Cinema before cinemas: Fairgrounds

Before the first permanent places showing films opened around 1906/7, Scottish audiences encountered moving images in many other contexts. The fairground was one of them, and it was particularly important for rural and small-town audiences with no music halls offering a permanent supply of popular entertainment. In the last two decades, historians like Professor Vanessa Toulmin at the National Fairground Archive, as well as genealogists and enthusiasts, have done much to recover the fascinating story of cinema in the fairgrounds. Their findings show that without these 'pop-up', itinerant, and popular forms of exhibition moving pictures would have never become the mass medium of the 20th century

Fairs and fairground shows have a very long history in Scotland, going back to medieval markets and gatherings such as Kirkcaldy Links and Hawick Common Riding. By the mid-1800s, attractions such as waxworks, menageries, and 'geggies' (portable theatres) had become the heart of the fairground, and an annual calendar of fair days had been established. A few families took their shows and rides around Scotland and the North of England - many of them are still involved in the business and organised around the Scottish Showmen's Guild. The 'Scottish Round' of fairs ran from March to December and had a few central points at which most showpeople would converge: Kirkcaldy, Hawick, and the Paisley Races. Most shows would also visit the industrial cities during their local holidays, and reappear at Christmas carnivals such as Waverley Market in Edinburgh.

With the arrival of steam-powered machines, fairgrounds became more focused on rides like carousels and waltzers. However, the shows remained on the side, offering spectacles like boxing, dancing, and illusions such as the 'ghost show'. Always looking for the latest novelties, fairground entertainers (who identified as 'amusement caterers') were quick to see the potential of moving images. Their existing canvas tents with wooden forms to sit on provided an appropriate venue, and the traction engines used to transport the rides could be fitted with a dynamo to run the projector. This set-up, called “a Bioscope show” after one of the earliest practicable projectors, was used for brief screenings (around 20 minutes) usually priced at one penny, and featuring lots of short films that the showmen bought from manufacturers in London or Continental Europe. The canvas booths soon grew to incorporate more ornate fronts and elaborate mechanical organs, as they competed for people's attention at the big fairs.

[caption id="attachment_1122" align="alignnone" width="736Biddall's Ghost show and Bioscope, c1909. Image: Mitch Miller. Biddall's Ghost show and Bioscope, c1909. Image: Mitch Miller.[/caption]


One of the most famous of these alluring portable cinemas was President Kemp's 'Theatre Unique', which featured a 104 key Marenghi organ and a fifty foot parading stage. Kemp, like many of the families that made their mark on the Scottish fairground circuit, was originally from the North of England. He had shown films for the first time in 1901 at the legendary Nottingham Goose Fair, still one of the biggest occasions in the UK. After travelling widely with their celebrated bioscopes, 'President' [George] Kemp and his son Harry opened a circuit of cinemas in Ayrshire, including the La Scala in Saltcoats in 1913. They sold their show to another great fairground family, the Greens, to whom they were related through Harry's marriage to Susan Green. Originally from Preston, Lancashire, George Green was a cabinet maker who had ended up owning a roundabout by chance. The Greens had their winter base at Glasgow's Vinegarhill and owned the Carnival grounds on Gallowgate, where they had introduced moving pictures in 1896. While keeping the show on the road until 1914, the Greens built a circuit of cinemas and their own distribution company.

The First World War created serious difficulties for fairground exhibitors as fuel was restricted and labour was drafted. By then, in any case, fairgrounds, films and audiences had changed, and the expansion of permanent cinemas made bioscope booths less profitable. Many of the pioneers opened permanent cinemas, like George Biddall and Henry Codona. In their new roles, fairground showmen continued to find ways to make cinema ever more popular, and to use their skills as entertainers to sell the show locally. As historian Mark E. Swartz argued, without the ability and craftsmanship of the travelling showpeople, “the motion picture industry would have been much slower to develop, assuming, of course, that it would have succeeded in getting off the ground at all.”

For more information on UK fairgrounds

National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield:

Fair Glasgow Museums Working Group,

Scottish Traveller Education Programme: The Ghost Show,

Mark E. Swartz, ‘Overview of Cinema on the Fairgrounds’ Journal of Popular Film and Television 15:3, 1987