The life of a travelling showman

Edward was born on the 19th February 1870 in Battersea, in the County of Surrey. This area is now a part of the Greater London conurbation. He was the second child of Edward Thomas James and Anna James nee Canty. By the following year the family had relocated to Basingstoke in Hampshire, a town where our family had familial connections. Edward was born into a family of fairground travellers and moving around was simply a way of life. By the time of the 1881 census, when he is eleven years old, the family are living in Battersea once again.

By the 1891 census, Edward has left the family home and is to be found working as an assistant to the proprietor of a shooting gallery at a funfair. He is living in a traditional horse drawn caravan in Isleworth, Middlesex, along with other caravans of fairground and travelling people. They included people engaged in such occupations as - General Dealers, Hawkers, Seamstresses, Horse Dealers, Wheelwrights, Boxers and even a Travelling Photographer. A real ‘smorgasbord’ of the travelling lifestyle and the trades associated with it.

On the 10th September 1893, Edward married Kathleen Amelia Farral (or Farrell) at Holy Trinity Church, Clapham. Kathleen was a devout Roman Catholic and spoke the Romany language. It is from her that I believe the family’s current day Roman Catholicism originated. She was I believe born in Wigan, Lancashire but her father, William, appears to be a native of Ireland.

By the census of 1901, Edward and his family are to be found living in a caravan amongst other fairground travellers on a site in Erith, Kent, where he is listed as a ‘Showman’. It appears that he is now running a shooting gallery for himself and has employed an attendant to operate it.

After 1911 he disappears from the records that I have so far been able to obtain. The next official documentation of him I have is for his death in Lambeth, London in 1935.  He had reached the age of 65, which was respectable for a Travelling man back then. I have no doubt that the medicines and treatments we have available today would have seen him living longer.

The census of 1911 was the first one designed to be filled out by householders themselves, just as we do today. I would imagine that literacy levels had risen to the point where it was possible to use that system. Unfortunately, most travelling people were unable to read or write and as they had no fixed abode, it was easy for them to fall through the system and not be counted in the official census returns.

Fortunately I do have the family listed in the 1911 census. Interestingly, my great-grandparents were both unable to read or write, but the census form was completed and returned, probably on their behalf. In that census the family are listed as being resident 'In a Field off High Street, Stratford' and my great-grandfather is listed as being a Travelling Showman. At that time, he still owned the shooting gallery and was also a master craftsman. For some reason he is listed on the census form as being born in Forest Gate, London, England, when in fact he was born in Battersea, Surrey.

Speaking with my family about my great-grandfather, I was told that he was a very skilled constructor of the traditional Travellers caravan, known in the Romany language as a vardo. He would sell these at the various traveller fairs such as the one at Epsom Downs in Surrey. He at one time owned a yard in Battersea but I have as yet to ascertain exactly where that yard was. During his later life it would seem that he was more settled, although he never did learn to read or write. Like most travelling people he had a natural skill or talent, his was building vardo’s.

My grandfather certainly carried on the travelling tradition and retained the knowledge of the Romany language, so the family were definitely not yet settled. Travellers have their own rich cultures whether they are Fairground, Romany or Irish Travellers and none of them ever consider themselves anything other than Travellers, regardless of where they live. The modern world is changing them though and they are becoming ever more integrated into the settled world, which to be honest is not always a good thing for their unique cultures. The process of adjustment can be a painful and emotionally draining one, probably the hardest road of all for any Traveller to traverse.

My family still describe themselves to be English Travellers and they are very proud of the fact. Once a Traveller, always a Traveller is the creed but of course, our direct paternal forebears have not always been Travellers, that bloodline was originally a maternal one. In the same vein, our family has not always been Roman Catholic, that again was an acquisition from a maternal line and most likely from Edward’s wife, Kathleen Amelia Farral, who was from an Irish family and who was certainly a devout Roman Catholic. The Catholic faith has stuck to varying degrees, although our branch of the family is very much in the lapsed spectrum of belief.

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