Ready! Steady! Go! A 1953 Appleford Steam Traction Engine Race film goes Full Circle!


Over the past 12 months that the MACE Heritage Lottery Funded Full Circle Project has been running, many wonderful film collections have passed through our doors and this 16mm B/W film by David H. Jones & Charles Alrdidge was no exception. The film has recently been digitally copied using our Flash Transfer equipment and put onto DVD so that it can be watched once more by David Jone & Charles Aldridge, the National Traction Engine Trust and Steam Traction Engine enthusiasts around the world.

I asked David to tell me a little more about the Appleford Races film, which was found by the Belbroughton History Society Full Circle Group, and asked him how it was made.

Appleford Races: Produced by David H. Jones and Charles Aldridge in 1953

This film was made as a programme filler for the Fourfold Film Unit’s annual public show, but the society disbanded soon after and their next show was never held. As a result, very few have ever seen this film and it has never been shown to any audience of more than about a dozen people.

 

Understanding the motives behind making this film requires an explanation of the overall situation of amateur film making at that time. Although the majority of ciné cameras were used for making casual personal records, there was a significant minority who were interested in making proper films. Besides individuals, there were a number of groups and societies who showed and discussed their members’ films and often made films as a group. I joined one these – Fourfold Film Unit – in 1948 and remained with it until it was disbanded in 1954. Their activities included an annual public show, held in Golders Green, north London, which provided the main audience for their work.

 

Major amateur productions generally ran for about 20 – 30 minutes and in one year a society rarely made more than two. Attracting a paying audience of two or three hundred required a programme of about two hours, so the main films had to be supported by a number of shorter films from individual members. Every year there was a demand for such programme fillers and no matter what film we shot following our own interests, we kept this outlet in mind.

 

Early in 1953 I heard that a traction engine rally had been held the previous year, with such success that a second one was planned. It was actually called a traction engine race, because they really did race the engines! I told Charles Aldridge, another member of the society, and we agreed that it might be worth using a reel or two of film on it.

At that time, preserving traction engines was widely seen as very eccentric behaviour, but as we saw it as saving valuable historic relics we had more sympathy with it. If they were kept in working order and steamed occasionally, so much the better, but holding a race for machines which were never intended to travel fast, even by the standards of their day – no, we could not take that seriously.

 

That settled the general tone of the film; it had to be comic. Beyond that, we had no idea how the event would be run, so we could not script anything; all we could do was to shoot whatever seemed useful as it happened. Our film would have to be short for it would be a comedy based on one joke; the incongruity of racing such machines at all.

 

We met in pouring rain at the rally ground on a farm at Appleford (just north of Didcot) with two cameras and 200 feet of film. Despite the weather, there was a good crowd and about 20 engines. We saw about four more arrive and get stuck in the mud at the entrance until other engines winched them out. There was a brass band (who played in a tent all day), a refreshment tent, and even two bookmakers!

 

We found the organiser and learnt the plan of activities, then separated and shot what we chose independently. We met two newsreel cameramen with 35mm Newman Sinclairs but we kept out of each other’s way and I never learnt who they worked for.

 

The event was planned to begin with a celebrity dropping the starting flag for a grand parade of all the engines in a mass start with a run up the field and back again. Following this, engines were displayed by being driven about as their drivers chose until early in the afternoon, when the races were organised.

 

Engines raced in pairs, up the field and back, and were successively eliminated.

The film was constructed out of the material we gathered, following the general plan of establishing the event as a race meeting, avoiding any hint of the nature of the competitors. This was only revealed after the flag was dropped. The mass start was presented as the start of the race and from then on it was edited to appear as a race up the field and back which separated them, leaving just two in the competition at the end.

 

We then decided the final part needed more variety, so we shot some staged cut-aways of a group of cheering spectators. These were taken at an unrelated event at a park in Hendon. We filled the first part with titles in an attempt to parody the newsreel commentator trying to build up excitement, even though there is little to be seen that is exciting. It would have been better with a voice, but sound was difficult then and not justified for a very minor film like this.

We wanted an independent judgement on the result so we entered it for Amateur Ciné World ‘Ten Best’ competition. We knew it was not in the same class as the usual winners, but we were surprised when it gained a Three Star rating (highly commended). However, that was the only comment on it we ever received, for it was never seen by its intended audience.

 

We have never known what to do with it. It is not suited to any of the events held now where it would be seen by a general audience. It would seem to be of interest to the traction engine enthusiasts, but there are problems. It is a joke which could not work there, because its whole point is the unexpected appearance of traction engines yet for a traction engine group, that is exactly what they would be expecting. They could show it as an historical record of one of the earliest engine rallies, but with some caution because it was deliberately not made as an accurate record of the event. It shows identifiable working engines, and it shows recognisable people, but it is edited to present a false view of how the event was run.

 

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  • Format           16mm B/W silent 
  • Speed             16 f.p.s.
  • Length           101 feet (4 minutes)
  • Stock              Shot on Kodak 16mm reversal, Gevaert title stock.  Original edited.
  • Show copy     16m reversal print.

Watch the film here: http://www.macearchive.org/Archive/Title/appleford-races/MediaEntry/46037.html

If you have any home-movies relating to the Midlands area please get in touch with us here at MACE to find out about your nearest participating Full Circle Group who are looking for films in your area.
Lucie Kerley – Full Circle Project Curator: Community & Acquisition – 0116 252 5931 or email lk99@le.ac.uk
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2 thoughts on “Ready! Steady! Go! A 1953 Appleford Steam Traction Engine Race film goes Full Circle!

  1. Great to see this film. I lived in Didcot at the time and came to some of these annual races in the 50s with my father – the late Roger Anscombe. They even had a ladies race with Mrs Napper taking part and the events had a wonderful rural farmer’s family atmosphere. Does anyone know for how many years the event took place. I also remember a mysterious deserted house not far from Appleford Station, I think opposite Napper’s field, in the woods which was unoccupied for many years and looked as if it had been suddenly vacated with a table setting for a meal visible through one of the windows. I also have fond memories of Chiltern Queens coaches on which I travelled to school. I lived in Didcot between 1951 and 1961.

    All the best – Richard Anscombe.

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