There's No Women Like Showwomen
During the First World War when women throughout the United Kingdom were called upon to aid the war effort, the following editorial appeared in the World's Fair, 1916:
In showland, women have always worked and worked hard. We have seen our women at the head of circuses, menageries, roundabouts and many other amusement concerns, and in fully ninety per cent of our people, it is the women who look after the exchequer.
The writer was simply stating a well known fact. The structure of fairground society has always allowed and encouraged women to perform whatever role they are accomplished at including all the traditional male jobs such as driving and manual work, and not necessarily limited to the family home. On the modern fairground, women can be found operating the rides, instructing in the planning of the fair and lessees in their own right. As the editorial in 1916 illustrates, this is not a recent phenomenon and one that has been an intrinsic part of the fairground tradition for well over a hundred and fifty years.
In the South Yorkshire region, one of the most famous rides was Waddington's Gondola Switchback which was travelled by Mrs. Hannah Waddington. Her success as a machine proprietor can be gauged by examining her takings books from 1898 to 1908, and during the Christmas Fair held at Sheffield in 1900, her overall takings were well over a hundred pounds. In the case of the Warren family from Lincolnshire, Lottie Warren became the main driver for the family traction engine. Indeed, three days after giving birth to her son, she drove the traction engine from Grimsby to Lincoln market! Another example of family involvement is reflected in the story of Annie Hayes. Annie Hayes, née Hickman was born into the famous Hickman boxing family from the Black Country, during the First World War. The Hickman family travelled with Pat Collins in the Black Country and Annie was taught how to box by the fighters who toured with the family booth. Again this is not unique, William Moore, had his boxing license temporarily revoked in 1912 for allowing his daughter to box against bears in the family show. Indeed women fighters can be traced back to the days of bare knuckle fighters and Ronnie Taylor, the famous boxing proprietor from the South Wales Section remembers accounts of his grandmother fighting in this manner.
During the First and Second World Wars, due to the shortage of men fairground women were forced through necessity into providing the workforce and operating skills on the fair. One such account of this appears in the World's Fair in 1917 when Mrs. Elizabeth Kayes saved the family circus from closure by appearing as a lion tamer due to the ill health of her husband and her sons enlistment in the armed services.
By the end of the First World War, the large mechanised roundabouts dominated the landscape of the twentieth century fairground. However despite the changes in the working environment of the fairground, the use of women in the workforce or as employers continued. Another famous family of showwomen were the Pullen girls of Yorkshire. Aaron Pullen owned a set of Steam Yachts and it was his children who provided the labour necessary to travel the equipment around the country, build up the ride and operate it while the fair was open for business. Ada, Lizzie and Clara had all been taught to operate the family ride from an early age, a situation which arose out of necessity but proved to be very successful for the family. However, perhaps the most famous of all fairground women was the redoubtable Mrs Deakin Studt. After the death of her husband, Margaret Deakin was left with the task of continuing the business and bringing up six children alone. However, Margaret Deakin did more than maintain the family firm. Throughout the 1930s, the firm of Mrs Deakin and Sons went from strength to strength and she expanded the company until it became one of the largest travelling concerns in Wales during the 1940s and 1950s. Perhaps the one area where fairground women have historically not played as equal a role as the showmen is in the organisation of the Showmen's Guild. Although fairground women have played an active role in the formation and organisation of showland society, their presence on a regional and national committee level of the Guild has been scarce. However there has been historical precedents and one of Mrs. Deakin's greatest achievements was the level of prominence she attained in the Guild itself, a record which have never been equalled by any woman since. Between 1938 to 1955 she served as a member of the committee and for eleven of these years she also took on the responsibility of Treasurer to the section. In 1942, Charles Yeates, the Secretary of the South Wales Section, acknowledged the contribution she made to the community:
My special thanks must go to Mrs Deakin Studts, the section Treasurer, who not only worked but financed the section for a while - to keep it going, and even though she did that, attended every meeting and was Steward at Hereford Fair - she did not receive ONE penny expenses for the year.
However, the greatest reward for her services was when she was elected as delegate to the Central Council of the Showmen's Guild in 1944. This distinction was duly acknowledged by Thomas Murphy, the General Secretary of the Showmen's Guild at this time:
The honour of being the first woman to attend the Central Council as a delegate falls to Mrs M. Deakin Studts.
However, it would be more than fifty years after Mrs Deakin Studts' appearance as delegate to Central Council that another woman would appear in the same capacity. In 1996, Sandra Wright a Committee member of the Yorkshire Section became the first woman since Margaret Deakin to be voted as a delegate to the Central Council of the Guild. In the intervening years, few women became members in their own right and it was not until the advent of Cathy Meakin and Rae Armstrong-Wilson in the Notts. and Derby Section, and Sandra Wright in the Yorkshire Section, that women have followed the example set by Margaret Deakin on the regional committees.
This is only a small sample of the contribution made by travelling showwomen over the years, and other notable examples include Annie Holland, Sophie Hancock, Mammie Paine, Amy Locke and Elizabeth Crecraft amongst others. However, it represents the kind of life and work, women in the fairground community were involved in then and now. Travelling showwomen have always played an equal role in the business and the pioneering role models provided by generations of showwomen should not be forgotten.
Dr. Vanessa Toulmin, National Fairground Archive
World's Fair, June 27-July 3, 1997