Tyne and Wear Archives

Scope and Content

19 manuscripts mainly about travelling Showmen written by Arthur J Fenwick, 1 by Lee Dixon and 2 written by the Rev. Thomas Horne. These have been reproduced with the permission of the Tyne and Wear County Council Archives Department.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Rev Thomas Horne was born during the middle of the 19th century to a fairground family that travelled the north-west of England. His childhood was hard: he appeared on a show-front at the age of three and by the time he was ten he was working to support the family following his father's desertion. As a young man he achieved success as a partner in a ghost illusion show as well as performing in portable theatres. He was, however, a deeply religious man who attended church regularly. Inspired by a Leeds clergyman he greatly admired Thomas Horne left the fairgrounds to join a missionary brotherhood at Oxford. After four years there he returned to Leeds where he acted as sacristan at the parish church. In 1884 he was offered a curacy at Hunslet and was ordained the following year.

Upon hearing about the Moveable Dwelling Bill put forward by George Smith in 1889, Thomas Horne started a vigorous campaign in the press against Smith's proposed legislation. He continued to work on behalf of travelling showmen and became chaplain to the United Kingdom Van Dwellers' Association, the organisation set up to oppose the Moveable Dwellings Bill. In 1899 he was invited to become the Association's official Organiser and General Secretary. Despite their success in defeating the bill, they were not a strong organisation. Membership had declined and they were weakened by the existence of rival bodies within the fairground community. Thomas Horne travelled throughout the country, preaching to the showmen, and devoting time and attention to getting new members from the travelling fraternity; in one year alone he travelled over 12,000 miles, visiting fairs as far apart as Penzance in Cornwall to Ayr in Scotland.

In 1909 he was joined by the great Walsall showman Pat Collins, who had been elected president of the Association that year in succession to Lord George Sanger. Collins was to remain in that office for the next 20 years, a record that has never been surpassed. Their work together had an immediate impact on the Association. Within a year or so the organisation had changed its name to the Showmen's Guild (the parenthetical subtitle to its original name) and it had been recognised as having the right to defend its members' interest. During the following years the organisation and management of the Guild was significantly altered to assume the shape it still has today. Prominent among these changes was the establishment of regional bodies known as Sections, through which the affairs of the Guild would be administered. The first eight Sections were formed in 1917.

Until his death in 1918, Thomas Horne was the main spokesman for the fairground community. With his education, training as a priest, and family association with the fairground, he became the ideal representative of the travelling showmen. He did much to safeguard the future of the old Van Dwellers Association and presented a respectable image of the fairground to its negaters. As a man of God his testimony on behalf of the showmen would hardly have been called into question.

When the first fairground enthusiasts' organisation, the Friendship Circle of Showland Fans, was formed in 1941 Arthur J Fenwick became one of its Vice-Presidents and benefactors. He was a member of the family that owned Fenwicks, the famous department store in his home city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and had been a fairground and circus enthusiast since the last decade of the nineteenth century. He lived close to the Town Moor, scene of the annual Temperance Association Festival since 1882. Fenwick had a considerable knowledge of the event's history, and during the latter years of his life he employed a photographer to escort him on customary visit to the Moor and photograph him in the company of his fairground friends. Arthur Fenwick built up a substantial collection of He also donated several paintings of fairs in northern England and a dinner service decorated with a circus theme, designed jointly by Dame Laura Knight and Clarice Cliff, to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.

Lee Dixon was a fairground enthusiast.


Items catalogued by type

Conditions Governing Access

Research by appointment

Acquisition Information

Reproduced with the permission of the Tyne and Wear County Council Archives Department.

Other Finding Aids

Finding aids: 178B51-22

Archivist's Note

Description compiled by Jane Donaldson

Conditions Governing Use

Items are for research purposes only and cannot be photocopied

Related Material

Arthur J Fenwick photographs and printed ephemera relating to travelling showmen are held at the Tyne & Wear Archives in Newcastle.Arthur J Fenwick donation of a dinner service decorated with a circus theme, designed jointly by Dame Laura Knight and Clarice Cliff was donated to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle

Location of Originals

Tyne and Wear County Council Archives Department.


Personal Names

Corporate Names