Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Painted Ponies and Steam Horses: Victorian Fairground Folks

Botton Brothers' Gallopers, no date (National Fairground Archive)
 Having such fun with my family history digging this week!

My 4x Great Grandmother, Mary Booth (1791-1849), first wife of Samuel Barrass, one of my long line of canal mariners and keelmen, had a younger brother called Thomas.

Thomas was the lockman at Eastwood Top Lock in Rotherham in the middle of the 19th century. But for once, it's not my watermen and sailors that are in focus this week!

Rotherham Fair April 1962 (National Fairground Archive Image Database)
Thomas's youngest daughter, Sarah Ann Booth, was born in the Lock House at Eastwood on the 20th May 1843. She wasn't destined for a life under sail like so many of our clan. She married William Heeson, son of a Rotherham blacksmith in 1863. William left his father's forge after his marriage to Sarah, to go travelling around the fairgrounds of Yorkshire with the travelling showmen bringing fun and entertainment to the children and locals of Victorian times.

W. H. Marshall's Fowler engine - number 10318 Sunny Boy II - photographed 1940 (National Fairground Archive)

By 1871, with their eldest children William and Maria in tow, the couple were living in Rotherham's College Inn Yard, dealing from their travelling caravan. I don't know what William was selling, but it wasn't long before the new steam powered amusements, powered by steam engines and painted all the colours of the rainbow, had him hooked. These early attractions were spreading through the land, catching everyone's imaginations on fire!

Morley Brothers' Steam Swings photographed Easter 1938. (National Fairground Archive)

The eldest son William sometimes told the census man he was born in plain old Eastwood. At the turn of the century he served a term in Stafford Jail. But in 1891, working as a lighterman in Hull, he clearly told the census enumerator an extraordinary tale. The census says he was born in "Eton Forest (in the actual forest)"!

Now, I have ancestors born on keels, ancestors born at sea, but never in an "actual" forest! What makes this twice as fascinating, is that there's no such forest with that name anywhere near Rotherham or anywhere else in Yorkshire or England, as far as I can discover. I'm hoping one of you dear friends reading this might be able to help me with this, if you've any ideas?

W. H. Marshall's Burrell engine - number 3945 Prince of Wales - photographed 24 August 1935 (National Fairground Archive)
 What's certain is, he would have been born in the family caravan, off the beaten track, somewhere on the Fairground circuit in the North of England. I've got such a lot of exciting discoveries to make about this. If you can help, please don't be shy and wade right in!

In 1881, the Heeson's travelling caravan was parked on census night in Barnsley, in Hoyland Common Market Place. William is listed as a licensed hawker, and there is another daughter, Jane. She was born in Aston, in Sheffield. No settled village life for this branch of the family!

F. Walker's Rollicking Jeep photographed September 1947 (National Fairground Archive)
 In 1891, census night finds the Heesons' caravan parked a little further south, in the yard attached to the Rose and Crown public house in Barlborough, Derbyshire. I have pictures in my head of the routes travelled around the villages by the travelling shows. So romantic and exciting, as colourful and free as our lives on the inland shipping, but greeted with more of a tingle of anticipation by children, I'll bet!

Youngest son Edward, who seems to have inherited his father and mother's passion for the painted ponies, steam horses and swings, was born in Riddings, Derbyshire as they passed that way in the summer of 1884. Now they weren't just "hawkers", but were listed as having "steam horses" in tow with the caravan!

W. H. Church's Fair photographed October 1937 (National Fairground Archive)
 In 1901, with a few of Sarah's nephews and nieces on board, the family were still on the road, doing the rounds of the fairgrounds. William is on the census as "Steam Horse and Swing Owner", in his travelling van in Queen's Road, Barnsley. Edward is his steam horse driver, making the carousel go round.

Tragically, aged just 60, William was to die a few weeks after this census was taken, leaving the travelling gear to his widow, my distant cousin Sarah. She carried on the Heeson family business, assisted by her son Edward.

There was an inquest into the death of William by the West Yorkshire Coronor. His death certificate reveals that he died in an horrific accident, being knocked down and crushed under his own traction engine in Scissett near Huddersfield. There is a story that he was in the habit of leaving his shoe laces and buttons undone. This may have contributed to his tripping and coming to this tragic and grisley end.

In 1911 it is Sarah who is "Amusement Caterer", as the fairground folks are still called today, living by then in Gorton Terrace, Kinsley near Pontefract. How she ever felt quite the same about the "fun" aspect of the job is left to our imaginations.
General view from flats of Pontefract Fair, November 1985. (National Fairground Archive)

Edward became her "Assistant Amusement Caterer", and by 1911 had been married for the past five years to Emma Musgrave. Their household is noisily full of Edward and Emma's children as well as several nieces, nephews and grandchildren, including the intriguingly named "Sir Edward Heeson Hallford" and "Richard Eduard Thomas Birks Heeson".

Looking through the Fairground Archives online, and message boards, I see the Heeson name still connected to the amusement trade in Yorkshire even today. I would love to know more. Can you help me?

My next stop will be researching deeper through two wonderful UK fairground resources:

UK Fairground Ancestors

National Fairground Archive

Actor Larry Lamb explores his own Fairground Ancestry on BBC1s Who Do You Think You Are? 

Looking forward to hearing from anybody else who has an interest in their fairground folks from the past!

T. Whyatt's Living Wagon, no date (National Fairground Archive)
(All images are copyright of The National Fairground Archive housed at the University of Sheffield on the link above)


  1. hi i also have fairground ancestory, my grandma was born at Trafford Park Fairground and it appears the family going back several generations have all been fairground workers. its an exciting find but not the easiest task to track them all.

  2. We are direct descendants of William and Edward Heeson/Emma Musgrave; some of the family are still travelling. If you would like to know more how can we contact you directly. Regards Anne Heeson

  3. Anne, thanks so much for commenting - first can I say how sorry I am that I've only just seen your comment. I'd been ill and away from blogging over the summer. I'd certainly love to know more if possible. I never pass a travelling show these days without thinking of the Heeson ancestors! I have another friend who is descended (great granddaughter)from Edward's aunt Emily, who married William Prescott.
    I really regret if I've missed my chance of being in touch with you! If you see this please do comment again. I'm on Facebook and on Twitter (link above)too.