100 years of funfair history in Wembley

Last week, we were open in Wembley’s Barham Park – 100 years after the British Empire Exhibition that saw the opening of the original Wembley Stadium. Did you know that Wembley was home to the world’s largest amusement park, and the first place that dodgem cars were seen in the UK?

We’ve unearthed this century-old programme which has some lovely details about the funfair rides that were there.

“As the British Empire Exhibition is in itself the most marvellous and complete collection of exhibits from all parts of the world that there has ever been, so the Amusements Park, which extends over nearly fifty acres of ground, is the largest and most comprehensive pleasure park known to history. Never before in an exhibition has there been an Amusements Park on which so much time, money, thought and talent have been expended as on this one at Wembley.

Before a rod of turf was cut, the most eminent architects, artists and showmen in the amusement world foregathered in consultation […] the world was ransacked for the latest novelties in amuse […] The whole thing has cost more than a million and a-half of pounds.”

The park boasted both old favourites brought up to date, as well as some never-before-seen attractions, many of which have become funfair staples that we still know and love today.

However, one attraction that you won’t spot at our funfairs was “the Palace of Beauty”, sponsored by Pear’s soap. Here, “the visitor may see living presentments of ten of the most beautiful women known to history”, including Cleopatra, Scheherazade, Helen of Troy, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Each famous beauty was played by two models working in shifts, and the palace was so popular that nearly a quarter of a million people visited it!

Another unusual sight was a replica of Tut-ankh-amen’s Tomb. What on earth was the Pharoah’s tomb doing in the funfair, you might ask? Good question!

The British Empire Exhibition was made up of 56 different pavilions, each themed to a territory in the British Empire. King Tut’s tomb ought to have been in the Egyptian Pavilion…except for the fact that Egypt had stopped being a British Protectorate in 1922. Months later on 17 February 1923, King Tut-ank-amen’s tomb was unsealed by British archaeologists, and the country was gripped by Egyptomania. People went crazy for ancient Egyptian history and decorations – including the Cleopatra-style bob which became synonymous with 1920s flappers! Hence the opportunity to exhibit a replica of the tomb was too good to miss.

But where to put it, now that there was no Egyptian Pavilion? The organisers decided to pop it in the fairground! I suppose this means that if you ever see a ghost train with a mummy in it, it actually has a century of tradition behind it!

Check back soon for more about the funfair rides that were at the exhibition