Answers to Questions


MASON, Rickmansworth, 1881, Showman

January, 2005




Carolyn Paisley (wonderwomanx @t of British Columbia, Canada, writes: I have just found my ancestors on the 1881 Census for Rickmansworth.  The Familysearch site states that Thomas's age is 62, but the actual film suggests it is more likely to be 52.

Church St, Rickmansworth
Thomas Mason H Mar 52 Travelling showman Birmingham
William Mason Son 20 unm Travelling showman Birmingham
Emily Mason 14 Unm Travelling showman Birmingham
William Anson 22 Ser unm Travelling Showman Birmingham

They appear to be living in a house, not a caravan, on Church St.  I do not know how long they were in Rickmansworth, but they appear on the 1871 census for Birmingham, living a "normal life," and William appears on the 1891 Census for Nuneaton, working as a coalminer but living in a caravan. Can you please suggest what form of entertainment they were providing?  Is it possible that a local newspaper of that date might advertise any shows they were performing?

Errors in transcribing are not uncommon - especially ages in census returns, and the enumerator often put a tick on the form when he had completed processing the line - and this can obscure the age column.

Assuming that the transcript of the 1881 census is accurate on the location (I don't have immediate access to the images of the original), you may be "wrong" that the Masons did not have a caravan. The typical structure of an ancient town street would be a frontage of buildings, with frequent archways to yards and spaces behind, often backing onto open fields. The typical census enumerator would travel along the street recording the buildings fronting onto the street and the buildings accessed through the archways. Often these "rear" buildings are described as "Mr Smiths yard" or similar. In the case of Church Street, Rickmansworth, the enumerator was "lazy" and has left some "descriptions" blank (including the Mason entry) and these presumably refer to a back area. 

If we look back at the census we find that the Mason's nearest neighbour was Albert Merryfield, fly and omnibus proprietor. The 1882 Kelly's Directory for Hertfordshire records "Merryfield Albert, omnibus & fly proprietor, & livery & bait stables, and agent for L. & N. W. Railway, Church Street," Rickmansworth. So the Mason's were at a place which would not only have stables, and extensive parking for horse-drawn vehicles, but which also offered accommodation for horses in transit ("bait" = give food to horses on a journey). 

What we don't know is whether the Mason "troupe" were based in the stables, staying a day or two while putting on some entertainment locally, or merely there overnight in transit between one venue and another. The travelling showman might well go to various fairs and markets to set up "stall" alongside many others with competing showground attractions. It may be relevant that they came from Birmingham - which was the centre of the industrial revolution - and where I am sure there were makers of "modern" showground equipment.. Perhaps they had penny in the slot automata (very popular) - or even a steam driven roundabout with galloping horses and an organ (very impressive). Lower technology would be swing boats or hoop-la stalls. I don't know, but the term showman may also have been applied to the travelling fortune tellers and mobile caterers of the time! The possibilities are endless - and some might need the family to travel with several loaded carts as well as a caravan to live in.  Your best bet as to what they might have done is for you to carry out a google search for "Victorian" and "Showmen". I did a quick search of the UK pages and saw several promising leads as to what the possibilities are.. 

As to finding specific records mentioning the Masons in Hertfordshire, the omens are not good. If they were only passing through Rickmansworth there would be nothing in the local papers. Even if there was a fair at Rickmansworth the papers are unlikely to go into great detail. For instance there was a major fair at St Albans every March 25th - mainly for the sale of horses and cattle - but there would be sure to be a selection of produce, refreshment (a spit roasted pig or even ox) and entertainment stalls. If the Mason's were there the chances of them being identified by name in a press report are low.

If you can add to the information given above tell me.


Page created January 2005