Anna Carter, Carters Steam Fair
“It’s my baby”
Carters Steam Fair graces Victoria Park this weekend and Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I went along yesterday to meet Anna Carter, who started the fair with her husband John more than thirty years ago and runs it today with her sons and their families. Britain’s only vintage steam-powered fair, Carters in a national treasure containing a magnificent array of traditional fairground rides of historic importance all kept in full working order.
We discovered the fair already set up on the grass near Grove Rd, waiting for the crowds to arrive, and resembling your dream of what a fairground should be – immaculately cared for, dripping with light bulbs and garnished with flamboyant lettering, and every surface shining with neat paintwork in the dominant colours of butter and oxblood. The rides were arranged around the enormous merry-go-round which is the proud centrepiece, while splendid vintage lorries in tip top condition stood between the gleaming attractions and, at the fringes of the encampment, we found the personal caravans of the Carter family.
When we arrived, Anna was holding court at a council meeting of her extended family, like a general preparing for battle, but, once the conference was over, we were privileged to sit outside her old caravan with its handsome leaded windows and take tea, while she told us the story of Carters Steam Fair – a family business on a grand scale with three generations involved and travelling the country twenty-eight weeks of the year.
“My late husband collected things,” revealed Anna with spectacular understatement, when I asked her how the fair started, “he collected slot machines, horn gramophones, 78 records, enamel signs and American cars – anything interesting. And one day, we made some money and he said we could buy a house or we could buy the gallopers. So we opted for the gallopers.”
‘Gallopers’ is the proper but less-well-known term for a merry-go-round, and the gallopers in question sat across the grass from us as we sipped our tea. Swathed in a green tarpaulin concealing the decorated horses within, only the painted conical top was visible and it looked for all the world like some enormous cake, just waiting to be unwrapped. “We bought it off an amusement park in 1976 and it fell apart on the way home, “ Anna recalled fondly, “It had been built in 1895 and we even managed to buy the steam engine that had been taken off it, three miles down the road.” She and her husband restored the gallopers together, with John rebuilding the structure and mechanics and Anna recreating the authentic paint finishes.
“He was the son of a policeman and I was the daughter of a chef,” she explained, “My father had some land and used to let John hold stock car races on it. He was five years older than me and he was leaving Maidenhead College of Art when I left, so we never met then but got together later after we both had failed marriages and were divorced.” The couple had three sons together, making a family of six children including offspring from their previous marriages.
Already, John and Anna had been organising steam fairs, air shows and vintage car rallies, and it was possible to show their gallopers at these events but, within a couple of years, they acquired a chairoplane, some sideshows and juvenile rides and were doing tiny village fairs in their own right. Before long, Carters Steam Fair was playing twenty-eight different locations each summer and the routine of the travelling became established, moving each Tuesday to a new location.
It was was John’s unexpected death at fifty-eight that was the catalyst for Anna to take the running of the fair upon herself – yet by then she had grown-up sons involved. “When John died thirteen years ago, I sat down with the boys and said what do you want to do?” she confided to me, “It was a unanimous decision that we carry on.” Today, Seth runs the dodgems, the octopus, the skid and the coconut shy, while Joby runs the gallopers, the steam yachts, the swing boats and the jungle thriller ark. “We do respect each other’s space but the grandchildren run everywhere and are little pests,” she informed me with pleasure, “when my children were young all their friends used to work in the fair, and now my children’s children’s friends work here whenever we need extra staff.”
“It’s my baby,” Anna confessed to me in summation, casting her eyes around at the magical fairground that has been the focus of her family endeavour for so many years. With extraordinary stamina and strength of personality, Anna has kept the show on the road, negotiating labyrinthine regulations and red tape. Yet as much as she is an astute hard-working business woman, Anna is a romantic in love with the romance of the fairground, and it is thanks to the vision she shared with John that Carters exists today as Britain’s last steam fair, keeping traditional rides working which would otherwise be destined for the museum or the scrapheap.
“We’re not interested in modern rides, we love the winter months when we do the restoration – there’s always something tatty and in need of repainting,” she revealed to me, “By October, you are sick of being on the road, it’s muddy and cold and you think how nice to go home – but then when spring comes you always want to go off again. This is my life and I don’t want to do anything else. It means so much to me, we live and breathe it.”
Anna Carter with her dog, Saffy the Staffy
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
Carters Steam Fair is at Victoria Park until Monday. Open today 12-8pm, Friday & Saturday 12-9pm, Sunday & Monday 12-8pm.
31st August & 1st September, Streatham Common, open 12-8pm each day.