Down Memory Lane with Peter Tuffrey - The magic of the fair

George Thomas Tuby seated front row first left.jpg
George Thomas Tuby seated front row first left.jpg

FOR most people, fairgrounds evoke magic moments from childhood days when the arrival of the annual fair was an eagerly anticipated event.

Fairs have changed over the years, but their purpose remains the same - to provide the fair-goer with a form of entertainment that is unpretentious, exciting and uninhibited.

Tuby and sons scenic railway fairground ride

Tuby and sons scenic railway fairground ride

Doncaster’s Tuby family have been connected with fairs in and out of town for over 150 years, providing fun and entertainment for numerous generations of people.

George Thomas Tuby was born on July 11, 1857, at Newlands near Selby.

By the time he had reached adolescence his father, Thomas Tuby, a former GNR Plant Works employee, started a shooting gallery which he took on a tour of East and West Riding villages.

Consequently, this was how George became introduced to the showman business. When he was around 14 his father took him from the potato fields near Selby, where he was then working for 6d a day, and provided him with a more lucrative employment in connection with the shooting gallery and a ‘swing boat’ which was subsequently added.

George was a valuable assistant to his father, especially when an art gallery or penny peep show was added. Over the next few years George tried his hand at other jobs but soon returned to the lure and attractions of the showman’s world setting himself up with swings, coconut shies, galloping horses, a switchback and then horses four-abreast.

He was operating in the fairground’s golden age, which had begun during the late 1860s when a successful agricultural engineer from King’s Lynn devised a method of driving roundabouts by steam.

His invention, a steam engine mounted at the centre of the ride, was to transform the showman’s business.

Freed from the limitation of muscle power, roundabouts could be made larger and more capacious and, most significantly, more heavily ornamented.

The golden era was epitomised by the elaborate carved galloping horses suspended on twisted brass rods and revolving to the strains of a mechanical organ. The showman’s increasing demand for novelty was matched by the ingenuity of contemporary engineers.

As George’s business grew, he bought or hired land on which to hold fairs. He also became a lessee, which meant that people paid him a rent to operate rides on his land.

Novelty - the showman’s stock-in-trade - is the vital element in attracting the public’s attention and a new venture of George’s, shortly before the turn of the century, was called the Dover to Calais Channel Tunnel Railway, which was made at King’s Lynn. The carriages ran part of the journey in a dark tunnel and partly in the illumination of the fairground lights. George played the role of porter, station master, engine driver and everything else.

Unfortunately, the Channel Tunnel Railway was not a success. George subsequently sold it to a French purchaser, who installed it at Versailles at the time of the 1901 French exhibition, and in Paris where it did good business.

After a while he concentrated on a scenic railway with its fine organs, motorcars and other attractions. He always specialised in machines, not shows, and once said that ‘machines were the fine mechanical and musical attractions of the fairground’.

His fairground equipment was largely transported by huge traction engines or by rail. He had the honour of being engaged several times by the Duke and Duchess of Portland and Earl Fitzwilliam to take his machines to Welbeck Abbey and Wentworth, and received letters of thanks for doing so.

Running concurrently with George’s showman career was one in politics. In 1896 he was elected to Doncaster Council to represent St George’s ward, and this began a 36-year association with local politics.

Later in 1921-22 he became Mayor of Doncaster. In the counties of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire his name was a household word as one of the most popular showmen.

He demonstrated that a penny showman, as he once described himself, could rise to a public place in society and discharge useful public functions and offices. Doncaster was his headquarters for well over half a century, and when he died in 1932 crowds of people lined the route of the funeral procession to Doncaster parish church and the cemetery.

All classes of people were represented at the funeral, paying tribute to the memory of a very popular townsman.

George’s four sons had also entered the showman’s world and commenced their own business.

In turn their descendants have continued to be connected with fairgrounds.

One of George’s noted descendants is Roger Tuby, and he is still very active in the fairground industry.

Since starting in the business he has noticed that people want to be thrilled more and more by faster and faster ‘white-knuckle’ rides, and by being turned upside down, spun round and shaken about.

He is also proud of his family history and has given talks and lectures about it.

This would no doubt please George Thomas Tuby, if he was alive today, since it is keeping the Tuby fairground tradition very much alive.