Fairground enthusiast Philip Bradley spent his life compiling a written and photographic record of every fair he visited from 1936 until his death in 1999. Highly regarded by showmen and fairground folk, the resulting collection is of national importance, providing an invaluable history of twentieth century fairgrounds. In particular, the vast collection of notebooks and 30,000 photographs, housed at Surrey History Centre in Woking, show how the livelihood of the travelling showman was affected during wartime.
Bradley records how fairs were affected by blackout restrictions and limited supplies of food, fuel and ‘swag’. Coconut shies became rare as coconuts took up valuable shipping space and rifle ranges were deprived of ammunition. Music was also muted in case it drowned out the Alert. Many showmen’s engines were used for demolition work clearing debris from blitzed cities and demolishing unstable buildings, especially in areas of severe bomb damage in Merseyside, Manchester and London.
Despite these problems, some fairs continued, often with blackout protection, especially in the summer with improved light in the evenings. Ground previously used for fairs was sometimes turned into allotments to increase productivity, causing travelling fairs to find new sites. Some fairs were held on bombed out areas that had been levelled, whilst others were cancelled altogether due to land being requisitioned for military purposes.
Flying-bomb attacks caused nearly all Greater London fairs after mid-June 1944 to be abandoned bringing continued hardship to those families whose livelihood depended on entertaining the crowds.
This notice, displayed at Heston May Fair in 1941 reads “The London Section Showman’s Guild, owing to so many of our members serving in the forces or on work of national importance we are sorry that in the cir[c]umstances we are unable to provide the fair in the usual size. Trusting you will support our effort”.
To the right of the notice can be seen a poster ‘Showmen’s Spitfire for the Nation Lord Beaverbrook’s Thanks’. Both notices expose the misconception that Travelling communities did not participate in the war effort either in terms of active service or on the home front.
Some larger fairs did take place, such as Nottingham Goose Fair. ‘Special’ London County Council fairs were also introduced to boost trade, as at Brockwell Park and Tooting Bec Common but it would be a long time before the manpower and resources were available for the full fairground experience to resume.
Kay Townsend’s book on how fairground engines were used during the war effort can be studied at Surrey History Centre. For other sources including a full list of published works click here.