A few years ago the Benson's family commissioned a historian and good friend of ours, Michael Hanna, to write a detailed history of our fairground, we hope you find this to be a fascinating insight into our background in the industry. For ease of reading we've split this into sections which can be opened by clicking on the tabs below.
Benson’s Fun fair is a road show on a grand scale. Their big riding machines and other attractions have always been among the best to be seen anywhere. The life of travelling show people is hard. I have known the Benson family and their wonderful fair for nearly 60 years. During that time they have had their fair share of adversities including fire, flooding, robbery and violent death. However they always have the strength and grit to overcome such troubles and go on to new successes in the business.
The Benson family is based at North Holmwood near Dorking in Surrey. They have been in the travelling fairground business for over 100 years. They started in a small way with game stalls and small roundabouts appearing at fairs in Surrey and Sussex. The earliest photographic record I have found is of their confetti tables at Dorking Ascentiontide Fair in the early 1900s. Where they stand in front of Odam’s Grand Steam Gallopers.
The journey from these modest beginnings to the large Benson’s Fair of today was a long haul. The best place to start is with Mr. Tom Benson Senior who lived well into his nineties. He was still travelling and working until almost the end of his life in 1984. As a young man he married Mary Marney who came from a family of Romany travellers and horse dealers. She was a very colourful and grand lady who had tremendous energy and business sense.
Mary and Tom were a strong partnership. Back in the 1930s they had a coconut shy or sheet on which Mary would be seen and heard at the ball box. She had great charisma, plus a loud and powerful voice which could be heard all over the fairground and beyond. One can still remember her calling out “Three balls sixpence, seven a bob, anywhere you like !!”. This Nut Sheet stayed part of the show well into the 1960s when Mary could still sometimes be seen at the ball box attracting the punters. She lived well into her 80s and died in 1978.
Tom and Mary had one son , Tommy ( “Big Tommy” as we called him) who turned out to be just as energetic, competitive and successful as his parents. He also made a very good marriage in 1947 to Amy Castle, the youngest of a large fairground family who were well known for their stalls, games and sideshows at fairs in Sussex and Hampshire. They in turn had two sons, Tommy and Billy who each now head up their own parts of the Benson enterprise with their wives and children. They and their offspring have made good marriages within the business which is customary throughout the fairground fraternity.
Young Tommy married Danela, nee Wall in the early 1970s, so uniting two families who had been close friends for many years. They have two sons, Thomas and Mark who are each both married with children. Thomas is married to Michelle, nee Searle ( another famous fairground dynasty), and their young children are Thomas and Sian.
Mark is married to Lillian, nee Shaw, daughter of riding master Nicky Shaw who has a prosperous run of fairs in Kent, Surrey and East Sussex . Mark and Lillian have two young children, Marcus and Shaw.
Billy Benson is married to Marie, nee Chambers and they have 3 grown up children, Maryanne, Carly and Jerome. Carly has married Luke Shufflebottom, son of Roy Shufflebottom who comes from a very famous family of show people who for several generations travelled the U.K. with big Wild West Shows and other exotic attractions offering glamour girls, knife throwing etc.
The first big adult riding machine owned by Mr. Tom Benson was a “Ben-Hur” Noah’s Ark , delivered brand new in 1936 from the famous roundabout builders R. J. Lakin of Streatham. It was a magnificient specimen. It had 4 hills and 18 platforms on which the mounts comprised 3 chariots, 9 ranks of horses and 6 of motorbikes. The external scenery was a set of full 3 tier corniced jungle rounding boards and a baroque style extension front with 2 painted side arches depicting motorcyclists. Ben-Hur , his chariot and horses leapt at us from the big centre arch. Inside it had full rafter flights and top drum centre boards . The machine had a long 4 wheel centre truck which lay at 45 degrees to the front.
To transport the ride, Mr. Benson had petrol and diesel vehicles. He was not a fan of steam engines and never had one as far as I know. The Ben-Hur still travelled up to 1983 in modernised form, still with Mr. Benson in the paybox at times.
In 1945 Mr. Benson bought a very ornate Dodgem track from the famous Hampshire firm of Arnold Brothers. This was a standard sized 64 X 40 feet track with picturesque open lattice rounding boards. Benson’s lengthened this by two extra 8 foot sections to 80 feet.
By the late 1940s, Tommy and Amy were ready to have their first machine, curiously another Noahs Ark. This was a 3 hill ride made by Lang Wheels of Hillingdon, one of only five made by the firm. This one was acquired topless from Brighton Pier and Tommy added a full rafter top for travelling. He ran it for only a short time and sold it to his close friend John “Buck” Wall, the famous Hampshire riding master. Wall’s travelled it up to the end of 1977, latterly as an Easy Rider Speedway.
To replace the Lang Wheel Ark , Tommy and Amy ordered a brand new 8 car Lightning Swirl or Skid from Lakins, which appeared early in 1949. This was the last Skid ever made by Lakins. It was always my favourite of all Benson’s machines and I would say the best skid ever made. It was certainly the fastest, and the most glamorously decorated. On the inside there were big painted rafter flights, top drum and ceiling panels above the sectional centre paybox. Outside it had the classic Lakin “Buttress” shaped false pillars, hanging gag boards, plus full rounding scenery boards with two full frontal sections. On one side was a miniature “Moon Rocket” scene in which the rocket’s passengers are of employees at Lakins. The frontal section on the opposite side proclaimed “ It’s Tommy Benson’s” depicted in massive pyjama stripe letters with girls in bathing costumes sitting on top. The famous iconic “Mercury” winged man, lions heads etc. were to be seen all over the machine.
Amy once told me how she and Tommy paid for the ride in stages. Starting with the basic “Skeleton” machine, as they earned more money with it, they would take another payment to Mr. Lakin who would give them more of the decorative adornments until they had the complete machine in all it’s glory.
Amy minded this Swirl much of the time, and really knew how to run a machine. When I first got to know her in the mid 1950s, she was young, very pretty and always beautifully dressed. I remember seeing her so often in the paybox in her smart clothes and one of her colourful silk scarves, she was even more glamorous than the machine !! Amy really worked the ride, especially at night when she flashed the lights with the big sparking knife switches , combined with a wailing “Air-raid” siren.
All that plus the wonderful Rock & Roll music gave us unsurpassed thrills. This is what the magic of fairs at their best is all about.
In the late 1950s, a big searchlight was fitted to the centre platform, and Amy’s chief man “ Skid Jack”, a colourful Irish chap would pan this from side to side across the faces of the riders as the cars hurtled round. I have never heard girls scream so loudly on any other fairground ride.
Amy died on 5 March 2008 at the great age of 87 years. She lived long enough to see several of her grandchildren marry and give her great grandchildren which were a source of much joy at the end of her long life.
In 1954 a brand new 80 feet length Dodgem track was delivered to replace the aging ex Arnold track. This was built by Lang Wheels to Lakin’s designs and was similar in style and magnificence to the Lakin Swirl. Once more it had the classic “Buttress” shaped false pillars, hanging gag boards and superbly sculptured rounding boards which rose to a massive sweeping curve at each end, in the centre of which was depicted the Dorking Cockerel. The lettering in gold leaf on each long side was “T. Benson’s Superior Amusements” and at each end “T. Benson’s Joy Cars” .
Mrs. Mary Benson usually ran this great track and her powerful voice amplified through the microphone could be heard up to a mile away. She would call out “Double rides, fast double rides!!” Another of her catch phrases “One more car, one more rider” has been immortalized by Eric Clapton in an album of that title in tribute to Mrs. Benson. Eric knew and loved Benson’s Fair as it regularly visited Ripley in Surrey where he was brought up.
When I was a schoolboy in the 1950s, I lived in Haywards Heath in Mid-Sussex, just behind Victoria Park where Benson’s Fair attended the annual carnival. I spent all my waking hours with Benson’s whenever they were in town, and at other places within cycling distance including Lindfield, Burgess Hill, Crawley and Horsham. I would run errands for them and help them build the rides up.
My greatest joy was when Mrs. Benson invited me to be her disc jockey in the Dodgem paybox where the records were played and wired to the other machines. Mrs. Benson had a big twin deck Garrard playing desk with pickups as big as a man’s fist. All the records were still brittle shellac 78 rpm discs, and playing them was very labour-intensive as each record had to be played individually. Also you had to screw a new steel needle into the pickup head for each record. All three rides were equipped with big powerful Magnaphone loudspeakers, purpose built for fairground rides.
This period coincided with the advent of Rock & Roll, the most perfect fairground music ever, which I adored. I listened avidly to Radio Luxembourg most nights and would tell Mrs. Benson the latest rocking discs she must have. So she gave me the money to buy these and Benson’s rides then throbbed to Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent etc. Sheer magic !!
In 1961 the original and unique fleet of Lang Wheel dodgem cars was replaced by 30 of the latest model of fiberglass bodied Whittaker cars which were fast and sleek in appearance, resembling the Fiat cars of the time. Also a set of giant illuminated letters spelling “DODGEM” was fitted to one side over the roundings .
The year 1961 brought other changes. The original scenery to the Ben-Hur Ark was replaced by a smaller but glamorously decorated new set of top roundings by the legendary fairground decorator Fred Fowle. On top of the front were 5 flagpoles carrying Union Jacks, plus 5 globe lanterns overhanging the new front.
At the back end of 1961 a brand new Octopus ride was delivered for Tommy Benson Jr. This was built by Hayes Fabrications ( successors to Lang Wheels). It was a big machine with long arms and beautiful decorative adornments, again painted by Fred Fowle. The centre truck was covered by a wooden pyramid of scenery with “Fabulous Twist” slogans plus bathing suited beauties. Another glamour girl was to be seen on the front scenery board over the paybox.
For 1963, Fred Fowle redecorated the rest of the Ark to match his gorgeous roundings which brought this great machine bang up-to-date. Also that year a new juvenile Toy-set was bought for young Billy , now entering his teens.
With four big fabulous rides and other attractions, Benson’s Fair ranked with the very best in England, along with Joe Stevens’s, Stanley Thurston’s, Rose Bros., Traylen Bros. , John Biddall’s, Robert Edwards’s, Tom Whitelegg’s, Anderton & Rowland’s , Sam Crow’s, Silcock Bros., John Wall’s, Pat Collins’s, Billy Danter’s and Bob Wilson’s, plus White’s and Codona’s in Scotland. All these famous firms with Benson’s were the “Premier League” of British travelling fairs during the “Swinging 60s” , and still are in most cases.
Benson’s Fair remained the same for the next 10 years until late 1973 when young Tommy, by then in his 20s acquired a fresh Edwin Hall grasscutter Twist. This became lavishly decorated with full wooden trellises and ballustraded gates, and was probably the fastest, smoothest riding and best looking grasscutter on the road.
At the beginning of August 1976, a well publicized tragedy occurred when Big Tommy was brutally murdered by a gang of youths while the fair was on Clapham Common in London. This was devastating for the whole family as he was effectively the Guvnor of the firm and the business could have fallen apart.
Fortunately Big Tommy had trained and groomed his two sons well. Young Tommy and Billy were now capable young adults and they literally took the business by the scruff of the neck. Their first action was to order a new fleet of 24 Reverchon cars for the Dodgem to replace the 15 year old Whittaker fleet.
Two years later the Octopus was sold to Castle Bros. and Billy had a brand new Ski Jump Flying Coaster built by the famous firm of George Maxwell and Sons of Musselburgh in Scotland , the premier roundabout builders in Britain at that time. This was a beautiful machine done out in the then fashionable colours of pink and purple. It was a fast, thrilling ride and a huge hit with the punters.
Benson’s were modernizing with a vengeance during the following years. By the end of the 1970s it was apparent to many in the fairground world that Arks and Skids, which had been around in large numbers since the early 1930s, were going out of fashion. They were being increasingly superseded by waltzers in London and the South East. Of course the first waltzer, Charles Thurston’s, appeared back in 1933. Waltzers had been plentiful and popular “North of Watford” for several decades. But they did not really start to catch on in the South until well into the 1960s.
Benson’s Ark and Skid were two of the best examples of their types, and still taking good money. But if Benson’s were to maintain their leading position they had to move with the times. So after much deliberation, during 1982 young Tommy placed an order at Maxwell’s for a new 9 car Waltzer. Work started , then disaster struck as Maxwell’s went into liquidation. But happily the waltzer did get finished and was the last such machine ever built by Maxwells. It was ready in basic skeleton form for the big Easter Fair at Wormwood Scrubs in 1983. This fair is no longer held but was then one of the major London Bank Holiday fairs, and Benson’s had attended it with big rides for nearly 50 years.
The decoration for this new waltzer was entrusted to Fred Fowle who rose to the occasion magnificiently, so rich was the design and paintwork. This was his last major project, some say his masterpiece as it summed up so much of the style and imagery he had developed over the years. Fred Fowle died less than a year after finishing this work, so this waltzer encapsulates the sad double irony of the demise of Maxwell’s and Fred Fowle’s death, and is a fitting memorial to both.
The full flash front and rounding boards were first erected at Horsham Festival Fair in July 1983. The decoration was a perfect mixture of the best of traditional images and the Modern Movement. The rounding boards carried the classic wing motifs with lavish use of gold leaf , while the front boards were set in a huge curve proclaiming “ T. Benson & Sons Supreme Waltzer”. Within the letters of “Waltzer” were silhouettes of famous London landmarks like Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, The GPO Tower etc. There were Union Jacks painted all over the machine giving it a deliberately patriotic flavour, perhaps in celebration of the recent victory in the Falklands War. If so, this is an echo of the end of the 2nd World War when a number of Arks were lettered as “Victory Speedways “, sometimes with rigid strips of lights fixed to extension fronts to form a “V”.
This wonderful waltzer was a huge success from the outset. It rode superbly and the cars spun like crazy with no help needed from the attendants when the machine turned at optimum speed. It looked amazing, especially at night with spectacular lighting, thumping disco music and electric atmosphere.
Sadly this new Waltzer proved to be the writing on the wall for the Ark and Skid. During 1983 the Ark attended several fairs in the Spring , then spent a summer season at Chessington Zoo. The Skid came out only once for the 1983 Horsham Festival . Neither of these old favourites appeared again at any fair in Benson’s ownership and remained packed away on their trucks for many years with the Ark eventually being sold and restored by a northern showman where it makes a yearly appearance at Yorkshire's Winter Wonderland.
As if this was not enough, young Billy also had a further new ride by September 1983, a 10 car Supertrooper, a development from the lifting paratrooper. It was built by Sam Ward a leading specialist manufacturer of aerial thrill rides. This was an ambitious and daring choice for Billy as it was only the second such machine on the road, the first was for Jennings Bros. of Devizes. The action of this ride was much more complex than the conventional lifting paratrooper. The Supertrooper loads at floor level, then once turning it rises to the top of a fixed central pole. Then it tips one way , then the other before redescending the pole. This motion was achieved by sophisticated hydraulics.
So Benson’s had now re-established themselves at the leading edge with three brand new big rides in just 5 years, an astonishing rate of progress, and testimony to the energy and vision of Tommy and Billy.
During the Winter of 1986/7 the big dodgem track was radically rebuilt and lowered by 18 inches. Sadly this meant the demise of all the lavish rounding boards, false pillars and gag boards, all of which are now at Dingles Fairground Heritage Museum. A new fleet of 24 Italian Barbieri cars were also installed.
At the end of 1990 a Sam Ward Meteorite, or Round-up was purchased from the well known riding master Joey Stokes.
In 1995 Benson’s took delivery of a brand new Miami made by Fairmatt, a company set up by the late Tommy Matthews which fast became a leading ride building firm. The Miami is essentially 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. It is a very simple concept, but a great attraction as the riders all face outwards, and the huge solid rear screen behind the riders is glamorously decorated with airbrush “Pop” images.
The present line up of rides and other attractions operated by various members of the family is now so large and diverse that it is rare to see everything together on the same ground.
Tommy and Danela have a new floor-mounted Twister which replaces the trusty grasscutter. This new machine is to the brilliant design and manufacture by KT Enterprise, and is the best design of twist ever. It folds out from a long articulated truck and has a superb friction floor drive which gives a faster and smoother ride than any previous twist.
Thomas and Michelle have the Meteorite, Funky Frog and the fabulous Maxwell Waltzer. Given that this machine is nearly 50 years old, time, wear and tear have taken their toll on the wonderful Fred Fowle paintwork. But young Thomas is proceeding with the faithful restoration of this great ride to its former glory. The work has been entrusted to Pete Tei, trading as Tate Decor. It could not be in better hands as Pete is undoubtedly Fred Fowle’s greatest and most talented disciple. Superb examples of his artistry can be seen at fairgrounds all over Britain. Thomas and Michelle also have a selection of other equipment including bouncy castles and catering units.
Mark and Lillian have the Dodgems, a new Miami - The Big Buzz, and ran a Pollard Coaster for a season which has been replaced by a fabulous Sobema Matterhorn, purchased from Anthony Harris of Pat Collins Fairs. This in turn was replaced by the new Extreme ride, purchased from Albert Evans and manufacturered by Tivoli. They also have a very modern “Formula” juvenile, mini jets, cups and saucers, and a mega slide inflatable.
All this is in addition to other attractions owned and run by other travellers which are booked in by Benson’s as “Tenants” to expand and complete the fair according to how much ground is available. These include extra adult and juvenile rides, stalls, games, hooplas, slot arcades, funhouses, ghost trains etc.
Benson’s have always been very proud of their transport, rightly so as the way a fair looks on the road is just as important as how it looks when built up and open. Benson’s have always liked big road tractors and trucks. This is still their favourite way of getting about even though many of the newer rides are built as articulated semi-trailers pulled by tractor units.
During the late 1930s/early 40s, Mr. Tom Benson built up a fleet of Armstrong Saurer diesel vehicles. Then the Army started to sell off it’s surplus military tractors at the end of the 2nd World War. Huge numbers of them found their way onto the fairgrounds as they were ideal for use with the heavy trucks carrying big rides, especially on soft muddy ground. They were excellent vehicles and would prove to be the final death knell to the steam traction engines which were already starting to die out during the 1930s.
Among the best ex army artillery tractors were the big and handsome Scammell Poineers, and Benson’s bought three of these in the early 1950s. They had double drive to the 4 rear wheels and powerful winches. They were given full enclosed bodywork behind the cabs and lettered “ Benson’s Super Amusements”. Benson’s also had a Scammell Showtrac and a 6 wheel Foden tractor. This was the classic line up of prime movers from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s :-
• Scammell Pioneer No. 1 (ex artillery tractor) JXL 669
• Scammell Pioneer No. 2 “Challenger” ( ex tank transporter) OPB 329
• Scammell Pioneer No. 3 ( ex artillery tractor) HUV 44
• Scammell Showtrac (ex Arnold Bros. ) EDL 111
• Foden 6 wheel tractor “St. George” BAJ 714
The Pioneer No. 1 replaced an earlier FWD Sucoe and worked mainly with the Skid. It carried a front mounted crane for lifting the Swirl motor and heavy gearing assembly.
The Pioneer No. 2 was longer and lower geared than the others and pulled the heaviest load including the massive dodgem floor truck. It always went at the front of the convoy as it was the slowest. In 1964 it was replaced by another artillery Pioneer, like Nos. 1 & 3. The registration plate and “Challenger” name plaque were transferred to it.
The Pioneer No. 3 had very florid lettering and flexible duties, not being assigned to any particular machine.
The Showtrac was Mr. Tom Benson Snr’s tractor and he always drove it on the road. It worked with his Ark and then with the Octopus. It is still owned and treasured by Benson’s and sometimes appears at vintage vehicle rallies.
The Foden “St. George” carried generator sets and was the favourite of Benson’s foreman George Mullard who always drove it on the road.
The dodgem was carried on 5 big trucks, a heavy flat floor truck, 3 frame trucks for the cars and superstructure, and a box truck for the trellises, scenery rounding boards and false pillars.
The Ark was on 4 trucks, a 4 wheel centre carrying the bottom spider frame sleepers, gates and tram sections, a frame truck for the platforms, steps and superstructure, and two box trucks, one lettered “Benson’s Chariot Racer” for the chariots, horses and bikes, and one lettered “Benson’s Motorcycle Drome” for the scenery. When the “Ben-Hur” scenery was replaced by the smaller roundings , the scenery truck was reassigned to Billy’s Juvenile.
The Skid had 3 trucks, a flat one for the base, floor and gearing, a frame truck for the cars and superstructure and a box truck lettered “Benson’s Lightning Swirl on tour” for the scenery and false pillars.
Also there were two big handsome living wagons built by R. Southern & Co. Ltd. of Brighouse, Yorks. Mr. Benson Snr’s was brown and Tommy Benson Jnr’s was grey. They were each beautifully coach lined.
Other odds and ends were a men’s sleeping truck, a ballast truck , big generator truck for the dodgems, a pair of 2 wheel lighting sets, a diesel tanker, an Austin pick-up , and Mr. Benson’s Rover car.
When on the move, four tractors pulling full loads would go first in convoy. “Challenger “ would lead this stately procession. Then two tractors would return for further loads and to collect the 5th tractor and it’s loads. This was the travelling pattern right up to the early 1960s. When the Octopus came in 1961, it was also fully truck loaded.
At the end of 1964 Benson’s bought an Atkinson 8 wheel lorry MUL 562 for the Dodgem floor which lasted till the early 1970s and was replaced by a more modern Atkinson AVW 797B. Also in 1964 there was a short lived Fordson 4D publicity van with a horn loudspeaker mounted on the roof.
The big Scammells were replaced progressively by a fleet of Scammell Highwayman tractors, all well customized as showman’s vehicles and beautifully painted and lettered to the Benson standard and livery.
In more recent times the transport fleet has comprised faster more modern lorries and artic units for the newer semi-trailer mounted rides. These are mostly ERFs. But one of the Scammell Highwayman tractors survives on the road, along with another 8 wheel Atkinson, this being a frame lorry acquired in 1983 to carry the platforms and superstructure for the new waltzer . Another interesting vehicle is a very handsome Foden 6 wheel tractor which pulls the two lettered dodgem box trucks and makes a very eye-catching load.
Benson’s have built up a very large run of places over the years. Their main territory has always been London, Surrey and Sussex with occasional forays into Kent and Hampshire. During the 1950s and 60s, The run was fairly fixed and did not change very much. Everything was much more settled in those days and fairs tended to follow fixed events, especially annual carnivals and festivals. Many such events have died out and other new ones have tended to be less regular and sometimes one-off events , especially pop and rave gigs.
Bank holiday weekend fairs have always been among the most profitable for the fairground business. Greater London has long had a rich network of bank holiday fairs and Benson’s have always taken full advantage of these. This usually means spitting up and attending several with one or two rides at each. Back in the 1950s, the Ben-Hur Ark would go to Wormwood Scrubs while the Dodgems and Skid went to Hampstead Heath. Nowadays, the Scrubs fair is no more, but at Easter Benson's have now taken over the running of Hampstead Top Heath and also present other attractions across London.
Other notable London grounds Benson’s attend regularly include Kennington Park, Streatham Common, Brockwell Park and several November Bonfire fairs in the Borough of Lambeth.
In Surrey, Benson’s stage fairs in their home town of Dorking , also Redhill, Kingston-on-Thames, Leatherhead, plus Bonfire fairs at Cranleigh and Ripley.
Sussex places on the regular Benson run include Horsham, Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill, Bognor Regis Carnival, the long established one day Chichester Sloe Fair in October, and Petworth Fair in November.
Other major fairs Benson’s have attended in the past include Epsom Derby Fair, Pinner Fair and Mitcham Status Fair. Back in the 1960s they staged very successful Christmas and New Year fairs at the famous Oval Cricket Ground in Kennington, certainly a “Good Innings”!! But Benson’s finest hour must be when their fabulous Waltzer had the honour of attending the world Famous Millenium Fair on the Mall in London in December 1999/January 2000.
I hope you can now see what a major force Benson’s Fun Fair is, and the huge contribution they make to the entertainment of countless people in London and the South East of England. They are a very friendly family and will always welcome fairgoers and enthusiasts. Elsewhere on this website you should be able to find out where they are from week to week. Do visit them and introduce yourself. You will not be disappointed.