December 11 2013 Latest news:
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
A Sheringham octogenarian has fulfilled a childhood dream by writing a book telling of the joy – and the hardship – she experienced growing up on fairgrounds as part of a family of showmen.
Louisa Prestney, 82, was born in the back of a wooden caravan on a fairground in Mitcham, Surrey, and spent her early life sleeping in a drawer at the end of her sister’s bunk bed.
Entitled Louisa’s Fairground Life and Beyond, her book, which she began writing for her children and grandchildren at the age of 75, charts her travels around the country, from London and Brighton to Weybridge in Suffolk and Canvey Island in Essex.
During the summer months, her parents toured with their sideshows but, during the winter, they struggled to earn enough money to feed Louisa and her five siblings, scratching a living making holly wreaths and gathering wood to sell.
“When I was growing up, we had nothing, but we were still happy,” Mrs Prestney said.
Over the years, the family home varied from a converted single-decker bus and a couple of army trailers to a former chicken house fitted out with a bedroom and living space by Louisa’s father, John Coneley.
Their fortunes took a turn for the better when they bought an ancient “Chair-o-Planes” fairground ride, comprising rotting wooden swings revolving round a rusted metal centre pole.
Once rebuilt, the ride provided a good enough income for Louisa and her sister to have their first shop-bought dresses and for the family to be able to prepare food on a gas cooker rather than over an open fire.
Louisa’s happiness was not to last however and after rebuilding the ride for the second time following a near-tragic accident, her father, a heavy drinker, decided to sell the Chair-o-Planes and she and her brothers and sisters again went cold and hungry.
After getting married in 1954 to Albert, who is also from a family of showmen, Louisa continued to travel the country, juggling bringing up four children with manning her husband’s rifle range – which comprised 12 automatic guns shooting live ammunition.
“It was pretty dangerous,” she remembered. “And you had to be alert as some people would turn round to talk and end up pointing the guns at me.”
Albert, an accomplished carpenter, eventually built the family a luxurious, modern caravan but, in 1975, they decided to give up fairground life for good, and bought their first brick-built home – a bungalow near RAF Mildenhall.
After working in jobs ranging from van driver to cleaner, Louisa, who dreamed of being a writer as a teenager, retired in her late fifties, moving to a West Runton cottage with Albert, now 92, before buying their current home at Sheringham.
While she enjoys the security of being settled in one place and says she has no desire to move from Norfolk, Louisa still misses the excitement of fairground life.
“I miss the lights, the music and the company, it was my family and I do get itchy feet,” she said.
“It was a completely different way of living and what I wanted to do by writing my book was to show the conditions we lived in and the difficult, but wonderful, life we had.”
Louisa’s Fairground Life and Beyond is available, priced £9.99, from Bertram Watts, Sheringham, from Jarrold’s, Cromer, and from www.amazon.co.uk