It was one of the star attractions of the capital – a magnet for excitable youngsters for two decades since its opening as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, writes Yann Tear.
But a terrible disaster at Battersea Funfair’s Big Dipper roller coaster 50 years ago caused the death of five children and injured 13 others, bringing about its closure.
A train being hoisted up to the start of the ride broke loose from its haulage rope and the emergency brake failed, causing the carriages to roll backwards towards the station.
Despite the efforts of the brakeman, the train gathered speed and the back carriage jumped the rails and crashed through a barrier, with the other two carriages crashing on top of it.
The Big Dipper was dismantled after that and without its star attraction, the funfair closed down altogether in 1974.
Now, there is no trace of the funfair in Battersea Park as it was before that fateful Tuesday afternoon of May 30, 1972 and on the anniversary of the tragedy, survivors have come forward to plea for a lasting memorial for those caught up in the event.
A tree was recently planted to commemorate the tragedy but there are hopes for another more prominent tribute.
Three teenagers were on their second ride of the day when disaster struck and their recollections have been vividly recounted in recent BBC interviews.
“Liz Haigh-Reeve said: I’d suggested to my friend Alison that the way we could celebrate my birthday was to come to London and have a day here at the funfair.
“The Big Dipper was towed up the first big hill and just as we were reaching the brow of that hill, it became detached from the thing pulling it up and started to roll backwards.
“Alison stood up and started to pull all the debris off me. The walkway that she was leaning on gave way and she fell. Really tragically, she died of those injuries.
“My hope is that it will stop being the forgotten accident of Battersea and become something that people acknowledge as a terrible tragedy and a terrible loss of young life.”
Fellow survivor Hilary Wynter said: “The Big Dipper was the big attraction in Battersea Funfair. [When it dropped] It was going too fast to fall back around the corner and crashed into the hoardings.
“I woke up in hospital that night, literally head to foot in plaster. You know in many ways I was extremely fortunate. But I’ve had chronic anxiety attacks since that day, really. I still have to battle it. That music and that clack, clack, clack noise makes your tummy flip.
“The worst thing for me is that there were 66 faults found and nobody has been found responsible for any wrongdoing.”
Another of those who can never forget that day is Mark Wreford, who lost his friend that day. He said: “I can remember lying on the ground, timber all around me. The first thing I wanted to do was look for my friend, David Sait. I couldn’t find him anywhere.
“I did see someone lying on the ground. He looked unconscious, more probably dead, actually, at the time. I think of the life that I’ve had for the past 50 years and I feel guilty. He should be alive as well as me.”
Carolyn Adamczyk, a passenger on the ride during the accident, said: “As soon as we started shooting backwards everything went into slow motion… I turned around and saw the brake man desperately trying to put the brake on but it wasn’t working.
“Most of the carriages didn’t go around the bend, one detached and went off the side through a wooden hoarding. People were groaning and hanging over the edge. It was awful.”
Three men were charged with manslaughter at Wandsworth Magistrates’ Court on February 26, 1973.
The court heard that, after a fire had damaged the ride in 1970, second-hand stock, more than 50-years old, had been bought to replace it.
The brake on this train had not operated when the rope broke, allowing it to run backwards.
The structure, including the pedestrian emergency walkway, was also found to have been in a rotted and unsafe condition so that one victim who survived the initial impact fell through the handrail to her death.
The manager of the ride and its inspecting engineer were committed for trial. After a lengthy hearing at the Old Bailey, in November 1973, both men were acquitted.
A plaque to commemorate the dead was also unveiled in May this year to ensure that those who were lost are not forgotten.
Pictured: Riders on the Big Dipper at Festival Gardens in Battersea Park. Picture PA
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