O’Connor-Toulmin Family Collection
Title: O’Connor-Toulmin Family Collection
Scope: The collection contains photographs, including early family photographs of the O'Connor family, contemporary research, journal articles and books written by Vanessa Toulmin, Director of the National Fairground Archive since its inception in 1994. Also included in the collection are manuscripts, newspaper cuttings, and a small number of posters.
Extent: 395 photographs, 1 box, 14 books and 6 posters
Name of creator: O’Connor and Toulmin family and Professor Vanessa Toulmin
Administrative / biographical history: The O’connor-Toulmin family has a long tradition on the travelling entertainment coming from long standing show families from Ireland, Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Professor Vanessa Toulmin was born in Morecambe, one of seven siblings. Her mother was from a Lancashire show family, the O’Connors, who lived at Morecambe where her parents had set up at the Winter Gardens fairground and her grandmother was from a Yorkshire family that travelled the Pot fairs in Yorkshire and as far down as Cambridge. The family left Morecambe when Vanessa was 8 years old after the death of her grandparents. Vanessa spent her childhood working on the fair for her aunts and uncles, in Wales and in Lancashire spinning candy floss and minding children’s rides, amongst other things.
Professor Vanessa Toulmin is the founder and Research Director of the National Fairground Archive (NFA) at the University of Sheffield. She is also the Head of Public Engagement, and Curator and Producer of Festival of the Mind and Ideas Bazaar.
Professor Toulmin comes from a Lancashire showland family. She completed her PhD in 1997 and was awarded the Chancellor's Medal in 1997 for outstanding achievement. In 2007 she became a Professor taking a Chair in Early Film and Popular Entertainment. She was the first Professor to be awarded a Personal Chair in this subject in any University.
Her passion for popular entertainment stems from her childhood on the Winter Gardens fairground in Morecambe and the fairgrounds in Lancashire and the North of England. Her family fairground history was also a great influence igniting her interest on the subject, with numerous members performing on shows, in particular her aunty Brenda who was a contortionist at the Moulin Rouge in Paris in the 1960s.
The fifth of six children, Professor Toulmin was the first person in her family to attend higher education, studying Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. In 1980 she read her doctorate study on the ‘Social and Oral History of Travelling Showpeople from 1890 to the Present Day’ in the School of English. During her time in Sheffield she has introduced new courses to the School of English, published numerous papers, various monographs, taken on international teaching and consultancy commitments and has been a champion for the arts on behalf of the University and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
In 1994 Vanessa set up the National Fairground Archive (NFA) at the University Library and in 1997 won one of the very first grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund to a university, for the digitisation of its photographic collection.
Her research on the Mitchell & Kenyon collection of early films has been of international significance and helped bring their story to a wider audience and her innovative Admission All Classes (AAC) project with Blackpool Council has been a model for knowledge transfer in the humanities.
Alongside her academic work, Vanessa has developed the NFA into a major resource for researchers from around the world with interests not only in fairgrounds but generally in the history of popular entertainment. She has also kept in close touch with the fairground communities whose lives and histories continue to provide a wealth of documentary material to the archive. The archive now preserves an often neglected aspect of the nation's cultural history and acts as a collective memory for that community.
A leading authority on Victorian entertainment and film, Professor Toulmin has completed extensive research on travelling showpeople. She is also a leading authority on new variety and circus and has acted as creative advisor to festivals in the United Kingdom including the Roundhouse in London and Showzam in Blackpool.
Professor Toulmin is the author of several books, including ‘The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon’, ‘Electric Edwardians’, and ‘Pleasurelands’. Her recent publications include four major works on the architecture and history of Blackpool's attractions: Winter Gardens, Blackpool Tower, Blackpool Pleasure Beach and the Blackpool Illuminations.
Professor Toulmin's work has been published in internationally recognised journals. She has submitted a wide range of articles which includes topics such as early film, Edwardian and Victorian entertainments, the history of freak shows, carnivals and British fairgrounds and the culture and society of travelling showpeople amongst others. She has also curated many major exhibitions including a national touring exhibition on the history of travelling fairs for the Sheffield Millennium Galleries, Croydon Clock Tower and Edinburgh Arts Centre and currently runs the Exhibition Gallery in Western Bank Library for the University of Sheffield. She has also acted as Special Advisor to two Government Select Committees on travelling fairs and gypsy sites.
Professor Toulmin has a wealth of media experience. She has acted as historical consultant for seven major television productions since 2000, including the Mitchell & Kenyon series on BBC2 and has co-produced five major radio programmes with BBC Radio 4 on popular entertainment, history of fairs and early cinema. She worked with BBC 4 Timeshift producing two programmes on the history of fairs and circuses and has also appeared on Who Do You Think You Are and the Reel History of Britain with Melvyn Bragg. Additionally, she is often consulted by national newspapers including The Times, Independent, Observer, Guardian, Express, Time Out and the Times Higher Education Supplement.
Acting as a producer and consultant on heritage and performance history, Professor Toulmin has worked for five years with Blackpool Council on their heritage and regeneration. She is the creative director of Showzam: Blackpool's annual festival of Circus Magic and New Variety and she has presented shows and events across Sheffield as part of the NFA's outreach strategy.
The University’s partnership with Blackpool Council's Department of Leisure, Culture and Community Learning through Professor Toulmin’s work has helped underpin the town's tourism and heritage strategies.
Led, produced and delivered by Professor Toulmin, Admissions All Classes (AAC)events drew on research from the NFA to provide a tribute to the seaside entertainment that drew visitors to the town in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including new circus, burlesque, magic, variety and theatre. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, AAC formed the basis for future strategies and regeneration projects which helped drive the renovation of Blackpool's historic sites.
Another event that evolved through Professor Toulmin's partnership with Blackpool Council was Showzam! This first took place in 2008 as part of the Blackpool 365 events programme, funded by the North West Development Agency (NWDA) and led by Marketing Blackpool. Professor Toulmin was creative advisor of Showzam! for three years and in 2011 she assumed the role of sole curator. Since then she has played an integral role in establishing the festival as a firm fixture in the UK's entertainment calendar each year. The event is now worth £3 million.
In 2009-2010 Professor Toulmin acted as a special advisor on heritage and regeneration to the CEO of Blackpool Council, Steve Weaver. Building on the success of her 2009 commemorative publication on the history of the Winter Gardens, she helped the town secure funding to buy the site. Since the acquisition in March 2010, the Winter Gardens have been undergoing a continuing programme of refurbishment estimated to create 1,000 jobs and deliver £223m in annual benefits to the local economy.
Professor Vanessa Toulmin said: "When I was a child I wanted to leave the fair and run away to university, now I have come full circle and work happily in both worlds as an ambassador for my academic community in the University and also for my fairground family through the work of the Archive..."
Source: Donated by Professor Vanessa Toulmin
System of arrangement: Catalogued according to type
Subjects: Fairgrounds, Fairground Rides, Fairground Art, Travelling Entertainment, Circus, Variety and Music Hall, Family Collections, Performers
Conditions of access: Items are available to view by appointment in the NFA reading room
Copyright: Various, according to item
Finding aids: Photographs available on NFA digital. Online finding aid available here. Books available through Star Plus, the University of Sheffield library catalogue
Further information: Further accruals expected