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Brothers have all the Tyme in the World

Harris Bros Funfair

The Harris brothers are part of the furniture in Ashington. The family has lived in the village for generations, and for all of that time they’ve been synonymous with funfairs. With Victorian-era rides transported by pre-war vehicles, the Harris Brothers run one of the last surviving Olde Tyme fairs.

Now the five brothers are coming to a stage in life where they must pass more responsibility on to the next generation. But can the funfair survive in today’s society? We spoke to all five brothers at the annual festival in their home village of Ashington…

Robert: “John Harris was born in 1833 and he had five sons.He was a timber merchant who had a yard in Cuckfield. He came into the fairground business in the 1860s at the time of horse-powered roundabouts and
went on with his sons to be the first operator of steam roundabouts in Sussex.  He died in 1901 and his son Frederick left the other brothers to run the first set of gallopers and moved to Ashington to start the present
business from The Orchard in January 1902.”

Douglas: “Our father is Fred and our grandfather - another Fred Harris – ran the fair before him. Now it is run by us five brothers - Fred, John, Ted, Robert and me. We also have our two sisters Jennifer and Anthea and many
family friends who help us keep it going.”

John: “Fred’s the eldest, then Doug, then Jennifer and Anthea, me and Robert are twins and Ted is the youngest at 57.”

Douglas: “I was born into (the funfair life). You help out from the day you can walk. It was a case of ‘none of that reading and writing, that don’t do anything, that’s just a waste of time!’ As long as you can stand in front of people and show what you are and who you are. Confidence, that’s what it is all about. I’ve worked with the top engineers in the country, and they ask how I know when everything is ready and right and I say ‘it’s a gut feeling’. That has got me through life.”

Ted: “I’ve been involved with the fair since I was a boy. We had a great life – it was stress free. We never had any money or luxuries but we had enough to keep going. You could afford to live on next to nothing. We
were never paid money by our dad, but he fed us and we’re all here today, still laughing. I just hope we can carry on, if Mr Cameron doesn’t put an end to it all.”

Douglas: “We used to have the Noah’s Ark ride as well. It was a roundabout with hunting horses, foxes and hounds. That was brand new in 1937. We’ve had the Gallopers since 1896. After the war they took a bit of a
dip in popularity so we got Dodgems. The Dodgems are in the yard but we don’t use them much. We are all getting too old and we can’t lift them. We have to do the things we can do and build off the truck – work you can do without having a heart attack.”

John: “There are bits down at the yard everywhere as our family has been there for 150 years. We are all hoarders and you don’t realise it. You sometimes think ‘why am I saving this?’ but eventually you’ll need it.”

Fred: “If we could add anything it would be Dodgems. We have some but they are made of steel and are too heavy for us. Modern dodgems are made of aluminium and are easier to set-up.”

Ted: “Our big rides now are The Gallopers, The Park Swings, Chair-o-Planes and the Paratrooper ride. We don’t do it all ourselves – volunteers who are friends of the family help us out. We also have stalls such as the hook-a-duck and trampolines run by associates, and for the carnival we have an Olde Tyme Ferris Wheel, which is not part of our funfair.”

Robert: “We call people in when we want to put on a bigger fair such as here in Ashington. We all work together and it’s beneficial to everyone. Each ride takes about three or four hours to set up, depending on the weather and how energetic we are feeling – we’re all getting a bit old now!”

Douglas: “We use authentic vehicles to transport the rides. The AEC Matadors are over 70 years old. They are worth money (if we were to sell them) but it depends who is prepared to pay for them. They look the part and make the funfair more authentic. Modern trucks are all computerised – you can’t put a spanner to them. But if any of these goes wrong, we can fix them.”

John: “One of them recently cracked a brake drum and we went down to Blackberry Stores and found one. We call our bottom yard Blackberry Stores as underneath the blackberry bushes are pieces of old trucks and rides! The Matadors were made for the war and were only supposed to go for 72 hours, not 72 years!”

Douglas: “There’s an organisation call ADIPS (Amusement Device Inspection Procedures Scheme) which ensures that funfair rides are safe.The Gallopers have just had an MOT, and every bit of it was stripped down.
We’ve had to develop with the health and safety aspects. It has made it ten times more stressful.”

Robert: “The biggest change has been the health and safety elements but it is not untimely and it is necessary. It’s a part of modern life. We have a good inspector who is very down to Earth and gives us good guidance and instructions and keep maintenance to the national standard.”

Douglas: “He understands that these rides are not rockets that are flying to the moon – and he knows they have never injured anyone. Time in itself tells us that they are safe little rides.”

John: “We’ve had a beautiful Showman’s Wagon for 40 or 50 years. It’s a palace on wheels. We bought it from another showman. We did have a couple of wagons long ago but they fell to pieces so we replaced them. Wagons have always been in the family. These Showman’s Wagons were made by coach builders and this one was built in 1932. We actually have four, but this is the best one and the other three are being renovated. I live in this one all summer.”

Douglas: “When we run the funfair, all of the wives come out and help as the money is not there these days to pay wages. If we didn’t have a big family we couldn’t run the fair. People are too greedy these days – they
don’t get out of bed for less than £120 a day.”

Fred: “We have a number of volunteers who help us, and they have just appeared over the years. We need them in order to keep the fair going. Some people are retired and they will travel around, working with us at the weekends. We go down to Dorset in a fortnight’s time and they’ll all take their caravans – it’ll be like a busman’s holiday.”

Robert: “On festival day in Ashington, there will be a large percentage of the village that will come and see us – it is a big reunion day for everyone. You get people that have moved away from the village– there’s a Mr Butcher that lives in America who normally flies over for the day. It’s a great day for us to see people.”

Ted: “Our rides are only £2 a go – inflation goes up around you but you cannot go up with it. You get the odd person moaning about the price – then they will go and pay £3 for a pint of beer rather than putting their kid on the ride. It’s hard to invest in new equipment because of the money involved.”

Douglas: “You still see people go ‘Blimey, £2 for a ride?’ But when you see the expense of setting up the funfair - the diesel costs, insurance, public liability, testing and maintenance – you see that it adds up. It costs £200 to have someone to declare a ride safe even though you know it is. The most unsafe thing is when you put things up for five or six weeks, at theme parks and that type of thing. Theme parks are safe don’t get me wrong, but our method means there is less chance of anything going wrong. Yet we are the ones treated like pirates.”

Fred: “You can go and buy any old ride and plenty of people want to sell rides and equipment as funfair business is so bad these days. But is it worth investing £100,000 in a ride?”

Ted: “We make very little money. If you’re in it for mega bucks you had better look elsewhere. You couldn’t set up a new fair these days as you would need to invest a lot of money and somehow work out a way to get it back.”

John: “This only works because it’s a family business, that’s all. It works for us, and we’ve been doing it for 150 years so we must be doing something right.”

Fred: “We try now and stay within 30 miles of Ashington, because of the fuel bills. There is one other fair of this type that is bigger than ours now, Carters of White Waltham, and they are a good family fair too. They can make more money in the London parks. If you take this event in Ashington as an example, we have maybe four hours on one Saturday afternoon to make enough money to see us through the week.”

Douglas: “We’ve done the Ashington Festival for a while and it’s a great event. We also go to Plumpton racecourse at Easter, as well as Peper Harow (near Godalming), Haslemere, St Lawrence Fair in Hurstpierpoint and many others.”

Robert: “Nostalgia comes around infrequently but when it does it is nice. People want to reflect on the past as they knew it. It is quite funny when you see people say 'oh the eighties were the best because of hip-hop’ or whatever it was they liked, and you think ‘no it wasn’t, the sixties was the best!’. It depends how someone’s memory serves them.”

Ted: “Theme parks have affected the popularity of funfairs, and so have computers as children are indoors. Society as we know it is totally different to what it was when I was a lad. Its heyday was in the fifties. When the fair came to your village it was the highlight of the year. Now, it doesn’t matter as there is other entertainment. Here in Ashington it is a very festive show which is great, but today’s society does not rely on fairs.”

Douglas: “The worry is that with a stroke of the pen some bloke in London or Manchester could end all of this. We used to go to Cuckfield Country Fair at Whiteman’s Green. We were there for 31 years, then one day some chap from Mid Sussex District Council told us we needed £10million in public liability insurance. The only way we could do that was to get two separate certificates for £5million which would cost us £360 each. But we wouldn’t have been able to take £720 on the rides – that would have taken us a week! So that was the end of our days at Whiteman’s Green.”

John: “Everything you see out there that has been painted, I’ve done it. The style has always been the same. Fairground painting is unique – it’s not like this, or like that, it is what it is. It has its own style with the patterns and the lettering.”

Douglas: “I have painted the names of a lot of the family on the vehicles and rides. You can see the names Redman, Cole and Summer - my three grandchildren. Annie is the boss – my wife, and Lulu was my dog.” 

Ted: “A few years ago, there were some boys scrapping on the Gallopers. We split them up, but one of them came back later that night and set alight to it. It was badly damaged and you can see that one of the horses has his backside burnt. That is where the plastic melted from the roof, but we left it there to remember what happened. We all had to chip in to rebuild it.”

Robert: “Our fifth generation is already actively involved with the fair and we have a sixth generation in line, the oldest of whom is already out with the fair.” 

Douglas: “John has a son – Solomon (known as Solly). Ted has a son who helps us and Robert’s grandson is here too. They will hopefully keep it going in the future. We hope it’ll be all right.”

John: “There is not a Fred in the next generation! We had a famous uncle called Solomon and my son came along, 17 years ago, so that was the name I gave him. He is among the next generation of Harris boys that will keep it all going if the rules and regulations don’t stop them.”

Solomon: “I’m just doing private (tree surgery) work at the minute. I’ll work at the fair as much as I can but you sometimes need to keep it all going by doing other things. I think we can carry this on if we all pull together. I enjoy it – it can be a pain sometimes when it’s raining hard, muddy and you’re stuck in a field somewhere, but it can be fun at the same time. It’s swings and roundabouts really.”

Robert: “We are only repeating what our grandfathers and fathers have done. We do it roughly 26 times a year in villages around East and West Sussex. It is the nostalgia that draws people in. They might have met their husband or wife on the swinging boats or the roundabout.” 

Ted: “It is a concern for us that we might not be able to pass it all on to the next generation.”

John: “Those Matadors are over 70 years old. If somebody ticks a box one day and decides they are too old, that would be it. You could put modern trucks in their place but it’s just not done – it’s not authentic.”

Solomon: “I hope us younger ones can all keep going. I’m sure the brothers will always be here, telling us what to do!”

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