The Return of the Samurai

Our awesome exhibition “Other Worlds: The Art of Atomhawk” had barely been open for two weeks before we learned that we’d have to shut the Great North Museum: Hancock down for the safety of visitors and staff alike, as we try to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.  As we won’t be able to experience and enjoy the exhibition for a little while, I thought I’d try and bring the displays to our visitors via a virtual format – the humble blog post.  This week, I’m looking at the mighty Samurai armour exhibit.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Atomhawk’s work, I’d strongly recommend you have a look at their website and see some of their designs (  With headquarters based in Gateshead and Vancouver, the Atomhawk designers  work with movie studios and game developers to produce amazing conceptual art.  Many things can provide inspiration for these talented artists, not least some of the weird and wonderful objects we have within the collections of the Great North Museum.  For the realms of sci-fi and fantasy, Japanese Samurai warriors can be a wonderful inspiration for an imaginative artist who wants to create a new fighting character.

So it seemed only fitting that we display some of this fantastic armour among the Atomhawk artwork- which also gave me an unexpected opportunity to learn more about this fantastic museum piece.

Samurai armour on display in the exhibition “The Art of Atomhawk”

Who were the Samurai?

The Samurai were the warriors of pre-modern Japan. They followed the ethic code of bushido – “the way of the warrior,” which stressed loyalty to one’s master, self-discipline and respectful behaviour. The 15th and 16th centuries saw widespread civil war throughout Japan but the dawning of the 17th century brought about the Japanese Ed period which ushered in a time of peace. During this time, the importance of martial skills declined with many Samurai becoming bureaucrats. In 1868, Japan’s feudal era came to an end and the Samurai class were abolished shortly afterwards.

The helmet we’ve chosen to display is known as a zunari kabuto, which simply means “head shaped helmet”.  This type was developed during the Japanese civil wars that occurred during the 15th and 16th centuries. As they were light, effective and simple to construct, they became popular for daimyos (feudal lords) to equip their warriors with.  Our helmet probably dates to the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 – 1868, although we can’t pin the date down further than this with any confidence.

NEWHM : D527, Samurai helmet: “zunari kabuto”

The helmet has some striking distinguishing features.  An inlaid decoration of a dragon and clouds can be clearly seen.  Beautifully designed, it may have helped to set the wearer apart.  Alternatively, the inlay may have been added at a much later date to help the armour appeal to the taste of a western collector.

Detail of inlaid dragon and cloud decoration

Close-up of the fukigayeshi and mon heraldic devices

What is also distinctive about our helmet is the two black-lacquered protuberances on the sides known as fukigayeshi.  These were designed to stop a sword from slashing down to the neck area, and the ones here appear to be displaying a mon– a crest symbol, similar to a European heraldic device.  This mon is associated with the Shimazu clan, the daimyo of what was then the Satsuma province in Japan (an area that is situated on the modern day southern Japanese island of Kyushu).  We can see the same mon on other pieces of Samurai equipment- the Royal Armouries in Leeds has a beautiful Japanese tanto (dagger) displaying the same symbol.  Understanding the crest gives us a fascinating insight into the previous owner of our helmet.  Was he a retainer or even a family member of the Shimazu? We can’t be sure, but it’s certainly compelling speculation.

Tanto dagger displaying mon of Shimazu clan. Object no. XXIS.364. Credit: Royal Armouries Collection

The second piece of armour we have on display here is the facemask or men yori, an iconic piece of Samurai equipment.  Men yori often have exaggerated features, with some attempting to depict demons or evil spirits.  Many (including ours) have gold teeth and facial hair  to present a fearsome appearance.  The inner surface of the masks are sometimes covered in a red lacquer to give the Samurai a red, warlike appearance.

The armour of the Samurai is one of the most recognisable of all ancient warriors.  While the traditional Samurai way of life all but ended in the 19th century, the remains of their equipment and weaponry are cared for in collections and museums across the world.  As a source of inspiration, the Samurai warrior is a perfect muse for artists.  Here at the GNM, the Samurai’s return has been a welcome source of stimulation and creativity not just to the Atomhawk artists, but also the curators and conservation staff who have worked to recreate some of the splendour of the ancient Japanese feudal era.

Close-up of Samurai armour after conservation work, ready to go on display

On display in the exhibition “The Art of Atomhawk”

The British Music Collection from Heritage Quay at Huddersfield University – by Carmela Barbaro, Placement Student

I am a PhD student at Newcastle University, currently in my third year and I have recently started a placement experience at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) for the Unlocking our Sound Heritage Project.

My area of research is Early Music Pedagogy. In a nutshell, I look at primary sources (i.e. music treatises from the 16th century) to learn how music was studied back then, and compare it to how it is studied now.

Usually relying on ancient manuscripts and early print sources (or on modern recordings and performances) to experience the music I study in my field of research, it is particularly interesting for me to have the opportunity to relate to different kinds of musical documents as witnesses of a more contemporary era of music history. In this post, I am going to share my experience and some of my thoughts during my time here at TWAM.

Lately I had the opportunity to listen to some of the recordings from the British Music Collection which especially comprises recordings of contemporary music (c.1980s to 2000s). The collection is from Heritage Quay, the official archive for the University of Huddersfield, which acts as the guardian of archives of other organisations, families and individuals dating back over 200 years. The aim of this particular collection, in collaboration with the British Music Information Centre and other organisations i.e. the Society for the Promotion of New Music, is to promote contemporary British music.

Live performances of contemporary classical music at the British Music Information Centre and the Society for the Promotion of New Music


The Unlocking our Sound Heritage Project has digitised 65 compact cassettes, archived at the British Library as audio files.

The collection includes registrations of concert performances of different natures, i.e. piano recitals, orchestras, recordings of concerts of new electro-acoustic music etc. The music performed is mainly written, and sometimes performed directly, by British composers like Dave Smith, Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Malcolm Arnold, Michael Finnissy, Alan Bush, and sometimes by renowned composers from other countries, i.e. Astor Piazzolla, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Luigi Nono, Salvatore Sciarrino, John Cage etc.

The first document I encountered was the registration of ‘Woman’s Life’ by Alan Bush, performed by Sylvia Eaves and Priscilla Stewart (05/02/1991); the theme of this song cycle is the life of women and their relationship with work. Immediately after, I started to look for recordings of performances of music written by women, finding various examples. Worth mentioning is the recording of a piano recital by Martyn Dyke that includes only works by women composers: Madeleine Dring, Ruth Gipps, Morfydd Owen, Freda Swain and Madeleine Dring (20/02/1992).

Three cassettes from Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield

The performance of a music composition is always different, and this is particularly true for pieces of music that involve a component of improvisation. An example of the recording of an improvisational performance in the collection is the piano recital by John Tilbury at the British Music Information Centre, London (20/11/1990), where he performs improvisations on Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Ah Thel’ (1963), and on Hanns Eisler’s Der Mensch (1942).

When listening to these recordings, it sometimes happens that a registration is cut abruptly, and a fragment of a different concert, a previous recording, suddenly appears. For example, the recording of a concert with music by William Baines (26/03/1992), performed by N. Duncan (piano) and Julia Frape (violin), is cut in the interval and suddenly we hear a fragment of what seems to be a performance of The Little Sweep by Benjamin Britten. This immediately takes me back in time, before the widespread diffusion of the internet as an aid to listening to music, to when people would record music via cassettes whilst listening to the radio, sometimes mistakenly erasing a previous registration.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage are excited to be digitally preserving these cassettes from Heritage Quay in Yorkshire

I myself still have my own collection of cassettes: a patchwork of fragments of songs carefully stored somewhere in my house…


Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is funded by a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, as well as generous funding from charities and individuals. 



Images of the North – A Guest Post by Leah Newbigging

Hello, my name is Leah Newbigging and I have been undertaking research using the collections in the amazing library of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. This is located in the Great North Museum: Hancock Library which is free to use and open to everybody. All of the books I mention below are located in the GNM: Hancock Library.

My preoccupation with “the North” began when I was at university, studying the music of the Icelandic artist,  Björk. (When I use the term “the North” I am generally referring to regions in the Arctic Circle, including Scandinavia, Greenland,  Canada and Russia.)  At the time, I was writing about how she uses and refers to nature in her music; she used recordings of footsteps in the snow as percussion, and created deep, distorted noises to emulate the sound of volcanoes erupting to evoke Icelandic landscapes. I went on to do a master’s degree where I researched musicians in Northern regions who use Northern landscapes to build a brand based on their national or regional identity. This is not a new practice by any means – countries have drawn upon their natural scenery for their national identity for centuries, particularly in the 19th century Romantic era.

The more I listened to musicians who branded themselves as “Northern”, the more I began to notice that there were common themes in audience reactions, often referring to something pure, simple, authentic, and primal. I needed some guidance in understanding how the North has been portrayed and imagined historically, in order to  understand why people reacted to Northern landscapes in this way.

This is where Peter Davidson’s book “The Idea of North” (2005) came in. Davidson writes about how Northern landscapes have been portrayed in myth, poetry, literature and film, ranging from Nabokov’s Zembla, the Old Norse sagas, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” (the inspiration for the film “Frozen”), to Dutch and German Romantic landscape paintings, and accounts of Arctic expeditions.

Davidson describes how the North has often been used as a metaphor for the edges of the known world; its remoteness and difficult climate mean that the North was often framed as a challenge to be explored and conquered. Portrayals of the North generally fell into two categories, often with moral undertones; the North as a place of death, and the North as a place of beauty and purity.

The television series “Game of Thrones” and the film “The Revenant” are modern examples of portraying the North as a place of death and monotony; long, cold dark nights, storms, isolation, decay, and the dead walking again (called draugr in Norse mythology, and now commonly referred to as revenants from the French for “to come back”). Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, as a sort of embodiment of winter, was originally meant to function as a warning against the perils of social isolation and selfishness, since survival often depended on being able to cooperate and pool resources. Of course, the perception that winter landscapes are devoid of life is primarily us projecting our fears, as winter biomes are still rich with life under the snow.

On the other hand, you do not have to look far for modern portrayals of the North’s beauty, between the many musicians, travel agencies and Instagram accounts who rely on images of these landscapes. This portrayal of Northern landscapes tends to focus on snow, ice, glass, snowflakes, and the midnight sun. In Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the Hyperboreans were mythical people who lived in a perfect land of untouched nature constant sunshine to the far North; this land was referred to as “Thule” or “Ultima Thule”, the edge of the known world. This meant that travellers would often arrive in places such as Shetland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and Greenland with expectations of a land of beauty and purity, only to be confronted by poverty and the reality of surviving on subsistence agriculture.

“Off the Edge of the Ice – Gathering Storm, 14 September 1893” from Fridtjof Nansen’s “Farthest North”

For anyone who has an interest in reading about human relationships with Northern landscapes, this book is a thorough and fascinating account of the ways we have historically portrayed Arctic scenery and culture. It provides an insight into each work of literature, so we can understand the period of time the author was writing in and how this influenced the way they think of the North.

The musicians I focused on during the research for my Master’s degree heavily relied on these historic portrayals of Arctic scenery and culture. For example, many musicians in the Faroe Islands chose to brand their music with images of a mythologised pre-Christian, Viking, pagan North, including stereotypical Northern landscapes such as snowy mountains, and a cultural mishmash of symbols of paganism such as drums, feathers and bones, and nature such as the sun and moon.

I started to understand that the images of the North we still have today are saturated with a long history of authors, travellers and outsiders shaping the way we imagine “the North”. Scientific, missionary and trade expeditions were a common feature of European exploration and colonialism. The travellers would write about their experiences visiting far-off, exotic lands, often describing the landscapes and culture in terms of morality, such as purity or barbarity. Eventually I found a plethora of Scandinavian scholars who confirmed my suspicions that contemporary explorers perceived the North as another “Orient” to be conquered; as exotic, dangerous, wild and alluring as the Asian or African places they would visit, only colder and whiter. (You can find my citations at the end of post).

There is certainly no shortage of first-hand reports that help to corroborate this claim. British travellers like Richard Burton, Anthony Trollope, Mrs Alec Tweedie, Sabine Baring-Gould and William Morris all ventured North to try to find Ultima Thule. Morris even wrote in his accounts that he was undergoing “a Viking adventure”, and that the Faroese land was his first experience of the true North.

“At Sunset, 22nd September 1893” From Fridtjof Nansen’s “Farthest North”

I continued my search and found many similar accounts in the NHSN library which contains original 19th and early 20th century books and journals about scientific expeditions to the Arctic. Dr Fridtjof Nansen begins his account of their expedition rather dramatically in his book “Farthest North…” (1897)

“Unseen and untrodden under their spotless mantle of ice, the rigid polar regions slept the profound sleep of death from the earliest dawn of time. Wrapped in his white shroud, the mighty giant stretched his clammy ice-limbs abroad, and dreamed his age-long dreams. Ages passed – deep was the silence.” (page 1)

He continues talking about Norse mythology, mentioning frost giants, Niflheim (or Nivlheim as he spells it), Helheim and Baldur, and in a similar fashion to William Morris, Nansen frames himself as a Viking explorer by mentioning that the old Vikings were “the first Arctic voyagers”. His writing is also a perfect example of the colonial conquering tendencies so prevalent in 19th century Europe:

“The spirit of mankind will never rest till every spot of these regions has been trodden by the foot of man, till every enigma has been solved.” (page 3)

His attitude is echoed by other writers when they describe the native inhabitants of Greenland (then called Eskimo, but now Inuit), characterising them as naïve and simple, or barbaric. It is rather  uncomfortable to reproduce what they say in a modern setting, but as an illustration, Aubyn Trevor-Battye’s book “Ice bound on the Kolguev…” (1895) describes the “happy, good-tempered character of these child-like people” (page 242). When describing the native inhabitants’ navigational and hunting techniques, almost all of the writers I reviewed for this article lean heavily into the idea that the Inuit are more closely connected to nature and are a simpler people than their European counterparts.

The above examples are indicative of the way that the travellers wrote about both the landscape and the native inhabitants, containing many similarities in themes that focus on purity or danger as I mentioned earlier. Many of the authors have a love-hate relationship with ice in particular. Ejnar Mikkelsen, in his book “Lost in the Arctic…” (1913), describes how they are in near-constant danger of their vessels being caught, crushed or sunk by the ice, in what is by far my favourite quote:

“Thoroughly disgusted with things in general, and unanimously agreeing that ice and the Arctic were hell upon earth, we were at last obliged to make fast.” (page 24)

“Evening Among Drift Ice” From Fridtjof Nansen’s “Farthest North”

Another common gripe that many of the authors have with the Arctic landscape is the monotony, extreme days and nights, and the perceived lifelessness:

“It was certainly about as miserable and uninviting a coast as you can well imagine. Trees you cannot expect to find in these latitudes, but often their absence is more than made up for by beauty of scenery in other ways – in splendour of glacier or strength of the bastion cliffs across which the sea-birds go in myriads like driven snow. Here we had not this. We had only a long low line of level monotony.”
Trevor-Battye, Ice-bound on Kolguev (page 32-33).

“The sameness of everything weighted on the spirits… On the land there was nothing of picturesque to admit of description: the hills displayed no character, the rocks were rarely possessed of any, and the lakes and rivers were without beauty.”
Sir John Ross, Narrative of a Second Voyage (page 598).

“This snowless ice-plain is like a life without love –  nothing to soften it.”
Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North (page 297).

And yet also found are reverent descriptions of the very same ice, snow and sun in the same texts, echoing the distant and otherworldly conceptions of Ultima Thule.

“There was life enough up here among the pack ice – life and natural beauty, and splendid colour beyond words”.

“For an hour we lay motionless, staring at the ice, which lay there, an unchanging, dazzling expanse of white as far as the eye could see.”
Ejnar Mikkelsen, Lost in the Arctic (pages 22 and 27).

“A beautiful sight, the level, slightly drifted snow plain stretching away apparently infinitely to the North.”

“The slender spars of the [ship] looked very, very beautiful in the yellow midnight May sunlight.”
Robert E. Peary, Nearest the Pole (pages 109 and 167).

“The beauty of the scene before us [the mountainous coast] is much enhanced when the sun circles low to the south, we then get the most delicate blue shadows, and purest tones of pink and violet on the hill slopes.”
Sir Clements R. Markham, The Lands of Silence (page 464).

 “The aurora appeared with more or less brilliancy on twenty-eight nights in this month, and we were also gratified by the resplendent beauty of the moon.”
John Franklin, Narrative of a Journey (page 257).

“Moonlight, 22 November 1893. A Vertical Axis Passes through the Moon with a Strongly-Marked Luminous Patch Where it Intersects the Horizon…” From Fridtjof Nansen’s “Farthest North”


One of my favourite things about studying history in libraries and archives is that it is possible to learn from the past so that we can evaluate how our current culture reacts to Northern landscapes. For example, the recent growth of Germanic neo-paganism and heathenry* and white nationalism continues the 19th century Romantic tradition of tying nationality to ethnicity and land. Amongst these demographics, Northern landscapes tend to function as an exotic place of escapism, where you can find sanctuary from modern life and contemporary values with regards to gender and race, so life can be lived in a simpler way (check out my citations at the end). When I was researching musicians who brand themselves by using images of Northern landscapes and paganism, I noticed that online audience reactions made frequent references to “true European culture” and “protecting European culture from external influences”. Some commentators went further and specified which external influences they wanted to keep out. This strongly echoes the ethno-nationalist and racist ideologies that were present when people like Wagner and Tolkien originally took inspiration from the Old Norse Sagas to start forming the fantasy genre as we know it today. An occultist, völkisch group called the Thule Society, founded in Germany in 1918, theorised that Thule was the lost homeland of the Aryan race, believed in the power of runes, and made all members swear that they had no Jewish or otherwise non-white heritage. One man who attended these meetings, Dietrich Eckhart, would go onto be a key influence on Hitler in his rise to power years later.

Thule (or Ultima Thule) is just one example of how a fictional landscape can capture the imaginations of people for hundreds, or even thousands of years. When I first started investigating the North, I was searching for an answer as to how and why people connect with images of the North in a strictly modern context. Having since spent the better part of a few years delving into this subject, I now know that I wouldn’t have achieved a nuanced understanding of contemporary cultural reactions and their significance without being able to view and consider relevant material from the past.

So, if you can, pay a visit to the Great North Museum: Hancock Library where you can read stories and accounts that were written by people from earlier times.  You might find yourself recognising something of the modern-day in what they have to say.

Further information about the library is available at


 Resources external to the Great North Museum: Hancock Library.

Gaini, Firouz, ‘Cultural Rhapsody in Shift: Faroese culture and identity in the age of globalization’ in Among the Islanders of the North, ed. Firouz Gaini (Tórshavn: Faroe University Press, 2011), 132-162.

Granholm, Kennet, ‘“Sons of Northern Darkness”: Heathen Influences in Black Metal and Neofolk Music’, Numen, 58/4 (2011), 514-544.

Heesch, Florian, ‘Metal for Nordic Men? Amon Amarth’s Representations of Vikings’ in The Metal Void: First Gatherings, ed. Niall W. R. Scott (Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2010), 71-80.

Hicks, Jonathon, Uy, Michael, Venter, Carina, ‘Introduction: Music and Landscape’, The Journal of Musicology, 33/1 (2016), 1-10.

Loftsdóttir, Kristín, ‘The Exotic North: Gender, Nation Branding and Post-colonialism in Iceland’, NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 23/4 (2015), 246-260.

Loftsdóttir, Kristín, Lund, Katrín Anna, ‘Þingvellir: Commodifying the “Heart” of Iceland’ in Postcolonial Perspectives on the European High North: Unscrambling the Arctic, ed. Graham Huggan, Lars Jensen (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 117-141.

Oslund, Karen, ‘Imagining Iceland: Narratives of Nature and History in the North Atlantic’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 35/3 (2002), 313-334.

Piotrowska, Anna G., ‘Scandinavian Heavy Metal as an Intertextual Play with Norse Mythology’ in Music at the Extremes: Essays on Sounds Outside the Mainstream, ed. Scott A. Wilson (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015), 101-114.

Ridanpää, Juha, ‘Laughing at Northernness: Postcolonial and Metafictive Irony in the Imaginative Geography’, Social & Cultural Geography, 8/6 (2007), 907-928.


Sounds like Christmas! Songs from Fenwick’s Christmas Window – Dominique Bell, UOSH Project Manager

Christmas doesn’t seem quite complete without a visit to Fenwick’s Christmas Window, does it?

Fenwick’s Christmas Window 2019: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


With Christmas fast approaching, we’ve been enjoying digitising and cataloguing material from the Fenwick Archive, which is held by Tyne & Wear Archives. This collection includes radio adverts and soundtracks from the Christmas windows from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

Our favourite Christmas window soundtrack is “Fenwick’s Fairytales” from December 1996, which featured songs about traditional fairy tale characters such as Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.

Introduction to Fenwick’s Fairytales

Master cassette tape and copy, held within the Fenwick Archive


There is a lovely mix of songs with a fast-paced jolly tune sung by the seven dwarfs and a slow ballad by Snow White.

Snow White wanders lonely in the woods

The introductions to each window are as enjoyable as the songs sung by the famous characters. Here are two clips from the Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty windows.

Introduction to the Cinderella themed window

Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, Fenwick’s Christmas Window, December 1996, Tyne & Wear Archives DT.FEN.6.5.320 (8807-15)


Introduction to Sleeping Beauty themed window


Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood, Fenwick’s Christmas Window, December 1996, Tyne & Wear Archives DT.FEN.6.5.320 (8807-6)


This one has a bit of a different flavour and we imagine it made quite a few people pause the first time they heard it on Northumberland Street.

Hansel and Gretel rap

Oh My! What big teeth you have! The eerie yet perky Little Red Riding Hood has a happy ending like all the others, of course.

Little Red Riding Hood meets the Big Bad Wolf


As you would expect there is also the famous singing tree which has featured in many windows over the years and “Santa Santa, good old Santa Claus, we all love his cheery ho ho ho” along with other familiar Christmas songs.

Do you remember the singing tree?


How about Good Old Santa Claus?

With or without children in tow, a trip to see Fenwick’s Christmas Window is always an amazing spectacle.  How many past Christmas windows can you remember?

Listening to the Fenwick Christmas Window soundtracks has really got us in the Christmas spirit. We’ve loved preserving these important audio archives which give a taste of North East heritage and life.

We can’t wait to discover all of the other treasures within our collection and partner collections from across the North East and Yorkshire.

Merry Christmas from everyone working on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.



The British Fairground – A reflection of a modern society losing its charm? – by Lauren Downs, placement student

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.

William Keating Collection photograph, Hull Fair, circa 1903

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.

Paul Angel photograph, Hull Fair, 1984

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.

George Tucker photograph Portsmouth Fair 1939

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.

Rowland Scott Photograph Nottingham Goose Fair 1958

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.

Harry Lee Collection photograph, Hull Fair 1935, Waddington’s Steam Yachts

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.