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The road less travelled: 'Everything that I learnt on the fair I apply to academia'

Zoah Hedges-Stocks was the first in her family of travelling showmen to go to university. Now she wants to use her Cambridge history degree to celebrate the rich heritage of her community, she tells Simon Usborne

Zoah Hedges-Stocks remembers being about seven when fireworks lit up the sky above Cambridge. But why, she wondered as she sipped apple juice in a pub garden, had the display come in June and not November? She turned to her mother, Bernice, for answers. "She told me that it was the graduation balls at the university," Zoah recalls. "She told me that if I did well at school maybe I could go there one day."

It would be an unlikely fate for a girl born into a family such as Zoah's. She had been in Cambridge for all the fun of the city's Midsummer Fair, a riot of colour and candy floss with an 800-year history. Zoah has rolled up there every year of her life, selling sweets and toffee apples on her mother's stall as her uncle, Henry Stocks, ran his prized dodgems.

"It would have been so easy for Zoah just to have carried on with this life," says Bernice, who works in a care home during the winter months. "She could have got something on the fairground, met a boy, got a caravan and got married – that's what life is for us. But she chose something different."

This summer, Zoah watched the same fireworks display, but from the other side of the college walls. Now aged 23, she has graduated from Cambridge with a first-class degree in history – her reward for years of study and sacrifice, and a break with decades of tradition.

Zoah was the first member of her family of travelling showmen to go to university. That she excelled at Cambridge still moves Bernice to tears. Her daughter is now pursuing a career in journalism, but wants also to draw attention to an often neglected and misunderstood community whose history and contribution to British culture far exceeds childish thrills and coconut shies. "We're a very visible community," Zoah says inside the caravan she and her mother share while on the road, now stationed on the green in Harwich, Essex. "Everyone's been to the fair, but nobody thinks about the people behind the rides."

Zoah has come to help Bernice set up her stall as her uncles and cousins hose down the rides. It's a routine that has been familiar to generations of Stocks, who leave their winter ground in Leiston in Suffolk at Easter and stay on the road until Guy Fawkes night, joining other showmen families at fairs in Ipswich, Southwold, Cambridge and beyond. Zoah has traced her family back to at least the 1820s. A short walk from the ground, at Harwich's Electric Palace cinema, a plaque offers clues about the Stocks' role in the region's development. "One of the earliest purpose-built cinemas still operating," it reads. "Opened 29 November 1911 for East Anglian showman Charles Thurston."

Thurston was the uncle of one of Zoah's great-grandmothers, and among the most successful showmen in the land. In the early 20th century, he amazed fairgoers with moving images presented in his bioscope shows. "He'd come into town and put on a show for children from the workhouses," Zoah says. "They would get a bag of sweets and watch the film, which might be about the King's coronation. Imagine, you're basically Oliver Twist and this man turns up to show you a moving picture of the king and gives you sweets. When you're a parent, you're going to bring your kids to the fair."

Anticipating a future of static cinemas, Thurston later commissioned the Harwich theatre, displaying the entrepreneurial spirit common in all successful travelling showmen. Less common was a focus on formal education. "My children always wanted to do the fairs and you don't need A-levels and O-levels for that," says Henry Stocks, back at the ground. "But it depends what you want to do in life."

Bernice, Henry's sister, always wanted her daughter to have a choice. She took Zoah back to Leiston in time for the start of each school year, and had taken on several winter jobs to send her daughter to a nearby Montessori nursery. Zoah excelled at school, where she was popular in part for the surplus candy floss she supplied.

A-levels followed and then a summer school at Eton for pupils with Oxbridge potential. When the offer came in the post from Cambridge, Zoah had to wait for her mother to get home from work at a fruit and vegetable shop before opening it. "She was whooping," Zoah recalls.

As funfairs compete with other entertainments, many showmen families are realising a need for a broader education. But they never grow far from their roots. Vanessa Toulmin was born into a family of travelling showmen based in Morecambe, Lancashire. Now 46, she remembers being told "people like her" did not go to university. She ignored them and studied archaeology at Sheffield.

When her uncle died, Toulmin realised he had taken some of her family's past with him – showmen history is traditionally oral – and shifted the focus of her studies. She's now a professor and the director of the National Fairground Archive, which she founded in 1994. "When I went to university, I knew of only two others from showmen families. Now there are dozens. There is an acceptance that education enables us to be better showmen. Everything I learnt on the fair, I apply to academia – the work ethic, risk-taking, doing things in a different way."

Toulmin is supporting a campaign to stop the Government changing legislation that has provided showmen children with distance learning while on the road, significantly boosting the number now taking exams. The threat was debated in the Commons in June and thousands have signed a petition.

Many showmen families find that at all levels they suffer prejudice from those who group them with ethnic communities such as Roma Gypsies or Irish Travellers, who in turn suffer from their depiction in the media and some television documentaries. "It's frustrating because the similarities are so superficial," Zoah says.

She has inspired others to aim high, defying lingering stereotypes. Shelby Holmes, a girl from a showmen family in North Wales, is studying English literature at Trinity College, Oxford, while a student called John Castle is doing medicine at Balliol, also at Oxford. "Both said that hearing about me told them that if she can do it, we can do it," Zoah says.

Showmen families are traditionally large enough not to lose out when a son or daughter takes an academic path. Those who do leave the fair say it never leaves them. "We're always coming back in the holidays," Zoah says. "When I'm away it's purely in the physical sense. This will always be part of who I am."