Sources for researching fairgrounds
There are a wealth of sources at Surrey History Centre which you can use to research the history of fairgrounds and the fairground community, not only in Surrey but across the country.
Archive and illustrated sources can be searched for using our online Collections Catalogue (SURCAT) http://www.surreyarchives.org.uk/Calmview/. Notable collections include the following:
The Philip Bradley Fairground collection (SHC ref 6790) – 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. He amassed 30,000 photographs of fairs across the country and was highly regarded by showmen and fairground workers. 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.
The image to the right is a newscutting from World’s Fair ‘As others see us: Showmen’s van is his castle’, from the Philip Bradley collection ‘Fair Notes’, book 7, 1942-1943. The cutting discusses the distinction between showmen and Gypsies, with a description of fairground living vans (Philip Bradley collection, SHC ref 6790/1/7). Click on the image to see a larger copy.
The Manning family papers (SHC ref Z/561). These papers relate to the Manning family of travelling Showmen who were based in Hertfordshire and have attended fairgrounds across the country since the nineteenth century; the collection contains papers relating to the Taylor, Smith, and many other travelling show families.
Surrey County Council County Planning Department: planning application file relating to fairgrounds and the Showmen’s Guild (Ref 43/5), including a list of some fairgrounds in Surrey in early 1950s; and debate over the status of showmen, 1951-1980 (SHC ref CC356/8); compensation file relating to Reid’s Caravan Ground, Walton Lane, Shepperton, which in 1962 was used as a fairground showman’s caravan site (Middlesex County Council), 1967-1969 (SHC ref CC584/3).
James T Martin was an ‘Olde English Faire Games Provider’, based in Church Road, South Park, Reigate and from 1922-1938 was listed in Kelly’s Directory of Surrey as a marquee contractor at Smith Road, South Park. Juvenile Swings could be hired from illustrated list of ‘Olde English Faire Games’ for £3 3s 0d; a covered stall called ‘Tip the Waitress’ featuring two life-sized figures of the celebrated ‘Nippy’ waitress could be hired for £2 2s 0d (SHC ref 7982/1, p.8 & 12).
Our holdings of photographs, postcards, prints and engravings are a good source of pictorial material relating to the history of the fairs and the fairground community in the county.
A fantastic series of early twentieth century Bromide prints taken from glass plate negatives exist in the Photographic Survey and Record of Surrey showing fairs setting up, rides and stalls at various Surrey towns (SHC ref 7828). They include:
- Bletchingley Fair, 1907-1909 (SHC ref 7828/2/18/134, 135, 155, 156, 157, 158,159, 201 and 202)
- Haslemere Fair at Clay Hill, 1911 (SHC ref 7828/2/75/25, 26 and 27)
- Reigate Fair, 1912 (SHC ref 7828/2/122/155)
Postcard albums (arranged by town) include images of:
- Bletchingley Fair
- Merstham Fair
- Mitcham Fair
- Gypsies at Cobham and Godstone Fairs
We also hold other relevant illustrations including photographs and prints of:
- Epsom Derby and Epsom Downs
- A circus procession in Farnham
- St Catherine’s Fair, Artington
- Castle Street Fair, Farnham
Photographs of a Showman’s funeral: It is incredibly rare to find images of fairground funerals and these two photographs show the great respect for John Searle, showman and proprietor of the fairground at Gorringe Park, Figgs Marsh, Mitcham. Searle was allegedly the oldest active showman in London at that time. The photographs show his coffin being placed in the hearse within the fairground, (SHC ref 7957/15/10 (2), ©Aplha Press) and the funeral cortege passing through the fairground to the cemetery, 19 Dec 1932 (SHC ref 7957/15/10 (1), ©Aplha Press).
Local newspapers are sometimes a good source of reports of fairs coming to town, what attractions were present, and sporting events such as prize fights. Surrey History Centre holds a number of local newspapers on microfilm including:
- Sussex Agricultural Express, 1838-1903 (covers the whole county)
- Surrey Advertiser, 1864 to date (covers SW Surrey Guildford/Godalming area)
- Surrey Comet, 1854-1981 (covers Kingston area)
The Philip Bradley collection (SHC ref 6790) contains cuttings from fairground newspapers such as World’s Fair.
Books and periodicals
Some general family history publications have occasional articles of interest to researchers into Fairground heritage. It is also worth noting that some Gypsy, Romany and Traveller family history periodicals and books also feature Fairground community heritage and family history. Surrey History Centre holds the following titles:
- Platform – The Fairground Society
- Fairground Heritage News – Friends of the Fairground Heritage Trust
- Romany Routes – journal of the Romany and Traveller Family History Society
- Fairground Mercury – The Fairground Association of Great Britain
Other articles are published in local history society magazines which can be searched on our periodicals database using Exploring Surrey’s Past website.
Click here to see a list of books (pdf copy) that can be studied at Surrey History Centre. This is not an exhaustive list and other titles can be searched for using the Surrey Libraries catalogue https://arena.surreylibraries.org/web/arena/welcome.
The National Fairground and Circus Archive, based at the University of Sheffield, is one of the world’s leading repositories for the study of fairgrounds and the people that worked in them. Their website lists full details of the collections held and research guides including fairground family history https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfa
The Fairground Heritage Trust (with Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre) website has the most fantastically detailed histories of fairgrounds in Britain, fairground shows, rides and people http://fairground-heritage.org.uk/
The Romany and Traveller Family History Society are experts in travelling family history research, which can often include fairground workers. ‘Romany Routes’ the Society’s journal can be a useful source of information for the history of fairs and fairground workers http://rtfhs.org.uk/
The Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain was founded in 1889 to protect the interests of travelling showmen who gain their livelihoods by attending funfairs http://www.showmensguild.co.uk/. There is a war memorial dedicated to showmen who fought in both world wars at memorial at The National Memorial Arboretum http://www.thenma.org.uk/whats-here/the-memorials/memorial-listing/
The Fairground Association of Great Britain was founded in 1978, and is now the UK’s leading club for funfair enthusiasts http://www.fagb.co.uk/. The Association publishes the Fairground Mercury and offers some back issues as downloads.
The Fairground Society was founded in 1961 and caters for anyone interested in fairgrounds past or present. It publishes Platform magazine which features articles on the history of fairgrounds and fairground rides and the latest rides and transport to be seen on British fairgrounds. The magazine regularly features images from the Philip Bradley collection http://www.fairgroundsociety.com/
The Archives Hub can be searched for fairground archive collections and it includes a list of useful website, http://archiveshub.ac.uk/features/fairsandcircus.shtml
British Pathé news has digitised its archive newsreels and has a specific section relating to fairgrounds http://www.britishpathe.com/video/fairground-scenes. For regional footage of funfairs (including film of Claygate Flower Show, 1952, SHC ref F/25), see the Screen Archive South East website http://about.brighton.ac.uk/screenarchive/
Military records: contrary to popular myth, Fairground workers have served in all of the armed forces, particularly in the First and Second World Wars. See our online guide ‘Sources for military history at Surrey History Centre’ for further details on tracing military ancestors.