Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Dr Vanessa Toulmin, Research Director, National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield (TF 39)

  For the past 10 years I have been involved in researching the language and culture of the travelling showpeople of the Great Britain. The first part of my research resulted in a doctoral thesis (1993-97) at the University of Sheffield titled "Fun Without Vulgarity" Community Language and the Role of Women in Showland Society from 1890 to the Present Day. As a result of that thesis and the material my research unearthed, in 1994 the University of Sheffield with the support of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain and various fairground organisations, set up the National Fairground Archive to be housed in the University Library. Since that date I have been employed by the University of Sheffield to run the NFA and to develop it as primary resource centre for educational and historical matters relating to the history of fairs and popular entertainment. Therefore in response to the issues outlined in the Press release I would like to submit the following report based on my personal observation, the research data I accumulated during my doctoral thesis and the experience and knowledge gained by running the National Fairground Archive. I would like to emphasise that my particular area of expertise has been in recording, analysing and researching the history of the community as opposed to the material culture of the fairground itself (ie rides, living vans, transport etc).[4]


  From February through to November each year, hundreds of fairs take place every month throughout the United Kingdom. A large proportion of these fairs can trace their ancestry back to charters and privileges granted in the Medieval period or even earlier. These can be either Charter, hiring or prescriptive fairs, festivities associated with holidays and feast days or private business events. Other fairs such as the Wakes and Whit fairs held in Lancashire and Yorkshire and the Hoppings in the North of England are relatively modern in comparison. The dating of fairs was originally related to the working season of the year as well as to religious or pagan festivals. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the majority of the English fairs had been granted charters and were reorganised to fall into line with their European counterparts. For the last 150 years the feature and main function of these fairs has been pleasure and historically they fell in line with traditional working people's holidays. For example the Wake fairs are linked to factory holidays. Many fairs were lost through the Fairs Act 1871 but despite this, there have continued to exist the following types of historic fairs:

    Charter or Prescriptive Fairs (granted by custom or Royal Charter—Nottingham, Cambridge and Hull are examples of this).

    Festival or Holiday Fairs associated with a industry (Durham Miner's Gala for example).

  Private Business (taken by individual showmen) and although with no historic protection attached they often have been in existence since the 1870s and replaced some of the historic fairs that were lost in particular regions.

  In my opinion these fairs still remain an important part of the traditional community which they visit. The majority of Charter fairs are protected but in recent years the fairs associated with holiday events and private business have been severely affected due to restrictions placed by councils where the historic site has been lost due to modern redevelopment. The fairs bring the latest up to date live entertainment to millions of working class people throughout the country without the cost of travelling to the event (as in Blackpool) or entrance fees (Alton Towers or theme parks). The visitor can spend as much or as little as they can afford within the familiar environment of their own town or village.

  As a fairground historian I lecture regularly throughout the country to Women's Institute, Rotary Clubs, Local History Societies etc (on average 30 a year for the past five years) and I have never found the popularity or continued value of the fairs in any doubt within any of the local communities I have visited for the course of my work. Also as Research Director of the National Fairground Archive I receive 400 enquires a month, the majority of which come from the general public. In the words of one small child from Hull who visited the fair when I was working on an educational project "Hull Fair is magic because it comes just once a year." Fairs have a heritage and tradition which has shaped the popular culture of the United Kingdom. Cinema, theatre, bingo and many other forms of popular entertainment started on the fair. The showmen are used to facing competition and incorporating the latest novelties in their business to keep the general public entertained. However the sites that they use need protection, and provisions must be made for traditional historic sites and their importance within the local communities, when the issues of planning and redevelopment of city centres (the historic home of the fair) are discussed.

  Secondly, when a showmen approaches a council for a new site (often to replace the loss of a historic site) the decision whether or not to hold such event can depend on how that local Councillor or official views fairs. However, personal prejudice or political worries of losing an area's votes should not be the means of obstructing new business. There should instead be a system of appeal put in place similar to the granting of licenses so that when a showman is refused permission to open a new fair, the council must give adequate reasons why this application has been refused either on grounds of safety or economics.


  In this section I would like to demonstrate how changes in fairground technology since Circular 22/91 was published, has resulted in the need for all year round depots in conjunction with additional winter quarters.

  The whole nature of fairground society revolves around the moving from one location to another in the course of their business. Historically the fairground season with the exception of Valentine Fairs in King's Lynn and more recently in Leeds would start with the Easter fairs and then finish with what the showmen refer to as the back end run, the October and early November period. Therefore the provision of sites, for example, would largely be covered by what is known as Winter Quarters or private yards or fields which the showmen would return to for between four to five months. As befits a society that has introduced the latest technological innovations to the public (cinemas, x-rays, electricity for example were first utilised by the showmen as a form of entertainment) today's showmen have used the latest forms of technology to increase the productivity of the business. For example many of today's rides have become trailer mounted and do not need the man power associated with more historic attractions such as the Dodgem or Waltzer. This has affected all levels of the society so that a modern juvenile (children's ride) can be towed behind a car, taken to the event and open and built up in little less than an hour. This is also true with stalls and games. The end result of this modernisation of the equipment has had both a beneficial and negative impact on the society itself.

  Ten years ago one family would have travelled with a small kiosk, children's ride or two stalls to one fair because of the labour intensive build up. Today, a modern fairground family can own three or four pieces of equipment which they then take to different locations throughout the country, fairs, fetes, car boots sales, Sunday markets or shopping precincts. On a positive light this has resulted in a diversification of the business opportunities. However, the negative aspect of this on the community is the increase of ground necessary for living space, lorries, transportation. To put it briefly a family 10 years ago would have required a living van, and lorry. Now the family needs storage facilities for three types of equipment and transport. The most immediate impact on that has been the types of living quarters available and further space for the family home plus the trailers, transport and additional rides.

  Firstly many showmen no longer travel seven months of the year and settle for five. The society has diversified in order to find new outlets for the business. These consist of one or two day events, afternoon shows or markets lasting four to five hours. As a result of this the showmen need living quarters that they can return to as a base all year round. This form of travelling, referred to as gaff catching within the community, has seen the showmen becoming more associated with their winter base on a year round basis and not being able to use this base outside the months allocated. Therefore, the issues of the particular needs of travelling showpeople in carrying out their trade must examine the changes in the traditional society and the impact this has on their living areas allocated for winter quarters.

  The difficulties of all year round occupation within the planning system is such that many showmen still apply for winter quarters when in reality they need semi residential status. It is my opinion that modern planning guidelines including Circular 22/91 do not effectively cover the needs of travelling showmen. By not supplying adequate transit sites or granting semi residential permission due to the problems of the showpeople being both residential and business, the showmen are being restricted through lack of accommodation in carrying out their traditional business. A second issue of the lack of all year round sites and the expansion of the family unit, is that many historic fairs and new city centre ventures are restricting living vans onto the fairground site and often placing the living quarters some distance away from the fairground itself. The showmen therefore need the base for storage facilities for the larger living vans as opposed to the smaller trailers because when this occurs they often have nowhere to put their traditional home. Showmen have adapted by using smaller lighter trailers for this kind of fair but retain the larger living van as the family home in the winter months but still have the problem of finding a place for it during the duration of the fair.

  The showmen travel as a family group, it is very rare for showpeople to use outside nursing homes or residential care for looking after the elderly within the community. However, with the restrictions on living vans at major fairs, lack of sites and the increase in the elderly population, the problems of housing and caring for the elderly population is becoming an issue. Some Sections of the Showmen's Guild have discussed the possibility of obtaining planning permission for a retirement site for the elderly showmen, so they can remain within the traditional society and not become separated by being placed in residential care in an environment completely alien to their way of life (often many of the elderly showpeople have lived all of their life in a living van and have never slept in a house). However, there are no provisions for this within the planning controls and winter quarters do not address their particular social, medical or cultural needs at this stage of their life.

  Although these issues are similar to those faced by the settled population the showmen do not have the flexibility of buying land (even if they can afford the prices) near to their place of business and family concerns. This is partly due to the restrictions within the planning laws but also the fact that many showmen do not own fixed assets. Travelling showpeople's wealth is not based on ownership of property and land but on the privileges and rights to attend major fairs. The machines and living vans can be bought with the aid of finance companies who offer a far higher rate of interest than high street banks but it is far more difficult to secure loans for any other aspect of the business. Therefore, it is more problematic for showpeople to borrow money or obtain a mortgage because they are essentially self-employed or small business people whose assets cannot be assessed by a bank or building society.

  In summary I feel that more appropriate regard to the needs of travelling showpeople within the planning system must be considered. The showmen have for two hundred years continued their traditional way of life and incorporated changes that technological advances have made, both professionally and personally. However, distrust and often prejudice at local level is restricting their business and the continued existence of their customary mode of living. This I believe will have not only a long term consequences for the fairground community and industry but on the millions of people who enjoy the visit of a travelling fair to their community or region. These issues could be addressed by taking into account the following suggestions:

The Continued Value of Historic Travelling Fairs and the Provisions of Sites for Travelling Fairs

  A system of appeal should be put in place similar to the granting of licenses, so that when a showman is refused permission to open a new fair, the council must give adequate reasons why this application has been refused either on grounds of safety or economics.

The Particular Needs of Travelling Showpeople in Carrying out their Trade and how it relates to the Effectiveness of Existing Planning Guidance on the Provision of Quarters for Travelling Showpeople

  The following provisions should be addressed within the guidelines:

    A semi residential all year round site (suitable for business and residential needs).

    Residential Care (in this case it can purely be referred to as a place where a family can park up to look after the elderly relative or a living site which caters solely for the elderly population with access to local health facilities.

    Continuation of the Family Unit (and although not relevant to this particular committee the continuity of education for travelling showchildren).

    All year round storage and flexibility of obtaining equipment during the so called non residential period.

4   Dr Vanessa Toulmin is also the Specialist Adviser to the Committee for this Inquiry. Back

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