Ain’t nobody here but us chickens
Tale of a fairground legend
Until the 1960s Chicken Joe was a legend in the North of England. Mention his stall in places like Hull, Leeds or Newcastle and people would tell you about the brown paper carrier bags of groceries topped with a fresh chicken. Some might also tell you about the weekly draw held at the end of a big fair when all the prizewinners’ names went into a hat to win a piano or a sideboard. Ask them who Chicken Joe really was and they wouldn’t have a clue; he was just Chicken Joe!
Born in the East End of London in 1898, Joe Barak came from a large Jewish family. After travelling around the country he spent some time with a showman named Billy Hill who travelled games in the north-west. One of these was a Spinner, a popular game that could attract big crowds at the principal fairs all over the country. Some towns challenged showmen, saying that they should not operate Spinners as they were a game of chance, not of skill, but the showmen usually found some way around the authorities.
As early as 1932 it is recorded that Hill’s Spinner was giving groceries as prizes. No doubt in the dark days of the Great Depression such prizes were well received by families unsure of where their next decent meal might come from. The game used by Chicken Joe in his stall was developed by another familiar name on the fairgrounds of the inter-war period, Johnny da Costa, also known as Pyjama Bob.
In his pyjama jacket and bowler hat fashioned after the mode of the Prime Minister of Mirth, he was indeed a character, a showman well able to hold his own against the fiercest opposition. He introduced the three grocery wheels, opening on Wanstead Flats, where he first donned the pyjama jacket and George Robey bowler. He later travelled to all major fairs: Nottingham, Hull, Bridgwater, Newcastle, Mitcham, Deal and Barnstaple.
It was common in the 1930s for stallholders to have nick-names: as well as Pyjama Bob, there was Banana Jack and then the best known of all: Chicken Joe. Joe Barak worked with Joe Ling in the mid-1930s when this stall was built new. The two men first joined up in Liverpool at about the time the Mersey Tunnel first opened.
At that time the name ‘Joe’ was very popular, which caused a little confusion among Ling’s men. There was Joe Ling himself, Joe Dixon, who worked on the Steam Yachts, and Joe Groves who worked another of Ling’s stalls. So Barak soon earned the name ‘Chicken Joe’.
Every year people found this stall in their hundreds. Out of all the hundreds of stalls that opened at big fairs like Newcastle, Hull and Nottingham, people knew Chicken Joe. No matter what ground he had been given they found it. A report of Hull Fair in 1935 reckoned that the fair boasted 2,000 feet of side stalls and 106 hooplas. Joe Barak was a true showman, with the gift of the gab and knew exactly how to draw the crowds. Sometimes it was almost impossible to get near to his stall.
Even in the 1980s people still talked about Chicken Joe and many remembered his game. “In 1933 when my dad had been out of work about four years we went to the fair,” Mrs Joyce Marshall recalled. “My mother bought a 2d ticket at Chicken Joe’s. I remember standing there watching the numbers go up and down. Suddenly it stopped and my mother had the winning ticket. It was wonderful; we thought we had won a fortune. There was a large carrier bag full of groceries and a large plucked chicken complete with head and feet. I remember it so well because this was the first chicken we had ever had and we didn’t have another until some time after the war.”
He continued to travel with Ling’s Amusements until the outbreak of the Second World War, in September 1939. He was open in Leeds at the time, at Armley Feast, and all the stock of tinned food and groceries were returned when the government ordered all amusements to be closed down. This they soon regretted with the introduction of rationing.
Chicken Joe returned to the fairs after the war. Joe Ling died in 1953, but Joe Barak travelled with the stall until 1962. At the close of Hull Fair that October the local paper explained: “This year’s Hull Fair is a sad occasion for 65-year old showman, Chicken Joe Barak. He has been going to the fair for more than 30 years, but this is the last time his famous stall will be seen.” After a few years retirement in Leeds Joe Barak died in November 1970.
When Hull City Council decided to hold a Fairground Exhibition as part of their 700th Anniversary in 1999 I was approached to organise the artefacts for display. I remembered Joe Ling’s son, John, telling him that the Chicken Joe stall was still in store in an old World War Two hut several miles outside Shelby in a little village called Burn.
Sadly John Ling died that summer after giving his consent for the stall to be brought out of store and used for the exhibition. His daughter, Mrs Joan Evans, was approached. She took me into the building, pointed to the ceiling and said, “it’s up there.” She said if I was prepared to get it down from the rafters of the shed where it had been stowed away, then I was welcome to borrow it.
A few weeks later, with the use of a ladder and help from Kevin Scrivens and Simon Harris, the parts of the stall were brought back down to earth. The feint patterns of the original paintwork could just be made out from under almost four decades of accumulated dirt. A weekend was spent cleaning it up, and in October that year it made its first appearance in Hull for 37 years. Even after all those years many people who visited the exhibition came to the stall and shared their memories. Local historian, Chris Ketchell, even wrote a book about Chicken Joe.
After the exhibition the family offered the stall to me, knowing it was going to find a good home and secure its survival. This year, I’m happy to say, the Chicken Joe stall has found its way to Dingles Stem Village in Devon, having been fully restored. It is a fitting tribute to an important part of fairground history.
Author: Steve Smith