Otley Carnival was revived in 1983. Its roots go back to annual parades by local Friendly Societies, usually described as a ‘Demonstration and Gala’, and the annual 'Walk Around and Sing' of Sunday School Scholars on Whit Monday. In the late 19th and early 20th century, these Whit parades were the only occasion when most children got new clothes, a suit for boys and a dress and hat for girls. In Otley, the Church of England Sunday school scholars congregated in Manor Square to sing their hymns, led by Guiseley Brass Band; whilst the Nonconformists, enrolled in the Sunday School Union, used the Market Place, led by Otley Band.
Afterwards, each group marched back to their Sunday schools, where the children each received a bag of buns and an orange. Other historical galas and parades that inspired the 1982-3 Carnival committee were royal events like the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and a torch-light procession for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. Otley Swimming Club held a huge ‘Water Carnival’ on the River Wharfe in 1904 with boat races and diving feats, and a 1907 Otley festival with a costumed parade features in at least four surviving photographs.
The aims of Otley Carnival are:
- To give local children a day to remember
- To raise money for chosen local charities or organisations
- To enable local charities or organisations to raise funds
- To promote Otley and bring visitors to the town
Walking troupes and floats parade from the Wharfedale Farmers Auction Mart through the town to the showground, just north of the River Wharfe. The troupes and floats are mainly organised by local schools and organisations and are accompanied by a variety of bands. Local lorry firms and their drivers provide transport for floats and the Carnival Queen and visiting Queens from other towns travel on decorated vintage lorries.
Months before the big day, local school children enter a poster competition and the overall winning entry is used as the cover of the Carnival programme. Other entries feature inside and the programme is sold for £1 to raise funds. Local shops enter a window dressing competition in the week leading up to the carnival to add to the festive atmosphere.
Members of the Parade congregate at the Farmers Auction Mart off Leeds Road where judging of the parade entries takes place. The winners then carry notices of their awards with them on the route. Prizes are awarded in 5 categories - adult organisations, junior organisations (excluding schools), schools on floats, schools in walking groups and collectors in fancy dress. The coveted ‘Keith Wilkinson’ trophy for overall winner is voted on by the watching crowds. Trophies are also awarded for the best collection in a bucket and the best collection in a tin.
The parade moves off at 1.15pm, led by the Town Bellman and Leeds City Pipe Band and takes about 40 minutes to cover the route through the town centre to the Carnival field. On arrival at the Carnival Field, the Carnival Queen is welcomed and crowned by the Town Mayor and they then present trophies and certificates to the Parade winners. The Carnival field hosts a wide range of charity stalls, along with traditional performers such as Punch and Judy, bouncy castles and other funfair attractions. Entertainment in the Arena is provided to keep the crowds happy in between visiting the stalls and enjoying the wide variety of edible goodies on sale. The day’s programme of events concludes with the Carnival Grand Draw, and the Free Programme Prize Draw around 4.30pm.
It currently costs around £8,000 to stage the event and the organisers aim to raise as much as possible for their chosen beneficiaries; in the years since the first Carnival in 1983, the Carnival has been able to donate a total of nearly £70,000 to a wide variety of local organisations. The Carnival is funded from a number of sources including grants from Leeds City Council and Otley Town Council, sponsorship and advertising from local businesses and fundraising through the sale of Programmes and Carnival Draw. Money is also collected during the Carnival Parade. Despite the desire to raise as much money as possible, there is no charge to enter the Carnival Field which ensures that every local family can come and enjoy the fun of Carnival Day without breaking the bank. So far, the Carnival has only had to be cancelled twice: in 2001 due to the Foot and Mouth outbreak and in 2007 because severe rainfall waterlogged the show field.
Each year the carnival invites the Otley Town Mayor to accept the honorary position of President of the Carnival. The Chairman of the committee on the other hand is by far from an honorary position and puts in a huge amount of time and effort, ably backed up by other committee members. The Chairman of the Carnival Committee serves for a maximum of two consecutive years, so that no single individual has to take on this burden for too long.