The First World War

The second decade of the twentieth century proved to be one of mixed fortunes for the travelling showland fraternity with the outbreak of the First World War and the cessation of fairs during the hostilities causing widespread poverty within the community.

The Outbreak of War

William Taylor's Bioscope Show at the Outbreak of war 1914

Thomas Murphy writes in The History of the Showmen’s Guild that ‘the year 1914 opened under the most promising conditions for showland’. However with the outbreak of the War in August, the industry was thrown into disarray as fairs were cancelled throughout the country.  Showmen and staff enlisted and engines, animals and vehicles were requisitioned by the government for the war effort.

One of the first fairs to be cancelled was Bedford, however, not all fairs were immediately affected and some of the major fairs in the country namely Nottingham, Hull and Oxford where amongst the fairs that continued running through the first years of the War. By 1915 fairgrounds were used in some instances as recruiting and enlisting bureaus for the War Office, until in September 1916 the Ministry of Munitions published an order to close fairs under the Defence of the Realm Act. The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), introduced on 8th August 1914, governed all lives in Britain during World War One. The original Act was developed as the war progressed to adapt to the needs of the government and the country in times of war and listed everything people were not allowed to do.

This resulted in the loss of fairs throughout the country. Fairgrounds in the Midlands were particularly affected with only three out of twenty fairs permitted to operate. The Durham region also lost seven out of its ten fairs. However, some fairs continued as morale boosting events for the munitions workers particularly in the industrial areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire, where the old Wakes and Feasts continued in a smaller and more sombre form.

The few fairs that continued running did so under dire conditions, particularly on the East Coast when faced by Zeppelin raids. The diary of Abraham Waddington written in 1916, when the family were open on the market place in Grimsby, illustrates this:

‘Had a good night rest after working on Saturday... Came home and went to bed. Just before I went to bed I heard a big boom then another one and another. Told Dad and heard a lot more boom. Got out of bed and went out ...was snowing. There were big crashes all the time at 12.20. Heard the Zep but could not see it heard it went to Hull and came back. It was terrible to hear the crashes. Went in wagon and thought it was all over but heard more crashes. Heard Zep coming back went in market again, heard one big crash and it was all over. Went to bed very thankful. Thank the Lord for saving us.’

Marshall Fowler, Hero engine, doing war work 1915

The lack of able bodied men due to the outbreak of war resulted in women working in factories throughout the country and becoming more involved in all aspects of work. The following observation appeared as part of an editorial in the World's Fair during 1916, when the shortage of men in the workforce was affecting both travelling and settled communities:

‘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. In remote days the women of showland were looked upon with wonder by those who saw what was being done, but nowadays, when others are doing similar work, their work does not cause any special comment ... Although like their sisters of the outside world, they are now being called upon to take an extra share of the work, it is no new experience for them ... The women of Showland have risen nobly to keep the business going, and all honour to them, but their work in the past has fitted them very well for the important part they are now playing.’

The Showmen’s Guild Ambulance Appeal

Despite the problems caused by loss of fairs in 1916 the Lancashire Section of the Showmen’s Guild launched an appeal at Bury Fair for their members to buy ambulances for the local towns to help the war effort. By July the ambulance fund had risen to £1000 with contributions from individual showmen and showmen’s societies. This action was followed by other showmen all over the country and in January 1917 the Showmen’s Guild presented a convoy of ambulances especially equipped for the war to cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Cardiff, Liverpool, London, Sheffield, Walsall and Hull.

The contribution of the showmen of Great Britain to the war effort was realised by an article in the Glasgow Evening Times in February 1917, which highlighted the patriotism of the showpeople to the war effort including the use of 800 traction engines, the enlisting of thousands of showmen, the raising of £10,000 for war charities and the donation of eight ambulances to the Red Cross. ‘To the public the folk who travel with shows and delight old and young at Vinegar Hill in our own fair city and country fairs with shooting galleries, joy wheels and wiggle waggles appear as mere entertainers with no fixed abode but the showmen are not nomads they are here for a reason and they are part of our community and have a substantial share in the safety and protection of this country. Their patriotism is demonstrated by the many thousands of showmen who have enlisted in the war, the showwomen who work in munition factories and the families who have raised £10,000 for the war effort –gifted ambulances for the Red Cross, supported the War Loan Scheme… ‘

From 1914 onwards the World’s Fair published details of the showmen who had enlisted. At the ending of hostilities the World’s Fair and the Showmen’s Guild published a roll of honour and certificates were issued to all members of the Guild who had served in the armed forces. Showland lost many sons during the hostilities, the first recorded death from the community being that of Mr. H. Wallser, son of Jack Wallser from Devon, killed in action at the battle of Neuve Chapelle.

The Great War ended in November 1918 and after four years of suffering and hardship both on and off the battlefield, the fairground community looked forward to a more prosperous time ahead. As a result of the holding of fairs and festivities to celebrate the ending of the First World War, many families enjoyed a period of prosperity for the first time in four years as celebrations were held throughout the United Kingdom.

Hull Fair opened for the first time in five years in 1919 and the local papers reported successful return of the fair to Walton Street.

The World’s Fair newspaper celebrated its fifteenth birthday and proudly claimed that its policy all along had been for the good of all and that in conjunction with the Showmen’s Guild, the newspaper had fought hard for recognition for showmen and to protect the rights to attend fairs. The following decade would see a time of change on the fairground as new rides were introduced and old familiar attractions disappeared. However, the fairground community had come through five years of difficulties and the lessons they had learned during this period would prove to be important in the not too distant future.