A book on the history of fairground transport? It sounded like the sort of thing that might feature at the end of Have I Got News For You? – I was going to need some convincing. As it turned out, not that much convincing, as my co-author, Allan Ford, is a compelling story-teller, as well as being a fount of knowledge on all things connected with the travelling funfair. The more we spoke, the clearer it became that there was the opportunity to put some of those stories onto paper, and the result is A History of Fairground Transport: From Horses to Artics.

Once a travelling showman himself, Allan was largely responsible for reviving interest in the Wall of Death motorbike attraction at the turn of the century, when he restored and travelled with a wall after a period when the spectacle had died out in Britain. These days he spends much of his time chronicling the showman’s way of life, as well as building up an impressive collection of fairground memorabilia, while at the same time being active in safeguarding the safety of rides.

We had worked together before, both on You Can’t Wear Out an Indian Scout: Indians and the Wall of Death, an Amberley title that underwent a re-issue earlier this year, and on canal-related books (a passion we share). Collaboration is not for every author, but in our case it seems to work. My role, as I see it, is to streamline the process of extracting the requisite knowledge and details we need for the book, and project managing the task of getting thoughts onto the page. Allan brings the knowledge (and the treasure trove of material), and his role is to bring this to the table and, with gentle nudging from me, bring it to life.

The earliest form of showman's transport was the simple handcart. (c. A History of Fairground Transport, Amberley Publishing)

Once we started to investigate the potential of the title, it became clear that there was an opportunity to use transport as a vehicle (as it were!) to tell a number of other parallel stories. Perhaps the most significant of these was the history of funfairs themselves and how they have met the need inherent amongst all human beings for a little light relief from the predictability of their lives. This history goes back nearly a thousand years, to the Charter Fairs established in the 1200s, when a showman’s two legs and his back, and if he was lucky a barrow, were the only the transport available to him as he travelled around from site to site.

The sorts of people who adopted this way of life, and the conditions in which they operated, in turn provided an insight into a part of history beyond the traditional curriculum of kings, queens, empires and battles. A sense of how the vast majority of the population lived their lives, seen through the prism of the diversions that occasionally lifted them out of those lives, even if for only a brief few days a year.

A belt-driven dynamo, providing the power for illumination. (c. A History of Fairground Transport, Amberley Publishing)

As showmen were able to afford horses their shows got bigger and they were able to take their families on the road with them. Even this detail revealed a deeper understanding of the world ordinary folk inhabited. Of how towns and villages had grown to a size where they offered a support network of blacksmiths to conduct running repairs and tenant farmers willing to let the horses graze in their fields while the showmen did their thing.

Then, as now, horses could be reliable one minute and temperamental the next, offering the potential to release catastrophe if they bolted, or even died, unexpectedly. Little wonder then that showmen were early adopters of steam once it came around with buying and ornamenting traction engines, incorporating their sound and fury into the show. Obviating the need for friendly farmers but still locking into the network of blacksmiths for assistance when required.

The more I learned of the history of fairground transport, the more the adaptability of showmen came to the fore. As industrialisation gathered pace, so demands changed and opportunities for entertainment widened. Showmen had to respond to these changes, whilst at the same time organising themselves to meet the tightening grip of regulation. Forces beyond their control, such as world wars, also brought the need to respond. Showmen proved resourceful in using redundant military equipment as the basis of their attractions, as they needed to harness the potential of petrol and diesel engines.

This was particularly the case as the world tried to get back to normal after 1945, with most military equipment after the first left on the battlefields. Very quickly however, perhaps the most challenging period on the evolution of the travelling funfair and the transport needed to make it possible began – the clue, after all, is in the name; without transport there is no travelling funfair.

(c. A History of Fairground Transport, Amberley Publishing)

Changing tastes and the need for ever more inventiveness in the face of a consumer revolution were reflected in showmen’s transport, with old military platforms giving way to converted commercial vehicles and to today’s massive articulated lorries. Throughout all this change however many traditions have survived, including the brotherhood of showmen and their families. One of the parallel stories we were able to tell is how showmen’s accommodation has evolved during history from sleeping in a convenient hedge, through bender tents and converted gypsy caravans to ‘living wagons’ and today’s modern homes on wheels.

So, what looked on first glance to be a fairly dry subject, turned out to offer a fascinating microcosm of social, technological and history change, all sandwiched in under a hundred pages, many of them graced with lavish illustrations in both colour and black and white. Suitably emboldened, Allan and I are now turning our thoughts to our next project: From Frost Fairs to Funfairs, a history not just of fairground transport, but of the funfair itself.


Allan Ford & Nick Corble's book A History of Fairground Transport: From Horses to Artics is available to purchase now.