It was 11.a.m Sunday, September 30th, 1939 at the Fairground, Dallow Road. Luton.
The fair had finished on Saturday night, we had pulled down, my twin brother Stanley and I on holiday from school at Great Yarmouth had helped, as do all showmen’s children, to this day. Everyone was grouped around the wireless (radio) listening to the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain explaining to the nation that we were at war with Nazi Germany. Looking back, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I can remember the looks on the faces of Parents, Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles and especially on the faces of the Showmen who had served their country in the trenches 1914 — 1918 “The War to end all Wars”.
Whilst I am writing this to explain how “Thurston Fairs” managed during this long period, similar experiences were being played out in our industry throughout the country, many in areas under constant nightly air attacks. At first all entertainment was closed down, Pictures (“Cinemas”), Theatres, Dance Halls, etc. so we followed suit and moved from Luton into the Fair Field at Maulden Road, Ampthill. Equipment was covered up and trenches dug, the start of shelters I expect. Looking back I think everyone expected bombs on Monday morning. However before these shelters could be completed, a very official army Captain came in with requisition papers and we had to move again, this time to the Fair Field rear of the Boot Inn, Kempston in Bunyan Road: not far from our Amusement Depot on St Johns St. It was during this closed period that the call up of young men and women started, work had to be found to survive. This wasn’t hard – the war effort needed every man women and child to succeed, many jobs were what was called essential occupations and they were there for the duration not being able to leave.
Many young people worked away from home only getting home weekends, my Sister Josie one of them. Entertainment restrictions were eased, Pictures opened, Theatres continued, Dances were organised, so by the Spring of 1940, Showmen everywhere thought about earning a living doing what they did best, entertainment.
Local councils gave their full support, although in those days many fairgrounds were owned privately or by Breweries, so private transactions were simple. Fairs were welcomed to bring some leisure to a country, gripped in a flat out effort to prepare ourselves, the threat of invasion ever present in our minds. Considerable thought had to go into how we would manage, we had two coal driven steam Traction Engines and two engine drivers, both old men, could return, but you had to have steerers as an engine driver only drives his engine, it needs another man to steer. My Brother Stanley got to be very good at this young as he was.
Fuel to move was allocated at Council offices and was obtained journey by journey usually by one man collecting the log books and issuing coupons. Generating Coupons were issued in the same way. The spring of 1940 was a testing time for what was to come. We moved onto the London Road Fairground, Bedford, the site of the bowling alley, and as everyone had to earn money to survive, a system took place. I don’t think anyone thought of it, I think it just happened. Journeys were a collective effort everyone drove anything to get from fair to fair. The big rides, not as many as usual, were built up by all on the ground and I mean everyone. When you finished these you built your stalls round stall, swing boats or kiddies’ rides, all that make a fair what it is.
This seemed to work reasonably well. Casuals came at times when they could when the fair was open, but it was mainly the old, very young and the medically unfit that took the biggest share of the work. Thinking about it today it’s only Showmen who would attempt such an effort, even farmers had Land Army girls, some of whom were showmen’s daughters. As recently as the 60th anniversary celebrations of WW 11, many showmen’s wives took part, meeting the Prime Minister and Mrs Blair and later went to a function at Buckingham Palace.
Each and every year the Showmen’s Guild, all ten sections, have representatives who march and lay wreaths in Whitehall to remember the men and women who served their country and laid down their lives so that we could continue in freedom to enjoy all the Fun of the Fair. During their time in the services men and women were sent parcels from a fund called the Comforts Fund to which we all contributed weekly also during Lord Beaverbrook’s campaign from donations we bought a Spitfire named aptly “All the Fun of the Fair”. It did two years service before crashing.
Fairs all over the country continued in a limited capacity throughout the war years, difficult as it was, spares and materials were unavailable, we managed with the help of local engineers in our times of need. East Anglia, in comparison with some areas, was not too scary, although we were warned that a fairground from the air resembled a military installation.
Business in the main, because of limited entertainment was good, all the coastal resorts were closed, the beaches barbed wired and mined. During the early 40s Billy Butlin of Holiday Park fame, whose camps were now army and naval bases, was summoned to No 10 Downing St by Mrs Churchill and asked to get as many rides out of storage and create the “Stay at Home Holidays”. Every City Council was urged to make parks available and casual staff to help. This he did and they carried on throughout the war.
Fairs carried on until dusk then with the advent of double summer time it was not unusual to be open until 10 o’clock in daylight. Once again as the nights pulled in the Showman put on his thinking cap and the Black Out Fair came into being. This required a compact fair covered over like a makeshift circus tent, constantly viewed from the top of lorries by wardens telling you if you had a light showing. Very hard work indeed after you had built the fair then covered it in.
This enabled us to keep on the road in the later months providing fairs during the dark, dismal period when nothing seemed to be going right for this country of ours. I know I haven’t touched on all the problems we had, but nothing could compare it to the lads who spent years in P.O.W Camps, those who gave their lives and those who come out at Dunkirk and went back on D. Day. To these and everyone who contributed to our victory we must all be forever grateful.