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Uncle Tom Cobley and Co hit their carnival century

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: July 06, 2011

  • TRADITION: The team celebrating 100 years of Uncle Tom Cobley at Combe Martin carnival. From left, Graham Rice, Christian Rice, Kevin Irwin, John Webber, Norman Sanders, Darren Smallridge and Gerald Walters. Picture: Mike Southon. To order this photograph call 0844 4060 262 and quote Ref: BNMS20110701D-005_C

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IT IS 100 years since Uncle Tom Cobley and All first appeared at Combe Martin carnival – and the tradition is as popular as ever.

The first record of the folk song characters appearing in the village is in 1911.

Since then the Uncle Tom Cobley group has made regular appearances in the village.

For most of that time there has been a group of Combe Martin men who dress up as the seven characters from the old Devonian song.

They have taken part in Barnstaple and Ilfracombe carnivals as well as Combe Martin.

There was a gap when Combe Martin Carnival ceased in the late 1950s but it was started again in 1974.

Combe Martin carpenter Gerald Walters decided to revive Uncle Tom in 1978 and built the famous wooden horse for the seven characters to sit on.

He said: "My father was involved during the 1930s, when they used a real horse and cart.

The older generation were quick to offer their opinion as to whether the new horse was up to scratch.

"The actual construction was quite a feat and after Tony Rook and I had decided on the design it took us and five others two weeks to complete the 20ft structure."

That same wooden horse has been used since with only the trailer changing to adhere to the modern and more stringent carnival regulations.

In 1988 Norman Sanders became one of the riders following a family tradition started by his father and grandfather.

Now his grandchildren are involved as part of the ground crew, making five generations of the Sanders family involved in the tradition.

Norman, now 64, said: "It is the family aspect that is so crucial to the whole thing. Even though it is only men on the horse our children, grandchildren and wives support us.

"I think the age range is an obvious example of the family aspect with Gerald being 74 and some of our grandchildren starting at five years old."

Gerald added: "It just gets funnier as we get older and of course getting off the horse is becoming tricky, but I will continue even if a crane has to lift me on and off."

One part of the Uncle Tom float that has developed during the hundred years has been the music.

Norman said: "The music is a real crowd puller with the most important Uncle Tom song playing as well as classics from the Wurzels. It is now very hi-tech as we have an iPod installed in the structure.

"One year when we were still using a cassette it suddenly stopped half way down the high street and unfortunately for the crowd we had to carry on singing ourselves."

Mark Booker, vice chairman of the carnival committee, said: "I first attended Combe Martin Carnival in the 70s and it was seeing Uncle Tom Cobley that first inspired me to join in the fun.

"The float will also be helping us with this year's official carnival opening on August 6, and with 100 years under their belt, we hope the tradition will carry on for another 100."

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