In November 1892 Miss Elizabeth Millington’s work with travelling show people, became a front page feature in Wings, the ‘official organ’ of the British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA).

She was said to be known ‘from one end of England to the other as “The Showman’s Friend”’. She was devoted to sharing her faith in God and ‘to befriend, to help, and to uplift the travelling show people’ who visited fairs and wakes. Miss Millington of York first became interested in the welfare of the show people through her mother, who sent her daughter to visit the vans with tracts and books.

Annual Reports and periodicals of the BWTA in the 1880’s mention the work of Miss Millington and the newly formed Travellers National Total Abstinence Union (TNTAU), of which she was named as Secretary.

In Miss Millington’s words, the TNTAU aimed “at pushing back the devil’s boundary line and enlarging the kingdom of Christ….to remove the great barrier of intoxicating drink out of the fairground, to prevent every showman and woman from falling over it”. Members of the BWTA were keen to support this work and by 1893, Miss Millington was to become Superintendent of a new department of work for ‘Fairs and Showmen’.


The work begins

The BWTA Annual Report of 1881/2 records that temperance meetings were already being organised for travelling show people and that 500 had joined the TNTAU, and that the work was progressing.

‘Showmen, stall-men, their wives and families’ attending fairs were invited to Temperance Teas organised by committee members. The first Showmen’s Tea organised by the BWTA was held in Islington, London and about 300 attended. These teas were a chance to spread the temperance message and could be seen as an alternative to spending time and money in the public house. Those attending, including the children, could choose to sign the pledge of total abstinence from alcohol if they wished.

‘Tea and Temperance’ meetings for travelling show people continued, with many of the BWTA branches becoming involved following Miss Millington’s introduction to this work.

This joint work was gaining momentum and Miss Millington was at the forefront (1884/5) –



World’s Fair

Work began among the travelling show people at the ‘Worlds’ Fair’, an amusement fair which took place in Islington’s Royal Agricultural Hall, in London during the 1880’s.

The success of the work of the TNTAU was recorded in the 1886 Annual Report. In five years 2247 people had joined the Union and the BWTA continued to support their work by raising funds in order to provide more temperance teas.

Once more, temperance meetings were held at the next ‘World’s Fair’ with frequent visits made to the travelling people by London branch members of the BWTA. Branches all across the country were now carrying out this mission work, including Cambridge, Clapton, Coventry and Oxford.


An important part of the mission included the schooling for the children of the travelling show people at the World’s Fair. Ladies volunteered as teachers and spent six weeks providing schooling for these children. The BWTA reported that ‘an increased interest prevailed amongst the children….’, and ‘distinct progress in their learning and much greater order and obedience were the result.’

There were five or six classes held in the Berners Hall and at the end of the hall was a kindergarten school for the little ones. Bibles and other books were given out as prizes with an inscription inside commemorating the first school for the children held in the hall under the auspices of the BWTA in 1888.

Donations towards a fund for this initiative were needed and there were requests for equipment which included books, slates, maps, a blackboard and desks. They were dependent entirely on voluntary contributions. Liberal support was needed so that lack of resources did not prevent good results for the children.

It is interesting to note that in 1890 it is recorded that the daily morning school for the children of the World’s Fair in the Berners Hall, was attended by an average of 45 children out of a total of 56. This schooling was reaching a large percentage of the show people’s children during this fair.

When the show people moved on to other locations around London after the World’s Fair, members of the BWTA were encouraged to visit them and to make arrangements to provide even a just few days of schooling in reading and writing for the children, which they believed would be beneficial.

School arrangements were extended by Dec 1891, to include country fairs at Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Nottingham, Newcastle and Glasgow amongst others.

Lady Henry Somerset

Things moved on further when Lady Henry Somerset became President of the BWTA in 1890. She made specific reference to Miss Millington and ‘this splendid movement’, and was keen to add this work as a stand-alone department within the evolving association.

So important did she believe this work to be, that in her Presidential Address of 1890/91 she wrote, ‘I believe we might create a department which would be a triumphant step forward in the cause of Temperance’ and ‘If the Travellers National Total Abstinence Union would organise such a department in our Association, we should be mutually strengthened, and the good work they are already doing would be materially increased’.

Lady Henry Somerset’s desire to enlist Miss Millington with her knowledge and capabilities in this area came to fruition in 1893 when she was made head of this new BWTA department to oversee the mission.


Following the success of the school for travellers’ children at the World’s Fair, this work had widened with some of the volunteers visited larger country fairs, and they were warmly received by the traveller’s. During the annual BWTA Tea Meeting after this London fair in 1891, nearly 400 attended a ‘splendid tea’ served by at least 50 ladies, with Miss Millington addressing the showmen. By then 7553 had signed the TNTAU pledge of total abstinence.

By 1892 ‘Miss Millington’s Mission’ continued to prosper with 8000 having signed the abstinence pledge of the TNTAU. The interest of Christian temperance workers in the welfare of the show people was increasing. Many other locations were ready to hold schools for children during fairs, following the example of the school held annually for six weeks at the World’s Fair.

During 1893 when Miss Millington became head of the department for Fairs and Showmen, 35 branches of the BWTA responded to a call to conduct schools for children during the time that fairs were held in their localities, stating they would be willing to help.

As in previous years, a school was carried on at the World’s Fair and ‘was much appreciated by parents and scholars, nearly all of whom are total abstainers’. It was acknowledged however, that there was still room for increased effort.

By 1894 figures showed that 47 branches of the BWTA across the country were now involved in the mission in the following ways: the provision of free teas, breakfasts or suppers, Gospel Temperance meetings, open-air services, classes or meetings for children and ‘friendly visits to the caravans’ with the distribution of literature.

Widening the scope

Statute Fairs were annual events held in towns and villages for the hiring of servants and farm labourers. Those looking for employment gathered in large numbers at these fairs in the streets and terms would be fixed with prospective employers, which might mean adjourning to the nearest public house to conclude the bargaining.

Lady Henry Somerset referenced these hiring fairs in one of her Presidential Addresses and that attempts being made in one area of the country to remove the fair from the streets where ‘girls and lads waiting to be hired to farm service, stood in crowds….For many weary hours, through rain and fine weather, they remained standing until they were hired, being jostled by each other and the passers-by, listening to songs and language unfit to be heard, and in some cases this went on for days’.

The BWTA saw another opportunity at these hiring fairs, to share the temperance message with these young people, with the hope of eliminating any drunk or immoral behaviour.

Some branches focussed only on work at statute fairs whilst others worked with the show people, but most sought the welfare of both.

Bradford Branch 

In order to provide an idea of numbers attending meetings we are told that in the summer of 1895 the Bradford Branch of the BWTA held a Sunday evening temperance meeting for the Showmen and their families.

Entertainment was provided in the rooms of the Coffee Tavern near the fairground and 200 adults and 68 children attended, ‘partaking of a substantial tea’ and afterwards there was a meeting with a choir singing temperance hymns. Flowers and temperance literature were distributed at the end of the meeting and a number of those show people attending pledged themselves to become total abstainers.

The work continues

Following in Miss Millington’s footsteps and with her support, the work amongst fairs by the BWTA continued and was reported on each year. Branches continued to ‘express their great interest in the work, as well as their belief in its necessity and success’.

The usual modes of procedure were consistently carried on; visiting their vans, distributing literature, arranging breakfasts, teas, meetings and schools for the children. A good temperance refreshment tent was viewed as an excellent counter attraction to the special liquor licenses that were granted to the fairgrounds whilst the BWTA also recognised the need to try to oppose the granting of these licenses in the first place.

Miss Millington’s visits

In the 1892 feature on Miss Millington, she was asked how she proceeded in visiting the vans and her reply provides an insight into how she approached those she wished to visit – ‘In the first place I’m never squeamish; and secondly, I never look about me as if I were prying into things; and thirdly, I never think of going into a van without knocking, any more than I should go into any other house.’

The show-people were described as generous, open-hearted and very loyal to one-another and as a rule, visitors would find a ‘hearty welcome to their caravans, provided a suitable time be chosen.’ When Miss Millington spoke at meetings she was greeted with warmth by those she had befriended and a great proportion of the show people who took the temperance pledge adhered to it.

Beyond the War Years

The BWTA department for work with the travelling show people was ongoing up to the First World War and the last reference to Miss Millington is in the 1907 Annual Report, so the working connection lasted for over two decades .

The onset of First World War appears to have had an impact on this area of work for the BWTA. The mission work did not come to a complete stop from 1914 onwards but it appears to be the catalyst for its decline, as the work was put aside to some degree, to focus on the war effort. The BWTA were working with soldiers, their families and refugees but were still hoping to resume their mission with the show people.

By 1917 the department was still listed and in its short report, the Superintendent urged members and branches of the BWTA not to give up trying in this work even while war work was a focus.

In 1918, Miss Elizabeth Millington ‘The Showman’s Friend’, died aged 85 years.

By 1919 the focus was on work due to conditions arising from war, and by 1920 Annual Council minutes show that a motion was carried for the department to be discontinued, although a special feature of branch work continued as refreshment stalls at fairs.

Following the First World War and societal change, the work further evolved under the ‘Department for Temperance Refreshment Tents, Coffee Carts etc’. BWTA Refreshment tents were erected at fairs, agricultural shows and flower shows and coffee carts were opened at railway stations.

This flourishing BWTA department carried on right through to the Second World War and beyond, with its roots firmly linked to the dedicated work of Miss Elizabeth Millington.