Lottery saves fun of fair - digitally

September 19, 1997

The author Thomas Frost wrote that by the end of the century the last showman would be as great a curiosity as a dodo, and as extinct. That was in 1874 and it is just as true now, according to Vanessa Toulmin, founder of the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield University.

The archive is the most visited collection on the South Yorkshire campus. Until recently, however, fairs were a forgotten part of the social history of Great Britain.

Fairs began in the Middle Ages. Many popular forms of entertainment today originated at the fairs. They helped keep theatre alive during, for example, Oliver Cromwell's repression and to hosted the first film projections.

Today there are still around 5,000 showland families touring the country and their history, their contribution to popular culture, particularly to the theatre, early cinema and music hall, is Dr Toulmin's world.

Once a candyfloss spinner, Dr Toulmin grew up on a permanent fair in Morecambe. She came to study at Sheffield's Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language because of her interest in folklore. Her PhD, "Fun without Vulgarity - showland community, women and language", was funded through a scholarship from the Wingate Foundation.

She has recently received the chancellor's medal for an outstanding contribution to university life and is now assistant director of the archive, handling many thousands of inquiries.

"There is a fascination about fairs, a kind of mystique," she says. Although the unique way of life is misunderstood, there is still a magic. "The fair arrives but it also goes away again."

That is the main difference between showland and the thriving theme park industry. But parks are no threat to the fun of the travelling fair. "The permanent fairs are somehow bleached," she says. "You don't get the atmosphere of the travelling fair, the smell of diesel, hot dogs, candy floss. There is no romance."

Dr Toulmin visits at least one fair a week and she acknowledges things have changed. Only a decade ago ten people were needed to operate each ride. Now it is usually just one. Her visits keep her in close touch with a community that has been misrepresented as clannish, she says. Despite the curiosity they arouse, showpeople view themselves merely as business people who happen to travel.

The archive is growing at an impressive rate. Three years ago the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain donated a mountain of material to start the collection. Since then Dr Toulmin has added books, newspapers, manuscripts, advertising material, manufacturers' drawings, film and video images, audio recordings and more than 30,000 photographs.

Many show families have donated their collections of memorabilia, the most valuable of which belonged to Margaret Shufflebottom. A revealing picture of the lives of a Northern show family is painted through account books, letters and diaries. It also reveals how profitable fairs could be.

The account book for Waddington and Co documents takings for one Saturday in Halifax of around 1906 of Pounds 44 - a not insignificant amount at the time.

The archive has started to outgrow its shelf space. The Heritage Lottery Fund has come to the rescue with Pounds 88,000 to convert the photographs to digital form.

The two-year project will be jointly managed by the library and the Humanities Research Institute, which achieved prominence for its computer-based work with the Canterbury Tales and the Hartlib papers.

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