Paris in the 1920s was no place for an Englishman to get lost, particularly if he could not speak the language. This, however, was exactly the position that George Thomas Tuby, Doncaster’s showman supreme, found himself in during a visit to the French capital. Every attempt to obtain directions to his hotel from the passing locals brought only a shrug of the shoulders, or a smile of incomprehension and ‘Tom’ Tuby, as he was known wherever his fairs appeared, incapable of stopping every passer by, looked round for the solution to his problem.
With a brilliance that marked out a leading showman of the period from lesser mortals, ‘Tom ‘Tuby found the answer to his predicament in the form of the onions being sold by the street vendors. Money, then as now, was a universal language and he did not have to speak French to buy some of those onions and become a salesman in his own right. Cries of ‘Onions a penny a bunch’ stood out in stark contrast to the more familiar dialect and while locals may have seen him as a foreign eccentric, the ploy worked. A passer by paused and in faultless English, asked ‘Tom’ Tuby what he thought he was playing at. “You don’t think these folk can understand you, do you?” “Nay, lad”, cam the reply in that broad Yorkshire accent, “But you can, so tell me the way to my hotel”. Once more he had lived up to his family motto, “Whilst I Live I’ll Crow”.
Foreign travel, however, must have seemed something akin to space fiction when young ‘Tom’ found that his father, for a reason that has never been explained, had given up his regular work and taken to the roads as a fairground entertainer, expecting his son to be a willing assistant.
But here was to be a ‘true rags to riches’ story, a boy who had helped for 6d per week, on local farms, found himself honoured by his adopted town of Doncaster as their number one citizen when George Thomas Tuby became his Worship the Mayor and Chief Magistrate. And in the age of steam on the fairgrounds, there was a unique naming ceremony as each of his traction engines told of public service, The Councillor, The Alderman, The Mayor and sadly but inevitably, as all good things have to come to an end, Ex-Mayor. George Thomas Tuby was born at Long Newland, near Selby, on July, 11th, 1857, and into a railway family. For his father worked at the Doncaster Great Northern Railway Plant Works, although he was to move out, and go firing on the footplates of this famous railway. His education was received at the National School at Goole and the family paid 2d per week for his tuition. So, in an age when so many leading figures on the fairs could neither read or write, he was an exception. Then, at the age of fourteen, when the class rooms were finally behind him, he began work in the potato fields at Selby for 6d per week. And there he could have remained, just another agriculture labourer, if his father had not made what turned out to be the momentous decision that was to create a true fairground dynasty. In that age when security for the family was the utmost in the minds of the working classes, and for a reason even his son could not explain, his father turned his back on the Great Northern Railway and its locomotives, and took to the highways and byways of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, entertaining people and bringing them some brief release from the strain, stresses and drudgery that was every day life.
Here is possibly the time to digress and look at the early fair ground scene where the Tuby family were always welcome visitors. And what better place to do this than Grimsby’s ‘Stattus’ as the annual Statute Fair was known. It is said that Grimsby’s right to hold a fair dates back to the grant of the town’s first Charter in 1201, so it would have been an established fair when ‘Tom’ Tuby began his career.
And there must have been occasions when the normal peace of the town, in the late evenings, was absent. For records show that the local police wore plainclothes in an attempt to deal with the pickpockets and a few drunks. And while no one could doubt that there were plenty of Grimbarians who could quaff their full ration of ‘Stattus Ale’ and contribute to any turbulence that was going on, the pickpockets who were found at almost any fair, as Nottingham knew to its cost at Goose Fair time, were nothing more than vagabonds who followed the genuine entertainers from place to place. While there would have been the shows, swingboats, ice-cream, sweets and brandysnaps, for nothing could be called a fair without brandysnap, when the Tubys began to attend, this was a fair that was the labour exchange or job centre for those engaged in agricultural and domestic work. Even today there are Grimbarians of an older generation who can remember how the farm hands, as well as domestics, used to congregate in the Old Market Place and bargain for service during the next twelve months. However, in many cases the contract was for a day short of the year. This was because, in many rural areas, if a worker lived there for twelve months or more he was eligible for parish relief if he fell on hard times. Villages were adverse to providing a permanent home for those who could result in an increase in their poor rate. Good workmen, however, would be kept on after that first period. And in this part of Lincolnshire, if a farm hand did not go to the fair for a hiring on what was called ‘Pack Rag Day’ they were said to be “stopping ageean”. These were the days when farmers and rural workers used to congregate in the Old Market Place, an area now given over to a supermarket, modern sculpture and pedestrianisation, and bargain for service and positions. When agreement was made between master and man, the deal was sealed with a ‘fastening penny’ and they adjourned to a local hostelry. But this would be merely for a celebration drink now their future was secure until the next fair came round. And how much more enjoyable the fair would have seemed once a job was secured. And it is interesting to reflect on the wages that were negotiated by the working classes who obviously were happy with the bargain struck.
Farm hands were prepared to work for between £17 to £22 per year, young lads received between £9 and £14, while a wagoner, a man versed in every facet of horses, between £17 and £26. Young domestic servants were paid between £8 and £11.
When they reached their 20th birthday, they could expect an increase to take them to a pay scale £10 to £15. Upper housemaids got the same pay and while a plain cook received between £10 to £14, the better trained and experienced first class cooks got between £14 and £21 and a groom £16 pounds per year. This, of course, was the age of the horse. Masters came into the town in their traps while the workers would use the carriers carts for a journey which jolted them over the rough and often deep rutted tracks of the time at a jog trot pace. Even when the fair lost its importance as an ’employment exchange’ country folk used the carriers cart to come into Grimsby for what was the only real holiday of the year. And it was the horse that took most showmen from fair to fair, drawing both living van and the actual amusement they operated. Horses would be stabled in local farmer’s fields. Many, men like ‘Tom’ Tuby, built up a series of airs, and left their horses with the same members of the farming fraternity each year. Others, however, not so honest, thought nothing of making a gap in a hedge or fence and pushing their animals into a field while they made an overnight stay.
The first amusement George Thomas’s father obtained was a shooting gallery. An at this time it is fair to assume that this was a tube shooter where the customers fired down tubes at the front of the entertainment which ran through the living wagon, coming out at the back where the targets were contained.
And the guns could be the muzzle loaders of the age, where the powder was pressed in first and then a lead projectile, cast in a mould by the showman and filed to remove the rough edges, was put on top of the powder. With this father and son toured the East and West Ridings of Yorkshire, earning sufficient money to buy a swing boat. Then an art gallery or penny peep show was acquired. Those were the days of the Franco-Prussian war and an entertainment starved public were eager to view the stirring event. In an interview with the ‘Doncaster Chronicle’, ‘Tom’ Tuby recalled how he had to ‘tell the tale and play the organ that was a popular attraction with the shows’. He recalled that the popular organ melodies of the period were ‘Wait till the turn of the tide’,. ‘You never miss the water till the well runs dry’, and ‘It’s not the miles you travel but the pace that kills’. There was free entertainment on the fair in that period. For the lads and lasses, with hardly any other release from the hardships of the age, used to gather round, singing at the tops of their voices, as the organ played their favourite tunes. And in those pre-steam days it was hand turned organ and the person responsible, for what could be a tiring job, was George Thomas Tuby. For a short period, when he was seventeen years of age, ‘Tom’ Tuby quit the travelling life and worked for the Bennett Shipping Company at Goole Docks transferring sugar cane from ship to railway wagon. At this time, there was also a period when he was working at Denaby, carting coals to collier’s houses for the princely sum of one guinea per week, a lost piece of currency but worth one pound one old shilling. However, the attractions of the travelling life were too great to be ignored and he came back, working as a travelling photographer, offering portraits from a booth which he erected near the Market Place at Goole. And the public in Retford, Gainsborough, Lincoln and even Louth, were willing to spend their money to see his reproductions of themselves and show family and friends one of the latest marvels of the age. For photography as we know it today only cam in, in 1839 when Fox Talbot introduced the calotype process. And in the 1850s, as George Thomas Tuby was beginning his own fairground career, the financial rewards, for those who had the right attractions and were prepared to put up with the hardships of travel when the horse was the beast of burden, and roads could be difficult to traverse and dangerous in some parts of the country could be very much greater than a working wage. This was shown when ‘Tom’ Tuby gave up picture taking in favour of a throwing game called ‘Wo Emma’ named after a popular song of the period. Every doll which was knocked over brought a coconut prize for the successful thrower, a present for a lady companion or something to boast about as a group of youths eventually left the fair. There is no doubt that in the travelling life, George Thomas Tuby found his real vocation. For he was a true showman, a person who knew what type of entertainment the public wanted and not only gave them this but a person who also ensured that the name of ‘Tuby’ was known wherever he went. What better advertisement is there for the travelling showman than this which appeared in old newspaper. Do not miss the showground, But see the Tubian fun’ Bask in pleasure just a while, Before your course is run. Tom Tuby he doth cater, Alike for rich and poor, Their pleasure he doth study, Nightly more and more. All know his Paraphernalia, Resplendent – Unsurpassed, So patronise Tom Tuby, Let ‘fun’ be your repast. Our noble institutions bless, Tom Tuby’s generous hand, And treasure lists of all his gifts, Bestowed at his command. The more he’ll give away To local institutions, The poor do share his pay. Nor was his generosity restricted to hospitals and institutions, as half a dozen men discovered when they were on his fair in the Market Place at Barnsley. They were standing by a corner talking when ‘Tom’ Tuby went to enquire if they were waiting for anything specific. Seeing that they were shabbily dressed, he suggested they walked to his caravan where they would be in for a surprise. The men thought he was joking but walked with the owner of the fairground and discovered there was a tailor there to measure him for a suit. Soon the six men, all strangers to Thomas Tuby, were themselves being measured and a few days later each received a new suit, paid for by their fair ground benefactor. And fine suits they appeared to be ‘seven guinea suits’ as one of the men described them. But this was this great personality of the fairground, a man who liked nothing better than helping those less fortunate, and it must be said, less enterprising than himself. Then in 1883 he married Maria, the daughter of a baker with premises in Fishergate, Doncaster. It has to be remembered that when ‘Tom’ Tuby began his fairground career, the entertainment business was primitive in the extreme. There was no form of mechanical power. Attractions had to be capable of being transported from fair to fair by horses and once on site, being worked by horse or human; muscle power. Hence the actual machines had to be simple in the extreme. Swings were ideal for travelling, and could easily be operated by the riders, being stopped by the owner pushing a plank under the actual swingboat. With the swings, George Thomas Tuby also travelled coconut shies, and is believed to have purchased his first set of steam horses in 1887. And this showman’s interest in the community is shown by a report of his generosity when his fair was in the Lincolnshire town of Louth. For he entertained all the inhabitants of Louth Workhouse to a Tuesday afternoon ride on his switchback prior to using the machine to raise funds for the Louth Hospital and Dispensary. Before they left ‘Tom’ Tuby gave each man and woman three old pence and distributed one stone of sweets among the children.
Now, before following the progress of the family through the machine age, what better way of looking at the period than through the minor illness which could hit the showmen. Not for them a free visit to a doctor under a National Health Service.
In 1922, an age when all medical services had to be paid for, it would often be a case of checking the local newspaper and if the complaint was with the stomach, indigestion, loss of appetite, fullness after eating, acidity, constipation, biliousness or a headache, then the cure could be found with Mother Seigel’s Syrup, a fifty year old remedy that was claimed to have given thousands of people good health and good spirits at a cost of three old shillings per bottle. And there were references from people who had found the manufacturers claims true. Take a period newspaper’s advertisement for HOLDROYDS GRAVEL PILLS. It was claimed they were a positive cure for Gravel, Pains in the back, Dropsy, Bright’s Disease of the Kidneys, Gout and Sciatica. Available from all Chemists at 1s 1 ½d, and they were vouched for by R.E. of Weybridge, who wrote, ‘I bought a box yesterday, and after I had taken the second I felt better than I had done for over four years. The pain in my back has entirely gone’. Robert Leake, 1 Silver Street, Barnsley, said ‘I am pleased to say your pills are of priceless worth, and I will sound their praises wherever I go’. Mrs King of Runwell Road, Wickford stated, ‘Duty compels me to tell all who suffer that your pills cured me after years of pain’. Mr A. Newton of Feltham wrote, ‘Your pills have completely cured me after four months on my back’. And with such recommendations, travelling showmen must have seen them as the answer to many aches and pains. Such was the development of fairs, that it was not an unusual sight at Stamford to see the great ladies from nearby Burghley House enjoying a ride on the roundabout. ‘Peasant and lord, squire and labourer, countess and kitchen maid all patronised the ‘Tuby’ attractions again and again.’