Newcastle Town Moor Fair

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Newcastle is perhaps the biggest fair in Britain, if not in Europe, occupying 40 acres of the Town Moor, a mile away from the city. Commonly known as, ‘The Hoppings’, it takes place during the week the Northumberland Plate, the ‘Pitmen’s Derby’ run at nearby Gosforth Park. The freehold on the land where the fair takes place is owned by the council but the freeman of the city also has rights and privileges resulting in the fact that the fair cannot take place without the agreement of both parties.

The fair was founded in 1882 as the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Temperance Association Festival by the town fathers and was held as a festival in conjunction with the race week. The idea of using a fair/festival to advise people to act morally and not drink is in contrast to the London council and the Fair Act of 1871, in which fairs were seen as places of ill-repute and injurious to the inhabitants of the town. However the festival was a great success and attracted over 160,000 people. The fair was not the only attraction; sports, games, brass bands, military shows, football and cricket matches were also held and on the Wednesday the poor children of the city were taken there for a free tea paid for by the organisers. The festivities were seen as a success in that there "were no card sharpers, no gambling booths and few people under the influence of drink".

The nature of the agreement between the council and the freeman led to problems in 1913 when there was a dispute between the committee and the freeman of the moor over the letting of the site without the permission of the freeman. The freeman had advised the council that there should be no letting of the ground for the festival due to the damage left to the ground the previous year when heavy weather made it difficult for the showmen to leave the ground without damaging the site; however, John Murphy had given £50 to the council to repair the damage left by the equipment on the ground. The council disagreed - they were proud of the Hoppings festival in the North and they liked the rent, which was in the region of £1,000. The freeman went to court but the decision was given in favour of the showmen. However, the following year the freeman was granted an injunction and there was no temperance fair on the moor for that year and for the subsequent war years.

In 1919 the fair returned to the moor to celebrate a Victory Festival and despite one of two problems over the years the festival has survived.

Due to the times when the Moor had been let to showmen from other sections of the Guild and not the North of England (in particular in 1905 when it was let to George Green of Glasgow) an agreement was drawn up in 1907 between the North Eastern Showmen to ensure that the fair remained in their section. The result was the Northern Showmen’s Syndicate, which retained the lease on the Town Moor site and still has a say in the running and organisation of the fair for the showmen until this present day.

Newcastle is also one of the fairs where the showmen with the side stuff do not have a set position at the fair. At Newcastle they draw lots for the positions so the showmen have more of a chance the next year if their position for that year was no good.

Famous showmen such as Randall Williams, Bostock and Wombwell and the Biddall family with their Ghost show were frequent visitors to the fair. By 1929, three boxing booths were in attendance including Len Johnson and J. Stewart. Tippler White presented his miniature menagerie, Tom Wortley exhibited his two-headed giant and Pindar's circus was one of the many entertainments on offer.

The shows included W. H. Stewart's National Sporting Club featuring boxers from England and America, the Pindar's family with a circus and a menagerie, John Collin's new Show Boat Theatre, Jack Parry's wonder show featuring Big Chief Red Snake, Richard Shufflebottom's Texan sports, Charlie Birch's Water Circus and many other famous names such as the Chadwick's, Patterson's, the Wheatley's and Professor Testo with his flea circus, all who would be associated with the Town Moor for many years to come.

In 1955 the main shows in attendance were the Colorado's "established favourites on the Town Moor", Tom Norman's Travelling London Palladium Show with "its entertainment of a high standard", Gilbert Chadwick's freak animal show and Professor Alf Testo's flea circus.

Throughout the 1960s, the names of Chadwick, Shufflebottom, Patterson and Taylor continued to be associated with the show row with the only difference being the type of exhibition now on offer. By the 1970s ghost trains, fun houses and haunted houses had replaced the fat boy, the lion faced lady and the freak animals.

The famous show row at Newcastle is now dominated by trailer mounted triple decker ghost trains, fun houses and crazy mirror shows. Ron Taylor's Boxing Academy last appeared on the Hoppings in 1995 bringing to an end a long tradition of boxing proprietors such as Len Johnson, Jack Gage and the Stewart family who had been associated with the fair over the century.

Like its famous Yorkshire rival, Hull, Newcastle Town Moor has always been famous for its row of shows which still dominate the skyline of the Hoppings. Even before the founding of the Temperance Festival in 1882, famous showmen such as Randall Williams, Bostock and Wombwell and the Biddall family with their Ghost show were frequent visitors to the fair held on the Haymarket.

One of the most famous shows of the nineteenth century was Bostock and Wombwell's menagerie. Although they only exhibited at the Town Moor once, they were regular visitors to the variety of fairs held in Newcastle throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, appearing at the Haymarket, Jesmond Park. In 1931, this famous menagerie opened for the last time at the Old Sheep Market in Newcastle on November 24th. After its final performance the show was disbanded and sold and the two elephants Rosie and Dixie set off down Northumberland Street to the store of Arthur J Fenwick to perform their last farewells. The first shows to appear on the Town Moor would have been the ghost illusion booths and the marionettes shows. From 1898 onwards, cinematograph booths made their appearance at the fair and local people would perhaps have seen their first glimpse of moving pictures at the Hoppings. From 1897 to 1914, a large percentage of the population would have seen moving pictures for the first time in a fairground bioscopes show. One of the most famous of these bioscope proprietors who opened at the Hoppings was Mamie Paine, where her show was a regular attendant at the annual fair. Roundabout proprietors also invested in these shows and in 1907 William Murphy of Sunderland presented the largest bioscope show ever seen in Newcastle when he exhibited his large organ fronted exhibition new from the manufacturers. The outbreak of the First World War prevented many fairs from opening throughout the United Kingdom and unfortunately for the showmen and the local people the dispute between the Freeman, the showmen and the Council which had started in 1913 was still unresolved and no fair opened on the Moor for ten years. However a "Hoppings" fair was presented in Jesmond Vale for the Race Week during this time.

With the move back in 1924 to the original festival site the fair once again expanded and the show row was one area which greatly improved. However, fashions had changed and no longer did the cinematographs, ghost shows and marionettes booths dominate the Newcastle skyline. They were replaced by a novelty booths, ghost trains, dancing girls and boxing academies. By 1929, three boxing booths were in attendance including Len Johnson, and J. Stewart, Tippler White presented his miniature menagerie, Tom Wortley exhibited his two-headed giant and Pindar's circus was one of the many entertainments on offer.

The shows included W. H. Stewart's National Sporting Club featuring boxers from England and America, the Pindar's family with a circus and a menagerie, John Collin's new Show Boat Theatre, Jack Parry's wonder show featuring Big Chief Red Snake, Richard Shufflebottom's Texan sports, Charlie Birch's Water Circus and many other famous names such as the Chadwick's, Patterson's, the Wheatley's and Professor Testo with his flea circus, all who would be associated with the Town Moor for many years to come. By the 1950s the shows had changed yet again and despite the nostalgia displayed by the World's Fair reporter in 1955 for a bygone age which had disappeared over forty years ago, the show row was still immensely popular:

"The shows in the seemingly endless line in the West section of the Festival again offer a huge variety of unusual attractions, but many of the older generation look on with a sense of regret. They will probably reflect that shows lost much of their fascination with the disappearance of ghost shows, living pictures, waxworks, and menageries whose entrances were resplendent with gilt, mirror and brasswork ... Times may have changed but the "oddities section still remains good fun and the barkers still remind the milling crowds "you'll remember it all your life."

Of the many shows in attendance in 1955, it was the attractions of the Colorado's "established favourites on the Town Moor", Tom Norman's Travelling London Palladium Show with "its entertainment of a high standard" Gilbert Chadwick's freak animal show and Professor Alf Testo's flea circus which were singled out in the report. However, one important aspect of the shows and no matter how elaborate the showfront, was the always the ability of the showman to tell the tale and bring the people in that was the most important aspect of it's success.

A twentieth century example of the type of showmanship which was frequent at the Hoppings is a story concerning Tippler White, a famous Yorkshire showman who regularly presented novelty shows at Newcastle. One year however, he found to his dismay that although he had the showbooth, the amusements he had planned to exhibit were not available and he was left with an empty booth and no novelty. A solution was quickly found and on the opening night, Tippler White was advertising to the fairgoers an unusual and rare sight only seen once a year in Newcastle. As the customers quickly queued down the side of the show, laughter could be heard from the exhibition tent as people departed from the booth. Business was very successful and the fellow showmen were intrigued as to what Tipple White was exhibiting in his tent. Finally on the last night of the festivities the secret was revealed. As the eager customers entered the show in order to be amazed at this local phenomenon, Tippler White lifted the back flap of the booth and showed the people what they had paid to see; Newcastle Town Moor Fair at night. In order to pacify any tempers that may have been angered by this trick, Tippler White promised the audience half of the entrance fee back in return for total secrecy as to what his novelty was.

Throughout the 1960s, the names of Chadwick, Shufflebottom, Patterson and Taylor continued to be associated with the show row with the only difference being the type of exhibition now on offer. By the 1970s ghost trains, fun houses and haunted houses had replaced the fat boy, the lion faced lady and the freak animals. However the continuity was retained by the showfamilies who returned annually to the Moor and opened their shows on the spot once occupied by the father’s generation.

The famous show row at Newcastle is now dominated by trailer mounted triple decker ghost trains, fun houses and crazy mirror shows. Ron Taylor's Boxing Academy last appeared on the Hoppings in 1995 bringing to an end a long tradition of boxing proprietors such as Len Johnson, Jack Gage and the Stewart family who had been associated with the fair over the century.

Over the past hundred years many famous showmen have attended the Town Moor festivities, bringing entertainment and trickery to many generations of fairgoers. In recognition of the skill, imagination and showmanship, I will end this overview of the Town Moor show row with W. K. Burford's tribute to the shows:

So there are tricks in all trades
Except in yours and mine
And even showmen, sometimes
Come rather near the line
We paid to see a marvel-
A cherry-coloured cat;
Whatever else we passed by
We thought we must see that.
The thing was quite a "take-in,"
We claimed our money back;
But we were then reminded
Cherries are sometimes "black."