As we trundle forward into the abyss of ever-evolving technologies, globalisation and unprecedented connectedness, it often seems that we simultaneously become increasingly disconnected from one another, our local heritage, and the heritage of minority communities in our society. In this age, projects such as Unlocking Our Sounds Heritage become more important than ever in bringing modern society back in touch with local and personal accounts of the past, through their digitisation and accessibility online. Such recordings bring aspects of modernisation, particularly through the duration of the twentieth century, into sharp relief, and help us to reflect on the trajectory of our society and the local and generational customs and values which we may be losing along the way.
As a placement student working on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project Collections from the North of England, I have devoted the much of my time to cataloguing oral history recordings detailing the history of the British Fairground. This was an entirely new realm of social history for me, my only real point of reference being a local funfair close to where I grew up, spoken of fondly as a popular recreational attraction and social hub by my grandparents and even parents, but in general decline in both facets since before my childhood in the 1990s. I can count on one hand the amount of times I have been to the fair, and as such have on occasion found myself contemplating its long history, and how the increasingly stark and commercialised enterprise would continue in existence.
What would never be deducible by the current fair, or even the narrative of its founding in the 1920s, is the social centrality and importance of the traditional travelling fair to local communities in Britain in particularly the earlier twentieth century period, even up until my parents’ childhood in the 1960s and 70s. Nor would it be possible to ever glean the nature and rich history of the itinerant community of ‘showmen’ travelling the country with their fairground rides, stalls and shows, in the aforementioned period and even until the present day, bringing the institution of the travelling fair to various grounds all over Britain. Such is the power of oral history, particularly among local and minority communities, such as the minority fairground community which possesses a distinct oral tradition of family history stretching back generations, to allow us to access micro-narratives and the richness and nuance of personal experience and human emotion. It is these elements which add colour to the past as well as to our perspective on our own society.
Having listened to many prominent showmen and women, as well as local people, vividly recount their lifelong experience of the fairground, throughout the course of the twentieth century, a unanimous theme is the comparative modern loss of the ‘atmosphere’ of the fairground, its earlier spirit and charm. Thus precipitates the question, why? Of course, as detailed by the show people, slowly declining numbers at particularly smaller fairs and the expensive nature of modern fairgrounds, not least in the race for such bigger and faster rides as the entertainment threshold of the population rises amidst an explosion of technology-based entertainment, are all considerable factors. Yet from listening to storied individuals recount the fairground of the earlier twentieth century, it is clear that it is the distinct amalgamation of qualities they describe which made such an indelible impact on showmen and fairgoers alike. Herein, it seems, lies the charm which has been lost.
There were undoubtedly tangible aspects – the fairground organs so fondly remembered by showmen and fairgoers alike, an oral experience distinct to the fair, alongside the mechanisation of rides and lighting which was anomalous in society as a whole, clearly contributed vastly to the atmosphere of the fair. Indeed, the recordings even detail the distinct regional nature of fairground foods, from black-pea Booths in Lancashire to pomegranates in Hull, a far cry from the monotony of today’s candyfloss. The showmen’s reminiscences of the early steam-powered and electricity-driven rides, rapidly innovating in the interwar years from Frederick Savage’s revolutionary steam-powered gallopers, yachts and roundabouts, to the likes of the dodgems, Noah’s Arks and waltzers, emphasise the awe and admiration they inspired. This was not only in their motion but their art and lighting, ornately painted and frequently gilded, as recalled by showmen who trained and worked alongside fairground artists such as Fred Fowle.
It is difficult to imagine how an environment so unique and technologically advanced, yet, as is consistently reiterated, accessible both financially and terms of the pure sensory experience of the novel sights, sounds and smells, could be recaptured today. Always at the forefront of technological innovation, this is never described as having been detrimental to the atmosphere of the fair in the period in which it co-existed with several more intangible qualities.
Such qualities are what these wonderful and often candid recordings truly bring to the fore. From ordinary locals to show people, enthusiasts, and prominent figures in the Showmen’s Guild and Fairground Association of Great Britain, the recollections reveal the invariable sense of occasion of the fairs, the collective community excitement and anticipation they engendered. Children are described as eagerly awaiting the arrival of the showmens’ wagons and engines, transporting their various loads containing the rides and stalls which would then be assembled, largely by hand, by the showmen as local children watched on.
The fair’s primary importance was clearly as a place of commune for people whose paths infrequently crossed in everyday life, with people coming from surrounding local areas, to meet friends, make friends, and even court. Indeed, it is clear that the fair, then, was truly central to local communities, and transcended socio-economic as well as life-cycle divisions – with showmen such as Jack Redhorn describing living and working on the fairground as being an education in temperaments. It was, significantly, a place for families, as well as a key social gathering place for young people, an importance which became heightened particularly during the hardship of the Second World War.
Indeed the showpeople of these recordings describe the government’s realisation of the fair’s essentiality to the morale of the nation, allowing and encouraging fairs to continue, which they did even during the severe fuel shortages and necessity to operate even under blackout tents. The likes of showman Billy Day describe even the efforts of American soldiers stationed in Britain to provide fuel to allow his family’s steam-powered fair to run, as well as a poignant tale of his father being asked to open his rides to soldiers in Abington just before their D-Day deployment.
Yet perhaps the key factor in this elusive British fairground charm is the fairground community, an insular and sometimes marginalised ‘clan’ of show families for which there are countless tales of fortitude, ingenuity, togetherness and respect for tradition and customs. Whether it be the family of Scottish showman Gordon Codona, who devised and starred in their own family side shows, or the innovating showmen who brought moving pictures to everyday people in the bioscope shows, or indeed the showmens’ often pioneering adoption of the latest innovations in transportation and even music, the fairground community were societal innovators.
The recordings tell of a community unflinching in the face of adversity, overcoming the likes of the difficulties of long journeys all over Britain in traction engines and early motor lorries and the exigencies of war, during which the key role of women in fairground families was magnified. Various fairgoers detail a key part of the scenery of the fairground being the showmen’s wagons, their often beautifully constructed abodes, on the fairgrounds which were their true homes.
Is this then, the true charm of the fair, which various showmen and enthusiasts now try to recapture and market to new generations, for whom the relentless forward march of technology and societal change have resulted in it being lost from the modern fairground? This is attested by the proprietors of replica Victorian and Edwardian fairs, those such as Jack Schofield who details his choice to travel with steam rides in the modern day, or the likes of Harry Lee, a Bradford showman who tells of persevering with his precious steam yachts from the 1930s well into the 1970s. The accounts of the spirit and charm of the earlier twentieth century fairground, its social significance, a quality lost to current generations, would also be lost if it were not for projects such as Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. Although we may be inculcated with broad narratives of the events of the past, we need to be able to hear the stories of people, individuals, to glimpse the day to day nuances and values, the emotion, ‘charm’ and ‘spirit’, intangible human qualities which are so illuminative and instructive of the present as well as the past.