The Fairground Heritage Trust

Fed up with being locked down? You could do worse than escape for an hour into the brightly lit and colourful world of the fair, courtesy of the richly illustrated website of the Fairground Heritage Trust (FHT). Browsing the ‘Learning’ pages, you will be reminded that fairs have a long history. Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, first performed on 31 October 1614, perfectly captures the heady mix of showmanship, drunkenness, and knavery that characterised early fairs, while Thomas Hardy used fairs as the backdrop for some of his most dramatic scenes, such as the hiring fair in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the scene in which the future Mayor of Casterbridge, drunk on rum-laced furmity, sells his wife and child at the start of the eponymous novel.

One of the highlights of the Fairground Heritage Centre, the Victory Horses ‘galloper‘, was built in 1920. The name, and the dove of peace painted over the paybox window, refer to the First World War. All images: Fairground Heritage Centre.

Early fairs were all about shows, games, puppetry and theatre, displays of strength and agility, wild beasts, and human and animal ‘freaks’, but the same steam power that led to the Industrial Revolution and turned factory workers and agricultural labourers into servants of the machine also introduced the rocking, swinging, pitching, and rotating rides that are the basis for many of today’s fairground attractions. Electricity brought further developments, such as the perennially popular dodgems (an invention of the 1920s). Today’s theme parks and Disneyland attractions are, in effect, fairs writ large.

Still touring until 1982, Moon-Rockets is the last working example to survive of a popular 1930s ride. It was acquired by the Fairground Heritage Centre in 2017 with a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. It is capable of rotating at 16 revolutions per minute, while the painted dome above rotates in the opposite direction, giving the impression of even greater speed.

New rides continue to be developed: invented in 1978, the Miami Trip has a bench seat accommodating 18 ‘passengers’ who are swung and rotated at an ever-increasing speed. According to the University of Sheffield’s encyclopaedic National Fairground and Circus Archive, this was a Dutch invention originally called the Scheibenwischer-Welle, or ‘windscreen wiper wave’. Why Miami? Perhaps because early versions had a ‘backflash’ depicting surfers, which introduces another central theme of the FHT’s website and collections: the work of the many gifted artists who covered fairground rides with exotic scenes painted in high gloss and striking colours.

Fairground rides are a feature of the annual Hyde Park Winter Wonderland festivities: this Snow Jet, photographed in 2018, is a variant of the Waltzer, which first appeared in 1833 and is still a staple of many travelling fairs and amusement parks, such as the Grade II-listed Dreamland in Margate.

The FHT operates a Fairground Heritage Centre at Lifton, Devon, and hopes to reopen in spring 2021. Volunteers are always welcome, especially to help with caring for the collection and educational work. It is no surprise to discover that the collection is much used for reminiscence activities to help people living with dementia remember events, people, and places from their lives – the colour and sound of the fair continues to work its magic long after the ball is over.

Further information
Is there a society that you would like to see profiled? Write to