The Conservation of the Orton and Spooner Company’s Fairground Ride Designs

Paper conservator using the hot spatula to repair tears.

In 2019 the National Fairground and Circus Archive (NFCA) was awarded a conservation grant by the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust (NMCT) to treat over 500 original fairground ride designs from the Orton and Spooner Collection.

The designs consist of over a century of technical drawings, plans and artwork for rides created for the British fairground, which reflect the fashion, artistic style and socio-political environment of the time. 

A year after starting the project, we reflect on the work we have carried out through this initiative and its impact on the development of the archive.

Orton, Sons and Spooner Ltd

Orton, Sons and Spooner Ltd. were an engineering company, which produced some of the most sophisticated and sought-after rides, wagons and show fronts in British fairgrounds at the turn of the nineteenth century. The company gained an unrivalled reputation, applying industrial and artistic design to produce some of the most spectacular rides in the sector through a combination of innovative engineering, entrepreneurship and decorative finishes applied by some of the best artists and carvers in the trade.

Orton and Spooner elevated ride manufacturing from its humble man and animal powered beginnings in the pre-industrial revolution to sensorial experiences of beauty, speed, discovery and thrill, matching the social aspirations of an entire nation.

Norma’s Ghost Show is a fine example of the elaborate show fronts that put Orton and Spooner at the top of their trade at the turn of the twentieth century.

George Orton was born in March, Cambridgeshire in 1843. He started his career as a wheelwright and coachbuilder in Burton-on-Trent, where he established the Lion Carriage Works in 1875, making Gipsy and other transportation wagons. Orton first started trading with fairground showmen in around 1883 by building highly decorative living wagons with exteriors, which also worked as show fonts. This diversification signified the company’s transition from transport manufacturers to entertainment manufacturers.

Bioscope show front wagon, packed up for travelling at Lion Carriage Works 1910.

Charles Spooner was a native of Burton-on-Trent, born in 1871. He was a skilled woodcarver mainly supplying the thriving Burton-on-Trent brewing industry with drays and handcarts. Spooner set up his own business in 1892 after completing his apprenticeship with master woodcarver Walter Gifford Hilton. His impressive finesse as a woodcarver brought him to the attention of George Orton in 1894. Initially, Orton sub-contracted Spooner to supply carvings for his living wagons and show fronts. Their skills were so complimentary that their businesses became dependent on each other and Orton and Spooner entered into a long partnership, which resulted in the amalgamation of their companies in 1925.

Example of a lavishly decorated parade wagon showing intricate gilded carvings in the Rococo Revival style, 1900.

Example of a lavishly decorated parade wagon showing intricate gilded carvings in the Rococo Revival style, 1900.

The manufacturing of living wagons soon evolved into the creation of lavish show fronts and ambitious rides that dominated the market, especially after the company’s main competitor, Frederick Savage of King’s Lynn, went into liquidation in 1910.

The company was requisitioned by the government during both world wars; during WWI to manufacture portable aircraft hangers and during WWII to build military vehicles. Orton and Spooner managed to resume business in the supply of the entertainment sector after both wars but started winding down the manufacturing of fairground equipment after WWII as the company experienced the effects of fundamental changes on labour conditions and market demand.

Promotional tank paraded during WWII in support of the war effort.

From the end of WWII until 1953 they diversified into the manufacture of light engineering products to offset the unpredictability of the entertainment sector. Orton, Sons and Spooner Ltd., finally stopped trading in fairground equipment in 1954 to specialise exclusively in the manufacture of mechanical handling equipment until 1977 when the company finally closed.


It is no accident that the heyday of the Orton and Spooner company coincided with the Victorian era when the travelling fairground became one of the main social and entertainment events for the masses. Nor was it the fact that the British fair evolved from its trading past, into a mainly hedonistic affair with a strong aspect of discovery and education, during the Industrial Revolution. The progressive enlightenment of the masses pushed the demand for a more sophisticated type of entertainment experience while the economic boom drove the demand for innovation and diversity.

General view of Oxford St. Giles Fair c.1909

Orton and Spooner understood the importance of a good show front to attract business. The experience of the fairground was not just about the thrill of the ride but the offer of a rounded experience that encapsulated the interests and ambitions of the middle and working classes. This need could not be satisfied through engineering alone, it had to be matched by the sophistication of the latest fashions, artistic styles and feelings of progress and patriotism, especially from the Victorian era until the end of WWII.

Side elevation of armour car for showboat designed by Herbert Darby during WWI.

From the onset, Orton employed the best artists and artisans in the sector to meet this demand, starting with Charles Spooner, who achieved recognition as one of the best British carvers of fairground equipment. Spooner produced all imaginable carvings for the fairground from the traditional roundabout horses, pigs and donkeys to the more unusual ones such as dolphins, ostriches and bears. He also produced all sorts of mythological and fantastic figures in the Rococo Revival style as public demand and taste dictated, including figures of Neptune, dragons, centaurs and mermaids.

Prototype design for five seat winged dragon car for scenic railway c.1890s.

Spooner was also quick to respond to the socio-political climate in the fairground and produce carvings that reflected the nation’s feelings of the time including figures of famous generals during the Boer War and tanks during WWI. By 1914 Spooner stopped designing and carving to become a travelling salesman for the company.

Figures of Boer War generals made into centaurs for fairground gallopers.

The company also brought to the team Albert Sidney Howell (Albert), a professionally trained artist from Bristol. Albert trained in painting, drawing, ornament and still life subjects at Bristol’s Merchant Venturer’s Technical College between 1872 and 1899. By the early 1900s he was working under William Spilsbury, a well-known Bristol artist, who among other things, decorated fairground rides and show fronts for local showmen and occasionally worked with Charles Spooner. Spilsbury specialised in painting animals and he soon trained Albert in painting jungle scenes and animals, a theme in high demand on the fairground.

Scenic railway decorated with the famous jungle design that made Albert Sydney Howell one of the most sought after artists on the fairground.

Albert started to work for Orton and Spooner in 1912 under Herbert Darby, the company’s Chief Designer. He soon created a reputation for himself amongst the showmen that pushed the demand for his artwork.

Decorating immense fairground frontages gave Albert the opportunity to work at a grand scale and challenge his technical ability by using complex perspectives and an intense attention to detail. This gained him the freedom to develop his own style and specialisms within the company and allowed him to produce the most technically masterful and beautiful jungle and animal scenes the fairground has ever seen.

Albert and son Sid working on the design of showman Robert Edward’s Ben Hur in 1946. A masterful lesson on artistic perspective and movement.

Albert’s son, also called Albert Sidney Howell (Sid), followed his father’s footsteps into the profession. Sid showed an outstanding artistic ability from a young age, which his father harnessed by tutoring him while still completing his formal education. After finishing his studies at the Burton Art School, Sid graduated as an art teacher in 1925, although he never really practised this profession. Sid worked as a trainee draftsman for an artificial silk company before joining Orton, Sons and Spooner Ltd., in 1930, where he eventually became Chief Artist and Designer.

Albert and son Sid working on the design of showman Robert Edward’s Ben Hur in 1946. A masterful lesson on artistic perspective and movement.

Sid brought with him new design ideas, both thematically and stylistically, which launched Orton and Spooner into the next generation of fairground design, heavily influenced by the latest craze for modernism, speed and movement brought about by the Art Deco style.

Rounding boards decorated with modern aeroplanes and trains in motion, simulating the desire for speed and modernity of the 1930s.

Art Deco stood as the ultimate symbol of modernism, featuring curving forms and smooth polished surfaces, which were very well suited to the fairground’s rounding boards and shutters. Its main characteristics were the use of bold geometric patterns and bright colours mixed with exotic influences from the Far East, ancient Egypt and Mayan art.

As the rhythm of society increased, so did manufacturing, and Orton and Spooner departed from the artisanal hand-produced designs and heavy carvings to the use of standard patterns and stencils to meet the demands of the mass-produced market.

Successive artistic styles on the fairground became flatter and simpler in design and execution and the heights of design, artistic skill and craftsmanship achieved by the Orton and Spooner company were never achieved again.  

The conservation

The Orton and Spooner is one of the most significant collections of British fairground history in the world and a much sought-after research resource. Most of the collection has been publically available since its donation to the archive. However, the drawings and designs being working documents were considered transient and suffered years of damage and neglect due to poor storage and handling in the factory premises. The fact they have survived until today is only thanks to the researchers and collectors who foresaw their historic value and rescued them from destruction. After a conservation assessment at the archive, the drawings were put in a high-risk category and access to them was restricted in order to protect them from further damage.

Paper conservator Rosie Shippley during the cleaning process, 2019.

After years of work with the collection, 2019 presented the archive with the right conditions to embark on a large project that would expand over the next two years. A bid was submitted to the National Manuscript Conservation Trust for the conservation work which would be at the centre of the subsequent development of activities around the collection including; large-scale digitisation and publication of records, enhanced metadata development, upgraded storage, virtual and physical exhibitions and a range of community and research projects and events.

The project started in July 2019 with the careful removal of the items to the Artworks Conservation studio in Harrogate  

Overview of the conservation treatment

The project included 522 items, mostly executed in pencil, crayon and ink. Most of which were on large, brittle and discoloured sheets of paper and drafting cloth. The majority of these had suffered staining, acidic discolouration, heavy areas of surface dirt, tearing, losses and fraying.

From the onset, it was agreed that the conservation treatment would only be applied to a remedial level. This will stabilise the items to allow the safe handling and use of the collections while preventing further damage.

The items were surface cleaned to remove loose dirt and dust, using soft brushes and dry rubber sponges on the general areas and vinyl erasers on concentrated areas of dirt that needed more attention. The sheets suffering from heavier discolouration and brittleness were washed and de-acidified to enable the paper to relax and regain some of its former flexibility, while also bringing back the detail of the drawing. Some of the items were lined with Japanese paper to strengthen the original support and avoid future losses.

Paper conservator using the hot spatula to repair tears.

Paper conservator using the hot spatula to repair tears.

The same treatment was applied to tears using strips of Japanese paper torn to size with feathered edges to avoid marking the front of the drawings.

Items on tracing paper required extra care as they were particularly susceptible to the introduction of humidity, which can cause drying stresses and deformations. Remoistenable, pre-pasted repair papers and heat-set adhesives were used to treat this kind of support.

Creases and folds obscuring the reading of the media or making the items vulnerable to damage were reduced by applying a mixture of an alcohol and water solution and gently drying and flattening with a heated spatula, allowing the paper to relax. This treatment not only improved the visual appearance of the objects but it also prevented creases from becoming tears and losses in the future.

The final approach was to store the items in polyester sleeves at the archive, to protect them when handled and prevent surface abrasion.

The digitisation project

The conservation process was only one part of the entire holistic approach we had planned in order to realise our ambition to bring the collection to its full potential. Another key part of the development was the digitisation and publishing of the collection, which will enable worldwide online access.  

Before COVID-19 stopped us in our tracks, fifty per cent of the drawings were digitised and enhanced metadata was generated. This gave us an opportunity to strengthen our links with the Fairground Heritage Trust and the Fairground Association of GB, whose expertise we consulted through the process.  

We will resume the digitisation and publication of the records once it is safe to return to our premises and hope to make all the information and images available on our digital resource platform sometime in 2021.

Future events

This work far from being the end of the project is only the beginning. The impact of the investment on the conservation of the collection will be felt for years to come as we continue using the collections to their full potential.

Activities to look for in the future include exhibitions at the Western Bank Library and Fairground Heritage Centre in Devon. A virtual exhibition co-curated with a History Masters student work placement, which will feature on the NFCA website, events at the heart of the community as part of the Sheffield fairs at Weston Park and Norfolk Park and a range of academic and community engagement projects.

Arantza Barrutia – National Fairground and Circus Archive Collections Manager

For more like this, check out our Unique and Distinctive Collections blog pages!

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