Fairgrounds in Surrey

Elias Harris' Wall of Death ride, 'The Demon Riders', at Lindfield Fair, 1949 (Philip Bradley Collection SHC ref 6790/5/7/156; F16602)

Elias Harris’ Wall of Death ride, ‘The Demon Riders’,
at Lindfield Fair, 1949
(Philip Bradley Collection SHC ref 6790/5/7/156; F16602)

So ask yourself a question and answer truthfully;
ask yourself ‘Who am I? then stand back and see.
If the answer is ‘A Showman’ let’s hear it said with pride;
and if you are a good one, there’s nothing to hide.

Don’t dress it up with fancy names, be proud of who you are.
You don’t have to own a Simpson or a Mercedes motor car,
Just let your memory take you back to far off days,
when horse and little wagon used to pass this way.
But each one with its happy band.
A joy for all to see.
It might have been my Mum or Dad,
or perhaps your family.

So when someone asks what you are, you tell them one and all,
‘I’m the Fairground people’ and then stand ten feet tall.

Anonymous verse written for the memorial cards of Sawles and Hilda Howell (née Bentley), who passed away Dec 2010 and Feb 2011 (courtesy of Jane Hastler, daughter of Sawles and Hilda Howell; SHC ref Z/561/21).

Frances Brown, Fairground strollers and showfolk , ( 2001)

Frances Brown, Fairground strollers and showfolk, ( 2001)

Fairs have been part of Surrey’s history for centuries and the origins of many can be traced back to charters and privileges granted in medieval times. The Victorian and Edwardian eras were a boom time for fairgrounds, with a growing variety of shows, stalls and exotic entertainments on view. There are still strong links with fairgrounds in Surrey today and the district of Tandridge is home to one of the highest concentrations of showmen and their families in the country.

For a full history of fairs see the fantastically detailed Fairground Heritage Trust website http://fairground-heritage.org.uk/, which features articles relating to every aspect of fairground life, entertainments and history.

Showman’s living van at Hampstead, 1939 (Philip Bradley collection, SHC ref.6790/4/1; F446)

Showman’s living van at Hampstead, 1939
(Philip Bradley collection, SHC ref.6790/4/1; F446)

Guildford Fair, 1939 (Philip Bradley collection, SHC ref 6790/4/2; F629)

Guildford Fair, 1939 (Philip Bradley collection, SHC ref 6790/4/2; F629)

The Philip Bradley Fairground Collection

Fairground enthusiast Philip Bradley, who lived in Ewell, spent his life compiling a written and photographic record of every fair he visited from 1936 until his death in 1999. He amassed 30,000 photographs of fairs across the country and was highly regarded by showmen and fairground folk. His collection, held at Surrey History Centre, is of national importance, providing an invaluable history of twentieth century fairgrounds (SHC ref 6790). Nearly all the 5,000 Surrey fair images have now been indexed. Find out more about the Bradley collection here.

Philip Bradley seated in an Orton & Spooner ‘Whale Car’ at Butlins Ltd, Florence Park, Oxford, 28 Aug 1943 (SHC ref 6790/4/8; F2982)

Philip Bradley seated in an Orton & Spooner ‘Whale Car’ at Butlins Ltd, Florence Park, Oxford, 28 Aug 1943 (SHC ref 6790/4/8/; F2982)

Fairgrounds during the Second World War

Fairgrounds suffered severely during wartime. The livelihood of fairground folk and showmen was curtailed both through rationing and blackouts and through the numbers of workers enlisting. Find out more here.

J P Collins’ Fowler traction engine King George VI, in war damage at Manchester, Oct 1941 (SHC Ref 6790/4/8; F2147)

J P Collins’ Fowler traction engine King George VI,
in war damage at Manchester, Oct 1941 (SHC Ref 6790/4/8; F2147)

Fairground family history

Showmen & Fairground Folk are a distinct community often not viewed as part of the traditional Gypsy, Romany and Traveller community. In historical records such as parish registers and census returns a fairground worker, or showman might be recorded as a stallholder, amusement caterer, roundabout proprietor or hawker. The National Fairground and Circus Archive (NFCA) suggests that a show family in the early 1900s is most likely to be still associated with the fairground today. Family history in this regard is simple – the child is born into the fair and marries within the fair. Active show families have a keen sense of family history and marriages were often seen as importance business alliances. The NFCA are the experts in this area of genealogy and their website contains a family history section https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfa. Researchers should also see Surrey History Centre’s guide to Gypsy, Romany and Traveller family history in Surrey on this website.

Discover sources for researching fairgrounds held at Surrey History Centre here.

Watch films of some Surrey fairgrounds on the free online BFI Player at https://player.bfi.org.uk/search/free?q=fair

Can you help?

If you have photographs or other material relating to Surrey fairgrounds and the people who lived and worked on them, we would be delighted to hear from you. Please leave feedback below or contact Surrey History Centre on 01483 518737 or email: [email protected]

One thought on “Fairgrounds in Surrey”

  1. John Edwards says:

    The national fairground archive is located in Sheffield university courtesy of Dr Vanessa Toulmain
    John Edwards

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