Plan | Layout

Seasonal Yes
Fixture Temporary
Physical Scale Small
Experiential Scale Large
Geographical Scale Local

The layout plan is usually drawn up by the Fair Superintentent, and sets the position and extent of each ride, attraction and stall, as well as other facilities such as St.John's Ambulance post, Fair Office, and access or delivery points.

Until relatively recently in the history of Fairs, there was no planning, just a race to the site that resulted in many crashes en route between fairs, and frequent fights between showmen as they arrived on site. As Vanessa Toulmin has noted, ‘Frontage space was allocated at these fairs on the basis of who arrived first. Fights between the showmen of the day were commonplace.’[i] An anonymous article that appeared in The Showman in 1906 noted how until the middle of the nineteenth century, "the shows were allowed to come into St Giles' Street at midnight [on] Sunday, and as in those days there was no one to allot the ground, there used to be some pretty squabbles and the free fights for the best positions and it was generally daybreak when everyone had got comfortably—or uncomfortably—settled down."[ii]

The physical complexity of rides and townscape that gives each fair its character and identity is now carefully planned. The organization of fairs falls to the Local Authority Fairs Superintendent or Fairs Officer, and draws extensively on national and local government legislation, as well as the Showmen themselves (mainly through the ‘Rules’ of their national body, the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain), although the respective contributions and influence of these parties varies significantly.

Despite the speed of arrival and departure, there is a long and careful process of planning and organization that has to take account of many different kinds of control, and draw upon many different kinds of official powers and laws. All of this goes on behind the scenes, producing an ‘invisible’ architecture within which the temporary architecture of the fair is installed.

individual showmen’s claims to particular locations at a fair are now enshrined in the SGGB ‘Rules’ concerning ‘Established Rights of Tenure at a Fair’: with 2 years’ occupation of a particular pitch, rights are assured, transferable on death to family or transferred—at a cost—to another showman. While these SGGB Rules might grant rights of tenure, they don’t control what happens to the town’s physical infrastructure, and sometimes the material installation or the relationship between rides and their surroundings encounters an obstacle as a result of unexpected changes that are made. There are plenty of amusing anomalies, such as the general conflict between large rides and the prohibition on any cutting of trees at Oxford St. Giles, or examples Loughborough dodgems built around a lamppost in the 1950s, or the removal of a lamppost and signage on Ilkeston East St. Car Park this year to fit larger ride.

“The layout of the fairground is planned with great care, and showmen are very critical of their own and their competitors' planning. In the centre of the "tober" are sited the great moving attractions - the gallopers, switchbacks, and the other spectacular rides, with plenty of room around them for the crowds to circulate. A helter-skelter, or slip, stands vertically off centre, contrasting with the general horizontality of the fairground like the campanile of the Lombardic church. Bordering the ground and turning inward to enclose the fair is the "side stuff", coconut shies, shooting galleries, freak shows, haunted houses, dart-throwing stands and swings, and scattered about the open space between the big rides and the side stuff is the "round stuff" - small circular stands with mysterious names, "Roll'emIns, Juveniles and Houplas". Behind the side stuff are the living vans of the showmen, and the steam traction engines provide the current for the machines and the peace-time lighting.”— Eric Brown Roundabouts Demountable Baroque, first published in Architectural Review, February 1945

Preparations for the fair begin in the head and on paper. Although many parties are involved in these preparations, particularly the allocation of sites and the overall layout of rides, stalls and attractions (as well as ancillary services such as the school for the children of travelling show families, the fair office, St. John’s Ambulance, ‘Swag Alley’ and so on), this complexity can be focused on the figure of the fair superintendentr or Surveyor, whose responsibility it is to coordinate all these tasks. Albert Austin was Surveyor to the Newcastle Hoppings Fair between 1988–93. After the layout plan had been completed, the sites had to be marked out on the ground: Albert’s setting out activities could take up to three weeks, projecting the fair layout onto the surface from an overlay at ‘head height’. The preparation of this layout attempted to exert control and maintain architectural order through the geometrical set up of markers, paths and plots. It also acknowledges, and in parts makes explicit reference to, past positions of certain rides and the accrued Showmen’s rights over these sites. There are two moments to mention in this context, where Albert’s Kit helps mediate between the head and the feet: the preparation of the plan, and the preparation of the ground. There are some anomalies in the plan, the kit, and their inter-relationship, introducing some of the instabilities that can be encountered in the event more broadly. The ‘plan’ of the fair is something of a synthetic document, gathering and recording different claims to authority, control, ownership, rights and so on. (Figure 2) The plan itself also experiences differing internal rates of change. The ‘archetype’ or base layer is brought out every year as if unchanging, although looking at earlier plans from early and mid-Century, this basic layout has clearly shifted, now following an essentially linear arrangement parallel to the Great North Road, in contrast to the earlier kinked plan sited more centrally. The main rides have inherited or ‘standing’ rights, but the positions of so-called ‘side-stuff’ (smaller rides and stalls) are re-allocated every year by ballot, in a flagrant transgression of Showmen’s Guild rules by the ‘Northern Syndicate’, a proxy for Newcastle City Council and the Freemen’s Stewards’ Committee with the responsibility for organizing the Hoppings.

The process of Albert setting out brings this ideal plan(e) down to earth. The timber ‘rods’ in his kit are (paradoxically) more enduring than the paper copy of the ‘ideal’ (quasi-transcendent) plan. The notes on this plan that indicate points of contact between the ideal projection and the physical world (the HP or hinge point, various ‘post holes’ and fence markings illustrated here) all hint at a feedback loop that mixes precision and approximation, a loop that most (setting out) plans don’t accommodate, let alone record.

Compared to most architectural plans, the level of resolution and detail on these setting out plans is far lower than most architects could stomach, leaving much more ‘in the head’ (of Albert, and the fair’s organisers more broadly) and much more ‘on the ground’ (left to individual stall holders or ride-owners). Perhaps more significant is that the setting-out plan, which more than most other versions (for ‘normal’ buildings), is a site of on-going construction in its own right. As some of the examples indicate, the information recorded on these plans not only precedes the setting out of the event, but also records for use the subsequent year those observations and tips that have resulted from the setting out process. The setting out plan is thus not simply a preparatory drawing or stage to be passed through, but as an object becomes incorporated in the annual cyclic process of planning and staging the fair. We might say that contrary to the movement of most setting out, Albert’s inscription returns upward, to the head, and endures on the setting out plan rather than down on the ground.


[i] Vanessa Toulmin, Pleasurelands, Sheffield, 2003, p.7.

[ii] Anon, The Showman, 31 August 1906.

W.E. Sherwood, Master of Magdalen College School and later Mayor of Oxford, describes St Giles’ Fair at the time of his childhood in the late 1850s in similar terms: ‘In those days positions were not allotted beforehand, and the caravans could not enter the City until four o’clock in the morning, but were drawn up outside the boundary tones on all the roads. As the clock struck there was a wild rush followed by a scramble for places, which it was part of the fun of the fair to watch, although it involved very early rising.’ in Oxford Yesterday (1927). Even with a more planned approach, the spectacle of the rides arriving and being assembled draws the crowds.

Plan of Loughborough town centre with rides and stalls in position (dark grey) plus the various alleyways (light grey) indicating the changes in circulation used during the fair period.

Many setting-out points for the fair are permanently marked on fairground sites, although they remain 'invisible' to most citizens.