5
John and Rose King
We interviewed John King and his daughter Rose when they were passing through Sheffield at Endcliffe Park. John, who is 82 years old, runs a can stall and his daughter Rose, in whose caravan the interview took place, is a palmist and fortune teller. The Kings are now working from a pleasure park in Margate.
Firstly we asked John to tell us something about his life:
I was born at Nottingham. Meadow Lane about six weeks after the fair, Nottingham Goose Fair itself. 1923, 10th of November, Armistice Day. I was born and I’ve been on the grounds all my life. And it’s a job I like. Every county we go in I’m known. We used to travel with Marshalls. We used to be in all these parks in Sheffield when the war was on. My dad had donkeys and ponies. And he used to ride the kids and used to organise donkey derbies while the fair was in the park. He had fifteen donkeys and twelve ponies. And that’s what we used to do ride all the kids and all that. And we had what we called a waggonette to ride the kids in and two horses pulling it and we used to go to Endcliffe Park, Hillsborough. All the parks round here.
Did your dad go to Hull?
Oh my father went to Hull, yes. Never went to Hull with the donkeys. He had a weighing machine and he used to guess weights. If someone came up to have a go, he’d look at them and say ‘you weigh’ what ever weight he thought they were’. He had two pound either side of the guess. And then I took it on and I had a weighing machine and I did the same job. There was no trick. If I looked at you and I said twelve seven and you were twelve nine then I’ve guessed you. Or if you were twelve five. But if you were under or over you got what was called a premium gold ring. Or a brooch off the stall. Now that’s what I used to do. And my wife and my daughter, she used look after the toy stall of my wife while I was doing that. And the palmists, there used to be about twenty in the street in those days. Now at Hull Fair now there’s about six, you see they’ve all died out. Our class of people, there’s not many Romany people left. They’ve all settled down and gone into different businesses. My dad used to go to Hull Fair when it was a horse fair you know. Down one side of the ground where it is now. Used to be the horse fair from top to bottom. During the years before the war. About 1910 onwards you see just after the 1914 war started, it just carried on and just died out. There are not many horse fairs left. Do you know how the fair ground started?
No. Tell me:
With the gypsies with horse fairs. They used to take the horses, Appleby, Brough Hill, Hull Fair, Yarm all over the country to these horse fairs and sell them. Then someone started riding kids on ponies and donkeys and then someone made a set of swing boats and they’d swing. Then there used to be ice-cream carts. Pea and pie stalls and that’s how fairgrounds started.
So tell me what’s your very first memory of Hull Fair:
I always heard my mother say the first time I went to Hull Fair I was three years old. So it’s a long while isn’t it? And the only years we missed were during the war when they didn’t have it. The first memory of Hull Fair that I can remember. Now what can I tell you to be truthful. When I was a boy. I can remember when I was about twelve years old at Hull Fair I used to sell flying birds, whistling birds, elastic balls and balloons and aeroplanes on sticks, 2d each, a penny for elastic balls and 1d a piece for balloons. And I had a foot pump I used to pump them up with and if I opened and I took 10/- I had a decent day. And I’d have about four bob for myself and the other six bob would go back for my stock. That’s what I had the first time I started doing anything at Hull by myself as a kid. And then I used to work like that and if I wanted a pair of boots I could by myself a pair of shoes or a pair of trousers or anything I wanted. That’s how it went on. Then we used to be with Marshalls, Sandra’s dad, her uncle Harry and Walter. They were nice people to be with - we were like family to them. While the war was on and we were with them, you couldn’t get any men you know to work because they were in the forces and that. Well I’d had a medical and I’d failed, grade four and that’s why I wasn’t in the forces.
Marshall’s had four traction engines, General Buller, Sunny boy, the Prince of Wales and Jake (?) Walter. Four nice engines they were. And they had the Hey Day, Walzer, Dodgems, and Noah’s Ark. They had the wheel. They got rid of the Hey Day and they got the wheel. And then they bought the Dive Bomber and after that they had a Rotor. And we used to help them when they were stuck.
And what did Hull Fair seem like then, was it a big fair back then:
It was a big fair then all the old fashioned rides used to be there, the Gallopers, Scenic Machines, Flying Chairs, there used to be Harry Lees Yachts, Jack White had a set of Steam Yachts, Jack Pullen had a set of Steam Yachts and they used to be side by side. And they were Pullen’s with the Steam Swings. Every thing was on Steam nearly. And then there used to Tom Normans show with the Organ in the front. And Bert Hughes used to be there with the boxing show and Bertram Mills Circus used to go to Hull Fair, he built right at the top. I think the fair in them days was lovely. People used to come round looking even when you weren’t open. And they used to come to see the traction engines and that and the organs, they loved them. This modern stuff today it’s nice but it’s not like the old stuff the character isn’t in it. But the young ones liked it. And if you had the old stuff today you wouldn’t take money with it, so it would be waste of time.
Both Rose and John were very generous with their time and agreed to tell us a little about John’s wife Rosie who had run the toy stall for many years at Hull Fair with the help of Rose. Many people in Hull remember the ‘gypsy dolls’ – and John and Rose remembered the Hullites who came back each year to get one of their dolls:
We used to winter at Derby; my wife came from a place called Little Eaton, Derby. Her people were fairground people and they had Donkey’s and Pony’s for the kiddies at the fairground. She used to make these dolls up in the winter for the stalls and she had a friend who used to help her. When we used to go to Nottingham and Hull we needed such a lot for the two fairs. We always used to get a lot of the same people year after year. This particular lady at Hull fair used to bring her two granddaughters from about 4-5 years old. When they were very, very young and she used to buy them a doll apiece. She used to say to my Mrs “I’ll see you next year when you come”. My wife used to reply “Yes, I’ll be pleased to see you”, and she used to say her grand daughters would have to save their money up again so they can each have another doll, when they come to Hull fair next year. So when she came the next year, she asked how much was the doll this year and my wife used to say seven and six each. “Oh dear that’s a lot of money. I don’t think we have enough”, so my wife used to say “I’ll treat you. I’ll let you have two for 12 shillings”. Then she would look at them and say that those are the two best. They are the best and they used to call them wedding dolls, brides dolls. The girls called them wedding dolls and they would have a couple, and their grandma would once again tell them that they needed to save again for next year, and granny will give you some money besides and maybe, you will have to see your mum and dad and get a bit off them. They would come again another year, buy two and then buy another for a friend. They bought them for years and those girls when they grew up to be young women and got married they brought their kids and said this is they lady we used to buy the dolls off. We are going to buy you one and it went on like that.
We’ve sat with people in Hull, ladies who have told me about going to the stalls to buy these dolls as children and that this was the thing about the fair, if they did not come back with a doll they were miserable.
My wife used to make beautiful dolls, what the people used to do at Hull fair when they came, their used to be a lot of stalls selling these dolls, they used to go from one end of Walton Street to the other and look for what they used to think were the best dolls. To my wife they always used to say they’re the best Rosie and we’ll always come to you and they used to.
Rose King: She used to go to a lot of trouble with them, if she was making a doll and undid a spool of lace, for example pink, she would put that on a pale pink or blue net. She matched her colours up and was choosey when she went to buy stock to make them. The same with the ribbons, she used to buy ribbons for chocolate boxes. She would make posies and parcels, she used to put her heart and soul in to making these dolls. Other people might have made a dozen dolls in a day; she would make four because she put such a lot of effort in to them. If she made a doll and was not satisfied with it, it did not go in. She would undo it all and start afresh. She had standards and she liked to maintain it. People come back and say they still have them, I’ve still got the first doll my grandma bought me or my mum bought me or that I saved up for myself. I used to help me mum, yes, I made dolls from being 10 years old, when I got in from school, I used to get changed, have something to eat, do my homework and help mum with the dolls, until bed time.
John also told us how his family got started in the fairground business:
We are Romany people. I’d be about two years old and we were stopping at a place near Ilkley in a farmer’s field and my father used to go out selling hardware. He used to make chairs and stools and all that sort of stuff, pegs and that was his job. My mother used to go out selling lace and things like that. When they used to pull into this little paddock, there was a wood yard next door and they lady from the wood yard took to my mother. She thought the world of me and took to my mother and me. Every year we used to go in the spring to this place and the gentleman used to say to my dad - you people like a stick fire don’t you? My dad used to say yes. Well the of cuts from the tree,s he used to give them to my dad to make a fire you see. He was fascinated with us and they were very, very nice and one day a fellow came on a push bike. Goes to the wood yard and asked if they could bring a small fair into the paddock. This was the beginning. The woodyard man said - I’m very, very sorry Mr Church, but we have the Romanys on the field and they are lovely people, my wife is fascinated with them and we would not want to upset them. So he said to the gentleman - if I see them and they don’t mind would you let us pull in. If they say yes, that’s it. He came to see my dad and asked if he minded if they bring the fair. My father said - No it’s okay with me. My dad said I’d go round with you to see the Gentleman at the wood yard. They came and had a set of gallopers, a big set of swings and little kiddies roundabout. They had a shooting Gallery, two traction engines and a coconut shy. That was the fair
Old Mr Church says to my dad, can any of your wives read hands, so my dad said they both could, so he said would you like to travel with us? He said, - put yourself a booth up and you can be a palmist. My dad said I’d like to have a go and asked my mother what she thought. She said we’ll go with you. We went with them, my dad was with them all that summer and my dad, said next summer, I’m going to have a motor. He said I couldn’t keep up with the traction engines; our horse could only go six miles an hour. The following year he bought a van and trailer to pull behind. That’s how it started
Literally in a field, living in a field, by accident:
Exactly, just by chance, it was obviously meant to be.
Thank you very much John and Rosie for a fascinating interview. See you at Hull.