of whom would perform at the park’s pavilion which was the main entertainment venue in Leamington before the Royal Spa Centre was built.
Frank said: “I remember there was a group called the three Js whose names all began with the letter.
“The performers’ gate was locked so I had to help them over the railings so they could make it to their concert on time.
“Also, on some nights I was on duty just in case one of the lights or electrics went pop.
“Rather than just standing around and being bored I managed to get myself another job as a stage hand at the pavilion and Benny Hill was performing at the time.”
The history group has said that as the numbers of visitors to the event rose year on year, so did the costs for attendants, installation, maintenance, policing and the inevitable toll on the gardens themselves.
There were also increasing problems with parking and late night rowdiness.
So on Sunday October 8 1961 the illuminations closed for the last time.
Frank Cridlan, then owner of the Regent Hotel, tried to revive the Lights in 1988. Although the plan had a great deal of support in Leamington, the costs proved prohibitive.
**** Leamington Art Gallery and Museum’s Lights of Leamington exhibition will open today (Friday)and run until Sunday April 15.
This eclectic exhibition, selected and curated by Birmingham-based artist Stuart Whipps, brings the theme up to date showing the diverse ways light runs through the collection at Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum.
The exhibition will also include new work by Stuart, which has been created in response to works in the collection.
A Friday Focus Extra talk will take place today from 1pm to 2pm;. Visitors are welcome to come along to this introductory talk on the Lights of Leamington by Stuart .
There will be a selection of workshops for adults and an art club for with activities suitable for children up to 12 years during school holidays which will all run alongside the exhibition.
Toddlers and babies can enjoy free play and create their own artwork to take home at Arty Tots on the first Wednesday of each month from 11am–to noon.
For more information visit: www.warwickdc.gov.uk/royalpumprooms