1900 — 1920
Mechanisation on the fairground revitalised the fairs with the Edwardian period considered a golden age with lavish decorations and a cacophony of sound from the organ fronted shows.
For a short period from December 1896 the introduction of the bioscope prevented the demise of the show and created a spectacle in terms of size, numbers and artistry that has yet to be equalled on the fairground. At Hull one would see a long line of these shows, side by side. The shows became bigger and better, and stages became longer; the parades formed part of a vaudeville act and the music emanating from the new 104 key organs from Europe established the centre piece of the new show. Theatre or music hall designs provided the main model for such portable shows and the interiors of the exhibitions matched the lavish theatrical theme of the exterior. These elaborate walk-up shows reached their zenith between 1906 and 1912 and became bigger, more intricate and having a greater audience capacity:
If all were gold that glitters at Hull Fair, £270,000, the estimated value of the property on the ground; would not represent the value of one show front. Each year the scene under the glare of the electric light is one of dazzling brilliance, but never has it equalled the display last night at the opening of the great pleasure carnival. The showmen have vied with each other in the lavishness of their adornments, their show fronts being one mass of gilt. They are not in least bit gaudy, the decorations being most artistically arranged. Each front must represent hundreds of pounds, for in addition to the elaborate show fronts on most of the shows is a costly organ, whose value lies not so much in its rich ornamentation as in its sweet tone ... The very latest haunting melodies from the most successful musical comedies are played and to pass from one show front to another is not unlike listening to a good orchestra running through some of the catchy numbers. [Eastern Morning News, quoted in The World's Fair, 19 October 1907.]
By 1906, the reporter for World’s Fair was acclaiming Hull Fair as the largest in the land:
England’s largest Fair has again kept up its reputation for size and business and thousands of people have visited the Fair every day, to the mutual pleasure of both Travellers and themselves. Train loads of visitors have been taken into the town by the various train companies, and the Corporation tramcars have done a tremendous business, proving once again the large number of people that benefit one way or another through the holding of Pleasure Fairs.
The 1908 fair saw twenty seven railway excursions bringing over 12,000 people to the fair opening that year and the widespread use of electricity by the showmen led the World's Fair, to describe the annual feast as "Light City". The police issued warning notices about the dangers of pickpockets and warned visitors to the fair from carrying purses in their hip pockets. On the Sunday, the fairground shows were transformed into meeting halls for political talks and religious services and the Showmen’s Guild held its annual meeting in Farrar and Tyler’s cinematograph:
The "Light City" as one may christen our carnival, presents a fair different aspect on the Sabbath to what it does during the weekdays. ... On Sunday, the various Christian churches and even the "no churches" occupied the front of the shows for service or meeting. Socialist speakers keeping close company to missionaries; whilst at Messrs. Bostock’s concerts were being given in aid of charities.
The proposed reintroduction of the Moveable Dwelling in 1908 was the main topic of debate in the Guild meeting and the showmen were unanimous in their opposition to the Bill. Such was the success of the fair that Hull Corporation reported an increase in receipts from £866 6s. 9d. to £1000 9s. 4d. and the World’s Fair edition for October 17th included the following editorial:
Hull may truly be said to be the most wonderful of all our English Fairs, for nowhere else are there so many attractions seen on one ground, and Hull obviously knows the value of providing a capital fairground ... The arrangements for the fair appeared to be excellent in every way.
The following year a new road was laid at the fairground with the aid of a grant from the Local Government Board and the Showmen’s Guild became involved in negotiations over the proposed rent increase for the 1909 fair. The report in World’s Fair provides an insight into the financial aspects of the business when it reports that roundabout proprietors were charged between £21 and £25 for the six days compared to the Nottingham Corporation who were charging between £15 to £80 for three days. The Showmen’s Guild and the Corporation became involved in a dispute over the throwing of confetti on the fairground and a proposed rent increase. Letters were published in the local papers and World’s Fair referring to the City Fathers as sanctimonious cranks. Although the Corporation receipts increased by £226, it was reported in the World’s Fair that the fair had not been as successful as usual and due to the loss of revenue and increased rentage, the showmen declined to contribute to the charities in the city. A compromise for the following year was finally reached when Thomas Horne, the General Secretary of the Showmen’s Guild stated that the roundabout proprietors would gladly pay the increased charges if the Corporation would lay another road through the fair.
In 1911, Dr Robert Nicholson attacked the fair for promoting vice and immorality, and he called for an abolition of the festivities. The Chairman of Hull Markets Committee declared this claim absurd and a resident of Hull in support of the event penned the following extracts:
Most people are discussing
The vices of the Fair,
But don’t forget its pleasure
The reason’s why it’s there.
They say that’s its indecent
And this I do declare
The Fair is not immoral,
But the people who are there.
The poem then finishes with this advice:
To solve the problem easily,
Without the least delay,
For those who disapprove of it,
Well, let them stay away.
Fortunately for the residents of Kingston upon Hull, the objectors to the Fair were in the minority and the editorial of the World’s Fair reflected the true sentiments of the city:
Happily Hull Fair has too great a hold on the people, who know it for what it is — a bright pleasant Carnival — to be seriously hit by a few busy-bodies and the unfounded charges have quickly been denied and will, we feel sure, be soon forgotten.
In the years leading up to the First World War, visitors to the fair could either ride the roundabouts, visit the menageries and cinematographs, or gaze in wonder at the Elephant Boy presented by the Chipperfield family in 1912. The last fair held before the Great War was the largest yet and roundabouts, shows, shooting saloons and side-stalls were found in abundance.
The advent of the great travelling scenic railways from 1910 until the early 1920s created the finest and most lavish example of fairground baroque, both in its architecture and adornment. Stalls such as spinners with carved wooden fishes, dragons and chariots covered in 100s of electric light-bulbs. Exotic fantasies were reflected in the designs and shapes of the cars, mimicking dragons, whales, peacocks and Neptune and aping the mythical fantastical world. However, their flowering was brief but spectacular as the onset of the First World War resulting in the majority of fairs throughout the United Kingdom being stopped. The largest and greatest festival at Hull was cancelled and was not revived until the cessation of hostilities. Smaller local events continued as a forerunner of the Blackout Fairs of the 1940s and again the showmen captured the spirit of the age with adverts stating: 'Owing to the war the demand for shooting galleries is on the increase - Knock the Kaiser's Head Off'. Adverts for the latest novelty throwing game included 'Hanging the Kaiser or the Crown Prince if Preferred' and stated that 'Bending Kaiser Dartboards Are It'! [These are just a few examples of the adverts that appeared in The World's Fair, 16- 23 January 1915.] The age of electricity had come to the fair as reflected by the reporter at the annual Wakes in Lancashire:
But what a change has come over these festivities during the last decade. In part it is due to the influence of the war, but more particularly to the advance the world has made in scientific knowledge. Where were the Lilliputian wonders fresh from their continental tour, the live alligators from the Mississippi, the sewer rats from Borneo, the wild beast shows with caged lions and tigers and beasts and reptiles of all descriptions, the cinematograph and the common hobby-horses illuminated with the old naptha lamps? One has vivid recollections of them, but they have been superseded. Mechanical genius has been so developed that we now have electrically driven and lighted dobby horses and sumptuously furnished motor cars, and the old fashioned methods of enjoyment have disappeared into the limbo of obscurity. [The Herald, 28 July 1917.]
Like most traditional fairs throughout England during the war years, Hull fair was cancelled and was not revived until the cessation of hostilities. The 1919 extravagance was bigger and better with over twenty rides, including a selection of Galloping Horses, Steam Yachts and five Electric Scenic Railways. With the cacophony of sound produced by the fairground organs, which could be heard throughout the ground, Hull Fair was not only the largest fair in England, but also probably the loudest!