From Van Dwellers to Showmen's Guild


The formation of the United Kingdom Showman and Van Dwellers' Protection Association in 1889 was and still is the decisive and important event in the history of travelling showpeople as a community. In 1917 the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain, as it became known, was recognised as the trade association of the travelling funfair business and acquired the right to stand as representatives for the business at both local and national levels, a position it still occupies to this day. As we are now approaching the end of the century and the start of a new millennium, perhaps it is necessary to reflect on the growth of the Showmen's Guild and its continued importance to fairground society as a whole.

As the original title suggests, the early Van Dwellers' Association was founded to protect and safeguard the interests of travelling showpeople. Although claims for earlier organisations can be found in the pages of the World's Fair and other publications, these were usually temperance or charitable foundations more concerned with the moral and spiritual salvation of the showpeople than their everyday business and way of life! The incentive for the start of the Van Dwellers Association was the proposed legislation by George Smith, a self styled expert and evangelist from Coalville. He believed that his mission was to reform and educate all members of the itinerant community in the United Kingdom, whom he referred to as:

Dregs of society, that will one day put a stop to the work of civilisation, and bring to an end the advance in arts, science, law and commerce that have been making such rapid strides in the country.

Between 1884 and 1891 George Smith attempted to legislate the movements of all travelling people. After successfully restricting the movements of bargees in 1884, he then turned his attention to other travelling groups in the United Kingdom with the introduction of the Moveable Dwellings Bill in 1888. The basic tenets of this Bill included the registration of all moveable dwellings, the compulsory school attendance of all Gypsy and van dwellers' children and the introduction of a series of regulations concerning the number of people permitted in a given living space. However, the main recommendation was the power to grant the local council the authority for an officer of the law to enter a van with a warrant, in order to inspect the dwelling for sanitation, health and moral irregularities. These proposals caused widespread anger throughout the travelling fraternity. When George Smith attended Birmingham Onion Fair he was chased through the streets of the city and after venturing onto the fairgrounds in Leicester and Northampton he was given police protection from the threat of attacks.

Aware of how this would affect the fairground business, in 1889 the leading showmen of the day were contacted through the pages of The Era and asked to attend a meeting to be held at the Black Lion Hotel in Salford. As a result of this and subsequent gatherings, the Van Dwellers' Protection Association was formed. Therefore, the original aims of the forerunner to the present day Guild was to protect and safeguard the interests of the fairground fraternity.

By 1894 the Moveable Dwellings Bill was finally defeated and the travelling showpeople had won a notable victory. However, after the initial triumph over George Smith, the old organisation went into decline, with membership falling every year. One of the early problems the Association faced was the fact that only a small percentage of the potential members were joining, but the majority were reaping the benefits of the success achieved by the minority. This had to be changed and through effective organisation and the introduction of regional sections the early founders of the Guild gradually introduced a set of guidelines which would eventually form the basis of the rules and conditions found in the Showmen's Year Books. Throughout the past hundred years the Showmen's Guild has effectively been carrying on the mandate set by the founders in 1889: to separate showpeople from Traveller-Gypsies, and to defend the homes, liberties and way of life of the showpeople of Great Britain. The present day Guild not only represents 95% of the community at both national and local levels, but also operates a code of conduct within the fairground community. Commenting on the success of the organisation in 1957 The Times wrote:

As a professional body and Employers' Trade Union the Showmen of Britain must rank as one of the best governed and most co-operative in the Kingdom.

Over the century the Guild has opposed restrictive legislations which would adversely affect travelling showpeople. During the first sixty years of its existence the Guild defeated over 268 Private Bills, included exemption clauses in over a thousand Bills of the same category and has since continued to build on these achievements. It has fought for the inclusion of exemption clauses for its members in legislations ranging from the Middlesex County Council Act, Road Traffic Act, Public Health Act, Betting and Gaming Act, Caravan Sites and Development Act, Vehicles Excise Act and the Town and Country Act, to name but a few. The Guild has become the watchdog for the industry as a whole, the means by which the society is organised and the public face of the community. However, an organisation is only as strong as its members and there have been several occasions during its history on which the Guild has had to rebuke the members for apathy, non attendance of meetings and non compliance of Guild rulings. In The History of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain, Thomas Murphy writes:

It should always be remembered that the work of the Guild is in the nature of a defensive war. We must be constantly on the alert because there is no prospect of either peace or an armistice. As fast as we overcome one set of difficulties, others arise, and so it will go.

In 1960 Frederick Roope, the then General Secretary of the Guild, commented that the personal problems of the members, the effect of new legislation and new competition on the business, had resulted in the responsibilities of the Guild becoming more and more complicated. Nevertheless he wrote that:

We believe we have something worth carrying on, and we are determined to carry it on.

As the new century approaches, travelling showpeople and the Guild that represents them, will yet again have to contend with changes in technology, the threat of competition from other aspects of the leisure industry and future legislation. However, the lessons learned by the pioneers of the Guild are as appropriate now as they were a hundred years ago, and in the words of Thomas Murphy:

I trust that the rising generation will derive inspiration from these efforts to carry on in the same tradition; those who have gone before would ask for no greater reward.

Dr. Vanessa Toulmin, National Fairground Archive
World's Fair, June 20-26, 1997