More than fair
The Showmen’s Lodge has been bringing together fairground rides, local communities and Freemasonry since it was consecrated in 2007. Ellie Fazan meets the members and spends a day on the dodgems.
For the fairground showmen on Keyworth Playing Fields, Nottingham, it’s an early start – so early, the sun hasn’t yet burnt the summer haze from the sky. ‘We’re never ready until the first members of the public arrive,’ the guys laugh as they put the finishing touches to the rides and attractions at Keyworth Fair, opening this afternoon. There’s something heart-warming about watching a big man artfully arranging popcorn and kids’ toys as prizes on a stand.
‘We closed the last fair at 7pm on Sunday night then packed up and drove through the night to get here. It’s amazing what you get used to,’ explains David Cox Jr (otherwise known as ‘Little David’). ‘Even though I’ve been doing this my whole life, there’s always a thrill arriving somewhere new. This is a real feel-good job. There’s nothing quite like it when there’s sun on your back and cash in your pocket.’
Being a showman is hereditary; rides and pitches run in the family. Little David is the fifth generation. His dad, David Cox Sr, who organised this fair, gave him the waltzers when he was seventeen. David Sr is also one of the founding members of the Showmen’s Lodge, No. 9826, along with the other men at Keyworth today. ‘We were in another lodge that gradually dissolved,’ explains David Sr, ‘and we wanted to be members of something again. We decided on Loughborough as a location because it’s motorway connected, and we have to be mindful of where people travel.’
A sense of belonging
It might seem a strange leap from the fairground to Freemasonry, but the ties are strong. ‘While numbers in some lodges decline, special-interest lodges like this one are growing because of that extra layer of binding,’ explains Leicestershire and Rutland Provincial Grand Master David Hagger, who consecrated the lodge.
‘Even though I’ve been doing this my whole life, there’s always a thrill arriving somewhere new. This is a real feel-good job. There’s nothing quite like it when there’s sun on your back and cash in your pocket.’ David Cox Jr
With showmen only bedding down in one place for three or four months over winter, the sense of community that Freemasonry brings is crucial. ‘We travel widely so it’s good to have something extra that connects us. This gives us a chance to get together and see friends we might not otherwise see,’ says Philip Wheatley, the Worshipful Master. ‘It’s a great social life, and we get to talk about the things that affect our business.’ His brother Jimmy continues: ‘We always meet in November near the Loughborough Fair, because it’s one of the big ones on the calendar that we all go to. The Festive Board is spectacular.’
The Showmen’s Lodge has brethren from all over the country, with members coming from twelve different Provinces as far away as Bradford and Kent. ‘And they have a very close relationship with one another. The son of a mason is called a Lewis, and in this Order there are many more Lewises than usual. Nine fathers and sons, and several brothers and cousins too,’ explains David Hagger.
Another founding member, Michael McKean is here with his son Clark, who has ‘been friends since the word go’ with Little David. As have their parents – and grandparents. Family ties here are strong, and it’s a very close community. ‘Weddings and funerals are huge,’ explains Clark, ‘and the lifestyle is great: going to different places, having great friends and really good family. I’m thirty-three and I’m with my father ninety per cent of the time, always helping each other out. You can’t say that in many communities these days. I have a little girl who is one and a half and she is with us most of the time. It makes life easy, and means showmen don’t have trouble with their kids.’
On home ground
When it comes to stories that have grown up about fairgrounds, the men are keen to dispel certain myths. Contrary to popular belief, their fair has an excellent safety record: ‘Better than Transport for London,’ says Michael. ‘And public preconceptions about us are wrong. They think we go round ripping people off. Not all gypsies are like that, and nor are we. I understand that people are wary of us – they wake up one morning and we’re here. That’s disconcerting.’
On the whole, however, the showmen have a good relationship with the local community and are proud to be welcomed back by those who have got to know them in previous years. ‘My ride is the tea cups,’ says Philip, ‘and some years mothers will come up to me nodding at their children and say, “He’s a bit too big for it now,” and smile. That gives me real pleasure. You don’t love a ride because of how big it is, but because of the pleasure it gives.’
Like many others in the UK, the showmen have been bitten by the economic recession, with the cost of fuel also a big problem. ‘It used to be that you’d only do a six-mile radius, then in recent years we’ve been going all over, and now the net is closing in again. It’s a fine balancing act, to work out the costs. It’s £5,000 for a full tank of petrol to London and back,’ says David Sr. ‘So you have to be sure you’ll make it back.’ And these days people have less to spend. Many come to the fair just to soak up the atmosphere but there’s no bitterness on the part of the showmen: ‘That’s part of the service too. The beauty of the thing is you can come and spend as much or as little as you like.’
‘We want to help the public through any predicament they may be in, whether that is by providing entertainment or charity.’ Michael McKean
‘I’m thirty-three and I’m with my father ninety per cent of the time, always helping each other out. You can’t say that in many communities these days.’ Clark McKean
The fun of the fair
The economic troubles haven’t stopped the lodge’s charitable intentions. Providing spectacle for all, the Showmen’s Lodge is guided by a philosophy of giving back to the communities that give to them. ‘At the consecration meeting they raised £1,400, which shows their generosity,’ says David Hagger.
Recently, Michael ran a free fair for children with additional needs in Derbyshire on the care in the community day. ‘Jimmy asked me and I said yes. Simple as that. And there was no trouble getting others to take part. Just the looks on the little kids’ faces made it worthwhile,’ he says. ‘But this isn’t just because we’re Freemasons. In the showmen community there is a strong tradition of charity.’
Famous showman Pat Collins, Showmen’s Guild president from 1920 to 1929, ran free fairs for orphans of the time. ‘We want to help the public through any predicament they may be in, whether that is by providing entertainment or charity,’ Michael says. ‘During World War I, we provided ambulances to take the wounded from the front, and during World War II showmen all chipped in and bought a Spitfire, known as “The Fun of the Fair”.’ Within their community they have raised more than £100,000 through Molliefest, a fair held to support a sick child.
As the day wound down, conversation moved from charity work to lifestyle. So what’s it like living in a caravan? ‘Same as living in a house. We have every luxury you can imagine,’ says David Sr. Do you ever go to the fair when you’re on holiday? Laughter from Clark, ‘I’ve been to Puerto Rico and seen fairs you wouldn’t want to stand next to, never mind ride on.’
Is it dangerous? ‘How many scars do you want to see?’ laughs Little David. Followed quickly by: ‘No! We are brought up knowing how to look after our equipment. We can spot trouble a country mile off and look out for each other.’ There is no doubt that these men are genuinely committed to each other and the communities they visit.
Then I ask the question that’s been on the tip of my tongue all day: ‘What’s your favourite ride?’ Little David replies immediately: ‘The waltzer. We have a saying: you can take the boy out of the waltzer, but you can’t take the waltzer out of the boy.’ David Jr’s dad chips in with less sentiment: ‘I like whatever ride takes the most money. If someone says to me, can you get such and such, the answer is always yes. Because even if I can’t get it, I know a man who can. We’ve got any event covered.’
Letters to the editor - No. 24 Winter 2013
More than fair
I should like, through Freemasonry Today, to thank the owners of the dodgems featured in the article ‘More Than Fair’ in the last issue. The reason for my thanks is that my brother-in-law, Philip Mosley, was physically and mentally handicapped and used to love the fair coming to Buxton. He would get very excited when he saw it. The dodgems was his favourite ride and they allowed him to go on it at any time without paying.
After I married my wife, Philip lived with us because of his parents’ death. This thank you has been a long time in coming – Philip passed on in 1987 – but I hope it’s better late than never. He must have enjoyed those dodgems for about forty-five years, some of that before my time.
On behalf of my wife Brenda and the Mosley family I thank the owners of that dodgems ride and wish that they prosper long. Thank you also for your interesting magazine, which I pass along as far as Malta.
David Storer, High Peak Lodge, No. 1952, Buxton, Derbyshire