Skip to main content

Discover fairs;Discovery series

The smells! The screams! The laughter! Fairs continue to enthrall despite the advent of theme parks. Lawrence Alster finds out what makes them such fun

Few places offer a better opportunity to let your hair down than a fairground. Against a soundtrack of generators thrumming, mach-inery clattering, sirens wailing, music pounding and barkers calling, you can scream your head off, play mindless games for cheap and tacky prizes and stuff yourself with inedible food.

But fairs haven't always been such fun. For the Romans they were strictly business. Throughout their occupation of Britain, fairs were regular gatherings of merchants and they carried on when the Romans left. By the Middle Ages, the crown regarded fairs as a useful source of income and tried to regulate them as well as creating new ones. Among those given a special seal of approval was the Cambridge Midsummer Fair (King John gave it its charter in 1211), and the Nottingham Goose Fair (recognised by Edward I in 1284).

By this stage it wasn't just merchants buying, selling and having a good gossip. The prospect of a ready audience drew jugglers, acrobats, fortune tellers and puppeteers. Fairs gradually became known as sites of entertainment as much as trade. Showmen and their families would travel from site to site, setting up sideshows and rides in towns and villages.

The travelling fair flourished. This was mainly due to improved roads and the advent of steam. No longer were the showmen's single trucks pulled by horses; instead, huge steam engines hauled up to 10 trailers, sometimes weighing more than 50 tons. The arrival of these monsters in places where people had only the simplest of leisure pursuits was a prospect guaranteed to galvanise whole towns and villages.

As technology developed, tiny, hand-driven roundabouts gave way to grand and elaborate "gallopers" - the biggest featured 56 horses in rows four abreast, with a mechanical organ at the centre.

Towards the end of the 19th century, people would stream to the fair to see a miracle: electric light generated by a steam engine. In the bigger fairs, people could also "ooh" and "aah" at the moving pictures which appeared as if by magic on the Bioscope, a primitive form of mobile cinema.

Most of the Bioscopes vanished as permanent cinemas were built, although some lingered into the early 1920s in the south of England. But as one technology waned there were other opportunities to fill the fairs with showstoppers. Towards the end of the First World War, some galloping horses were replaced with tanks or motor cars. The next big draw came in the 1930s with dodgems. which were the nearest many people came to getting behind a car wheel.

But the traditional fair always was, and still is, made up of far more than whirling roundabouts and scary rides. There are some who prefer the simpler pleasures, like the hoop-la stall, for example, where you throw a ring around a prize object to win it. Or the "wheel-em-in", which involves rolling a coin down a chute on a squared table marked with prizes. And, of course, the coconut shy - throw a ball, knock a coconut off its perch, win a prize. Simple, village-fete stuff and still marvellous fun.

Perhaps it is the absence of the traditional mix of low-tech elements and whizzing machinery that strips the modern theme parks of any magic. Spectacular rides, well-drilled attendants and orderly queues are all very well, but theme parks have none of a fair's spicy earthiness. What's lacking are the showmen's trailers in the background, the exotic names on the stalls and a feeling that you are part of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

Thanks to Dr Vanessa Toulmin, research director of the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield University Library; Brian Steptoe, author of "Roundabout People: Artists and Artisans"; Jonathan Wheeler, Bressingham Steam Museum Trust and Gardens and Lora Martin, Public Relations Dept, Gold Medal Products Co, Cincinatti

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you