The Hopping's Show Row

by Professor Vanessa Toulmin

 

Like its famous Yorkshire rival, Hull, Newcastle Town Moor has always been famous for its row of shows which still dominate the skyline of the Hoppings. Even before the founding of the Temperance Festival in 1882, famous showmen such as Randall Williams, Bostock and Wombwell and the Biddall family with their Ghost show were frequent visitors to the fair held on the Haymarket. One of the most famous shows of the nineteenth century was Bostock and Wombwell's menagerie. Although they only exhibited at the Town Moor once, they were regular visitors to the variety of fairs held in Newcastle throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, appearing at the Haymarket, Jesmond Park. In 1931, this famous menagerie opened for the last time at the Old Sheep Market in Newcastle on November 24th. After its final performance the show was disbanded and sold and the two elephants Rosie and Dixie set off down Northumberland Street to the store of Arthur J Fenwick to perform their last farewells. The first shows to appear on the Town Moor would have been the ghost illusion booths and the marionettes shows. From 1898 onwards, cinematograph booths made their appearance at the fair and local people would perhaps have seen their first glimpse of moving pictures at the Hoppings. From 1897 to 1914, a large percentage of the population would have seen moving pictures for the first time in a fairground bioscopes show. One of the most famous of these bioscope proprietors who opened at the Hoppings was Mamie Paine, where her show was a regular attendant at the annual fair. Roundabout proprietors also invested in these shows and in 1907 William Murphy of Sunderland presented the largest bioscope show ever seen in Newcastle when he exhibited his large organ fronted exhibition new from the manufacturers. The outbreak of the First World War prevented many fairs from opening throughout the United Kingdom and unfortunately for the showmen and the local people the dispute between the Freeman, the showmen and the Council which had started in 1913 was still unresolved and no fair opened on the Moor for ten years. However a "Hoppings" fair was presented in Jesmond Vale for the Race Week during this time.

 

With the move back in 1924 to the original festival site the fair once again expanded and the show row was one area which greatly improved. However, fashions had changed and no longer did the cinematographs, ghost shows and marionettes booths dominate the Newcastle skyline. They were replaced by a novelty booths, ghost trains, dancing girls and boxing academies. By 1929, three boxing booths were in attendance including Len Johnson, and J. Stewart, Tippler White presented his miniature menagerie, Tom Wortley exhibited his two-headed giant and Pindar's circus was one of the many entertainments on offer. By the time of the 1937 fair, the World's Fair were pronouncing that the "Shows an outstanding feature of the Newcastle Town Moor Festival" and the reporter states:

 

"This section of the Festival this year is a most outstanding feature. Never previously have I seen such a collection of high class shows. They total 36 and all of them are in good taste. I personally checked this long line on Monday evening and feel nothing but praise can be paid to the showmen responsible."

 

The shows included W. H. Stewart's National Sporting Club featuring boxers from England and America, the Pindar's family with a circus and a menagerie, John Collin's new Show Boat Theatre, Jack Parry's wonder show featuring Big Chief Red Snake, Richard Shufflebottom's Texan sports, Charlie Birch's Water Circus and many other famous names such as the Chadwick's, Patterson's, the Wheatley's and Professor Testo with his flea circus, all who would be associated with the Town Moor for many years to come. By the 1950s the shows had changed yet again and despite the nostalgia displayed by the World's Fair reporter in 1955 for a bygone age which had disappeared over forty years ago, the show row was still immensely popular:

 

"The shows in the seemingly endless line in the West section of the Festival again offer a huge variety of unusual attractions, but many of the older generation look on with a sense of regret. They will probably reflect that shows lost much of their fascination with the disappearance of ghost shows, living pictures, waxworks, and menageries whose entrances were resplendent with gilt, mirror and brasswork ... Times may have changed but the "oddities section still remains good fun and the barkers still remind the milling crowds "you'll remember it all your life."

 

Of the many shows in attendance in 1955, it was the attractions of the Colorado's "established favourites on the Town Moor", Tom Norman's Travelling London Palladium Show with "its entertainment of a high standard" Gilbert Chadwick's freak animal show and Professor Alf Testo's flea circus which were singled out in the report. However, one important aspect of the shows and no matter how elaborate the showfront, was the always the ability of the showman to tell the tale and bring the people in that was the most important aspect of it's success.

 

A twentieth century example of the type of showmanship which was frequent at the Hoppings is a story concerning Tippler White, a famous Yorkshire showmen who regularly presented novelty shows at Newcastle. One year however, he found to his dismay that although he had the showbooth, the amusements he had planned to exhibit were not available and he was left with an empty booth and no novelty. A solution was quickly found and on the opening night, Tippler White was advertising to the fairgoers an unusual and rare sight only seen once a year in Newcastle. As the customers quickly queued down the side of the show, laughter could be heard from the exhibition tent as people departed from the booth. Business was very successful and the fellow showmen were intrigued as to what Tipple White was exhibiting in his tent. Finally on the last night of the festivities the secret was revealed. As the eager customers entered the show in order to be amazed at this local phenomenon, Tippler White lifted the back flap of the booth and showed the people what they had paid to see; Newcastle Town Moor Fair at night. In order to pacify any tempers that may have been angered by this trick, Tippler White promised the audience half of the entrance fee back in return for total secrecy as to what his novelty was.

 

Throughout the 1960s, the names of Chadwick, Shufflebottom, Patterson and Taylor continued to be associated with the show row with the only difference being the type of exhibition now on offer. By the 1970s ghost trains, fun houses and haunted houses had replaced the fat boy, the lion faced lady and the freak animals. However the continuity was retained by the showfamilies who returned annually to the Moor and opened their shows on the spot once occupied by the fathers generation.

 

The famous show row at Newcastle is now dominated by trailer mounted triple decker ghost trains, fun houses and crazy mirror shows. Ron Taylor's Boxing Academy last appeared on the Hoppings in 1995 bringing to an end a long tradition of boxing proprietors such as Len Johnson, Jack Gage and the Stewart family who had been associated with the fair over the century. Over the past hundred years many famous showmen have attended the Town Moor festivities, bringing entertainment and trickery to many generations of fairgoers. In recognition of the skill, imagination and showmanship, I will end this overview of the Town Moor show row with W. K. Burford's tribute to the shows:

 

So there are tricks in all trades

Except in yours and mine

And even showmen, sometimes

Come rather near the line

We paid to see a marvel-

A cherry-coloured cat;

Whatever else we passed by

We thought we must see that.

The thing was quite a "take-in,"

We claimed our money back;

But we were then reminded

Cherries are sometimes "black."

 

This article reprinted with the permission of  Professor Vanessa Toulmin   National Fairground Archive  University of Sheffield   http://www.shef.ac.uk/nfa/index.php  

 

 

Photographs

1-Tom Norman aka the Silver King

2-Hal Denver (son of Tom Norman) and his Wild West Act

3-Rose Bishop - or Mermaida - who appeared with Tom Norman in the 1900s or

 

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