The Showmen’s Guild Role During the Wars

London Section War Time Notice 3rd May 1941The Guild continued with its reorganisation in the period leading up to 1914 with the Sections being formalised in 1917 when the Showmen’s Guild became registered under the Trade Union’s Act. The biggest test to the resilience of the Guild since its foundation came in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War, which left the industry and the showpeople in crisis as fairs were closed throughout the country, men went to the battle grounds, women were redeployed to factories and engines, animals and vehicles were requisitioned by the government.

The War saw the Guild cope with situations and events not covered in the Rule Book and in the following years it lobbied for self-regulation and restrictive admission. Member numbers still rose between 1919 and 1920 from 1,612, to 1,954. During the 1920s the Guild began to update and expand on many of its rules and in 1922 the Nottinghamshire and Derby Section was created and the Guild could truly call itself the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain in that it finally covered the United Kingdom as a whole.

Throughout 1923, the ten Sections held a series of meetings and further regulations were proposed, including the "No Guild, No Ground" policy which was later implemented in the Rule Book. This and other new and revised rules were submitted to a Special Meeting of Members and adopted by the membership. By the end of this decade however, the decrease in the numbers of members joining the Guild compelled the General Secretary, William Savage, to write that in order for the Guild to become effective ‘we must count upon the loyalty of the Lessees of the Fair Grounds who are Members, as well as upon the tenant members’. The previous rules had suggested that Guild members be given preferential treatment. According to William Savage, this new constitution was needed because ‘It was found that the rules and regulations of the Membership were more of a tentative character than otherwise, and to place the work upon a more permanent basis it has been found necessary to reconstruct the whole of the rules and conditions of Membership.’

The Guild ended the decade on a new note with the election of Mr William Wilson as President of the Showmen’s Guild and the relocating of Central Office from the Midlands to London.

Throughout the 1930s the Guild became stronger and more effective, not only on a national level, where it campaigned rigorously for the rights of the members, but also within the showland community itself.

With the outbreak of the Second World War on the 3rd of September, the fairground community remembering the near catastrophic effect of the previous war on the business were pessimistic as Oxford Fair was cancelled and the Guild immediately contacted the Government to clarify the situation. The Guild had just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and it was in a strong position to serve its members and to safeguard their livelihood and the future of fairs during the following years of conflict. The reporter writing in the World’s Fair jubilee issue published in 1954 wrote of this time that unlike the previous occasion:

‘The outbreak of the Second World War on September 3 found the showmen not unprepared and there were no panic steps such as had been taken in 1914 when several showmen disposed of their shows. It was felt as far as possible that those who would not be taking an active part in the war - in the Fighting Services or in the Civil Defence - should keep the flag flying until victory crowned the aims of those striving to prevent the world from falling under the domination of Nazi Germany.’

Despite the circumstances, the following decade would prove to be one of the most prosperous since the turn of the century as the Guild and the Government worked together to raise moral during the war. As well as running the fairs, the Showmen’s Guild as it had done during the Great War with the Ambulance Appeal, embarked on raising funds for the war effort, this time for the purchase of a Spitfire as well as many war charities. The then Scottish Chairman of the Guild, T.E. Browne, who became the first Scottish President of the Showmen’s Guild in 1938, instigated the Spitfire Fund in 1940 when the showmen of Great Britain raised £5000 in four months to buy a spitfire for the nation and worked with the Government to introduce Stay at Home Fairs in 1942. Although charter fairs such as Kirkcaldy and other historic fairs around Scotland had been cancelled, especially in 1941, parks and town centres were put at the disposal of showmen to provide and aid public morale with Glasgow Green and Queen’s Park available to place fairs. Glasgow Green had already been used for this purpose in the Great War.

From the Second World War onwards the Showmen's Guild went from strength to strength, updating its rules but keeping to the original principles of its founding fathers. Membership increased rapidly and by the end of the conflict membership of the Guild was restricted to sons and daughters of existing Guild members.

Remembering the Showmen Veterans

The showmen’s contribution to both the First and Second World War is commemorated each year during the Remembrance Day Parade in London in November. The Lancashire Section sends the largest contingent from any section and the survivors who attend the march are just a few of the many members of the Showland community in particular from Lancashire, one of the largest sections of the Guild, to enlist for King and Country.