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The Showmen's Guild of Great Britain

Notes On The Early History And Organisation Of The Guild

The United Kingdom Van Dwellers Protection Association (the Guild) was formed in either 1888 or 1889 at Salford; the former date being given in the early Year Books.

The initiative came from Mr. Pedgrift, Editor of the "Era" newspaper, who wrote round to prominent Showmen to enlist their support against the Moveable Dwellings Bill of 1888-89. It is doubtful whether there was much, if any, formal organisation for the first two years, but in 1890 the first President was appointed, Mr. J.W. Bostock, with a Committee and Honorary Secretary. The Rev. T. Horne, however, was the leading spirit even at this early stage. He had at that time a living at Whiston near Rotherham, and in 1890 had first become passionately interested in the Showmen and their cause.

The Association was now a body independent of the "Era" though still closely connected with the paper; and certainly as early as 1892 a record of Presidents and Committees appeared on the Membership Cards. Recorded Presidents from 1890-1899 are - J.W. Bostock, B.T. Burnett, J. Dean, J. CLAYTON and J. WALKER.

In the same period the following Honorary Secretaries are recorded: - H. Hewitt, J. Dean, R. Dixon, G.T. Salva and T. Hurst. Mr. Hurst continued from 1899 to 1914, though the mainspring was the Rev. T. Horne under the title of "Honorary Chaplain and Organiser".

The Official title in 1890 was the "United Kingdom Van Dwellers Protection Association", but by 1896 it was the "Showmen's and Van Dwellers Protection Association". Certainly by 1902, and probably earlier, a "Show- men's Year Book" was published, and the Association had a sub-title in brackets "(The Showmen's Guild)". No Year Books are held at the Central Office before 1902, but there are two Membership Cards, which include the early rules, for 1892 and 1893. The official title, the "Showmen's and Van Dwellers Association", remained in the Year Books up to at least 1909 and possibly 1910. It was, however, by 1902, (and perhaps earlier) commonly referred to as "The Showmen's Guild", but in the first Year Book to omit the o1d title was 1911. In this year "The Showmen's Guild", in its own right, first lodged petitions in Parliament.

It may be that the old title was finally dropped when P. Collins succeeded Lord George Sanger (1900 - 1908) as President in 1909.

In 1904, the "World's Fair" was founded as a single page newsheet by Mr. F. Mellor; and the Rev. T. Horne came to London to give his time to the Association, and in addition to his other activities he wrote and published a monthly magazine called "Showlife" on sale on fairgrounds at ld. a copy or 1/6d. per annum. He became the official Secretary as well as "Chaplain and Organiser" in 1914, and the Guild offices remained until 1918 at 5, Tavistock Street, London, W.C.l., the headquarters of the "Era". (The Era had printed and published the Year Books from the earliest days).

In 1917 the Guild became a registered Trade Union. Only twelve monThis later the Rev. T. Horne died in July 1918 - the first "General Secretary" of the Guild; and William Savage (who had business connections with Patrick Collins) succeeded him as "General Secretary". The appointment was part-time until 1927; the Guild Offices were moved in 1918 to Bloxwich; and the Year Book was printed and published from Walsall and Bloxwich until 1927, when it was first printed by the "World's Fair". The price was fixed in 1918 at 1/-d., and even then it showed a loss on printing, though with advertisements there was a small profit. By 1920 the layout was similar to the present one, and by 1930 it was practically indistinguishable.

Some of the rules then in force e.g. the "Objects" clause, are still in force today, and the ancestry of many modern rules can be traced in the wording of the 1919-20 Year Books. It is, of course, only from 1918 that the Guild attempted to control the relations between member and member as a Trade Union, in addition to acting as a Trade Association, and this development took place only gradually. For example, up to 1918 Rule 20 read "It is recommended that lessees who are Guild members shall give preference to members". The 1920 Rule 16 states they shall do so; and by 1924 when a new set of rules was adopted, it had become an offence to let to a non-member and to attend on a non-member's ground, and a "complaints" and "fines" rule had been formulated; previously the Guild Committees only had power to forfeit membership where in their opinion a member had "injured the Guild" or "misappropriated its funds". The special case of the "2 year ruling" is referred to in more detail below.

Up to 1918 branches or sections had not been officially formed; indeed up to about 1905, the Guild had to struggle against rival organisations set up locally, and 190 3/4 was nearly disbanded for lack o f funds. There were, however, "local correspondents" who contributed news to the Showmen's page in "The Era" as early as 1906. Before 1918, however, "Divisional Committees" had been appointed in London, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Wales, West of England and Scotland; and these continued until the re-organisation of 1917-18. No special powers or duties were assigned to them under the rules.

The 1919 Year Book lists the following Sections: then called "District" branches which were set up after the 1917 "Revolution".
1. Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland and Westmorland.
2. Lancaster, Chester and North Wales.
3. Yorkshire and parts of Lincoln.
4. Stafford, Leicester, Warwick, Worcester and Salop.
5. Lincoln, Rutland and Hunts.
6. Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridge, Bedford, Herts and Northampton.
7. London and Home Counties, Bucks and Oxford.
8. Bristol and West including Gloucester.
9. Derby and Notts.
10. South Wales and Hereford.
11. Scotland.
12. Ireland.

In 1922 these groupings were adjusted to their present form of ten Sections by a re-distribution of area 5 between the Notts. & Derby and Eastern Sections, and a transfer of Cumberland and Westmorland to the Scottish Section, plus Ireland as No.ll (Ireland was officially dropped in 1927). Section Officials and Committees on the present lines were set up and were empowered to take disciplinary action, and to make bye-laws. (The first recorded bye-law was granted to the Scottish Section in July 1924, and the practice rapidly spread to other Sections). Section bye-laws were printed in the Year Book after the rules in 1926, and the "2 year ruling" to protect fairgrounds, but not positions, was first introduced by bye-law granted in 1924 to the Lancashire Section. This bye-law was thereafter taken up by other sections, but only gradually. For example, in 1930 only the Lancashire, Yorkshire, Midland and Eastern Sections had adopted it, and even in 1939 it did not apply in Scotland or the Northern Sections. (It is interesting that these were the only Sections subsequently to adopt a "1 year ruling"). However, the protection of a "position" as well as a "fairground" was started by the Western Section in 1932, and by 1939 "position" was included by the Western, Midland and Yorkshire Sections in their bye-laws. Accordingly, it was not until after the 1939-45 War that all Sections had formally adopted the principle by bye-law, and the "2 year ruling" was not embodied in the rules proper until 1954, when it could be modified by bye-law. There was, however, a rule forbidding "unfair" competition, and the Central Council in the early days enforced the broad principles in this way. However, "unfair competition" was never defined and as conditions on fairgrounds became more complicated and members more knowledgeable over their legal rights such as a rule was, in the long run, unworkable, and finally disappeared in 1954.

Incidentally, the rules were numbered up to 21 in 1920; 24 in 1928; 27 in 1939; 3o in 1950 and 38 from 1954 to date. Major revisions were made in 1919/20, 1924, 1930, 1954 and 1957/58.

Up to 1918 the Officers had consisted of a President; some 50 Vice-Presidents, and Honorary Treasurer, a Secretary, an Organiser and a Chaplain. From 1914 the last three Offices were combined in the Rev. T. Horne. These gentlemen together formed the "Executive Committee" of the Guild, which met on the direction either of the President, three members of the Committee or twenty members of the Guild.

From 1918 - 1927, a single Vice-President was appointed, and the "Executive Committee" became the "Central Council" composed of the Officers and "delegates" from the "Divisional Branches". By 1938 the Appeals and Management Committees had been established. Previously all appeals had been heard by the full Central Council.

From 1929 when Mr. William Wilson became President, the pattern of the elected Officials has remained unchanged, and only in exceptional circumstances was a President to serve more than 3 years.

In 1909 the Guild appointed Frank Mellor (Editor of the "World's Fair") as Treasurer - a position he retained until his death in 1930. The editorship and Treasurer's job of the Guild was taken over by his nephew similarly named - Frank Mellor.

Mr. Pat Collins' long reign of 19 years was, in 1927, about to come to an end. The Vice-President, Marshall Hill, was seriously ill, and a Deputy Vice-President was appointed to meet these exceptional circumstances. The office has continued ever since, and the first holder was Mr. Thomas Murphy. As early as 1923, however, the Council Minutes record a "Deputy Vice-President" being elected, but he was never included in the Year Book among the list of Officers, and presumably never took office.

In 1930 the Guild office moved from Walsall to Abbey House, London, where it remained, apart from a period at Shrewsbury during the last War, until 1973, when due to plans for demolishing Abbey House, it moved to Heath Road, Twickenham, Middlesex.

Four periods in the Guild's history can be distinguished: -
1. From 1888 or 1889 to the early years of the 1900's. This was the "Van Dwellers" period, when the idea of a single National organisation for the protection of "Travelling Showmen" only gradually grew.
2. From say 1904/5 to 1917, when the Association increased in numbers and influence, but the internal organisation was not substantially changed. This period included the critical years of the First World War.
3. From 1918 to 1930, following the registration of the Guild as a Trade Union, and the development of the organisation as a Society controlling its own members as well as acting as a Trade Association. In this period of 10 or 12 years, the Guild took in all essentials; its present shape, and its development can be traced in detail from the Central Council Minutes, which are available from 1918. In fact, from the mid-twenties the Officials, the Central Council, Section Committees and Section organisation, and even the rules and bye-laws were not altered in principle, as distinct from their scope.
4. From 1929/30 to the present day: change of course has occurred to the rules which have been greatly extended to protect the tenant member in his livelihood, and to enforce standards of conduct. In particular, since the War, the rules have had to be continually adapted to new conditions on fairgrounds and to changing attitudes of the membership, and this process is continuing. Rights and duties of members have had to be closely defined, and though many would like to see only one rule in the book - "Thou shall not injure the Guild or thy fellow members" - we cannot, alas, put the clock back fifty years.

Reproduced By Kind Permission Of The Showmans Guild Of Great Britain

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