Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Shocking Death of "The Father of the Fair"!

This is the effigy of John Barker, who was buried in the Norwich Rosary Burial Ground on April 21st 1897. The Rosary Cemetery (as it is known today), founded in 1819, is notable as being the first non-denominational burial ground in Britain, and is a site of great peace and character. I am going to tell the story 'behind' the memorial here, by quoting from contemporary sources (in this case, The Norwich Mercury newspaper).

"The Shocking death of a Fireman (April 14th, 1897)

Norwich Cattle Hill [behind the castle] was the scene of a very sad and, unhappily, fatal accident on Monday afternoon. In preparation for the Easter Fair, or as it is more popularly recognised, 'Tombland' Fair, a large number of caravans arrived in Norwich on Monday and proceeded to take up their respective positions on the Cattle Market. Among other were Mssrs. Barker and Thurston's Switchback Railway, and it was whilst the operations connected with their erection were going on that the sad calamity occurred. The heavily laden vans were standing next the railings on the road leading to Rose Lane, and some of them were blocked; but about 3 o'clock one of the vans which was heavily loaded, overshot the 'block', and proceeded down the steep incline towards two living vans, which were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Fearing a collision Mr. John Barker ran to the rear of the van with the view of applying the brakes, but whilst so engaged a second van containing oil tubs and sundries also became disengaged from its fastenings, and rushed down the hill. Before Mr. Barker could clear himself the second van had come down upon and crushed him between them. Assistance was immediately at hand, and the unfortunate man was liberated, but he was past all human aid. A cab was procured, and he was conveyed to the Hospital, and on his arrival it was found that he had expired. His body was conveyed to the Mortuary, and the City Coroner (Mr. R.W. Ladill) will hold an inquest at the Hospital at 5:00 this Tuesday afternoon. The deceased, who was almost 60 years of age, was much esteemed and respected, not only by those engaged in a similar calling, but by all those with whom he came into contact. Many a good turn has he done a confrere in his time of need; and his loss will be greatly felt. His partner and son-in-law, Mr. Thurston, is, we are sorry to say, in a very delicate state of health."

An article in the same newspaper, published on April 21st, 1897, describes the day of his funeral:

"Showman's Funeral at Norwich Rosary

The remains of John Barker, one of the principal showmen of East Anglia, and spoken of as "The Father of the Fair", were interred on Friday afternoon in the Norwich Rosary Burial Ground [...] hundreds of persons lined the route to the Rosary, notwithstanding the continuous downpour of rain which lasted throughout the ceremony. The coffin, which bore the inscription "John Barker, aged 59 years", was carried from the chapel to the grave by some of the deceased's workmen. John Barker was born at Halesworth, and was the son of a travelling showman. On starting his business life he showed abilities above "the rank and file" of travelling showmen, and his high aspirations led to the introduction of steam into roundabouts and other attractions to the fair [...]. It may be added as a sign of the esteem in which the deceased was held, that it was resolved at a meeting of the United Kingdom Van Dweller's Association that a monument to the memory of the deceased be erected in the Rosary, nearly £50 being solicited for that purpose"

He was clearly an impressive man who commanded great respect. I just Googled his name, and am very pleased to find that John Barker's ancestors are still active in the fairground business, with three Barker brothers being members of the "Showman's Guild of Great Britain" (see Barker's Amusements). If he could have known that his life's work would continue down the family line, I think old John Barker would have smiled with considerable satisfaction at the thought.

Location of John Barker's grave: see Ragged Rambler's Google map

~ Munro Tweeder-Harris, Esq. R.S.A.R ~


  1. What a story and what a beautiful place Rosery Road cemetry is. In high summer it's a mass of green with some of the tastiest blackberries I've ever tasted! And I once had the fortune to watch a mother fox playing between the overgrown graves and monuments with at least four cubs. A beautiful place and a great post.


  2. Thank you very much Mr. Many Coats. The fox with cubs must have been a mesmerising sight.

  3. It was Mr Tweeder-Harris.
    It was late on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the bees were buzzing and mother fox lay on her side yawning as her cubs leapt all over her and each other.

    You can only hope that John Barker would approve of being buried there. I know I would!

    +Many Coats+

  4. Dear Mr. Many Coats,

    A reverie Sir! Rather a shame to pop this in a comment; you could write a very nice piece about this.

    The Rosary is about as good as it gets as a final resting place. I am sure that Mr. Barker would approve.

    Huzzah & Serendipity,
    ~ Munro Tweeder-Harris, Esq. R.S.A.R. ~