Travelling funfair

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A travelling funfair has many attractions, including adult or thrill rides, children's rides, and sideshows consisting of games of skill, strength, or luck.

A carnival (North American English)[1][2] or travelling funfair (UK English) often simply called "fair", "county fair", or "state fair", is a small to medium sized travelling show primarily composed of stalls and other amusements. The British term "funfair" is also used to refer to non-traveling amusement parks.[3][4][5] Larger fairs such as the permanent fairs of cities and seaside resorts might be called a fairground, although technically this refers to the land where a fair is traditionally held. The word fair comes from the Latin word feria, meaning a holiday.


In the UK and much of the rest of Europe, individual rides and stalls are run by different, independent showmen, who all converge for the duration of the fair and then often go their separate ways to set up at fairs in other towns.

In the UK the majority of showmen are registered as part of the Showmen's guild of great Britain. This non-profit organisation is split into ten sections across the UK and is tasked with everything from representing showmen's interests in government to settling disputes between members. The ten sections are as follows, Derby Notts Midland South Lincs, Lancashire, London Home, Midlands, Northern, Norwich Eastern, Scotland, South Wales, Western and Yorkshire. With an additional Central Office located with in the London offices but acting independently as the main overseer for each section. Every section is run by a 15 member committee that must be voted on annually and one permanent secretary. (Scotland has two permanent secretaries at time of writing) The Function of the committee is to set and enforce that sections policies. Central Office sets the direction and main focus of the Guild in general but each section can alter various rules of conduct to suit its local needs. The Guild also represents showmen's interest in safety and is a permanent member of the Amusement device safety council (ADSC) which is the body that oversees the Amusement Device Inspections Procedure Scheme (ADIPS)

In the United States, regional companies own large numbers of rides and games and book schedules of fairs with multiple units of machinery and staff. They are typically on the road throughout a season that runs from mid-February through December, usually beginning in the southern US and travelling north as summer approaches and then become active again in the south with the arrival of cooler fall weather. The relative costs and profitability of such long-distance operations are largely impacted by fuel prices; when prices are unusually high, smaller operators often resort to spending long stretches in shopping mall parking lots, drumming up what business they can as they accumulate additional funds, or wait for prices to fall.


Fairs contain a mixture of attractions which can be divided into the categories of adult, teenager and child; usually including thrill rides, children's rides, sideshows and sidestalls. Originally a fair would also have had a significant number of market stalls, but today this is rare and most sidestalls only offer food or games. The first fairground rides began to appear in the eighteenth century, these were small and made of wood and propelled by gangs of boys. In 1868, Frederick Savage, an agricultural engineer from King's Lynn, devised a method of driving rides by steam. His invention, a steam engine mounted in the centre of the ride, transformed the fairground industry.

Many thrill rides, such as the paratrooper and the Matterhorn, include spinning people at high speed coupled with other accelerations.

Thrill rides[edit]

There is a core set of thrill rides which are common at fairs and which most funfairs have. These include the Sizzler Twist, The Gravitron, Booster, Freak Out, Miami, Pirate Ship and the Top Spin.[citation needed]

There is constant innovation, with new variations on ways to spin and throw passengers around, in an effort to attract customers. With the requirement that rides be packed into one or more trailers for travel, there is a limit to the size of the rides, and funfairs struggle to compete with much larger attractions, such as roller coasters, found in amusement parks. See also amusement rides.

Roller coasters[edit]

Some fairs may feature compact roller coasters to attract teenagers and preteens. Roller coasters feature steep drops, sharp curves, and sometimes loops. Roller coasters are generally the most attractive aspect of a fair, but many people come for other reasons. Fairs usually only feature one or two coasters.

Children's rides[edit]

Funfairs are seen as family entertainment, and most include a significant number of children's rides. Many of these are smaller, platform based rides like, cup & saucer, toysets, train rides then there are smaller slower versions of the adult rides, Ferris wheels, waltzers, even children's bumper cars. Such rides are usually referred to as "juvenile rides" or just juveniles. There are other items for children, slides, mirror mazes funhouses, and variations on the bouncy castle.


A barker luring a patron in to the Vermont state fair sideshow

In the 19th century, before the development of mechanical attractions, sideshows were the mainstay of most funfairs. Typical shows included menageries of wild animals, freak shows, wax works, boxing/wrestling challenges and theatrical shows.

Up until the 1960s, boxing shows were a common feature of British fairs, but they went into decline when in 1947 the British Boxing Board of Control prohibited appearances of licensed members in fairground boxing booths. An echo of the boxing booth remains with boxing or punchball machines being common around fairgrounds. The last travelling boxing booth was still making annual visits to the Great Dorset Steam Fair until 2006. The owner, Ronnie Taylor, died a few weeks before the 2006 show, and the future of this unique attraction is uncertain.

After World War II, sideshows featuring burlesque and striptease performances also declined with the general relaxation of censorship legislation.

Sidestalls and games[edit]

A traditional coconut shy, established in 1936 by Mrs E. Harris, is still being run by her son today.

Most stalls feature games of skill or strength. The most traditional example being the coconut shy in which players throw balls at coconuts balanced on posts, winning the coconut if they manage to dislodge it.

Other sidestalls range from the trivially easy, such as hooking rubber ducks from a water trough in which nearly every player is expected to win a prize, to the deceptively challenging, which includes games which utilise optical illusions or physical relationships that are difficult to judge. In the United States, the funfair is one of the few arenas of public life in which classical hoodwinkery in the form of outright fraud can be perpetrated by the light of day. Highly profitable (and therefore timeless) games include:

  • the hoopla, in which a ring can be demonstrated to fit neatly around a wooden block, but when the customer attempts to throw the ring over the block, it is nearly impossible to achieve the perfect angle which the attendant deftly demonstrates. There is also a con where the blocks sit up straight with money on as well as a prize and it looks easy to win, the cheat here is that the worker will show you the ring fits and when you have a go he passes you 3 rings that do not fit. The ring that does is called a "coping" ring. Although most of the time this in practice is not necessary as this type of game is based on luck therefore the odds favour the owner. This game is similar to quoits and horseshoe pitching.
  • ball-in-the-basket games in which the basket is presented at an angle almost certain to bounce the ball out. (The basket bottom may also be suspiciously springy.)
  • basketball-shooting games in which the basket is ovoid in shape and the basketball literally cannot fit inside the rim under any circumstances, but takes advantage of the oval shape an individual expects to see when directly confronted by a circle presented at an angle nearly parallel with the ground. (The sides of such a game are walled with netting which presumably keeps the ball in play, but the netting is typically covered with the prizes the customer hopes to win, which block the view of the basket from the side and thus exposing the hoax.) Sometimes the basketballs are also inflated to their full capacity, thus allowing the ball to bounce out of the hoop more easily.
  • archery, air rifles, and paint ball guns with sometimes misaligned sights (or handled by someone who cannot shoot straight), with targets ranging from bullseyes to playing cards.
  • Hit-The-Bell, high striker device to test prowess, originally fabricated from various hardware.

Much of the true "con artistry" has been driven out of funfairs in the twentieth century, and combined with an increasing emphasis on the role of families and small children in such entertainment, contemporary showmen often find greater profit in pricing their games far above the value of the prizes being offered, with complex formulae for upgrading to the large prizes that advertise the game and instil desire among customers. The rises in pricing of many sidestalls must often reflect the overheads of running fairground equipment – the cost of swag (see below), diesel, staff and rents.

Typical prizes change to reflect popular tastes. A traditional fairground prize used to be a goldfish in a small plastic bag, but these have fallen out of favour, partly because goldfish are no longer seen as exotic, but also because of animal welfare concerns. Many stalls offer cuddly toys as prizes – many teenage romances are established at funfairs, where thrill rides provide ample excuse for embracing.[6] Displays of skill at shooting and winning a cuddly toy for your girlfriend is a rite of passage for many young men.[6] In showland, the prizes are known as swag and are supplied by a swagman.

Food booths[edit]

Food is routinely sold through food booths and the offerings range from common fast food items to indigenous street food, and may include specialty items or delicacies depending on the nature of the festival and availability of ingredients.[citation needed]

British funfairs[edit]

In the United Kingdom, many larger towns host travelling fairs at specific times of the year (for example Mop Fairs). Frequently the fairground is on an area of common land and has a history extending back to the Middle Ages. For example, St Giles' Fair has been held in St Giles', Oxford since the consecration of St Giles' Church in 1200.[7] In Cambridge, the Midsummer Fair is held on Midsummer Common, an ancient area of common land to the northeast of the city centre. In Scotland, the 1982 Civic Government act brought Funfair/Fairgrounds into the category of Legislated Entertainment. Now all Fairs in Scotland have to apply to the local authority for a Public Entertainments Licence. The process takes 6–8 weeks to complete and costs vary dramatically from region to region.There is no refund for refused licence applications.This licensing act has led to some Fairs being lost due to costs or refusal. The 1982 act was not adopted for Fairs in England or Wales.

Robert Edwards, a seventh generation showman, running his Ring and Blocks stall.

Funfairs in England, Scotland and Wales are not the property of one owner, but a collaborative effort between families of fairground Travellers. Fairs have operated in Great Britain since medieval times; it is unclear how many Showmen families are directly descended or became Occupational Travellers before or after the formation of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain in 1889. The routes they travel are usually inherited and are much the same from year to year. The average fairground is made up when a Lessee (usually the owner of a large ride) sublets ground and pitches to other showmen who bring their own rides, stalls and shows to make up a fair. This may involve negotiation and bargaining over who gets to put their stalls and rides where, although in many well established fairs 'standing rights' are recognized and passed down through the generations.

The bigger fairs are run by a lessee who will take sites from the Council and advertise them in a showmen's newspaper called the World's Fair, but there are many showmen who attend the same event year on year as they have rights to the event as members of the Showmen's Guild, they may then attend the next place with the same lessee or go on somewhere else. The lessee is always a ride owner and he will own a couple of rides and will have a son with a couple of rides and other close family. Once the fair is over, the families sometimes go their separate ways, but will cross each other's paths regularly. Their sense of community is strong and it's rare but not unheard of that they "marry out' of the trade.[citation needed] Showmen, as they are known, are proud of their heritage and have their own language, Parlyaree (a mixture of Lingua Franca, Romani, Yiddish, Thieves' Cant, sailor slang, and backslang) e.g. words such as flatty or joskin (meaning someone not from the showman community). Those showmen who don't travel with the fair still remain showmen, being said just to be settled down. The community is clannish and somewhat insular, the received wisdom being that one cannot just become a showman, but must be well respected by other showmen to be allowed to join.

This by definition makes running fairgrounds a family business, and family names are synonymous with fairgrounds in certain areas; e.g. Breeze, Hirst, Fleming, Vanner, Hatwell, Atha, Danter, Marshalls, et al. in the North, and Thurston's, Stocks, Harris and Hedges in the South.[citation needed] The Show/Fairground community is close knit, with multiple ties often existing between the older families and a vibrant social scene centered both around the summer fairs and the various sites and yards used as winter quarters. Hosting an estimated 80%[citation needed] of all Scottish showfamilies, Glasgow is believed[weasel words] to have the largest concentration of Showmen in winter quarters in Europe, centered mostly in Whiteinch, Shettleston and Carntyne. However, new zoning laws and planning difficulties posed by Glasgow City Council look set to push many of these long-established facilities out of the city in the near future.[citation needed]

Galloper horses near the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff.

Since the late 19th century, fairgrounds in the UK have been run by a guild known as the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain. This lays down rules for managing and running fairs, helps them organize fairs and settle member disputes and serves to protect them from deleterious legislation. Unusual for an industrial body, membership is awarded mainly but not exclusively on a hereditary basis.

A new breed of showmen is now appearing.[8] These people are usually fairground enthusiasts and can own preserved older rides. They are connected to the Show communities around Britain but only loosely and they, therefore, have their own organizations such as the Society of Independent Roundabout Proprietors. There is also a further need for rides in the form of private events. This is where the rides are set up for a fee and operated for guests of the person who is hiring them. There are few companies who do this, or you can chance it and hire one from the local fair.

Fairgrounds are common at British seaside resorts, usually run by travelling fairground families who have decided to settle down, in whole or part. Showmen who run fair equipment at the seaside are referred to as sand scratchers or sand dancers.[citation needed] There are also travelling showmen who take their ride to a site and stay there for the summer and go back on the road after that.

An interesting annual attraction in the North Wales resort of Llandudno is the Victorian Extravaganza[9] held over the May Day Bank Holiday weekend.

In regard to confectionery, candy floss stalls are especially associated with funfairs. Sweets are known as fairings[citation needed] and include such things as brandy snaps,[citation needed] toffee apples and at Nottingham Goose Fair, cocks on sticks. Of savoury food, the mainstays are hot dogs, burgers and, in the Midlands and the North of England, hot peas served with mint sauce.

Fairgrounds have sharply declined in popularity over the last few decades,[citation needed] although many families continue to follow their unusual lifestyle. The cost has caused some of this but it is mainly due to amusement parks which are seen to have better rides.

The largest British (and European) travelling fairground is The Hoppings on Newcastle Town Moor,[citation needed] which is held annually in the last two weeks of June. The second largest travelling fair is Nottingham Goose Fair held annually in October. The Largest travelling fair in Scotland is held in Kirkcaldy, Fife and known as The Links Market. It dates back over 700 years.

Historically, travelling showmen and the gypsy community had close links, necessitated by the heavy reliance of the business on horsepower. Intermarrying and sharing the same land was not uncommon, although they remained two distinct groups. Nowadays, however, there is often friction between the two communities, and travelling showmen have been known to distance themselves from the gypsy community (by not using Polari, for example) because they feel that the negative stereotype that the British public holds towards the gypsy community could adversely affect their business.[citation needed] The word "gypsy" is often used to refer to travelling showmen, but it is not a phrase that they would use to refer to themselves (the usual term is "traveller") and in fact many would regard this as a slur.

German funfairs[edit]

Düsseldorf parish fair, with a Ferris wheel dominating the skyline.

Most things said about British funfairs apply to Germany. Rides include roller coasters, dark rides and log flumes that often eclipse many theme park equivalents in terms of both size and quality.

The language of German showmen contains elements of Sintitikes, Rotwelsch, Yiddish and other old minority languages. Their children are almost always sent to a small set of showmen-friendly boarding schools where they can remain in contact with other showmen's children; during school holidays, they travel with their parents. In the west of the country, there is some overlap with Dutch showmen. A relatively small number of "showmen dynasties" run most of the medium- to large size amusement rides at funfairs around the country. There have been some allegations of forced marriages among them in recent years.

In Catholic areas of the country, it is still customary for most villages and small towns to hold their annual funfair on or near the saint's day of the patron saint of the local church.

Very common are the so-called "Volksfeste", which are mainly held in the larger cities. They consist of a funfair and a beer festival at the same place. The largest and best known of them is the Oktoberfest in Munich, the largest fair of the world. The second largest is the Cranger Kirmes in Herne in the eastern part of the Ruhr Area. Another famous "Volksfest" is the Cannstatter Wasen in Stuttgart and the Rheinkirmes in Düsseldorf. One of the oldest is the Annaberger Kät held in the Ore Mountains of East Germany since 1520.

Canadian funfairs (exhibitions)[edit]

North America's (and the world's) largest, and one of the longest running exhibitions[citation needed] is Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition, it takes place at Exhibition Place from late August to early September. Most carnival fairs are run by traveling companies that move town to town with their rides and exhibits. Conklin Shows is the largest and oldest organization of its type in North America.

Other notable fairs are the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver and the Calgary Stampede.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ American Heritage Dictionary
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ [2]
  5. ^ [3]
  6. ^ a b Tim McGraw (singer) (1995). I Like It, I Love It (FLV). Event occurs at 0:25-0:45. Retrieved 2008-08-10. ""Spent forty-eight dollars last night at the county fair; I throwed out my shoulder but I won her that teddy bear. She's got me sayin' sugarpie, honey, darlin', and dear." 
  7. ^ St Giles' Fair, St Giles' Church.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Victorian Extravaganza.

External links[edit]