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Memories of carnivals in Kent and the parades which still draw in the crowds

Standing at the side of the road with a bag full of coppers as streams of colourful floats passed by has been a symbol of summer for Kent youngsters for decades.

In the heyday of the 60s, 70s and 80s, carnival parades were a sure sign that six weeks of freedom was upon you and school was, most certainly, out.

Regatta queens of yesteryear at Deal Carnival
Regatta queens of yesteryear at Deal Carnival

But as volunteer numbers have dwindled over the years and road closure and insurance costs have increased, many towns have waved goodbye to their traditional annual event.

And for those that remain, such as Deal and Isle of Grain, there is no such excitement this year due to Covid-19 restrictions forcing them to be called off.

In their absence, we're celebrating the county's parades which have been loved and lost and those still going strong with a handful of memories from our archive.

Herne Bay is probably Kent's best supported carnival, attracting crowds of up to 10,000 people.

Chairman of Herne Bay Carnival Association Andy Birkett has been involved since the 1980s and once hosted an exhibition on the history of the carnival at Herne Bay Library.

The Miss Herne Bay float in 1955
The Miss Herne Bay float in 1955
Miss Herne Bay Myrtle Fox led the parade in 1933
Miss Herne Bay Myrtle Fox led the parade in 1933

During his research, he discovered the event had roots back to the early 1800s and would take place in the afternoons in line with businesses only operating half days.

It has taken place every year since apart from during the Second World War.

He also traced the very first Miss Herne Bay, Myrtle Fox, who led the procession in 1933 wearing a ball gown and powdered wig. At the time of the exhibition in 2000 she still lived in the town.

He said: "In those early days, the carnival was a big event. Directly after the world war, it was an opportunity for people to socialise.

"The 80s and 90s were excellent years for me. Every local firm took part and gave away lots of freebies."

Canterbury Carnival in August 1954 Picture: Images of Canterbury
Canterbury Carnival in August 1954 Picture: Images of Canterbury

Today, the parade of up to 70 floats takes place on the second Saturday in August, travelling along the Western Esplanade into Canterbury Road and along the High Street.

Mr Birkett added: "We're one of the lucky ones. In the last five to 10 years, a lot of carnivals have gone by the wayside, be it because of lack of support, funding, insurances and a lack of people behind the scenes to make sure the events go off safely."

Canterbury and Sturry are among those to have folded. Westgate, Broadstairs and Birchington in Thanet also no longer hold parades.

"Herne Bay can still bring in excess of 10,000 people and they're not all local," he added.

"We've already had a family ask for next year's date as they want to book their holidays around it.

"It's a big day for the town and there's a real coming-togetherness of everybody."

Dancers from Rochester Theatre Arts School taking part in Medway Carnival during the late 90s
Dancers from Rochester Theatre Arts School taking part in Medway Carnival during the late 90s
Rochester Theatre Arts School taking part in Medway Carnival during the late 90s
Rochester Theatre Arts School taking part in Medway Carnival during the late 90s

Medway Carnival was a highlight in the calendar year for its residents with the likes of model Kelly Brook once taking part.

The young carnival queen from Rochester, whose real name is Kelly Parsons, posted a newspaper cutting to Instagram.

It was the start of great things for the model who went on to be crowned FHM's Sexiest Woman in the World in 2005 and star in Strictly Come Dancing two years later.

View this post on Instagram

#TBT Carnival Princess 👑 #beautyqueenz

A post shared by Kelly Brook (@iamkb) on

But Isle of Grain Fete and Carnival is now the only village in the Medway area to still be holding a carnival today.

It starts with a parade of around 20 floats around the village before a fete of stalls and activities.

Crowds would line the street for Medway Carnival
Crowds would line the street for Medway Carnival

It started in 1948 and was originally to raise money for a parish hall before BP stepped in with the cash. Now, money raised goes towards paying for the event the following year.

It has been organised by a host of people over the years including the village school, parish council and now a designated committee.

Veronica Cordier, chairman of Grain Parish Council and former fete committee member, said: "People have a thoroughly good time. There's family get-togethers, meeting of old friends, lot of memories shared.

"It's a highlight of the year and something for the children to look forward to just as the schools finish."

Deal Carnival is part of a week-long programme of celebrations including a fireworks night, children's teddy bear's picnic and a baby show.

Eccles Carnival in June 1982
Eccles Carnival in June 1982

Still going strong, the main parade event runs on the last Thursday every July and draws in thousands to the seafront.

It runs from The Beach in Walmer to The Marina in north Deal and has been organised by John and Rose Trickey of Deal, Walmer & Kingsdown Carnival & Regatta Association for the last 22 years.

But the history of the association can be traced back to 1826. After the closure of the Naval Dockyard in Deal the townspeople started to become restless. A great number of dock workers and sailors with very low spirits became a worry to the local council.

They saw a need to raise interest and attract people into the area, coming up with the Deal and Downs Regatta.

At the time, all the events were water borne and were reported to be a tremendous success, with what was described as 'a very colourful display out on the sea'.

Northfleet Carnival was saved in 2019 by volunteers Picture: John Westhrop
Northfleet Carnival was saved in 2019 by volunteers Picture: John Westhrop

Northfleet Carnival near Gravesend almost didn't happen last year but was saved in the nick of time by volunteers.

More than 50 people signed up to help as committee members hosted a make-or-break meeting at Perry Street Conservative Club in Northfleet.

It enabled the decade-old tradition, first held in 1967, to go ahead one more time on Saturday, July 6.

Those who took part included football clubs, primary schools, dance troupes and Gravesham's LGBT community.

Whitstable Carnival almost died a death and then new volunteers took it over last year.

Cowboys stride into Hersden for the carnival in 2007
Cowboys stride into Hersden for the carnival in 2007
Miss Canterbury Pauline Groombridge on her carnival float with Maids of Honour Barbara Farrow, 16 and Shirley Mears, 16 - August 1954
Miss Canterbury Pauline Groombridge on her carnival float with Maids of Honour Barbara Farrow, 16 and Shirley Mears, 16 - August 1954

The future of the 121-year-old Whitstable Carnival hung in the balance in October 2018 when its entire committee announced plans to retire and made an apparently fruitless appeal for new organisers.

But in March 2019, 65-year-old writer and retired postman Chris Stone announced he would take over the event.

Since 1897, the annual event has seen floats and pedestrians parade through the town led by a carnival court - comprising Miss Whitstable and her princesses.

The comeback in 2019 was held on the first Saturday in August.

Just a year before, the carnival made national headlines when organisers invited boys to enter the carnival court contest for the first time in its history after no girls entered the search for Miss Whitstable.

Dame Kelly Holmes (right) helps Graham Rapley from the Lions and Mayor Russell Dorling to judge the carnival floats at Tonbridge Carnival in 2006 Picture: Andy Payton
Dame Kelly Holmes (right) helps Graham Rapley from the Lions and Mayor Russell Dorling to judge the carnival floats at Tonbridge Carnival in 2006 Picture: Andy Payton

Mr Stone's new-style event saw a carnival king and queen selected from the town’s residents - with no age limit on entrants.

Loved by many, feared by some and disbanded amid claims of racism and increasing red tape – the Sheppey Zulus were a huge part of a Sheppey Carnival until organisers, the McCall family, threw in the towel after last year.

The summer carnival had been going for more than 100 years and used to span a whole week of activities in the 1960s.

Its main claim to fame was the famous Sheppey Zulus - stevedores from the docks who blacked up as cannibals and terrorised the streets demanding cash for charity, in addition to kidnapping attractive girls to put them in their cooking pot.

They were eventually forced to disband in 2015 because of political correctness but made a comeback in 2017.

One of the last appearances of a Sheppey Zulu in Sheerness on carnival day in 2015
One of the last appearances of a Sheppey Zulu in Sheerness on carnival day in 2015

News that the McCall family folded the event after 17 years, in 2019, shocked the Island.

The newly-formed Sheerness Town Council had planned to take over the mantle with a seaside festival this August but it has been postponed to next year because of coronavirus.

Other places to maintain a carnival in recent years include towns such as Sittingbourne and Faversham, while the village of Teynham, which sits between the two aforementioned towns, also stages an annual parade.

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