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Britain's showmen: All the fun of the fair?

Category: England

Published: 12th Apr 2012 02:03:29

As the travelling fair season begins, fairground workers from all over Britain are heading out on to the road. But while their presence is familiar, what do we really know about the people who work the fairs?

From the heated evictions at the Dale Farm traveller site in Essex to the new series of Channel 4's controversial My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Britain's travellers have been hitting the headlines.

But the travelling community has a third distinct subsection of which little is reported - showmen or fairground people.

Unlike Irish Travellers and Gypsies, showmen do not view themselves as an ethnic group but a cultural one united by the fairground industry.

For John Silcock's grandfather Edward, the choice to become a showman came about as a way of avoiding a life down the mines.

Edward, along with his four brothers, operated a games stall in Wigan in the early 1900s. They then branched out with a set of swings, a barrel organ, a children's ride and a carousel which they took all over Lancashire.

"My family were coal miners," says John Silcock, the present owner of JE Silcock Amusements. "My great grandfather died from lung cancer and my grandfather was 16 and he decided he wasn't going to go down there (the pits)."

Mr Silcock gained his own experience of the fairs while still at boarding school - his parents travelled with the fairs on a weekly basis and he spent his weekends working with them.

The beauty of what we're doing is we're fetching the theme park to people's houses”

His two eldest children are already active in the business and he believes it is a great culture to grow up in.

"It was very good as a child. You see a different location every week and you're never bored of what you do but the downside is whatever the weather you've got to do the job.

"The schedule has got to be kept - if you lose your pitch you lose your reputation and you lose your site."

A good site is crucial to a showman - they must be close to areas like town centres where people congregate to ensure high footfall with space for the caravans many showmen stay in when they are on the road.

Mr Silcock's passion for the industry which has given his family a living is obvious: "The beauty of what we're doing is we're fetching the theme park to people's houses.

"We do carnivals where you have people who live in the same street who don't really talk to each other but on carnival day they all meet."

Someone else with a passion for the business is Lawrence Appleton.

His family began in the industry by producing live shows which used to involve dancing, comedy and other forms of entertainment alongside the fairground rides and stalls.

But his experience of growing up in a showpeople family was different from Mr Silcock's, with education hard to come by and a life on the road meaning going without everyday conveniences like hot water for washing clothes and cooking utensils.

"We never had the quality of life that you have today but it was a way of life and we accepted it and we enjoyed it," he says.

And despite meeting the public as part of their work he does not feel those they entertain know who they are.

"A lot of people don't really know us and how we tick," he says. "They don't know the complications we have to go through to maintain this age old history."

John Thurston, the chairman of the Norwich and Eastern Counties section of the Showmen's Guild, is also frustrated by misconceptions people hold about the traditional view of the showman.

Mr Thurston, who is the fifth generation in his family to work on the travelling fairs, says: "We spend millions of pounds on equipment and yet the showmen are always portrayed as Gypsies."

Images that portray showmen wearing scarves, trilby hats and earrings and with tattoos do not represent any showmen he knows.

Another misconception he is keen to deny is concerns over fairground safety: "Our record on safety is second to none. If there's an accident on the fairground it always makes headline news because it's very rare. It's a very safe industry to work in."

A spokeswoman for the HSE said fairgrounds are "relatively safe" compared to driving a car or riding a bicycle although there have been a "small number" of serious incidents involving employees and members of the public.

Mr Appleton says the public also do not understand the modern pressures the industry is facing as councils increasingly sell off sites used for fairs to developers who build housing on them.

"We're a traditional people. We want to maintain these sites and this old way of life for our people and our future generations," he says.

Ann Gunn agrees the industry is not immune from modern pressures: "We have to think about where we go now because of the cost of diesel. We use it to run the lights but it costs so much we can't travel as far as we used to."

But Ms Gunn, who runs a side stall and is the fourth generation in her family to work in the industry, believes despite the challenges it is traditional values that have kept the industry going.

"It's a community. You know everyone from birth and you see the same people year after year. People help each other out."

Prof Vanessa Toulmin combines her academic work with her funfair business - she was born into a showpeople family in Lancashire.

She is also the director of the National Fairground Archive, at the University of Sheffield, which she set up to try to alleviate misunderstandings the public have about showpeople.

"Part of my work with the archive was to make people understand we're not an ethnic group but we are a cultural one," she says. "We travel for business and it is a way of life."

Prof Toulmin feels fairs have survived for as long as they have in part because of the local links built up by travelling.

"Local people have an identity that is linked to their region's fair. They are a form of cheap entertainment which fulfil a community need."

Their appeal also lies in their ability to span all ages.

She says: "Fairs are multi-generational, you go as a child with your parents, you go as a teenager with your first boyfriend or girlfriend and then when you get older you take your own children and grandchildren."

In Norfolk the annual King's Lynn Mart Fair took place in February. The fair is traditionally viewed as the opening event in the travelling season.

Mr Thurston says certain fairs like the King's Lynn Mart are important to showpeople because they have been going for so long.

According to the National Fairground Archive the first recorded charter was granted to King's Lynn in 1204. A charter marking a Valentine's Day fair was granted by Henry VIII in 1537.

He says: "These fairs (with a long history) are special, there's your run-of-the-mill fairs in towns and villages that we attend throughout the year but some of these fairs are very precious to the showmen and I don't think some people realise how much high esteem we hold these fairs in.

"We cherish these fairs and it's our history."

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BBC News, 2012. Britain's showmen: All the fun of the fair? [Online] (Updated 12th Apr 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1421846/Britains-showmen-All-the-fun-of-the-fair [Accessed 25th Apr 2014]

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