Now I mean most showman have got some really interesting stories.
The Project was kindly invited to travel to Scarborough to interview Henry Marshall & John Shaw at the formers house. Both men have known Hull Fair since they were small boys and they related numerous anecdotes with a wry sense of humour. Many thanks are due to Dahlia Marshall and Denise Shaw for the loan of their husbands!
Just for the record, when were you born both of you?
JS I was christened at Hull Fair in 1937 and one of my God Fathers was Joe Shaw who's still on the go and his equipment still goes to Hull Fair so we go back a long time. How about you Henry?
HM 1936. Talking about Hull Fair before my time, I remember my father telling me when he was a boy they used to go to Nottingham, when they had bigger rides, heavy rides, traction engines. As they do today, Nottingham and Hull Fair clashed. They had a big ride at Nottingham and they had to get it pulled down that night and up to Hull that day and built up the next day and open. That's a feat even with modern equipment. My father tells me my Grandfather used to organise two sets of staff after they'd finished to pull the ride down all night. Traction engines needed their fires to be kept lit or someone had to get up at four o'clock to light them. So after they had been generating the light all night at Nottingham, they'd have a man with both engines keeping the fire going all night for when they had finished pulling their ride down. They use the engine of course for lifting the big wheels and things onto their trucks. Then when they'd finished pulling down they'd set off, it was a long journey in those days, traction engines doing 15 miles an hour, to get to Hull. Then he would have a fresh set of staff for that one ride at Hull and they would have that built up that night. Now I think that was a feat in those days. That's the first story I was told about Hull Fair by my father.
Would you just say something about your families?
JS Well my cousin married Henry's Auntie, his Mam's sister. We're all related. Go back a generation or two generations and we are cousins and cousins and cousins.
And your earliest memories?
JS My first memories of Hull Fair would be leaving boarding school and coming home from this rarefied school and then being thrust into the smell of the circus and the lions roaring all night. I can always remember in October the darkness was coming and a little fog used to come in, and there always used to be lights blowing in the wind above all the caravans. So you'd be walking back to the caravan at one o'clock in the morning and the lions were roaring and this light was there. The smell of diesel fumes today even now fetches back those memories of the generators. When my children were born and I fetched them back to Hull Fair, both of them, as soon as the generators stopped the children woke up. You think you need quiet and yet as soon as the generators started up the two children would go to sleep again, you know.
JS And then you would be coming home and you would listen and you could hear Syncopating Sandy just plink, plonk, plink, plonk just playing his piano at two or three o'clock in the morning. The police could go in and anybody could walk in at that, to make sure he was playing. And the nearer to the last Saturday you get there'd be big signs up saying 'Will He Survive? Well His Arms are Heavily Bandaged. The Nurses are Looking After Him'. It was great! It was great entertainment.
Whose show was he with?
HM Different years, different shows. I mean at that time there were lots of shows. You've heard about White's? They had the fat man, the fat family. A husband and wife team. When they got into Hull Fair they had a single decker bus that they had the back taken out of, and that's how they got them around to Hull Fair. They lived in it these two: the fats.
HM The fats. And they had England's littlest woman, what was she called, Tina?
JS Princess, was it Princess Tina or something.
HM And I can remember when I first came back from school, they would take her to the pub of a night time, little Tina. She'd be two foot two tall. They would sit her on the bar, she was the tiniest little woman and they would buy her a pint and she would hold a pint with her tiny little hands and sit on the bar and drink a pint all night.
HM Has anyone told you - older than us they'd have to be - my mother tells me that when she was a girl at Hull Fair when they went the big thing they saw was squirts. They were like little water pistols that were all self-contained and my mother said they used to sell thousands of these things. And everybody that came to Hull Fair would buy a squirt and somebody that night would get squirted. I think they got quite dangerous and according to my mother they banned them. Whether this is true or not it would be worth looking at but I am sure they got banned at Hull Fair did selling squirts.
HM We were squirty little buggers as kids at Hull.
JS You were.
HM We used to get up to all sorts …
So you've known eachother since you were small?
JS Yes. When we came to Hull we had a great social life - it was great - to go somewhere like Hull Fair and there were dances and football matches - Oh it was great. It was good. There'd be coaches coming from all over England - all over fairgrounds and meeting, they'd have about three dances, heaving with young people, and you'd meet people and you'd know of them or knew them and my friends still today, my best friends are still off the fairground.
Where were these dances?
JS At the Palais de Dance at the bottom of Walton street. The Thursday before you open on the Saturday, then there'd be one on the Sunday and then one on the last Sunday.
HM And the Working Men's Club they used to have cracking nights at the Working Men's Clubs then.
JS Yes, Walton Street Working Man's Club that was a good one.
HM When we could get in.
JS If you could become a member for that week you could go in every night and there was turns on every night and pint of beer was something and nothing but it was good. Seeing everybody.
HM I remember what was probably my first dinner time drinking at Hull Fair. When you got to Hull Fair, from little tiny places where you travelled, there was this big fair, big city and you had done a big thing when you arrived at Hull Fair. I was about 15. A pal called and said we're all going for a pint on Sunday afternoon. I'd never ever done that in my life. My father I had never known miss a pint in the whole of his life. Every day. So Mum always had the Sunday dinner ready, the Yorkshire Pudding and everything and if my Dad was late there was always a big argument. So this particular day I'm also going for a pint with the lads. I get back after my father and by this time he'd had a few and I'd had about three pints and was talking a bit daft. My mother had been shouting at my Dad about me going drinking because I wasn't back for lunch. These were my father's words to me, he wasn't a great conversationalist, he said "Son. This dinner time drinking for two of us is no good. One of us is going to have to stop and it's you." And that was the end of the conversation!
Do you remember the shows well?
JS Oh Yes. We were pulling down on the last Sunday at Hull fair and I'm watching this man with his shaven head and this pig tail, looked like the King of Siam. He's walking picking all the broken glass up, the broken bulbs, what we call the half-watts, big bulbous bulbs. He was putting these in a tea chest and he used to break these up in the show and eat them. I was absolutely fascinated and when we saw him the next time he would pull his skin out and put a skewer right through his throat. And no blood when he pulled it out.
What was his name?
JS The Great Ohmy.
HM Tom Norman had him in his show. For me Tom Norman had the best frontage shows and the best flash of the whole of the shows in England.
HM We were just talking about Tommy Twinkle Toes Jacobsen who was with him a long time, he had no arms. He get up on the stage and he would shave and do all sorts of daft things but when he wasn't in the show - we've seen him sat outside on a pair of steps with a paint brush in between his toes sign-writing the cabs of the lorries. And doing a bloody good job of it as well.
JS Talking about the front of the shows, they used to have a saying - "It's the front of the shows that get you the dough."
HM What about the guy - did Norman's have him? who lived in the block of ice supposedly for the whole of the fair? It was an enormous block of ice and this guy laid in it like a tomb with the top on for the whole of the fair. I think that was Tom Norman's show wasn't it?
HM I think, if we were truthful, why we like Hull Fair, it was the biggest fair we went to. And as John said earlier on there were lots of strangers. We travelled with the same people week in week out usually didn't we, it was like a big family affair travelling, the Marshalls travelled together, the Shaws travelled together, with the same, nearly the same people, but when you got to Hull Fair, it was run by the corporation, they would let people in from Newcastle and from the South. If somebody had something particularly good, a good ride or a good show, they wanted to be in Hull Fair because it was busy fair. So that meant there were lots of strange families who you hadn't seen for years. Strange families meant good looking young girls as far as we were concerned. You know - Ah! Who's this girl come up from Southsea or Southampton? Or she's from this family or that family - she's alright - I've not seen her before. Ah there was lots of courting went off - I mean - when the fair closed of a night time -we would congregate and meet. And the courting place - I mean you couldn't really get into your cars- it would be on the Waltzer Car. The seats were very comfortable for sitting in and doing a bit of a kissing and cuddling. They would wrap the cars up wouldn't they…
JS Cover them up and then we'd take the covers up…
HM "Will this seat do for you my dear?" To sit and have a chat. A source of conversation. A few quick kisses. There was plenty of kissing being done in Waltzer cars, Dodgem cars too.
JS One of my memories of the shows is that there used to be dancing girls on the front - to get them in the man would say "She Wears Nothing but a Smile! She'll make the Hairs Stand Up on the Back of Your Head like the Bristles on the Porcupines body! On view the moment you enter the building. Step right forward. We distain vulgarity. But when she walks she wobbles."
HM You've got a great memory for the words, but your caravan was right where the shows…
JS Was near the shows, yes. As a ten year old boy I was looking at these girls kicking their legs and this man telling this story about what you were going to see and you saw nothing!
What rides did you travel with?
JS We used to travel with a Speedway, with wooden motorbikes on and the Dodgem cars. There were the three Shaw's rides in a line - there used to be the Moonrocket, our Speedway and then my cousins Dodgems at the right hand side.
HM Another thing at Hull fair was Carvers fish and chips and the pea and pie stalls - I mean we always had pea and pie stalls even on the little fairs at one time but there was a mass of them at Hull. I had an Uncle who used to sell pea and pies. He used to stand in the stall shouting out at their busiest time was when the fair was emptying going back down Walton street - "Come and have a pea with me!" - It would be embarrassing to me but that's what he used to shout!
JS One of my memories was Dave Clarke: 'Bits and Pieces'. The ride next to us was the Moonrocket which was very steep. So they have got them stamping their feet to this 'Bits and Pieces' and they went through! I remember that - Dave Clarke Five playing 'Bits and Pieces'. I can play a Beatles and I could say - Compton Road Leeds Christmas because you'd played it over and over again. I remember Frank Ifield - Halifax. Summer fair that because it came out in 1962. Yes. And that was number one and we played it over and over again and when I hear that it's Halifax.
Thanks very much for this interview Henry and John. It was a pleasure to hear all the stories. Henry sums it up perfectly:
HM Now I mean most showman have got some really interesting stories, and most of them are going to get forgotten cause there's not much of it written down like you're doing or recording it. The trouble with travelling showmen, and it's not a trouble but you know, we all lived in Caravans and I mean you'd store a little thing but we went from place to place, not many people went to yards in those days- all the lovely things that you could have in a museum now. I mean I have memories.