Orton and Spooner Collection

Early Living WagonRef: NFA0070

Title: The Orton and Spooner Collection

Scope: This collection contains a large selection of archives from the Orton and Spooner Company. The collection comprises photographs and cabinet card images showing carved work, structural work and classic painted work, 4 boxes of notes, invoices and clippings, 8 drawers of plans and blueprints, 2 folders of ride specifications and order forms, accounts books and a library of source books showing turn of the century art used by the artists in the company.

Dates: 1870s-1960s
Level: Fonds
Extent:1084 photographs, 8 plan chest drawers, 4 boxes, 2 folders and 1 linear metre of books


Name of creator: David Braithwaite

Administrative / biographical history: Orton and Spooner were an amalgamation of two Burton upon Trent companies, George Orton and Charles Spooner. They were responsible for producing some of the most sophisticated and sought after wagons and shows at the turn of the 19th century.

Charles Spooner was a wood carver who came from the brewing industry, where he was making elaborate drays and handcarts. His partnership with the wheelwright and coach builder George Orton started in 1894, although their businesses were not formally amalgamated until 1925.

Orton and Spooner quickly established a reputation with the showmen, making rides, shows and living wagons of superior quality and finish. Their work spanned early carving through to construction of 19th century shows, classic Scenic Railways and the design and building of 1930s thrill rides such as the Ark and Dodgems.
The Noah’s Ark ride originated in Germany and proved a soaring success on the UK fairground. Orton and Spooner got involved in the introduction of the Ark into the UK, initially importing partly built rides, which they finished at their Burton-on-Trent Works and later on building them from scratch to create some of the finest and fastest machines in the British fairground.

Orton and Spooner were at the forefront of Ark production, completing upwards of 70 machines. The Arks were precisely designed and decorated by some of the best artists in the trade, namely Harry Shilton and Albert Howell. Early styles included the ‘orange grove’ design, leading to elaborate jungle scenes, to culminate with classic transport scenes featuring cars, motorcycles and aeroplanes at a later stage. Eventually Orton and Spooner were involved in producing Waltzer cars as many of the Arks underwent conversions.

Orton and Spooner also worked closely with German showman Hoffmeister to develop and patent the Rotor and famously built the Rotor that formed a landmark for the 1951 Battersea Park Exhibition and Funfair for promoter Max Myers. Myers fought to introduce the Rotor to the United States and at least two machines were constructed by Orton and Spooner to be exported out to America. In addition at least two further machines were used in the UK sea-side parks, with one machine travelled by Pat and John Collins. Arguably an Orton Rotor was also built for Germany, presumably for Hoffmeister. These machines were a hybrid between a show and a ride, with people paying to watch other people use the ride. The earliest rides were built and decorated with a bias towards earning most money through paying spectators and had intricate viewing galleries resembling ancient courtrooms or Roman amphitheatres and the fronts were covered predominantly with female figures pinned helplessly to the wall.

Orton and Spooner also specialised on the building of the huge ornate shows precursors to the bioscope, which dominated the fairground landscape at the turn of the 19th century and were defined by their intricate carved fronts.

Additionally, in the 1930s they began manufacturing Ghost Trains. This ride was also a cross between a show and a ride and emerged at a time when mechanical rides were developing at a rapid rate, in effect signalling the slow demise of shows as the driving force of the fairground. Early Orton and Spooner artwork for these rides was created by Sid and Albert Howell and featured incredible replica scenes of classic British Rail life.

Orton and Spooner were also some of the most successful fair carvers of the time. Their galloping horses were reputed to be the best, with the company supplying many mounts to rival manufacturer Savages of King's Lynn. The carved horses featured meticulous anatomical detail and the company quickly moved to an impressive repertoire of carved animals including cockerels, swans, turkeys, pigs, donkeys, cows, goats, elephants, ostriches, bears, lions and dragons. A unique diversion included the carving of generals' heads from the Boer War, creating a surreal effect by grafting them on to animal body mounts.

Orton and Spooner remained pioneering fairground manufacturers until 1954 after which they functioned as a light engineering company until their closure in 1977.

The collection was acquired by David Braithwaite who carried out a large volume of research on the history of the company. 861 of the photographs contained in this collection are unique and not duplicated in other repository.

Related Collections: David Brathwaite Collection, William Keating Collection, Ted Lightbow Collection, Leisure Parks-Six Piers Collection
Source: Donated from David Braithwaite's collection by his wife and daughter Joanna and Naomi Braithwaite
System of arrangement: Catalogued according to type
Subjects: Fairgrounds, Fairground Rides, Fairground Art, Transport, Living Wagons, Travelling Entertainment, Business, Sideshows
Conditions of access: Most items are available to view by appointment in the NFA reading room. Some items are not available to view due to their fragility
Restrictions: None
Copyright: Copies may be supplied or produced at the discretion of National Fairground Archive, subject to copyright law and condition of the material
Finding aids: Photographs available on NFA Digital. Online finding aid available here