Fairground children, after they leave school, can, through the very nature of their parents businesses, lead a nomadic life. This was very true of Lily Tuby, one of four daughters of George Thomas Tuby and wife Maria.
And it was equally true of Ben Howden, the son of Benjamin Howden, himself the brother in law of the famed Lincolnshire showman George Aspland, and the man who was to take over George Aspland’s amusement business, after the founder’s retirement. Both the Tuby family and the Aspland-Howdens commenced their travelling year at King’s Lynn Mart, which opened on St. Valentine’s Day, and which even today marks the beginning of the season for those who attend. And it was at Lynn Mart that a young Ben Howden who had just left school, met Lily Tuby. They saw each other only once or twice a year, as their parents toured different parts of the country.
But far from them becoming casual acquaintances, a friendship developed and although they could only keep in touch by letter, romance developed, a romance which was to unite these two great fairground families when the couple married at Doncaster, in 1913.
And that George Thomas approved of the union was shown when he became a great personal friend of Benjamin Howden Snr. And what better way to continue our look at fairs of the age than through the memories of Ben Howden Jnr. He was born at the winter home of the family in York Street, Boston in Lincolnshire and he could always remember the spring and summer when he had to say goodbye to his parents as he remained behind, living in the house in York Street and attending the National School. It was while he was still at school that Buffalo Bill’s Circus big Show, came to Boston. It was one of the largest in the country and it was the first time the locals had seen real Indians and cowboys. The schools were given a holiday so that the youngsters could experience its delights. It was a holiday that the authorities may have regretted. For there were so many complaints about boys with dirty shirts and collars.
As Ben Howden used to recall, the kids saw cowboys do wonderful lassoing tricks and they wanted to develop their own skills. This was harmless fun when the weather was dry, but when it rained the playground go muddy as did lassoes, shirts and young boys.
But school, for young Ben Howden must have been a frustrating time. For he could hardly wait to begin his apprenticeship on the fair. His first tasks were rather mundane, feeding the cardboard into the mechanical organ, when he was barely tall enough to reach the key frame box. And all the time he had to keep running to the rear of the organ to check that the ‘music book’ was coming out and folding properly. He believed his father was one of the first showmen to use a cardboard music book organ to replace the previous barrel organ and he remembered that its music was very expensive. “It used to run to three shillings and sixpence in old money per yard” he told a local reporter, and while it may seem strange to buy music by measurement, this is how it was sold to the showmen when they used folded cardboard books, with the notes represented by holes varying in size, punched into the cardboard.
As he also said, all youngsters of the age looked on with envy at the agile men who leaped on and off the plunging cars on a roundabout. So it was with Ben Howden.And as a lad of not quite fifteen years of age, he could be seen jumping from car to car and enjoying every minute of it.
When he became proficient his father promoted him to a collector, taking money from the people riding in the cars. Before a further twelve months had passed, there was further promotion for Ben Howden. He became the cashier, sitting in the cash box, snatching money and passing change to the collectors moving from car to car. There was not much time for play for young Ben, old Ben saw to that but he enjoyed it all. Many friendships were made on their tours, and they would meet up on the same fairs, year after year after year. As the Aspland Howdens did with the Tuby family. And as he used to tell people, despite the fact that the showman’s life appeared to be a summer vocation, it was and is, a year round toil. For when they were not touring, they were in their workshops in Main Ridge, Boston, where there was a staff of twelve all the year round, painting and repairing.
Benjamin Howden, a qualified engineer, and his men, like most on the fairs, could tackle practically any repair job which may come up. The decorators were a Mr Pearson and Mr Skinner, both of whom lived in Main Ridge.
In the workshop there was a portable engine for lighting and Benjamin Howden and his brother were responsible for looking after it on alternative nights and often there were long periods of overtime, as the men worked hard to get their equipment ready for the road. But roads played little part in their journeys. For before the family had their own steam traction engine, they relied on the railways who through a special contract would convey the wagons and rides for 6d per mile and all the vans had to be built to go under the tunnel gauges. The family used to ride in the front of the train and the workmen at the rear. At this time the average wage paid by Aspland-Howdens to their men was about twenty five old shillings per week.
But when you consider that they could live for eleven old shillings per week, they were quite well off. Ben Howden recalled that if they paid any more than that for their lodgings, they would expect a mansion to live in.
When they arrived at the station of the town where the fair was to be held, the railway company horses took them to the actual site. The family travelled to the principle fairs in Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. In his early days when local children saw the amusements arriving they would shout, “A show, a show, Hurrah”. But he was to see the end of this particular piece of atmosphere. For as he told the press, “But now, the rising generation just don’t take that amount of interest, there are so many other attractions all the year round. In fact showmanship, as I know it, is already dead”. There are now no rides at all for the middle age folk, it’s all for the youngsters, ‘speed, thrills and more speed’, was how he saw the imported continental machines developing.
As Ben Howden saw it the time came when a fair was no longer a novelty. The public could go to any seaside and see the same things any day of the week.And talking of the seaside brought him to Skegness and Sir Billy Butlin. The first time Ben Howden met him, Billy Butlin was at York Gala and he had a small hoopla and a F.W.D. lorry. “But the next time, what a change.
He had blossomed out at Skegness and his name is a household word at every seaside resort”. In his fairground days, however, Ben Howden found that while there was plenty of hard work, it a jollity and jokes. For as ‘Tom’ Tuby’s son-in-law said, “The fun we used to have”. “there can be no place like a travelling fair for jollity. You are born in the atmosphere and live among the flaring naphtha and gas flames, with all sorts of organs blaring tunes and the hoarse cries of showmen. It was fun”. He could remember taking a farm labourer into his employ at Long Sutton.
They were passing through Doncaster and there he saw his first electric tram. He was in the front and called out to the man driving the engine behind, “Look Fred, going without horses”.What a different world the fair brought into the life of this particular countryman, who would not have left his own immediate area before joining the travelling fraternity.
As Ben himself said, !Any new hand taken on used to lead a queer life for a bit. The workmen would send him to look for a ’tilt hammer’ and other imaginary tools. Fair people are usually fine to get on with, though, and are very good humoured. However, this humour could not be taken too far when Ben Snr. Was about for he was very strict. When he looked annoyed, one of the men used to give the tip to the organ man who used to put on, ‘The Village Blacksmith’, one of his favourite tunes. When he paused for some moments listening to the organ everyone knew that he had recovered his good spirits and life returned to normal.
Ben Howden could recall the old Boston Fairs and as he said “I should think a number of older Bostonians will remember Mander’s Moving Waxworks opposite the National Provincial Bank.They were in dens like a menagerie and while a man was explaining the wax works, an assistant was outside the van making them move”.
Another ‘winner’ wherever the fair appeared was Radford and Chappell’s Ghost Show, because there were never more than two theatres in even the largest town. And as he explained, a man could have an evening of free entertainment by just walking round and watching the performers on the shows, trying to draw the crowds inside. And these included Professor Burnett’s Lancers on horseback. And there used to be long stalls with fancy goods to buy and eat. However, he lived to see all these disappear as rides took over from the shows.
There were many similarities between the Tuby family and the Aspland-Howdens. For just as George Tuby Snr. Made his introduction into the travelling life with a shooter, so it was the public’s urge to use firearms that brought George Valentine Aspland onto the fairs.
He was born in the Lincolnshire town of Holbeach in 1836, beginning his working life as an errand boy for \Mr Snare, the ironmonger. He then turned to the bakery business before working in agriculture, driving a threshing machine for a Mr John Luke of Holbeach. But from an early age, however, he became interested in entertaining his neighbours.
He realised that an Englishman was never happier than when ‘he could pelt at something or shoot at nothing’. He rigged up his first shooting range which consisted of nothing more than a whitewashed iron target in a roped off arena.
There was an attendant with a whitewash brush and it was his job to re-brush the target after every shooting session. This was said to have made its public debut in the cricket field at Holbeach, before George Aspland took it for a season at the then undeveloped coastal resort of Skegness. Encouraged by this venture, he invested in a shooting gallery, a tube shooter. But this was one of the first of the type and was described as ‘primitive’ when compared with the later ‘tube shooters’ where the public fired down the tube which ran through the living wagon at a target on the end
Not for George Aspland, the luxury of telescopic tubes. The tubes were made in sections and their transit from place to place was something of an undertaking.
These tubes, described in a local newspaper as, resembling huge and ‘Brobdingagian’ Stove pipes were piled high on a wagon and dragged, a mountain of chimney, from fair to fair. Later, George Aspland, like ‘Tom’ Tuby, obtained a photographic booth, travelling both from place to place taking portraits with a form of instant photography, and he was known as a ‘mug chopper’. He did all his own work. He attended to the rifle range, took photographs and developed them. It was a case of hard work paying off for this particular showman. Proceeding upwards, always with success, as a newspaper reported, in 1872 he entered upon the enterprise – the whirligig, the roundabout, or whatever be its name – in connection with which he is best known and will be remembered for.
At Boston May Fair in 1872 he had a set of bicycles which were driven round a track erected in the Pen-yard. The motive power was supplied by the patrons who were described as numerous, but whose enthusiasm and zeal were sometimes embarrassing.
Their ‘pedal pushing’ propensities had to be constantly ‘chocked’ before the machine could be stopped to clear the cycles for the next riders. Later, he acquired a steam driven system whereby stopping enthusiastic riders was no longer a problem. Then came the Sea on Land. At Boston May Fair in 1880 Sanger’s Circus was there with a Sea on Land. The power was supplied by horses driven in the inner circle after the manner of the old horse mills. Frederick Savage improved on this by developing a steam Sea on Land and George Aspland was one his early customers, opening with the ride at Halifax on June 24th 1880.
The following year the ride was in Norfolk, making a debut performance at Norwich Easter Sombland Fair and from there it went to the Yarmouth Easter fair for the Friday and Saturday of Easter Week.
At Norwich it was concerned with a small section of history. The first ever Fisheries Exhibition to be held in the country was opened at the Drill Hall in Norwich by the Prince of Wales, (afterwards King Edward V11). The route of the official procession led past Castle Hill where the fair was being held and Ben Howden Snr. Brought the empty lorries that had transported the machine and placed them in position to provide a free grandstand from which to view the procession. And it is worthy of note that this was the first time electric light had been seen in Norwich. For a huge carbon lamp was outside the main entrance to the exhibition and the light was said to have been unsteady and of a decided blue tint.
It was in 1875 that George Aspland had been joined by his brother in law, Ben Howden whose engineering skills were responsible for many of the alterations and improvements made on the rides. From the profits from the Sea on Land, George Aspland built a row of houses, in Main Ridge, Boston, and what better name for them than ‘Sea on Land Terrace’.When Ben Howden entered into the business he had sole management of the machinery and when George V. Aspland retied in 1895, he became proprietor, although the name Aspland was retained. A set of gallopers followed the Sea on Land and just before the turn of the century they took delivery of the now famous Gondola Switchback, known as ‘Aspland’s All Royal Venetian Gondolas’. The switchback, which is now in the Thursford Museum, had a rebuild in 1906 and the original gondolas were replaced by motor cars. Then during the winter of 1910-11 Messrs Orton and Spooner fitted the fine extension front. A few years later the Gondolas were returned to the machine.
Originally, a trumpet barrel organ was used with the ride but this was replaced by a 87 key Gavioli at about the time the conversion to motor cars was made. The 110 key Gavioli organ that had been used in the bioscope cinema they had was overhauled by Verbeeks in 1926, cut down to 98 key and fitted to the Gondolas.
The 87 key was converted to barrel operation and fitted into Chris Johnson’s Savage Gallopers. This 110 key Gavioli was one of the first built with the key frame turned round, which meant that the paper did not pass through the organ and out at the far side near the big drum. It is believed that the organ dated from 1907. It was the organ front of Aspland’s cinema show until that closed down at the end of 1912. Different organs played some tunes better than others and it is said that the organ had no equal when playing the grand marches which were so popular. Asplands used a portable electric light engine, No 537 to provide lighting for many years. Then in October, 1906, they took possession of the Fowler No. 10696 engine, George the First.
There is some doubt if this engine was used with the Switchback, but it may have hauled the two box trucks and the two car trucks with bow tops from station to station for transmission by rail. Kathleen Mary on the other hand, the Burrell No 3404 which was received by the company on July 14th, 1912, was used with it until 1931 when both went into store.
The centre engine on the switchback was a two cylinder Simple, new from Savage in 1898. This ride, which passed into the ownership of West of England showman, Percy Cole, when on the road, consisted of six loads. There were the two car trucks, a box truck which carried much of the carved work, hand rails and steps, a flat truck for the sleepers, gates and drum, centre truck and organ truck. In 1900, Aspland Howdens were in possession of a Razzle Dazzle which they called ‘Whirling the Wirl’. And at this time the younger members of the family were active on the front of their bioscope shows, which started with in 1905. Both Gladys and Jack Howden performed on the front of their shows, entertained the public before the show began and providing a never to be forgotten fairground experience for those without the money to go inside. There travelling shows had their own uniformed ‘doormen’ just like we later found at the cinema. And this was appropriate. For the family were to give up travelling and concentrate their interests in those permanent cinemas at both Boston and Spalding.