James Chipperfield, a member of the famous Chipperfield family, best remembered for their large circuses in the latter half of the 20th century, but with a history as showmen possibly dating back to the late 1600’s, brought his family to Ireland in the years just preceding the First World War.
The Chipperfields arrived as part of Heckenberg’s Circus (the name was changed to Chadwick’s Circus around the start of the war due to anything with a German sounding name being unpopular in the United Kingdom). The family remained with this circus for a couple of seasons and during 1915 it toured widely, including performances in Portrush.
Several stories exist as to why James changed the family name to Barry. It has been suggested that the name was on a lorry purchased by him to transport the family’s belongings, that he felt Chipperfield to be too “English” and difficult to pronounce correctly and also that it was part of an agreement with the rest of the Chipperfield family when James parted company from them to set out on his own. To add further to the confusion James almost always used the forename Ernest in Ireland. By 1923 the Barry family were operating their own circus, then advertised as a Hippodrome, from a base at Dromore in County Down.
Ernest and his wife Louisa had five daughters who were all multi-talented and performed a variety of roles in the circus including acrobats, musicians, male impersonators, trapeze artists and wire-walkers. During the years leading up to revolt, home rule and civil war in Ireland Barry’s appear to have prospered, possibly because they had no opposition from English circuses who tended to be afraid of visiting and touring Ireland at this time.
In the early 1920’s the Barrys began to diversify into rides, fairground sideshows and animal menageries and their fame and the size of the enterprise increased rapidly. Much of their business at this time was in Bangor, Newcastle and Belfast but Ernest had his sights set on other venues. In 1925 he enquired about a site for a switchback in Portrush but his bid for “the hobby-horse pitch” at Lansdowne was unsuccessful.
In 1926 Ernest was the highest bidder and set up for the first time in Portrush. In 1927 his bid for the hobby-horse pitch was again unsuccessful but on 20th January that year he managed to lease the Pleasure Grounds from the railway company for a period of three years. This gave Ernest security of tenure and a most desirable location with stairs leading directly down from the railway station at which holidaymakers would arrive.
During this time and throughout the period up to 1938 Barry’s were a seasonal attraction which arrived and set up on site around Eastertime, closed and departed in September each year. Permanent structures to house the amusements only began to appear in the late 1930’s and the building we know today evolved from these. Barry’s Amusements now had a permanent home in Portrush although it still continues, to this day, to operate on a seasonal basis.
The range of rides, sideshows and entertainments which Barry’s provided over the years is huge and certainly too large to be described in any detail here. However, a few highlights are worth mentioning.
In 1933 Water Dodgems were a popular attraction. These were small boats seating two people, manufactured as Rytecraft the tradename of a British company based in London, which floated in a tank approximately 100 feet long filled with water to a depth of around 3 feet. The boats were electrically powered with a pole and “wiper” making contact with an electrically charged overhead grid and a trailing wire underneath each boat making contact with the metal tank completing the electrical circuit which operated at 110 volts DC. These returned each year up to the mid-1940s.
There were also ordinary dodgem cars, of the “Lusse Auto-Skooter” type, arguably the best dodgem car ever made and manufactured in the USA. These would have replaced earlier Rytecraft Arflow type dodgems used by Barry’s across their various sites. Lusse remained in business until 1994. A Viennese wheel also appears in photographs of this period.
From the 1940s to the present day the Ghost Train attracted young and old to travel through its darkened tunnel on an unpredictable route of sharp twists and turns with frightening animated figures, flashing lights and loud eerie noises guaranteed to scare the wits out of most people! In 1946 the Water Dodgems were replaced by Speedway Cars which ran on an oval track. These were the first ride that people saw when the entered at the front of the building and they were a great attraction until the 1980’s when they were replaced by “The Satellite”.
From 1949 a big wheel promoted as “Big Eli Wheel” made an appearance at the front of Barry’s. Together with the colourful Helter Skelter it was a landmark in Portrush for many years, At night both were brightly illuminated with flashing coloured bulbs which served a s beacon to attract customers.
The famous Peter Pan railway opened in 1950. This was an outdoor attraction located on the ground now occupied by Kiddieland and consisted of locomotives carrying four passengers which ran through attractive gardens on a gently twisting track similar to that used for the ghost train. Each locomotive had a bell which could be rung by the passengers in the front seats. In 1953 an attractive Station building was added in the same style of “Stockbroker Tudor” as the town’s railway station. A simple pleasure which is fondly remembered by many Ulster people today.
In 1964 possibly their most iconic ride was introduced by Barry’s. This was a Gallopers or “Olde Tyme Hobbie Horses” which they had purchased the previous year in an extremely dilapidated state and restored during the winter to pristine condition. These Gallopers were originally built by Robert Tidman in 1892 and are still going strong over 120 years later.
The first Big Dipper arrived in 1968 and was officially opened by Dickie Henderson, a famous comedian. It was located on the site of the present Big Dipper which came on site in 2004.
For those seeking a terrifying white-knuckle ride look no further than the “Freak Out” an amazing piece of engineering installed in 2004 which spins, swings and generally disorientates you through several horizontal, vertical and in-between planes at considerable height and speed thus creating a considerable volume of screams and shouts from patrons having the time of their lives.
Probably because of their circus background Barry’s for many years had an element of live performances using animals. In 1936 we read “Betty Jackson’s monkeys and dogs are also doing well at Barry’s Park. The performance is very clean and the animals clever.” Also “Professor Ford’s flea circus” part of which included a flea pulling a chariot “40 times its body weight”. The early 1960’s saw the arrival of a gentleman who wrestled with a lion and exhibited snakes including a 26 feet (7.9 metres) long python. Also for many years in the middle part of the 20th century a troop of Rhesus Monkeys resided in Barry’s and were used in several different sideshows before finally being given to Belfast Zoo.
Dancing was introduced into Barry’s around 1947 and remained until 1952. A “ballroom” was constructed near the back and adjacent to the dodgems track. It had a maple floor and could accommodate some 300 – 400 dancers. The first resident band was led by Ernie Mann with Harry Blackwood taking over in 1950. The resident bands were replaced on occasions by some of the top UK dance bands on tour. Advertisements carry names such as Victor Sylvester, Ted Heath, Sid Phillips, Jack Parnell and Freddy Randall. There were also cabaret appearances by personalities of the day such as Lita Rosa, Denis Lotus and Dickie Valentine. On 14th October 1949 Portrush Yacht Club held their Annual Dinner and Presentation of Prizes in the Trocadero followed by the Annual Dance in Barry’s Ballroom.
Barry’s is an iconic part of the history and heritage of Portrush and has contributed to the prosperity and well-being of the town in many ways over the years. For those wishing to find out more about Barry’s Amusements in Portrush and the story of the wider Barry family, their amusements, circuses and other entertainments the book “Fun is our business” by James Fairley is thoroughly recommended.
Portrush Heritage Group wish to thank James Fairley for kindly granting permission to extract information and material from his book for the purpose of preparing this article.