A tribute to a great showman. George Irvin

George Irvin IIGeorge was born on the 25th October 1930, the first son of George and Lily Irvin, and appropriately for a Showman he was born in their living Caravan at the fair in High Wycombe where they were open. At that time the family did not have their own yard to return to each Winter, so for the first few years of his life at the end of the travelling season he, plus his parents and his newly arrived twin brothers Billy and Benny, would stay in any yards where they could find space. In fact it was in one of these winter stops, in Hayes End near Harlington, that he first met Mary who would become his wife, when George was just 7 and Mary only 5. But they became friends then, a friendship that grew over the years and turned into love and finally a marriage that lasted well over 50 years.

In these first years, up to the Second World War, George, his parents and his brothers, had their winter quarters in a number of places. White City in London was one. Hayes End another, and then they moved to a more permanent spot with George’s uncle in Ashford on the site that is now their family home. But this was also a temporary move, as the family then moved to Holloway Street in Hounslow, and George along with his two brothers went to school there. It was this school in Hounslow that gave George his first great passion in life, Woodwork and Metalwork, and where he first learnt skills that helped him in his business life as well as giving him great pleasure for the next 70 years.

The family worked in many of the south of England’s great fairs, and during the war on the Stay at Home holiday fairs in places like Victoria Park, Wormwood Scrubs, and Wimbledon Common. The Irvin family was well known, and the three brothers well known for their lively behaviour, when they could get time off from their hard work.

After the War was over, a great tragedy hit the family when George’s much loved mother Lily died, leaving her husband and three young sons. It was George, aged only 14, who took on the role not only of brother, but of mother too, as he taught himself to cook and feed his father and younger brothers. He became a first class cook, but his brother Billy remembers that it was not something he wanted other people to know all the time, because on one occasion when his father was boasting to the other showmen about scones that George had baked he turned bright red with shame, thinking his friends would call him a sissy!

There are some differences in the family memories of how much cooking George actually did, and how much other families prepared for him, but this is George’s day and George’s story, so he did all the cooking and preparation. He talked about how whenever he made rice pudding his brothers would measure up carefully to check that they all got an equal portion, and about the day he prepared two giant meat pies, one to be eaten that night and one in advance for the following day. The first one was a great success, but the following morning he went to the kitchen cupboard to find the twins had crept out in the night and scoffed the second one too! The memory of this must have been strong because it stayed with him for 60 years. Billy says it was Benny who ate it.

But the brothers must have been great friends, because the only bad thing Billy can recall is that when they were all given bikes for Christmas one year, he and Benny were jealous because George got a two wheeler and they got trikes, which they thought was unfair. Mind you, he also remembers George wasn’t actually allowed to ride his bike. He also remembers that when George made the tea for them all he had to actually get up and fetch it as George refused to bring it to his chair. Their father was fully in support of his eldest son for this, suggesting that collecting the tea was the least the twins could do.

All of this helping round the wagon was on top of the work that the three boys had to do on the fairground, where they were very much part of the operation of the fair. George was in charge of the Brooklands Speedway, a now famous ride on which cars raced around a track. Billy and Benny ran the Carousel and the Swirl rides, so George had to build up the ride, look after it, pull it down plus do the cooking and housework. Very hard work, but something he did because the family needed it done, right up to the age of 25 when he got married to Mary.

In 1950 the family purchased the land in Ashford from their uncle and moved there, and the family live there now. Then when in August 1955 George married Mary, she took over looking after the family group. His brother Billy was the Best Man on that day. Mary says that when they first got married, George with all his experience over the years was a much better cook than she was and that he actually taught her everything she knows about cooking. However she also says that once she had learned he never went near the kitchen again, perhaps thinking he had done his spell. George and Mary helped out this large family, plus had children of their own. First was their oldest son George, then John, David and finally Lillian. Meanwhile the twins set up with their own families, Billy got married in 1959, then George’s father married for the second time in 1960, while Benny got married in 1968. All of them still lived at Ashford together on their family land, and all of them worked together looking after the family equipment.

As George’s father got older his three sons took on the family equipment, and George was allocated the Speedway as his own responsibility, then it became his own ride on his father’s death. Benny took on the Carousel and Billy the Swirl, but they still worked alongside each other but after their father’s loss as is the tradition for Travelling Showpeople they began to go their separate ways for the business. 1979 was the most important year for George, Mary and their children because it was then that George, having sold the Speedway, bought a set of Dodgems. By purchasing these he knew he would not be able to attend a lot of the fairs at which his father had operated but instead would need to strike out on his own, so he started to find new grounds and operate George Irvin’s Funfairs. It was not easy, because then fairs were not on nice Council parks but often were in farmers fields, and a lot of work had to be done to find ones that would be successful, but find them he did and two, at Stanwell and Crowthorne, are still run under the name of George Irvin today. Buying the Dodgems had been a big decision, but it was the right decision, and George and his business grew from that time, and the work of his children also has grown ever since much to his pride. He used his skills on woodwork and metal work in his own workshop to change and improve his equipment and tried to pass that on to his children and grandchildren. George carried on working right up to the summer of 2006 on the life that he loved.

But George’s story is not just that of the Showman, working hard as do so many. This was a man who loved working with his hands. He could not rest at home but loved to get out to the toolshed and make things for the home. Not ornaments or trinkets but useful items for clothes lines, gates, fences, wheels joints and so forth, perhaps carrying out a family tradition from his great grandfather. In his later years he enjoyed watching DIY programmes on TV, his favourite being New Yankee Workshop, marvelling at the variety of tools on display and hoping each birthday that his family would buy him new and better equipment, which they always did. It was only when his health became worse that he actually stopped this work, because unfortunately his hands would not obey his brain’s commands.

But he loved to pass these skills on to the younger generation and was always a popular visitor amongst young showmen when he visited fairs as they would come to him seeking help and advice, which he always gave. He taught a lot of showmen how to weld properly, and bemoaned the tendency to call in expensive help from outside when he felt people should be able to undertake repairs themselves. Not through being mean, because he was not that, but because he felt such skills should be part of the showmen’s life and work. If there are Pearly Gates where George has gone, there is no doubt that he has by now already filed them down, oiled them, balanced them and is making major improvements to their swing operation, and is complaining about the wasteful amounts spent on outside contractors bought in to fix the heavenly choir’s harps. He would do that himself, given the tools and probably is already.

This was also a man who loved music, with you would have to say varied tastes; in fact he had one of the greatest collections of 45s as his son George can recall. They spent many an hour in various record shops buying the latest records for the Speedway. His collection varied from Johnny and the Hurricanes right up to the demise of the 45s in the late 70s. He loved orchestral and philharmonic music, particularly Strauss, and concerts at the Albert Hall, but was absolutely besotted by the Andrews sisters. In fact Mary says she thinks he thought more of the Andrews sisters than he did of her. But if you have been married to someone for over 50 years, and known them for close on 70, if the Andrews sisters are your only problem then it cannot be bad! He was also a fanatical scrabble player with his children, and good at it too, and loved complex jigsaw puzzles. Again, activities which involved thinking and doing, part of his active life.

Apart from when he went on holiday that is. Mary and George travelled widely over many years, during his working time in January and February, to the USA and Hawaii plus many parts of the world, and wherever they went George would spend hours studying guidebooks to find tours of historic monuments and places of interest, then when he found them he would send Mary off on the tour while he lay sunbathing on the beach before returning to the hotel for a game of snooker, which he enjoyed. For George a holiday was a time to lie down and soak up the sun. His active mind and nimble fingers had time off from everything. His favourite holiday, their 40th anniversary treat from the family a holiday in Venice and a journey on the Orient Express. When air travel was no longer possible due to his health, Mary and he would head off to the West Country to seek the sun and snooker tables there.

Then there was food. George loved good food and his criticism of the USA was that restaurants there worried more about quantity than quality. Perhaps his favourite of all was Pie and Mash, plus jellied eels, and he would argue for hours over the best providers of this in London, and regret the closing of any of his favourite eating places.

He also loved to get out and about, and perhaps one of the greatest additions to his later years was the mobility scooter which allowed him to get out and around London to his concerts and sights, including an exclusive tour of Buckingham Palace on one occasion. It also gave him great freedom to get back to the fairs so he could cast a critical eye on the work of his children as he zipped up and down the grounds. He also enjoyed his regular trips with his brothers to the Fairground Organ Museum in Amersham and never missed one, his last visit being just before Xmas with Billy. George always insisted on staying to the end for the fanfare.

Much as he loved his family he was not one for a great fuss, and every time he had a special birthday or anniversary, the family would have to arrange surprise parties for him, which he always enjoyed but would have moaned about if given prior warning.

George also was active in the Showmen’s world. He was a member of the Management Committee of the Showmen’s Guild for 15 years, and perhaps he had inherited this interest from his father who had also been on the Management Committee, and perhaps he passed it to George his son who is a member of that committee now. Over the Christmas holiday just gone he would tell anyone who was interested, and probably some who were not, how he felt the Guild had not done enough to fight the new rules on exhaust emissions. He always said he worried about his grandchildren and what would be left of the business for them. He certainly played his role in trying to improve the lot of all Showmen, and now others must continue those battles.

The whole family know that George was fighting to keep going long enough to see the arrival in the family he loved of the twins expected by his son David and his wife Trisha. Sadly he did not, but they and all the family know that he will still be there with them when those two babies arrive, and will be proud of them as he was proud of all his grandchildren.

George’s wife Mary, his brother Billy, plus George and Alison, John and Anita, David and Trisha, Lillian and Freddie the 9 grandchildren, soon to be 11 in a few days, and one great grandchild will all miss him. One thing that not many people will know about George is his dry sense of humour, and his habit of making witty notes in his diary and on pieces of paper around the house. But one of these observations shows that he was not always right. Mary once found a note from George on which he had written “A man is soon forgotten after his death, unless you marry his widow.” Well George, you are very wrong, because your family and friends will certainly never forget you.