History of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain

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The Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2014, is the principal trade association for travelling showmen.

The people it represents gain their livelihoods by presenting amusements at funfairs. They come from wide variety of historical backgrounds. There are some whose roots go back to the time of the strolling players and entertainers, but most are the descendants of those who were attracted into the fairground business during the period of great expansion that followed the introduction of steam-powered rides in the nineteenth century.

The Showmen’s Guild was not the first showman’s organisation to be established. In the 1870s a society was formed in Yorkshire to protect its members’ interests and to promote the business of the fairground. It was, however, short-lived and disappeared within just a few years of being founded.

The advent of the Showmen’s Guild is entirely due to the efforts of an evangelical preacher from Leicestershire, George Smith of Coalville. George Smith was a zealous and censorious Primitive Methodist who had taken it upon himself to reform the lot of those people whose lifestyles offended him. Although not an elected member, in 1884 he had been successful in persuading Parliament to adopt a Bill to regulate the lives of those who worked and lived on canal boats. The resultant Act spurred Smith on and he next turned his attention to those who lived in caravans by presenting his 'Movable Dwellings Bill' in 1888. The scope of his Bill was far too wide and it was generally regarded as a ‘drastic’ measure, founding little support in Parliament with some members fiercly opposing his proposed regulations.

After several failed attempts he re-presented a much shorter Bill in 1889. This was no less restrictive in its provisions than its predecessors and the publisher of The Era, a weekly theatrical newspaper, realised that it had grave implications for the travelling showmen who were among his customers. The publisher, FH Pedgrift, was so concerned, that he wrote to many of the leading showmen of the day to express his fears. Among those he urged to defend their rights were the circus proprietor ‘Lord’ George Sanger, James Bostock of the famed Bostock & Wombwell travelling menagerie, the brothers John and Pat Collins, the travelling photographer Joe Caddeck, the Murphys of the North-East of England, the Studts of South Wales, and the Wilmots and McIndoes of Scotland.

His clarion call had its effect, and later that year many of those he had contacted met at the Black Lion Hotel in Salford to discuss how they might oppose the Bill. As a result of this meeting they resolved to join forces as the United Kingdom Showmen and Van Dwellers’ Protection Association. Under this banner they set about enlisting the support of members of both Houses of Parliament and civil liberty groups to fight the Bill. Their campaign was to last almost five years, but resulted in victory when George Smith’s Bill was rejected by Parliament in 1893.

Although the Van Dwellers’ Association was essentially a protest movement that had achieved its principal objective, the showmen decided that there might be some merit in keeping the organisation going. In the following years the Van Dwellers’ Association responded successfully to other threats to the livelihoods of its members, even though it was no more than a voluntary body that had no full-time officials. It had an elected President, James Bostock, who was the first to serve in this capacity and an Honorary Secretary, the first of whom was James Dean, later to also serve as the Association’s President, together with a committee that had over 40 members.

In 1907 the organisation was revitalised by dividing its Executive Committee into seven Divisional Committees. These covered the entire United Kingdom, their areas of responsibility reflecting the areas travelled by their constituent members. Four of them were city-based: the London District, the Manchester & Liverpool District, the Leeds & Bradford District and the Birmingham District. The other three were Wales & West of England, Scotland and, when it was still part of the UK, the whole of Ireland. They were to form the pattern for the Association’s organisation and administration that has been continued to the present day.

The next major step forward came in 1911 when the Association decided to drop its original and somewhat lengthy title in favour of the subtitle ‘The Showmen’s Guild’ that had been added just a few years before. It was around this time that Reverend Thomas Horne, a champion of the showmen since the inception of their organisation, took on a full-time role in its activities as ‘Chaplain and Organiser’. Rev. Thomas Horne carried a vigorous campaign against the 'Movable Dwellings Bill'. Until his death in 1918, he was the main spokesman for the fairground community. With his education and training as a priest, and family association with the fairground, he became the ideal representative of the travelling showmen. He did much to safeguard the future of the Van Dwellers’ Association and present a respectable image of the fairground becaming the Guild’s first General Secretary. Thomas Horne worked together with the legendary showman Pat Collins, who served as its President for an unsurpassed 20 years and transformed the Guild into a strong, influential national body.

By the time of Pat Collins' death in 1918 the Guild had assumed much of its present shape. The District Committees were put on a firmer footing, becoming the ten regional branches or ‘Sections’ through which the Guild is administered today, and members were required to observe a set of rules which, given Thomas Horne’s original calling, had a strong ethical basis.

Since the Guild’s foundation its principal role has remained the same: to defend and promote the interests of its members. High on the list of its priorities is to safeguard the annual calendar of fairs that enables its members to earn a living. This framework of activity is constructed from a wide diversity of events.

Forming its core are the many surviving fairs that were established by charter during the Middle Ages. The victorious Normans brought with them the concept of the fair as a major trading event, and used the establishment of such fairs for both political and economic purposes. In the two centuries between 1200 and 1400 no fewer than 4,800 fairs were granted by the monarch or his representatives. Not all of these prospered, but those that did have continued into modern times, although their trading function has been almost entirely replaced by the once-peripheral amusements.

Over the centuries other events of an annual nature have been added to the showman’s itinerary. Church festivals, which in some cases predated 1066, led to the Wakes and Feasts that still figure in the fairground calendar, while the disaster that was the Black Death resulted in the emergence of the statute or hiring fairs. In the eighteenth century the newly-formed local Friendly Societies provided fresh opportunities for travelling showmen with their annual assemblies or ‘Clubs’. The industrialisation of Britain in the nineteenth century was a spur to further growth, with the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 spawning a whole host of funfairs in response to this sudden increase in people’s leisure time. During the twentieth century, community events such as carnivals and other outdoor events, particularly steam engine rallies, have lengthened the list of places at which the showman can ply his trade.