Norfolk showmen stories from the fairground

Families enjoy on of Norfolk's travelling funfairs at Barnham Cross Common in Thetford

Families enjoy on of Norfolk's travelling funfairs at Barnham Cross Common in Thetford - Credit: Archant

The funfair is an ancient English tradition - but the people who run them are often a mystery to the rest of us. A new book gives voice to Norfolk's showmen, writes KEIRON PIM.

The Waltzer judders and whirls, children shriek with excitement as they collide the Dodgems, the air is sweetened by the scents of doughnuts and candy floss, and all the while coloured lights flash in time to the rhythm of blaring music.

When the funfair comes to town it assaults all our senses, taking us out of the norm for a night – and then a couple of days later it's gone again, moved on to another place, and all that remains are the trucks' and trailers' muddy tyre marks on the green and a few vivid memories.

But beyond those occasional overlaps with their world, what do most of us know of the people who run the fairs? Who is the seemingly gruff man in the cabin who operates the Gallopers, who's the teenage girl selling tickets for the coconut shy? Where do they come from, what do they do for the rest of their lives?

Sally Festing had often wondered, and a conversation with friends in Wells prompted her to pursue her interest further when she learned that the town is home to a good number of former travelling families who are now settled but remain in the trade. After breaking through a barrier of wariness she persuaded East Anglia's showmen to open up, and now she has recorded their stories in a significant new work of oral history. Her book Showmen: the Voice of Travelling Fair People gives a rare insight into the lives of a community that most people know superficially but few understand – a little like the fishermen who were the subject of Sally's first book back in 1974.

'Like the fishermen they are self-protective,' she says. 'I suddenly wondered, as the ones in Wells are so settled now, are their traditions being lost?'

Those traditions run deep. The English travelling fair has a long history, nowhere more so than in Norfolk. The annual round of fairs begins on Valentine's Day with the King's Lynn Mart, which was granted a charter by King Henry VIII. The west Norfolk town has an especial association with fairground heritage owing to the 'Galloper' roundabouts, with their elegant horses that rise and fall as they rotate to the cheery din of organ music, that were constructed there in the 19th century by Frederick Savage's engineering firm. The book has a wealth of historic details about famous fairground rides: such English roundabouts are actually distinct from 'carousels', a word referring to differently constructed European and American rides. The Dodgems were introduced to Britain from America in the 1920s, and candy floss was invented in 1897 and became popular after the 1904 World's Fair.

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From Wells, East Runton, and dedicated bases such as the seven-acre Hooper Lane 'yard' north-east of Norwich, which is home to around 60 families, the showmen take their cavalcade around East Anglia and beyond to the Midlands, and in some cases even around the world. They have their own Showmen's Guild of Great Britain to advance their business, and a weekly newspaper, also titled the World's Fair.

The 17,000 show people living in Britain today form a close community with its own lifestyle, lingo and morals: there is a strong emphasis on respect, discipline, family, behaving in the right manner; the 'old values', they call them.

Kay Gelder, one of Sally's interviewees, observed that the community's religious practice (traditionally Church of England) had a rigid code of behaviour: 'We wouldn't enter church without putting something on your head. And you don't go to a funeral unless your head, hands and legs are covered.'

It's a tough life with a demanding work ethic, but one full of love and camaraderie. They speak of being more tactile than most English people, more demonstrative; something closer to a Latin culture, one man observes. Sally mentions two elderly women who had never known any divorces among their community, and very large yet tightly-knit families. The mother of Lawrence 'Nipper' Appleton, one of Sally's interviewees, had at least 115 grand- and great-grandchildren at the time of her death in 2011 aged 93. The obvious comparison is with gipsies and travellers; though show people have a distinct culture, what they share is a sometimes awkward relationship with more mainstream ways of life. Integrating travelling children into the education system is a particular difficulty. Things have changed somewhat than in the past: teenagers are more likely to go to secondary school, even to university, but some suspicion lingers.

Despite the closeness of their family ties, however, many of them were vague about exactly how they were related. Sally helped clarify this for Norfolk people such as the Grays and Thurstons by researching and drawing up their family trees.

She interviewed more than 30 people in total, meeting characters such as the late Josie Gray, a 'big-hearted show-woman', over cups of tea in their trailers as their went about their business. Topics covered in the 23 chapters include children's upbringing, the roles of women, economic ups and downs, adventures overseas and the business's future, among others. It all began with Wells man Perry Underwood back in 2007. In showman lingo his family were 'sand-scratchers': that is, ones who'd abandoned the travelling life and rooted themselves in a seaside resort, often operating amusement arcades.

With this fascinating book, those of us that they leave behind can get a better understanding of the joys and hardships of their traditional life.

As its author says: 'I do think that we ought to know about how other people live.'

? Showmen: the Voice of Travelling Fair People is published by Shaun Tyas, priced £14.95.