Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Sunday, 20 January 2013

15 Jan 2013 - "All the Fun of the Fair"

The illustrated talk, given by Edwin Lawrence, included memories of his childhood spent travelling with the fair, his father's opening of an amusement arcade in Girvan and also his grandfather's opening of Mauchline's first cinema in the early 1900's.

The first fairground rides were horse-drawn and manually operated by the owner. As far back as 1745, Tom Lawrence had a portable theatre which added to these attractions. This could be described as the "Sky News" of the day, as they specialised in dramatic reconstructions of such famous events as "Maria Martin and the murder in the Red Barn".  The melodramatic themes continued and various ghost stories became popular in the 1850s with light and angled glass used to show the "spectres" from below the stage.  Another novelty - "fireworks" had its dangers and led to tragedy in Plymouth in 1863 when there was an explosion in the lodging house where they were being made and 9 people were killed, including one from Edwin's family.

At St Giles Fair in Oxford in 1885, the Lawrence family were to be found with a Marionette Show, but the Victorian era was the heyday of an interest in animals from exotic places.  In 1872, Lorenzo Levine walked with an elephant from Edinburgh to Manchester in 10 days since it destroyed the enclosed rail truck in which it was to be transported.  On this journey, there is a record of a "Disputed Toll" when Lorenzo managed to get his elephant was classed as a "pet".  This event was the subject of a painting called "The Disputed Toll" by Heywood Hardy, and a book entitled "The Elephant Who Walked to Manchester" by David Barnaby.  At this time there were only 3 elephants in the UK.  In the same year a Lion Tamer is recorded as part of Wombwell's Menagerie, a very popular means of bringing real animals from around the World to the masses.

Tom Lawrence Junior was a Clown and a philosopher.  His act was part stand-up, part philosophy with no hint of the slapstick we associate with clowns today.  We were shown contemporary film clips of his act and told his gag book is now held by London University. When Steam power came along, Traction engines replaced some of the manual labour and steam-driven carousels appeared. There are now only 2 of these left in Britain, one of which is in Beamish, the Living Museum of the North. In 1885, carousels with crank-driven galloping horses appeared and were very popular.

As each new invention came along it seems to have been incorporated into the Shows.  Around 1885 Edwin Lawrence introduced the Bioscope with moving pictures. They created films of local events, such as people leaving the Factories or walking in the Park, which were then shown in the evening to attract those in the film to attend a "see yourself" event.

By the 1920s, scenic rides were becoming popular - one example from the 1930s was a Noah's Ark switchback jungle ride. Then came the folding rides which could be transported on diesel lorries, making the time between events much shorter.  In 1933 when motorbikes were becoming popular, models of them could be added to the ride instead of the horse and carriages to suit the preoccupations of the age.

As a local history pointer, it should be noted the Waltzers first came to be used in 1933 in Ayr. They continued to be popular and having first been designed in Art Deco style, they were remodelled in the Rock and Roll era to reflect the taste of the time.  In the 60s there were still Waltzers at Girvan where they provided a place for youngsters to listen to music. Having been sold to Butlins where it was in use for many years, it has now disappeared... One of the survivors of the early models is now in Norway.  A steel and disco version of the Waltzer continues to be popular even today. 

In the post war years, rides became popular which had their roots in the Victorian ghost rides.  We were shown a clip from the original film of "Brighton Rock" which illustrated a murder taking place on an already "spooky" ride.

Although mechanical rides seemed to rule the roost we heard that the Helter Skelter, which attracted customers to climb up stairs and slide down under their own power, was in use for many years in Girvan.  It was much appreciated by the local fishermen as a landmark when being lit up at night it showed up better from the sea than the actual lighthouse.  Throwing games, such as the coconut shy, also endured for many years.  There was a story of one enterprising showman who put up the heads of various German Generals as targets during the second world war then changed them for Churchill and other politicians afterwards.  In Newton Park, Ayr in 1926, the first "round-stall" appeared, offering the "roll a penny down a slot" idea. Apparently by the end of the first week there were already 6 similar stalls in the Fair!

In recent years Ayr's council seems to have turned its back on such entertainments, refusing applications for fairs at 5 suggested venues (without even being put to a vote of the elected representatives...).  Some Fairs, protected by charter, such as that in St Andrew's are still cherished.  Having 6 generations of his Lawrence family involved has given Edwin a unique view of, and interest in, the history of Fairs.  His enthusiasm and stories kindled many memories for the audience of the pleasures of traditional Fairs and his illustrations and video clips brought the story alive.

Patricia and John Weston

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