Family History in the NFA (my great-grandfather was a showman...)

The National Fairground Archive receives many enquiries from enthusiasts researching their family history - but the amount of help we can provide is sometimes limited. With archives in general receiving heavy traffic through the increasing popularity of family history research, and with many name indexes now accessible in electronic format, this page is designed to help those members of the public who have traced their ancestors back to the fairground. It will hopefully assess whether a visit to the NFA will be able to successfully advance your research into your family history.

Photo: Staff and family at Rugby, 1960..
Show families and workers relax at Rugby, 1960s.

The make up of the fairground changed rapidly throughout the late 19th Century, and a fairground worker, or showman, might be listed in the census under any of the following terms: Stallholder, Amusement Caterer, Showman, Roundabout Proprietor or Hawker. One thing remains unchanged, and that is the close-knit nature of the fairground community. So a show family at the turn of the Century is most likely to be still associated with the fairground today. Family history in this regard is simple - the child is born into the fair and marries within the fair. Active show families have a keen sense of family history since it is intrinsic to their very life - marriages can often be seen as holding an importance through the business alliances that are kindled alongside the obvious personal aspects of a marriage.

So what can this mean for the family history researcher who has suddenly found, after searching back four or five generations, that their family was involved in fairground activity. One possibility is that a member of the family might have dropped out of the business (or indeed the whole family stopped 'travelling') and taken up the life of a 'flattie' (a person, like the majority of us, who resides outside of the travelling life). Another possibility is that the ancestor might have worked for a showman, on a full-time basis. If the answer to the question lies with the former possibility, then there is possibly much of direct interest to you in the NFA. If the answer lies in the latter category, there is very little we can do.

Photo: staff a t Leicester, 1950s.
Stall operators take a break at Leicester, 1950s.

The primary source for information on fairground life are our newspapers. These report the social activity of the fairground, as well as providing a medium for exchange of letters and greetings between show family members travelling around different parts of the country. But the fairground newspapers detail the fairground families, and tend not to include names or notes of the 'ordinary' people who work for the showmen. So it is quite possible that your great-great-grandfather could have been a well-paid manager for a fairground family for many years, and could have held a very responsible role in the 'company', but would not receive a named reference in the newspapers throughout their time. And if you do not know the name of the showman your family member worked for then you are at a dead-end in terms of finding specific references to that person, or extending your family tree backwards in time. All we can offer is a description of the 'flavour of life' your ancestor might have had, by looking at the history of the fair in general.

The newspapers of interest are as follows: World's Fair, The Showman, and The Era. World's Fair ran from 1904 and is available as a complete set in the archive, though our early copies are only available on microfilm so it is necessary to indicate when booking a visit to the archive that you will require film-reader access. The Showman ran from 1900 to 1912 and is also available on microfilm. The Era is NOT available in the archive, and must be researched at either Birmingham Reference Library or the British Library. There are no indexes to the World's Fair, though the possibility of creating name indexes for obituary reports is something we are considering.

For those whose ancestors worked in the circus (as performers) we have various tools to enable research. As well as the complete Circus Friends Association library, we have John Turner's valuable Circus People indexes.

UK websites for fairground/circus family history

For email enquiries: nfa@sheffield.ac.uk

To find out more about the Archive, or to make arrangements to access the collections, please contact:

Matthew Neill
National Fairground Archive
Western Bank Library
University of Sheffield
Western Bank
Sheffield S10 2TN.
Tel: 0114 222 7231
Fax: 0114 222 7292