David Vaughan, with material provided by Mike Hanna, looks at famous fairground families and their vehicles, starting with Tom Benson & Sons.
For this series about funfairs featuring the families who run them, their traditions, rides and transport, I am concentrating on those who frequent the fairgrounds in the South of England. We have already seen examples of those run by the Harris Brothers of Ashington and the Stevens family of Chertsey. In this article we are going to take a look at the fairs under the proprietorship of the Benson family from Dorking in Surrey who were, and still are, regular attendees at fairgrounds throughout Sussex, Surrey and South London.
Like a lot of fairground families, Benson’s can trace their history back several generations. The head of the firm for many years was Mr Tom Benson senior who was married to Mary Marney, a person of note described as a colourful and grand lady. In his youth Tom had, among other attractions, a nut sheet, better known to readers as a coconut shy. This stayed as part of the show right up until the 1960s and we are told that Mary could still sometimes be seen at the ball box calling up the punters in her powerful voice, as she had done for many years.
In 1936 Tom and Mary were able to order their first big ride, a brand-new Ben Hur Ark from famous ride manufacturer Lakins of Streatham. This magnificent machine had four hills and eighteen platforms consisting of three chariots, nine ranks of horses and six of motorbikes. The centre truck was mounted on solid wheels until long after the war and Benson’s was still travelling this machine, by now modernised, in the 1980s.
In 1945 Mr Benson bought a very ornate Dodgem track from the Hampshire travellers Arnold Brothers. This was a standard 60×40ft track but Benson’s extended this by two extra 8ft sections making it 80 feet long, one of the biggest around at the time.
By the late 1940s Tommy junior had married Amy Castle and they bought their own machine, a three hill Ark by Lang Wheel that had been acquired from Brighton pier. This was later sold to another southern showman John “Buck” Wall who ran it until 1977. In 1949 Tommy and Mary bought a new eight-car swirl, or Skid, from Lakins. It was the last machine ever turned out by Lakins. Mike Hanna, who was a friend of the family, reckoned it was his favourite ride and “The best Skid ever made.” The decorations were notable. On one side was a miniature moon rocket in which the faces of the passengers were all Benson’s employees, and depictions of Mercury, the winged messenger, were seen all over the machine.
The words “It’s Tommy Benson’s” were written in massive pyjama striped letters with girls in bathing costumes sitting on the top. During the 1950s a massive searchlight was fitted by Amy’s chief man “Skid Jack” who would pan the light from side to side across the faces of the riders as they swung round. Add to this the wail of an air raid type siren and the rock-n-roll music of the time and you have the ingredients for a ride that would be spectacular even by today’s standards.
Mrs Mary Benson usually ran the latest set of Dodgems, bought new in 1954, her powerful voice could be heard all over the fairground as she called out “Double rides, fast double rides;” another of her catch phrases “One more car one more rider” was immortalised by Eric Clapton in an album of that title as a tribute to Mrs Benson. Eric was a great fan of the fair as it regularly visited Ripley in Surrey where he grew up.
Tom and Mary had one son Tommy, known to all as “Big Tommy,” who became “The Guvnor.” He married Amy Castle and they in turn had two sons, young Tommy and Billy. In 1976 a major tragedy befell the family when Big Tommy was brutally murdered by a gang of youths at Clapham Common. Of course the family were devastated but, in true fairground tradition, the show must go on. Amy Benson became the figurehead of the firm. Fortunately Big Tommy had trained his two sons well so young Tommy and Billy took things in hand so that, the following week, they attended the Lindfield Charter Fair, a show they had been associated with for many years.
For many years after the war the major rides were Arks and Skids but, like all things, fashions in rides changed and the rides known as Waltzers started to become popular. After much deliberation an order was placed for a new nine-car Waltzer with Maxwells. Unfortunately Maxwells went into liquidation before the ride was quite finished but Tommy and Billy, not ones to be easily beaten by circumstances, drove up to Musselborough and helped the firm to finish the job. Its first outing, when fully finished, was at the Horsham Festival fair in July 1983 and it was greeted with enthusiasm by all who came to see it. It was a perfect mix of traditional and modern and the rounding boards proclaimed “TA Benson’s Supreme Waltzer” Around the letters of the word ‘Waltzer’ were silhouettes of famous London landmarks such as Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral and the machine was patriotically decorated with Union Jacks.
One of the things that makes traditional fairground rides so colourful and attractive and a crowd puller is the decoration of the rounding boards, front boards and handrail boards. This decorative artwork is a subject in itself and the Waltzer was decorated by one of the best in the business, Fred Fowle. This ride was sadly one of the last he worked on as he died a couple of years later. So rich was the design and paintwork that some say that it was his masterpiece.
As if this ride was not enough the young Billy Benson added a further new ride in 1983, a ten-car Supertrooper built by Sam Ward. It was an ambitious and daring choice as this was only the second of its type on the road at the time, the other having been sold to Jennings Brothers of Devizes. The action, powered by hydraulics, was far more complex than the conventional Paratrooper or Sky Diver. The decision to buy a new ride is not to be taken lightly since it involves a large financial outlay and must therefore provide a good and regular source of income. In the 1980s and 90s the major rides in the Benson’s stable comprised Mrs Amy Benson’s Dodgems, Young Tommy’s Twist and Waltzer and Billy’s Coaster and Supertrooper.
To take these rides and their entourage round the South of England annually Benson’s relied on a fleet of powerful lorries and Dyson trailers customised by Benson’s for specific loads. During the war Mr Tommy Benson senior built up a fleet of Armstrong Saurers and then, in the early 1950s, went in for ex-military Scammells. These comprised Scammell Pioneer Number 1 (JXL 669), Pioneer Number 2 was an ex-tank transporter, named Challenger (OPB329), Number 3 was another Pioneer ex-artillery tractor (HUV 44) and then there was the Scammell Showtrac, ex-Arnold Brothers, (EDL 111) and a Foden 6×4 St George (BAJ714).
Scammell No.1 worked mainly with the Skid and carried a front-mounted crane for lifting the motor and gear assembly of the Swirl. Scammell No 2 had a longer wheelbase and was lower geared and pulled the heaviest load, which was the Dodgem floor truck, etc. It always went at the front of the convoy. It was replaced by another Pioneer, an ex-artillery tractor, in 1964 which carried the original Challenger nameplate. The Showtrac was Tommy Benson senior’s own and he always drove it himself on the road. The Foden was the favourite of Benson’s foreman George Mullard and carried the generator sets.
It has always been the prerogative of showmen to be allowed to tow three trailers or trucks, a law jealously guarded by all fairground proprietors. The Dodgems needed five trucks and the Ark four, and there were also the two big “Southern” living vans so it was that, when on the move, four tractor units pulling full loads would go first, led by Challenger. Two of them would return to pick up further loads and the fifth tractor unit. Other vehicles and trailers included a “Kip wagon” for the gaf lads, a ballast truck, a diesel tanker, a pair of two-wheel lighting sets and a big generator truck for the Dodgems.
In 1964 Benson’s purchased an Atkinson 8-wheeler for the Dodgem floor plates, this lorry was replaced in the early 70s with a more modern Atkinson, which was in the fleet until the 1990s. The Scammell Pioneers were eventually replaced by Scammell Highwaymen, often ex-petroleum company artic tractor units. This particular type of Scammell product was a popular lorry with a lot of showmen as it was a sturdy and reliable vehicle, easily maintained with either Gardner or Leyland power units under the bonnet.
The name of Benson’s has become synonymous with visitors to fairs all over the South of England for a good night’s entertainment and some of the best and latest thrill rides. In 1995 Benson’s took delivery of a brand new ‘Miami’, which is basically a long bench with individual seats and safety restraints. It swings from side to side and up and down by means of power operated crank arms, a simple concept but a great attraction. All the riders face outwards in front of a huge screen expertly decorated with the latest pop images.
The present line-up of rides owned and operated by members of the family is now so large and diverse that it is rare to see everything together on the same showground. Rides include a Twister, The Meteorite, and the fabulous Maxwell Waltzer which, as far as I am aware, is still going strong having been restored by young Thomas to its former glory.
Tom Benson Senior, the founder of the current family, died in 1988 aged 93 years during which time he had witnessed so many changes in the life of a travelling fair that proudly carries his family name until this day.
The family have built up a very good and profitable run of fairs over the years including many large towns in Surrey and Sussex, among them Reigate, Haywards Heath, and Bognor Regis. The biggest fair of the season was always the prestigious Streatham Common event in June, followed by the Horsham Festival. Some of the older fairgrounds are built over or no longer used as such and a lot of newer events and venues have been added. Tommy’s younger brother Billy, together his wife and family, now travel with a separate branch of the business with two larger rides and a number of smaller attractions.
If you are down south this summer and Benson’s are in town then be sure to pay the show a visit, you will not be disappointed.
This feature comes from the latest issue of Old Glory, and you can get a money-saving subscription to this magazine simply by clicking HERE
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