Rose and Thomas Whitelegg – All the Fun of the Fair
7 September 2018
‘In showland, women have always worked and worked hard. We have seen our women at the head of circuses, menageries, roundabouts and many other amusement concerns, and in fully ninety per cent of our people, it is the women who look after the exchequer. In remote days the women of showland were looked upon with wonder by those who saw what was being done, but nowadays, when others are doing similar work, their work does not cause any special comment …’
World’s Fair Magazine, 1916.
Rose Whitelegg helped bolster wartime morale by continuing to run her fairground family’s shooting gallery and café after her husband Thomas went to war.
As with many others, the outbreak of war in 1914 had an immediate and lasting impact on the community of travelling showmen and their families. Men enlisted with the armed forces whilst the government requisitioned steam driven engines, vehicles and even animals for war work. The majority of fairs up and down the country were closed for the duration of the war.
Despite never learning to read or write, Thomas Whitelegg had a knack for figures and an insatiable work ethic. Rosina, or ‘Rose’ was the business brain of the family with a strong drive to succeed. Both came from respected travelling fair families from the South-West. A small stroke of luck for the Whitelegg family came at the cost of another. In the years preceding the war, fairs in the South-West had been dominated by a small number of fair families including Hill Brothers, Hancocks and Anderton and Rowlands. In a well-known incident on Plymouth Hoe in the winter of 1912, 5,000 suffragettes, outraged at the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst on her arrival at Plymouth, had marched in protest and had set alight the timber yard adjacent to Hancock’s Great World’s Fair. The family fought through the night to save their livelihood but come dawn, many of the rides stood in ruins. Although sympathetic to the Hancock’s plight, Thomas was determined to use this opportunity for advancement. He and Rose purchased their first ride in 1916;
‘a splendid hand-turned juvenile roundabout, the rounding boards bore the legend: T. Whitelegg Pony Roundabout, Pride of the West’ (Belshaw, 2005)
As many women took advantage of new opportunities to fill the labour shortage left by a dearth of working men, hard work and responsibility was already well established in the lives of showland women. The wives and daughters of showmen cared for the family, cooked and cleaned as well as helped set-up and run the various rides. It was not unusual for a woman to continue in the family business after the death of a husband. Sophie Hancock was a renowned Devon businesswoman ‘in no need of emancipation’ (Robinson, 2014). Rose Whitelegg was no different; she independently operated a shooting gallery and café at Anderton and Rowland’s Winter Gardens in Plymouth after Thomas had joined the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry in 1917, successfully keeping the family afloat through the lean war years.
The Whitelegg family coffers were further bolstered by the short boon in post-war spending, when thousands of demobbed soldiers returned to England through Plymouth with months of back-pay to spend. This, coupled with the savings that Rose had worked to put away, meant that in a short time they were able to purchase a set of Tidman Gallopers, boasting a menagerie of animal and bird mounts, all steam-driven by a fine Burrell showman’s engine. With Plymouth as their base, ‘T. Whitelegg and Sons’ (the business soon included Rose and Thomas’ three sons, Tommy, Frederick and Arthur) went from strength to strength, travelling the length and breadth of the South-West with their ever-expanding repertoire. In later years the family would own and operate two fairground sites in Plymouth; The Olympia in Union Street and the New Passage. The family became so successful that they even bought themselves a Rolls-Royce, despite Thomas Snr. never having learnt to drive. Rose and Thomas died in 1959 and 1962 respectively, the heads of a prosperous and respected showland family who still live and work in Devon to this day.
Belshaw, G., 2005. T. Whitelegg and Sons’ Cavalcade of Shows. Telford: New Era Publications. Pg. 8-13
University of Sheffield National Fairground and Circus Archive, 2017. The First World War [online] Available from: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfca/researchandarticles/wwi [Accessed on 31/10/2017]
Robinson, C., 2014. Plymouth’s Great War: The Three Towns United in Conflict. Plymouth: Pen & Ink Publishing.
[Miss Ella Trout MOBE] n.d. [image online] Available at: < http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205381354> [Accessed 11th October 2017]
[Ella Trout: Who braved enemy submarines and rescued a drowning sailor] 1918 [image online] Available at:< https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000729/19180113/046/0004> [Accessed on 11th October 2017]