“If I say to local people my name’s Townsend, they often say, ‘What, the Fair people from Chickerell?’ Which is true, that’s who I am. My family’s been here in Putton Lane since 1933. When my Granny bought the land it was a turnip field in winter, and of course it was very, very muddy; we had heavy traction engines to put in the field, so we bought cartloads of ‘bats’, which are reject bricks, from the local brickworks and made a road right down through the field. That was the beginning of our showman’s yard. We had traction engines for many years, with dynamos powering the rides and lights. We bought two which came from the Portland stone quarries. My Uncle Tom paid £25 for the pair, and we converted one into a showman’s engine, with the canopy, and all the brass work. This one was originally called Nellie, after a servant girl who worked at Portland Castle. My uncle christened her ‘Queen Mary’, by breaking a bottle of milk stout over the wheel. She’s owned by a family called Cook now, and still goes to the Great Dorset Steam Fair every year.
My family have been showmen since 1876. My great granddad lost his job, driving the mail coach between Radstock and Bath. He had nine mouths to feed, so he bought a small children’s roundabout, which packed away into a cart, and was pulled by a horse. When it was open, the horse was led around, thus turning the roundabout to give the children their ride, and that little ride was the start of show business for us. My grandparents’ last child born was my Dad, and he was one of triplets, born in Commercial Road in Weymouth, in a showman’s living wagon parked by the water’s edge. Sadly the other two babies didn’t survive.
My parents, Joe and Esme Townsend, raised me, an only child, in the old-fashioned way; never lie, never swear, work hard, and show respect. I have never met anyone who didn’t like my father. He always wore a trilby hat; he had a kind heart, and worked hard all his life. They met when Townsend’s fair was open at Milborne Port; she came to the fair, had a ride on the swinging boats, and her dress blew up in the breeze. Dad caught sight of her legs, and that was it. In the early days, education wasn’t seen as particularly important in showland. My Dad did go to school in School Street in Weymouth for a while, so he could read the paper every day, but through dictating he got someone else to write his love letters to my Mum when they were courting.
My earliest memory as a child was of Uncle Dick and Uncle Pat painting the rides in our big paint shed, ready for the summer season. We were open from April to November, travelling all over Dorset, Somerset, and a bit of Wiltshire. So really I only had half the schooling of other children, as we were on the road all that time. I can remember my first day at Chickerell School, when I cried, because I’d stepped into everybody else’s world, and in my life I’d only experienced our world. I felt very alone. Every year after Portland Fair, which was always the last fair of the season, my Mum made sure I went back to school. She was determined I should read and write, but even now my spelling and punctuation’s far from perfect. People often say to me ‘I suppose you’ve had a colourful and exciting life’. Not really, because the fairground was my world; the rides, the sounds, the travelling, it was normal life to me. I was brought up in a caravan; then when I was nine, we had our bungalow built here in Putton Lane. Like many show children, as a little girl people called me gypsy, because my family were show people. I’d say ‘no I’m not’, but now I’m older I can explain to people what the differences are between us and gypsies.
Growing up most of the time on the road, early in the season there weren’t that many other children to play with, not until the later part of the season when other showmen and their families would join us at the fairs; then I’d see more of my friends. My school reports would always say the same: ‘Kay does her best’, so it’s true my education was limited, and it was hard catching up with the other children. But I’ve never let it hold me back, to the extent that I’ve now published four books about the showman’s life and history – with considerable help from spell-check and proof readers! Three of my books were printed by Creeds of Broadoak, near Bridport, who were exceptionally helpful to me as an ‘amateur’ writer.
Our season’s work included charter fairs, which were always on a fixed date, for example Wool Fair which was always the second weekend of May, then Beaminster Fair. Other fairs and carnivals, we would apply to the local committee for permission to bring our fair along, so the season’s dates were always planned in advance. We would also do private events, where we would rent a field from a farmer for a week outside a town to hold a fair. We did this at Swanage, usually for two weeks. When we were on the road, we had three rides; we had Dodgems, an Octopus, and a Noah’s Ark ride. Since 1918, we have had swinging boats and roundabouts on Weymouth beach, and we still have family connections with today’s operation there. I stopped the travelling a few years ago now: something just clicked and I thought I’d had enough of it, although once a showman always a showman. It’s in my blood, and I still feel more at home in my caravan than I do in any house. Nowadays I run a shooting stall which I take to shows, right down to Cornwall sometimes. The operating costs now for the travelling fair are phenomenal, with fuel, labour, and capital outlay on the rides, plus the insurance and testing of the equipment for safety. Then during the winter maintaining and painting the equipment for the season all adds up, and makes the rides quite expensive. We also have to compete with theme parks, where you pay a fixed entry, then all the rides are free.
If I’d been asked say four years ago whether I thought the showman’s way of life would continue, I’d probably have said not for much longer. But I’ve changed my mind now; people are adapting to change, and although many families have left the business, there’s a few people who are determined to keep it going. It’s a struggle, but they’re supported by the Showmen’s Guild which is always there behind them. The atmosphere at the fairs has changed a lot, so that it’s noisier and glossier now; but thankfully there are still people keeping the old traditions and styles going.
I actually launched my last book standing in front of our old engine ‘Queen Mary’, and that was a very special moment for me. Writing about my family’s way of life and the history of showmen has been very important to me, and it’s good to preserve and pass on the stories. I wouldn’t change my upbringing for anything, because who I was yesterday makes me who I am today.”