Keeping the Flag Flying!

Following on from the successful “All The Fun Of The Fair” Arts Trail last year, Sandwell Museum and Arts Service have recently been working on a big exhibition that we were going to launch in April of this year.  We had formed partners with the National Circus and Fairground Archive and Pat Collin’s Funfairs, who kindly loaned us several original, unique and some unseen items that we could showcase to the communities of Sandwell.

The exhibition unfortunately has had to be postponed due to the current Covid-19 pandemic and we have sadly closed our buildings until further notice.  The exhibition was going to be hosted across Sandwell Museums buildings, with each building exploring a different aspect of the fairground and circus.

But fear not!  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology we aim to bring you little snippets, facts and blogs about our exhibition, for your entertainment and interest. To borrow the Collin’s family motto we intend “to keep the flag flying”.

The main attraction….

Pat Collin’s Funfairs at the Nottingham Goose Fair – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service from the National Fairground and Circus Archive

Fairs originally started off as hiring fairs (to hire workers) or “Mops”, which can be traced to the fourteenth century with the Statue of Labourers being passed by Edward III.  These “Mops”, as they were referred to in the Midlands, continued until the end of the 19th century.

Mop fairs were the original “Jobs Fair”.  Labourers, farm workers, servants and craftsmen would usually take yearly contracts with their employers, from October to October. At the end of the employment contract, the workers would attend the Mop Fair to find a new employment carrying an item signifying their trade.  A servant with no skill would carry a mop head!

These fairs ran alongside the Royal Charter Fairs.  During the 12th century, English towns applied to the crown to hold an annual fair that would last two or three days.  A Charter Fair was a street fair or market and gave the chance for businesses to sell and trade with the community of the town. Livestock, food, cloth and tools were common items sold.

The fair, as we know it, evolved from the Charter Fairs.  Showmen brought rides and entertainment to encourage more visitors to the fair, which increased the footfall of people buying goods. It is believed that the first fairground rides appeared in the 1700s.  These rides were small, made from wood and physically powered by the children of the travelling families. 

Restored 1890s dobby roundabout, Photograph by Alex Howell 2010

In “Seventy Years a Showman” Lord George Sanger describes how his father manufactured his own “dobby” early in his career. Crude in construction, the horses ‘were enlarged examples of the rough penny toys … their legs were simply round sticks. Their bodies were lumps of deal rounded on one side. Their heads were roughly cut from half-inch deal boards and inserted in a groove in their bodies, while the tails and manes were made of strips of rabbit-skin’.

Dobbies were the first merry-go-rounds, but without the gilding and ornate carving as we are used to seeing.  Frederick Savage was one of the country’s first people to begin the transition from manufacturing agricultural equipment to commercial fairground rides.  His early fairground equipment included dobby horse roundabouts with simple hanging animals, that were operated by a couple of workers pushing the roundabout when patrons had taken their seats.  Savage then developed the crank system, which meant one person could operate the ride, freeing up other workers to attend to the other rides.  The invention of steam powered rides, turned the simple crude dobby into the classic galloper we know today.

FFS (Fun Fairground Secret) – British gallopers have all their animals face left and travel in a clockwise direction.  Mainland Europe and American Carousels have their animals facing right, and travel in an anti-clockwise direction.

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Black Country Showman Pat Collin’s inherited his father’s dobby and swing boat yacht, which would hold around 20 people.  His father John was a horse dealer and his rides were a side line business at the time, which he used to take to horse trading fairs.  Pat and his brothers would hold a rope on either end of the yacht and pull and release it making the yacht swing back and forth. 

Who’s that fresh faced young thing? Swingboats 2010 by Alex Howell.

When he took over the yacht, Pat came up with an idea to get local children from the town or village he was working in, to do the hard work. Instead of offering payment, he would give them a free go on the rides, when other children lined up to have a go on the ride they took over, from the children already powering the rides.  Soon the dobby and swing boat yacht were accompanied by swinging gondolas (which is where the name of the Pat Collins’ Ltd yard Gondola Works came from).

He also had a velocipede, which was a bicycle powered merry-go-round, where “punters” paid to cycle on a round-about, powering their own ride.  The faster you pedalled, the faster the ride.

Bicycle Round-about, velocipede. – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service from the National Fairground and Circus Archive

Originally, a fair would have several market stalls and traders, selling various items from farm produce and objects of curiosity to international spices and medicines.  They also presented small theatrical performances and peep shows. Paying audiences would watch tales of Greek myths, bible stories and historical events brought to life, or on the darker side of the fair, “beautiful, enchanting women from around the world”.  George Sanger writes a lot about his early life travelling the fairs with his father, who created his own peep show. 

“This was nothing more than a large box carried on the back, containing some moveable and very gaudy pictures, and having six peep-holes fitted with fairly strong lenses.  When a pitch was made, the box was placed on a folding trestle and the public were invited to walk up and see the show.

My father was an excellent talker.  He could ‘patter’ in the most approved style, especially about the Battle of Trafalgar, scenes of which formed one of the staple features of his little show”

Seventy Years A Showman by Lord George Sanger (The Fitzroy edition)

Peepshows soon became a popular sight at fairs, especially travelling fairs.  Not only did they continue to tell classic tales of old, they also were used to display exciting and “up to date” news and bring the highly illustrated penny dreadfuls to remote communities.  James Sanger (George Sanger’s father) capitalised on notorious murders and spun tales to attract paying customers to approach and see the murder unfold.

FFS (Fun Fairground Secret)- Travelling funfairs went from town to town, coast to coast, with some taking permanent residency on piers at local sea side towns.  Peepshows were still incredibly popular and developed in the “What The Butler Saw” machines, which became a fixed and incredibly popular amusements (especially with the gents visiting the sea side).  A reel of erotic film depicted a woman partially undressing in her bedroom, as if a voyeuristic butler was watching through a key hole.

As the fair became even more popular over time, they naturally got bigger and bigger- presenting new acts, rides and exhibitions to attract swarms of people to come along.  Theatrical booths, waxworks “freak or wonders of nature” shows, wild beast shows all started to join the fairs, promising audience’s thrills, excitement and fun. 

The fairground shows of the early to mid-nineteenth century are perhaps the most documented of all the amusements that appeared on the fairground until the introduction of steam powered roundabouts. The first fifty years of the 1800s showed how popular the fair was, with menageries, circuses, ghost shows, exhibitions and waxworks all on display and shaping the showgrounds.

These fairgrounds brought the likes of Lord George Sanger, Tom Norman and Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie, household name fame.

Fairground shows and attractions such as the boxing booths, parading booths, ghost shows, and exhibitions, led the way for the modern fun houses, ghost trains and other rides we see now.

The Boxing Ring

Boxing Booth – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service from the National Fairground and Circus Archive

Boxing rings used to be a common feature at fairgrounds.  Showmen would invite members of the public to enter the ring and challenge one another, or the fair strong man.  The fairground boxing show was a common sight in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries even up to the late 1960s. The last boxing booth open on the fairgrounds in the UK was Ron Taylor’s, following the retirement of Mrs Esther McEwon in the West Country. The decline of the boxing booths on the fairground is linked to the decision by the Boxing Board of Control in 1947, to make fairground boxing booths out of bounds to all licensed members of the Board.

Pat Collins Funfairs Boxing Booth – Image loaned to Sandwell Museum and Arts Service by Ned Williams
Cockerel – Photograph by Alex Howell 2010

FFS (Fun Fairground Secret)- some fairgrounds had several secretly advertised events and attractions, which brought in punters after closing.  You had to look around the fair during the day to find these adverts.  It is said that if you spotted a cockerel figure on a galloper, it was an advert for a cock fighting ring in the evening and cock fighter trainers, would turn up and make some money through the illegal fights.  This also made a little extra income for the fair as the showmen charged entry.

In the next instalment we will be looking at the birth of the circus, so keep your eyes open for lions, tigers, bears, trapeze and possibly the saddest bunch of clowns you have ever seen.

Alex – Arts and Projects Officer, Sandwell Museums and Arts.

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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