The Syston Feast, an Ancient Custom Still Carried on in the 20th Century

Syston Feast was the annual celebration of the Patron Saints of the Parish Church, and this is the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and is on 29th June. Historically this celebration was a great event in Syston, and by the start of the 20th century it was celebrated with a week of social events which included the annual visit of the fair, as well as church services.
Lucy Kirby (born 1900) wrote about the Feast Sunday in her memoir of growing up in Syston before the First World War. ‘Everybody made cowslip wine and parsnip wine and our mothers made large cakes. They were much too big for our ovens and were taken in their tins down to Talbott’s (the bakers on Bath Street) to be baked in the big bread ovens. Friends and relations would pop in for a piece of cake and a glass of wine. We all had half a day off school on the Monday, when the church fete was held.’
The church fete was held in the vicarage garden, or at the Boys’ School if it was rainy. At the garden fete, there were lots of stalls including a Syston favourite, the ‘Hoop-La’, a tea stall, a cake competition and a sweet pea flower competition. Often the school children entertained with traditional maypole dances performed to live music. The Feast sometimes continued beyond Sunday and Monday with an evening Concert on Feast Tuesday, and when Lucy Kirby was a girl it finished with a trip to Bradgate Park at the end of the week.
The arrival of the fair was a huge excitement to all the children, and we know that one of the attractions of the fair when Lucy was a girl was a large swing boat called the ‘Big Emma’ that held up to ten people at a time. Apparently it ‘sailed perilously through the air’ according to a nostalgic article in the Leicester Mercury in 1950. The same article also mentions that the inns around Syston did a roaring trade at the time of the feast as merrymakers liked what they fondly called ‘a drop of wollop!’
Peter Ecker, growing up in the early 1920s, recalled the fair with great fondness. ‘The Fair was the great event of our year, for us children a wonder of glitter and gyration; there were the Galloping Horses, Chair-o-Planes and the Cakewalk too.’ The fair was a social event for the village and attracted many adults as well; -‘For our parents it was an opportunity to meet old friends and relations.’ Of course in the era Peter writes of, the fairground machines would all have been powered by steam engines, which would have added to the noise and the feeling of excitement.
Felicity Austin
Syston History Group are currently writing a book on Syston in the 20th Century, and if you’d like to know more about the visits of the fair to Syston during the rest of the century, look out for the book on sale towards the end of the year.