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The Ancient Festival of Houghton Feast Time Line of Events

Houghton Feast, the ancient festival of Houghton-le-Spring, has its origins in the 1100s as Michaelmas, the patronal festival of St Michael & All Angels Church. It was expanded in the 16th Century by Rector Bernard Gilpin and furthermore in the late 18th Century when it became connected with horse racing. The 1880s saw the introduction of steam-powered rides and all the fun of the fair, however the fairground was downscaled as a result of World War II. Rector Noel Gwilliam was responsible for initiating the Feast format as we know it today and encouraging an emphasis on the religious aspects.

If you have any photos, memories or past programmes, please get in touch with Feast historian Paul Lanagan by email

The historic church of St Michael & All Angels, 1900

1100s - Houghton Feast probably originated as Michaelmas - the festival of the dedication of the Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.

1200s - Royal charters granted permission to the Church to hold fairs (Sunday trading was not allowed!). During the Middle Ages Michaelmas became a religious feast, at the end of the harvest, and the tradition of cooking the first geese of the season was established (see 1896).

1517 - Bernard Gilpin was born in Kentmere.

1541 - Bernard Gilpin was ordained.

Bernard Gilpin, The Apostle of the North

1557 - Bernard Gilpin became rector of Houghton-le-Spring and helped expand the Michaelmas celebrations with his hospitality and the roasting of a bullock or hog each Sunday between Michaelmas and Easter. The parishioners were seated at three tables, according to rank, inside the Rectory; the routine would continue even when Gilpin was absent (on one of his many journeys to the Borders).

1574 - A Royal Charter was signed for the Kepier Grammar School which had been founded by Bernard Gilpin and John Heath some years earlier.

1583 - Bernard Gilpin was knocked down by an ox in Durham Market Place and died some time afterwards on March 4th 1583.

1600 - The first roundabout was invented.

1663 - A Vestry book for St Michael's Church states: Collected in our parish of Houghton the first
Wedensday in October being the fourth day of the saide moneth the sum of sixteene shillings
and eleven pence, which is for the inentenance of the infected people of this county.


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1700s - Entertainment, such as freakshows, jugglers and dancing animals, increasingly replaced buying and selling at fairs.

1752 - The people of Houghton refused to accept the introduction of the Gregorian calendar and celebrated Michaelmas according to the Julian calendar, eleven days behind. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.

1784 - Billy Purvis, popular showman and entertainer, was born on January 13th 1784. The Purvis family moved to Newcastle two years later.

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The witty Billy Purvis

1818 - Billy Purvis visited Houghton Feast for the first time.

1825 - At this time, racing was a popular feature at Houghton Feast. Grandstands and tents would be erected in a field in Houghton and horse racing would take place (the location of the field would vary each year). Billy Purvis had a dispute with Dr. Bell and Mr. Myers over payment into a racing fund and was set upon by the two, who had also removed Billy's steps, making it difficult for the audience to get into the show. The unwarranted attack on Billy left the doctor minus three front teeth and Myers with a fractured leg through a fall!

1827 - The History, Directory & Gazetteer of Durham & Northumberland, 1827, described Houghton Feast as:

"Houghton Feast is held annually on the Sunday after New Michaelmas day, when the town becomes crowded with strangers at an early hour. The festival continues with great excess for three or four days, during which period there are horse races, and various other amusements, not only in the town, but in all the villages of the parish."

1836 or 1837 - Showman Billy Purvis brought a performing bear with him to Houghton Feast.

1838 - Counterattraction events were arranged by the Methodists to persuade people not to attend the overindulgences of Houghton Feast and the associated races. The following extract is from a Methodist magazine:

We have again had our meetings with the children to prevent them from going to Houghton Feast; it was a delightful time; on the Monday a great number of children attended; they came to the field in the greatest order. They met in their different chapels, and with their banners flying they came to the place of meeting, where they were addressed by different ministers; they behaved very well. In the evening meetings were held among the friends in the different chapels, which were well attended; but the Tuesday is the great day of the Feast, and so it was to us. The day was fine, the Monday was rather dull and cold, but this day the sun shone, inspiring all with joy. About twelve children began to muster, but in greater numbers. What a lovely sight to see so many children so clean and so happy, assembling for such a purpose! and though we could not stop all from going to spend their money for that which is not bread, it was no small mercy we had with us about one thousand children and a vast concourse of grown up persons. Oh that the friends of the society could but have seen the sight! I feel it quite impossible to give you any thing like a description of it. Being among the first in the field, I had a commanding view of them as they came along the lanes; the banners flying and the sweet sounds of praise were truly delightful; they formed round a waggon that answered for a pulpit; they were again addressed, and paid great attention. When the services were finished, they left in the same orderly manner, each repaired to their own chapel. We had a hundred children who took tea, besides seventy parents and teachers. After tea the children repeated hymns and sung; you may judge the spirit with which the children entered into the services; we met about twelve, and it was nine before we came to finish; even then the children were full of life and joy, for after the meeting was done, dark as it was, they mustered at the door, and sand down to our door, where forming round they sang a parting hymn; thus ended our meetings. It was a time of much enjoyment. In all the chapels the meetings were well attended, and a greater interest has been excited than on any former meeting. I do hope it has been the means of doing good.
[Home Missionary Magazine, February 1839, ]

A Houghton Feast poster showing Feast events in 1845

1845 - Foot racing, blindfolded wheelbarrow racing, greasy pole climbing, ass racing, sack racing and a gurning competion featured at the Feast in Rectory Square. Prizes included a leg of mutton, a shoulder of mutton, a hat, a pound of tobacco, a quantity of ale and a gill of rum.Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012. This Time Line is commercially available.
It has taken hundreds of hours to compile. Please do not reproduce without permission.

1848 - On (Monday) October 16th, Billy Purvis made his thirtieth annual appearance at Houghton Feast with his showbooth (this date suggests Houghton Feast was a week late) [Fordyce’s History of Durham]. Peter Mackenzie, a well known Methodist preacher, visited Houghton Feast. Somebody stole the saddle and bridle from his donkey and the animal had rolled around in the mud. Peter was not amused and vowed never to return to Houghton-le-Spring!

Peter Mackenzie, Methodist Preacher

1850 - Thomas Cash was charged with having stolen a horse on his way from Houghton Feast. He stole the horse from a farm not far from Chester Road, rode it to Newcastle and exchanged it for a donkey, which he later sold. After heading to Sunderland Fair, he slept in a lodging house where he had a nightmare about the theft. He subsequently handed himself in to the police and was remanded in custody.

1853 - The authorities prohibited the holding of Houghton Feast owing to the outbreak of cholera in the district.

1853 - On December 16th, Billy Purvis died and was buried in the churchyard of Saint Hilda's Church in Hartlepool.

1856 - Public tea parties were held in the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Hetton-le-Hole as counterattraction to the Houghton Feast Races.

1864 – The Houghton Feast Races took place in fields belonging to Mr Thompson of Dean House.

1865 - The first steam powered fairground ride was created.
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1866 – The Feast Races, which were meant to take place on Monday October 8th 1866, were prevented from happening as this extract from Robert Anderson’s diary shows: “the grain is out in the fields where the races should have been so it spoils the Feast. The whole crowd is in the Market Place. The publics [pubs] drive a good trade in the town” Robert Anderson had emigrated to Illinois, USA, from Co Durham in 1850 and made a visit home in 1866/67.

1867 - The staff of Newbottle Lane Infants School, Houghton, were on holiday for Houghton Feast - only six children attended school.

Billy Purvis performing

1869 - The Feast was described as 'a shadow of its former greatness'. Shows and booths were erected in the Market Place and adjoining streets, and the race meeting was held in a field next to Houghton Hall. In the afternoon, a commotion was caused when parts of the wooden grandstand fell away [see 1878].

1869 - During Houghton Feast, Mary Jane Rodgers claimed to have been mugged and to have had her liberty taken by four men in the early hours of the morning. The men claimed their innocence and Ms Rodgers did not turn up in court at the second hearing.

1869 - On Saturday October 9th 1869, Mr John Weal, a proprietor of a swing boat used at fairs, was charged from stealing a quantity of oats from a Mr Coulson’s stackyard in Newbottle while he was based there waiting for Houghton Feast to start [Newcastle Courant, Oct 15th 1869].

1870 - Elizabeth Lucas was committed for twenty eight days for picking the pocket of Mary Nixon at the Houghton Feast races. William Fortune, a nut hawker, was committed for fourteen days after being caught gambling in the Market Place.Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.

1871 - The Houghton Feast Races took place in a field next to Houghton Pit. Contestants could climb a greasy pole to win an ox's head and tongue and the prize was won by a Jonathan Brown. Garrick Keenen was committed for five days for gambling with skittles at the fair. Booths, stalls and marquees for the sale of all kinds of wares were erected in the Market Place.

1872 - The Market Place was adorned with flags and banners and people would come from as far away as Pittington, Belmont, Penshaw, Offerton, Usworth and Wrekenton. Boxing booths, sword swallowers, freak shows and hot-coal walkers were to be seen at Houghton Feast. Horse racing was a featured in took place in the area of Houghton along from Hall Lane. The Race Course featured beer tents. Other events took place near the Lion pubs in the town centre, including greasy pole climbing for a leg of mutton.
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1878 – On Monday October 7th 1878, the grandstand collapsed at Houghton Feast Races, as apparently some of the timbers were suffering from dry rot. Around a hundred people were on the stand at the time. Twenty were injured, six seriously. A lawsuit followed.

Houghton-le-Spring Boating Lake

1881 - Houghton Burn was diverted by Joseph Coulson to form a boating lake. Mill owners downstream were deprived of their water supply and started legal proceedings. The Lake was soon filled in by two Darlington showmen, the Richardson brothers [see 1896], and used as a showground.

1881 - A flat-shaped fish, measuring six feet and two inches in length, five feet eight inches in breadth, and weighing thirty stones, was displayed at Houghton Feast on Monday October 10th 1881. The “monster fish” had come ashore at North Point Rocks, Cullercoats the Saturday before.

1883 - It was reported in the Newcastle Weekly Courant of Friday October 12th 1883 that:
“Superintendent Fairbridge reported on Wednesday to the Houghton magistrates that although over 18,000 people were present at the Houghton Feast on Monday and Tuesday last, so exemplary had been their conduct that the police had only found it necessary to take proceedings against three persons, two of whom were charged with drunkenness, and one with robbery.”

1884 - Two boys, who were blackberrying in a field next to where the Houghton Feast Races were held, discovered a tin containing sixteen charges of dynamite under the grandstand. Mr S Smyth, of the White Lion Hotel, was nearby; he took the dynamite, which was wrapped in copper wire and fused, and detonated it in a field. “Much excitement prevails in the locality, as it is supposed the intention may have been to blow up the grandstand.”

[Aberdeen Weekly Journal, Friday October 17th 1884]

1885 - The Sunderland Daily Echo of Tuesday October 6th 1885 reported:
"There was a very large gathering yesterday at Houghton-le-Spring to celebrate the annual feast, and the new course was crowded. In the Market Place were a number of shows, stalls, roundabouts, swings and other amusements, all of which seemed to be doing a roaring trade. The races, however, absorbed the largest amount of interest, and this year, so far as the first day’s proceedings are concerned, some very fair sport was provided for the patrons of the meeting."

1885 - The St Michael & All Angels Parish Magazine of October 1885 mentioned:

"Dr Norman, Rector of Burnmoor, preached the morning Sermon [on St Michael's Day], explaining the meaning of Houghton Feast in days gone by; such a contrast to the sad sight of the Feast now. He exhorted all to keep themselves undefiled during the Feast, and to help others to do so."

1886 - The religious aspects of the Feast were not as great as they could have been: Rector Grey gave the usual Sunday sermon ("Religious Teaching in our schools") on Feast Sunday, while on Houghton Feast Monday, October 11th 1886, a football match took place between the Church’s Young men’s Friendly Society and the Houghton Club Second Team.

How the 1887 ox roasting could have looked

1887 - An ox was roasted in Houghton as part of the celebrations of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

1888 - It was reported in the Newcastle Weekly Courant of Friday October 12th 1888 that:
“Houghton Feast has come and gone, and the annual saturnalia still maintains its popularity in the pit villages which surround the headquarters of Bernard Gilpin’s labours. The old-fashioned feasting which was duly honoured in the dwellings of the miners up to fifty years ago is never heard of now except as a tradition, but there is quite a general determination to make merry three days of it as ever, and the fine weather attending the Feast of 1888 will help to prolong the observance.”

1893 - The Monday and Tuesday were recognised local holidays. The Houghton Feast races were promoted by The Hetton Race Company. Football matches also took place at this time.
Robert Caris, a son of a showman at the Feast, died aged 8 minutes, and was buried at Houghton Hillside Cemetery on October 10th 1893. The entry in the burial reigster states abode as 'the Lake'.

1894 - The Houghton Urban District Council was formed in 1894. It was noted in the press on Monday October 8th 1894 that:
To-day’s programme includes the reopening of the Catholic bazaar.
The Feast was described in The History, Topography & Directory of Durham, by Whellan, as:
Houghton Feast is held annually on Monday after Michaelmas day. The festival is continued with great spirit for three or four days, during which period there are horse-races and various other amusements.

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Houghton Feast in 1895

1895 - Mr Alexander Thompson was head of the Houghton Feast Management Committee.

1896 - An advert appeared in the London Era Newspaper on September 26th 1896 and again on Saturday October 3rd 1896 stating: “Houghton-le-Spring Feast, Oct 2nd, 3rd, 5th & 6th. Christmas and New Year Holidays. Haymarket Newcastle-on-Tyne. All requiring stands for shows should apply to Richardson Bros., Darlington.”
Saturday, October 3rd 1896, James Shafto, a retired miner aged 65 years, was mangled on a roundabout after attempting to board a car whilst the ride was in motion. His legs were almost torn from his body, and he died at home at midnight and was buried four days later at Houghton Hillside Cemetery.
It was reported in the Northern Echo of Saturday October 3rd 1896 that:
“The ancient holiday of “The Feast” at Houghton-le-Spring, which occurs annually at Michaelmas, begins today, and on Sunday, according to local tradition, the first geese of the season are cooked. On Monday and Tuesday there will be horseracing.”

How the 1896 ox roasting could have looked

1896 - An ox was roasted at the Lake grounds on New Year's day. The animal was said to be a gift to the town from a showman who had visited the Feast.

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1920s - The grandfather of the present day John Murphy Snr made his first visit to Houghton Feast.

1927 - The dodgems were invented.

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1930s - The showmen were kindly allowed to use the wash-house of the Jolly Farmers Inn PH in the Market Place for water and washing. Bus trips from South Shields brought in visitors (known as the "Shields Wives") much to the amusement of the many local miners.

The Market Place fairground

1930 - Confusion arose over whether Durham County Council or Houghton Urban District Council should receive the tolls collected from the erection of stalls in the Market Place. HUDC sent £136 to Durham County Council, having collected £125 from showman Thomas Murphy, £12 4s 6d collected from stall holders and having paid the collector £1 4s 6d commission.

1928 to 1930 – Showman Thomas Murphy had the lease of the Market Place for the fairground at Houghton Feast. His three year agreement of £125 per annum was to expire on September 12th 1930, however it was renewed once again.

1931 to 1933 – Thomas Murphy, a roundabout proprietor of Ashbrooke, Park Road, West Hartlepool, took the lease of the Market Place at Houghton Feast for rent of £90, payable on September 1st each year.

1934 to 1936 – An agreement was in place for Thomas Murphy to have lease of the Market Place for the Houghton Feast fairground, however on September 16th 1935, Mr J Powell paid £60 rent for the Market Place. When making the payment, Mr Powell stated that he had taken over the business from Mr Murphy. Thomas confirmed this in a letter to Durham County Council three days later (see 1968).

The last horse racing at Houghton-le-Spring: Houghton Feast 1938

1938 - Houghton Feast was no longer recognised as an official local holiday for miners. Horse racing was last featured at Houghton Feast in this year.

1939 & 1940 - The outbreak of World War II led to a reduction in Feast activities owing to transport difficulties and lighting regulations. Horse and foot racing discontinued, as did the fairground, however the religious side of the Feast still went ahead. Greyhound racing took place at Houghton Greyhound Stadium.

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1941 - The continuation of the War and lighting restrictions and transport difficulties meant that the fairground, again, was not featured at the Feast.

1942 - A parade of the Home Guards band, the Royal Tank Corps, police special constables, Civil Defence forces, Army cadets, Air Force Cadets, Girls Training Corps and Girl Guides took place on Feast Sunday. As was usual for this era, the choir sang from the top of the Church tower.

1943 & 1944 - Roundabouts and other amusements returned to the Market Place but the Lake grounds were left unused.

1944 - The final of the £150 Feast Handicap ran at Houghton Greyhound Stadium on Saturday, October 7th 1944.Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.

1945 - The fairgrounds returned to both sites - the Lake grounds and the Market Place. A military parade once again featured at the Feast, and Rev Oswald Noel Gwilliam, preached at the Church service.

1947 - Illuminations were introduced to Houghton Feast. The lights centred mainly on St Michael's Church and would have been a welcome sight after the blackout of WWII. The Rotary Club of Houghton-le-Spring was founded in April of this year.

Rev Oswald Noel Gwilliam

1948 - Oswald Noel Gwilliam became rector of Houghton and helped rejuvenate the Feast celebrations. John Murphy made his first visit to the Lake fairground, with the Waltzer.

1949 - Rector Gwilliam initiated the outdoor community hymn singing event and placed a greater emphasis on the religious aspects of the Feast. The Church exterior was floodlit for the first time.

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Houghton Feast Foot Handicap, 1952

1952 - The Houghton Feast races took place on the Welfare Football Ground on Monday October 6th 1952, with the first heat starting at 2:30pm prompt. The 100 yards Foot Handicap had a first prize of £40 and a gold medal, second prize of £5 and 3rd and 4th of £1. Any entrants aged under 17 years were expected to bring proof in the form of a birth certificate. The prizes for the Ladies Race included a pair of guest towels, a floral table cloth, a Max Factor outfit and a packet of 20 cigarettes!

1953 - CORONATION FEAST - The Community Hymn singing took place in the Broadway under an illuminated ERII emblem in the Queen's Coronation year.

1954 - HUDC CENTENARY - A late start date for the Feast led to mass confusion, and many visitors arrived in Houghton a week early! As part of the usual Houghton Feast illuminations of flashing stars, illuminated peacock and illuminated welcome sign, a flashing 'HUDC CENTENARY' piece was installed in the Park to commemorate the 100th anniversary since the Local Board was formed. Many of the illumination pieces were home-made by Billy Straughan of Houghton Urban District Council's Engineering Department, sometimes using metal milk tins! Leslie Westmore who lived at Newbottle, designed and constructed the illuminated peacock. Leslie worked for the Council and took the inspiration for the design from a children's picture book owned by his niece, Winnie Hunter. Cine footage from this year reveals that the Choir were still singing from the top of the Church tower on Feast Sunday. A ride on the Ark at the Lake fairground cost 3d. A Guinness Festival Clock was put on display next to the Park railings, facing the Broadway. This was quite controversial at the time, owing to the clock promoting alcohol with animated characters from children's books, and during a religious festival!

1954 - Houghton's Chamber of Trade, which was formed in 1951, recommended three half-days closings on Houghton Feast Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, except where the businesses would benefit directly from the influx of visitors.

1955 - Councillor John Mawston joined Houghton Urban District Council in May 1955.

1958 - All employees of the Urban District Council were granted a two day holiday with pay for Houghton Feast Monday and Tuesday. Houghton-le-Spring Round Table was formed this year.

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1960 - On August 17th, Rector Gwilliam wrote to Tyne Tees Television asking for Houghton Feast to be featured in a news broadcast. It is not yet known if the Feast was televised on the local channel.

1961 - Sidney White's Mammoth Gavioli Organ, which was restored in 1956 by George Parmley and a band of enthusiasts, made its first appearance at Houghton Feast. For many years, it stood in the grounds of the Council Offices, but moved out to the Broadway in 2001. It can now be found at the Church Street corner of Broadway on Feast Friday and Saturday.

1960 to 1963 - Due to housing redevelopments, the Urban District Council decided not to use the Market Place for the fairground, using only the Lake grounds.

1962 - On April 23rd, Edward Richard Lambton (7th Earl of Durham) was baptised at St Barnabas Church, Burnmoor. An ox was roasted as part of the celebrations, and was overseen by Jack Kinmond and Bill Curry, both butchers from Shiney Row and members of Houghton’s Rotary Club [see 1967 & 2003].

1963 - September - the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain received planning permission to use the Lake site (2.5 acres) as a permanent caravan and winter quarters site. Three years later, a Compulsory Purchase Order was made as part of the A690 redevelopment scheme. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.

1963 - Houghton Rector, Rev Oswald Noel Gwilliam, described Houghton Feast as:

“The symbolic centre of Houghton’s community and family life."
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1965 - The Bishop of Durham, Rev Harland, visited the community hymn singing. The additional presence of television cameras helped attract an estimated crowd of eight-thousand people to the Broadway.

The first ox sandiwch

1967 - HOUGHTON FEAST REVIVAL - An important change took place in the organisation of the Feast. The Houghton Feast Steering Committee was formed and Houghton Rotary Club revived the tradition of ox roasting [see 1962]. Music festivals and the Round Table's carnival parade were added to the Feast line-up. Houghton Feast was billed as 'new style, 1967'. This was the last year in which the fair was sited on the Lake and Market Place. John Mawston became Chairman of Houghton Urban District Council. A walled area was constructed on the corner of the Rectory Field and a huge ox was roasted over braziers full of coke. Ox sandwiches cost 1/6, about 7 1/2 pence in today's money (equivalent to about 77p in value). Mrs Theresa Powell was lessee of the Lake Ground, while Matthew Smith was lessee of the fairground on Robinson Street, which was attended by his Noah’s Ark, Luke Jobson’s dodgems and other amusements. A Push Ball game was added to the Feast lineup, with Cllr Mawston as referee. It was the first match since WWII and a rule list had to be drawn up.

1968 - The Rectory Field site was first used for the fairground and a Mr Jaconelli was given permission to sell ice-cream there. Mrs Theresa Powell and the Showmen's Guild were lessees in the first year (see 1935 and 1969). Mr G. Freeman of Gateshead won the first Houghton Feast Whippet Racing handicap trophy. The second Houghton Feast ox roasting took place, this time on a purpose made spit and oven, which had been designed by Mr Broad, manager of Houghton Gas Company, and built by Alex Young, an engineer there.

1969 - John Murphy became lessee of the Rectory Field fairground at Houghton Feast.

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1970s - A new bus station opened up on the Lake site.

1971 - Adverts were first included in the Houghton Feast programme booklet. All advertising had been organised by Houghton-le-Spring & District Chamber of Trade.

1972 - Rector Oswald Noel Gwilliam left the Parish. Ron Young joined the Rotary Club on March 29th 1972, and would become the Houghton Feast ox-roast coordinator in later years. Showman Keith Turner married Daisy Cooper in St Michael’s Church just before they opened for Houghton Feast.

1974 - The Feast began to be assisted by the resources of Sunderland Borough's Recreation Department on the reorganisation of Local Government.

1975 - The range of illuminations was extended, with streetlights being introduced to Newbottle Street. Councillor Elizabeth Porter, who carved the ox in 1970 as Chair of Houghton Urban District Council, did it for a second time in 1975 as Mayor of the new Borough of Sunderland (see 1987 & 2005).

1976 - The night of the opening ceremony was changed from the usual Friday to Thursday to accommodate Mayor Charles Slater's Jewish faith. Councillor John Mawston became permanent Chair of the Houghton Feast Steering Committee. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.

A float in the 1977 Silver Jubilee parade

1977 - SILVER JUBILEE FEAST - The Queen's Silver Jubilee featured heavily in the Houghton Feast celebrations. The cover of the Programme of Events had a special cover to reflect this.

1978 - Rector of Houghton, Rev Peter Brett, featured on a four-night series of Houghton Feast Epilogues about Bernard Gilpin. The series was broadcast on Tyne Tees Television, Monday October 9th until Thursday October 12th 1978. For the first time, the "cutting of the first slice of ox" on Feast Monday was billed, as previous programmes simply advertised the preparation of the ox on the Sunday.


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1981 - Houghton Pipe Band first featured at Houghton Feast as part of a Pipe Band Contest. The community hymm singing moved indoors due to bad weather. It would appear that the Feast was held October 2nd -11th, which was a week earlier than it should have been.

1982 - Extreme bad weather at the Feast led to talks of switching the fairground site from Rectory Field to the all-weather sports ground near Station Road. For the second year running the community hymm singing took place indoors due to bad weather, thus contributing to its demise as an outdoor event.

1984 - John Price became the officer responsible for organising the Festival.

c1985 - Val Craggs became involved with the Feast around this time, as Promotions Officer for the Leisure Services Dept of Sunderland Council.

1986 - The Feast faced competition from Sunderland's seafront illuminations.

The special 1987 programme

1987 - Councillor John Mawston, Chairman of the Houghton Feast Steering Committee, became Mayor of Sunderland, and a special programme of events was issued. Cllr Mawston carved the ox for the second time, having first carved it at the revival in 1967. The first Houghton Feast Open Flower & Vegetable show was held in the Welfare Hall. A bench was placed in the ground of Houghton Area Office to commemorate John's term of office. The plaque reads: "Presented to Coun John Mawston JP Mayor of Sunderland 1987/88 in memory of his mother and in recognition of his services to the Houghton Feast Steering Committee." The first Military Tattoo was included in the opening ceremony, and featured the Light Infantry Band, North East Pipe Bands, South Shields Sea Cadets Band, Ryhope Colliery Welfare Band and the Claire McKenzie Dancers.

1988 - Ron Young took over from Reg Harrison, a fellow Rotarian, as the Houghton Feast ox roast co-ordinator.

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1992 - A Festival Day was added to the Houghton Feast programme. This involved street theatre and professional performers in the grounds of Kepier School and the Broadway. As a nod to the past, a whippet racing event was held.

1993 - Illuminated features were re-introduced to the Rectory Park and the Feast took the theme of 'industrial heritage'.

1994 - The first Houghton Feast Family Fun Run featured at the Feast.

1995 - The new Rector, Rev Ian Wallis, was inducted to St Michael's on Saturday September 30th 1995 at 2:30pm, during Michaelmas, the patronal festival.

1996 - The purpose-made ox roasting equipment disappeared and no ox roasting took place. Sunderland veteran, Derek Mullen, won the Houghton Feast Road Race. The Sunderland Echo reported that there were no illuminations in the Broadway and consequently the traditional switch-on did not take place. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.

Plans for the Houghton Feast ox spit

1997 - A memorial service was held in St Michael's Church for former Rector Rev Oswald Noel Gwilliam, who had died on February 21st 1997. In October, a newly constructed ox roasting spit was unveiled at a cost of around £4500. It was made by Alex Young of CWR Fabrication, maker of the original (see 1968).

1998 - The first boneless ox roasting took place as new Government legislation banning beef on the bone was introduced. John Murphy made his fiftieth annual visit to the Feast and the Feast went online with CyberFest - a day of computer and Internet fun. A Houghton Feast website was also launched. Wilf Husband’s Dance-band organ made its first appearance at the Feast.

The Houghton Feast website as seen in 1998

1999 - A lorry behind a side stall on the Rectory Field fairground caught fire. A scorched tree remains near the spot to this day. A new Houghton Feast flag, featuring the crest of Bernard Gilpin, was unveiled at the top of St Michael's Church, having been made by Speedings Ltd of Sunderland.

Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012. This Time Line is commercially available.
It has taken hundreds of hours to compile. Please do not reproduce without permission.

2000 - MILLENNIUM FEAST - A Millennium beacon was ignited on the top of St Michael's Church, as brand new Feast illuminations were unveiled. For the first time, the ox roasting event was not a sell out owing to the atrocious weather which blighted the Millennium Feast. Tim Field and Sheila Allen were the last winners of the Houghton Feast Road Race.

2001 - Sunderland Mayor Ken Murray opened the Rectory Field fairground early for special invited children and unveiled the new tarmac pathways, which were said to have cost £43,500, with 25% paid for by the Showmen’s Guild. Special early openings have taken place every year since and allowed hundreds of special children to have free supervised rides. The foot and mouth epidemic led to the traditional ox roast sandwiches increasing in cost, and the Feast took the theme of 'celebration' to commemorate the regeneration of Houghton.

A float in the 2002 Golden Jubilee parade

2002 - GOLDEN JUBILEE FEAST - The Feast took the theme of the Golden Jubilee in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's ascension to the throne. The first history of Houghton Feast book was published by author Paul Lanagan.
This was the last year in which a floodlit Tattoo was part of the opening ceremony, which, also for the last time, concluded with a lone piper and bugler.

The Houghton Feast website as seen in 2002

2003 - Houghton Rotarians oversaw the roasting of a whole ox at the 18th birthday party for Frederick Lambton (now Viscount Lambton) on June 28th 2003 [see also 1962 & 1967].Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.
A 'Feast of Light' lantern parade was introduced to the opening ceremony and replaced the traditional Tattoo element. Children carried illuminated lanterns made from bamboo and tissue paper.

2004 – This was the last year that a traditional programme of events booklet was produced by the Council. A Haunted Houghton tour by Paul Lanagan attracted around 300 attendees despite the wet weather. This was John Price's last year as the Officer responsible for the Feast; John started the role in 1984 and will be sadly missed by all. Just like John Mawston, he was another 'Mr Houghton Feast' and the people of Houghton have a lot to be thankful for for John's dedication to the Feast.
Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012. This Time Line is commercially available.
It has taken hundreds of hours to compile. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Mayor Bill Stephenson in the Ox Tent, 2005

2005 – John Mawston celebrated his 50th anniversary of his association with Houghton Feast. Mayor Bill Stephenson became the third person to have carved the ox twice, having cut the first slice in 2004 in his role as Deputy Mayor. The first person was Councillor Elizabeth Porter who carved it in 1970 as Chair of Houghton Urban District Council and then in 1975 as Mayor of the new Borough of Sunderland, and likewise for Cllr John Mawston in 1967 and 1987. Around this time, Val Craggs became Event Director of Houghton Feast for Sunderland City Council. In October 2005, rat catchers were called in to curb a large infestation of rats in Houghton Park. The local press reported that it was a “race against time” to clear the rats away before the start of Houghton Feast.

2006 – The location of the back gate was moved up to the centre of the Rectory Field fairground and huge 'No Alcohol' notices were erected on the ground, following the demise of the control of the local youth. Ox sandwich sales exceeded 1500 and all sandwiches were sold out by 7.00pm. The leftover meat was used at a pensioners’ dinner in the Kepier Hall.

A poster from the ox roasting tent, 2008

2007 – 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE REVIVAL OF HOUGHTON FEAST - A commemorative programme was produced to mark the 40th anniversary since the revival Feast in 1967. The 40th anniversary parade had huge crowds owing to unseasonally good weather. There was a decrease in the number of floats - participants had been forced to march due to insurance restrictions on vehicular floats. Ox sandwiches, which went on sale at 4:00pm, were sold out within 2 hours, beating last year's record. The community hymn singing, which was established in 1949, did not take place in its usual form for the first time in its 68 year history. The 26th annual and final Houghton Feast Pipe Band Competition took place.

2008 – ALL THE FUN OF THE FAIRS - A commemorative programme was produced to mark the occasion of forty years of the Rectory Field fairground and showman John Murphy's 60 years of Houghton Feast (John first attended in 1948 and became lessee of the Rectory Field fairground in 1969). Val Craggs, Event Director of Houghton Feast with Sunderland City Council, retired, with 2007 being her last Feast. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.

Billy Purvis

The hog roast in St Michael's Church at Houghton Feast 2009

2009 – SINGING IN THE RAIN - A commemorative programme was produced to mark the 60th anniversary of the Feast's community hymn singing. On Feast Saturday, severe gales battered Houghton, knocking down trees in Dairy Lane and blowing out the windows on the old Woolworths building on Newbottle Street; thankfully nobody was hurt by the falling glass during the parade. The showmen on the fair had to remove the tilts (canvas coverings) from the machines, to prevent wind damage. Billy Purvis, a travelling entertainer, returned to the Feast for the first time since 1848! The usual ox roasting took place on Feast Monday, however another roasting took place on the second Feast Friday, when a hog was roasted inside St Michael's Church as part of a Medieval Banquet. This year was also the 21st anniversary since Ron Young became ox-roast co-ordinator.

The Houghton Feast website as seen in 2010

2010 – HOUGHTON FEAST 10 - A commemorative programme was produced to acknowledge this Feast's unusual date, when the bells of St Michael's Church bells chimed in the hour of 10 o'clock on Sunday the 10th, of the 10th month, of the 10th year. The Houghton Feast centrepiece illumination, which was to mark its 10th anniversary (another 10) could not be erected as it was found to be too heavy for the new brackets which had been installed. Billy Purvis, a travelling entertainer, made his second reappearance at the Feast since 1848, and took part in the Opening Ceremony, Feast Grand Variety Show, and the Carnival Parade (on the only vehicular float). A sequel to the 2009 hog roasting took place, when another pig was roasted in St Michael's Church as part of the Houghton Feast Medieval Banquet on Friday October 15th 2010. A Houghton Feast Shop Window Competition was introduced and was won by Peter's Bakery and Flowers by Brenda.

The hog roast in St Michael's Church at Houghton Feast 2010

2011 – CARNIVAL TIME - Houghton Feast was held on a damp and cold week, only seven days after a blistering Indian Summer. Billy Purvis the Clown returned to help celebrate the Round Table’s 45th Carnival Parade and also judged the Robbie Burns’ Gurning Competition (see also 1845). A new centrepiece illumination showing the Gilpin boar was unveiled during the Opening Ceremony. The Show Organ Society presented White’s Mammoth Gavioli Organ on its 50th anniversary appearance at Houghton Feast. Keith Turner & Sons’ Waltzer celebrated its 30th anniversary at Houghton Feast with the Turner family, having attended for many years before with its previous owner, Aquilla Toogood.

2012 – DIAMOND JUBILEE FEAST - Launching on Friday October 5th 2012 (subject to official confirmation). See also 1952, 1977, and 2002.



Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Paul Lanagan wishes to place on record his thanks to the following:

::With thanks to all who contributed to my first book 'Houghton Feast: The Ancient Festival of Houghton-le-Spring' where the original Feast Time Line was first published, including John Mawston, Ron Young and John Price.
:: Thanks are extended to Alan Vickers for help in understanding the set-up of the early Houghton Feast Races.



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PAGE UPDATED: 15/04/2012

One member, Chris Dinning, formerly deputy clerk of Houghton-le-Spring Urban District Council and chief administrative officer for Sunderland Borough Council, recalled the time he was organising Houghton Feast. He'd pulled off something of a coup in securing the services of the award-winning Yorkshire Imperial Metals Band for the grand opening. However, in their draft programme, he noticed that the word "gallop" - as in the Post Horn Gallop - was spelled with only one 'l'. He corrected it, only to be admonished later by the director of music who informed him in no uncertain terms that the word "galop" meant a lively dance and not what horses do when they're moving swiftly. Naturally, there was an inquest into the kerfuffle and Chris was told by his bosses that he should resist making corrections in future so that any mistakes could be blamed on the band. The following year, he booked a military band from Catterick and the draft programme featured a selection of music by "Rodgers and Fart". "I made a diplomatic decision that it had to be altered," said Chris.

AS FEATURED IN THE SUNDERLAND ECHO JULY 13 2002 IT is long overdue that the Houghton Feast Steering Committee should organise the celebration to match the glory days of the 1950s. The "offering" of recent years has been pathetic. Old Hotonian JULY 4 2002 paul plans a feast of history A HISTORY of Houghton Feast is ready to be published in time for this year's event in October. Trainee teacher Paul Lanagan, 21, has completed the manuscript and is hoping the book will be launched to promote the town's traditional 10-day celebration. Paul, a former pupil of Houghton Kepier School, was "dropped in it" by his original publisher and is appealing for local traders and businesses to help pay for the venture. "I need to raise my costs, which are in the region of £4,000, and I intend to repay any funding back from the sale of the first 400 books, which will retail at £9.99. "The book heavily promotes Houghton and is a perfect project for any local businesses that wish to give something back to the area." Feast Chairman John Mawston, who has supervised the event for many years, said the steering committee were looking favourably on his application for financial help and hoped Houghton traders would back him. "It is going to be a very good publication," he said. "Paul has done a tremendous amount of research and has also put together a fine collection of old photographs. "I am sure nearly every family in the Houghton area will be buying copies when it comes out." Paul, who recently moved to Tyneside from Fence Houses, can remember going to the carnival parade and ox-roasting events as a toddler. "I decided to do the book a couple of years ago and interviewed people attending the event to get their thoughts on it." Paul will have a stand at the craft fair during the celebration, where he will hold book signings for visitors. At one time the programme featured horse racing at the Houghton track and foot races, with miners given the Monday off to take part in the event. Anyone wishing to help out can contact Paul on 0191 268 6595. The ox-roast - a beef history 1557: Bernard Gilpin became Houghton Rector and treated parishioners to a roast bullock or hog. 1583: He was knocked down and killed by an ox in Durham Market Place. 1887: An ox was roasted in Houghton as part of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. 1967: The ox-roasting tradition was revived. 1996: The cooking equipment disappeared and the ox-roasting was cancelled for the year. 04/07/2002