History of Fairground Rides

For many people the fairground is now defined by the thrill and spectacle of the riding machines. These rides have a complex history defined by mechanical capability and cultural and social trends.

Hand-Turned Dobbies

Frank Wilson's Bicycle RoundaboutThere is no clear evidence of the development of the very first roundabouts. Simple dobby sets existed in the early nineteenth century. In "Seventy Years a Showman" Lord George Sanger describes how his father manufactured his own dobbies early in his career. Crude in construction, the horses ‘were enlarged examples of the rough penny toys … their legs were simply round sticks. Their bodies were lumps of deal rounded on one side. Their heads were roughly cut from half-inch deal boards and inserted in a groove in their bodies, while the tails and manes were made of strips of rabbit-skin’.

Most roundabouts at this point depended on muscle power to function and, like many others at the time, Sanger's horses were manually turned by children who would work for the showmen in exchange for a free ride. Ponies were also often employed to do this job, in the same way as a horse would turn a gin at a mine on a farm.

An interesting development of the idea of muscle powered roundabouts was the bicycle roundabout, commonly known as Velocipede, which existed on the principle of the punters cycling on a roundabout powering their own ride.

Eventually the application of steam power to fairground rides changed the face of the fairground and the possibilities of the rides. The first evidence of a steam powered ride dates from 1861 when Thomas Bradshaw presented his merry-go-round at the old Pot Market in Bolton on New Year's Day.

Steam-Powered Roundabouts

Fred Hodder’s Sea-on-LandAccording to Thomas Hurst, the eminent Lancashire roundabout proprietor, it was Thomas Bradshaw who first presented a steam powered fairground ride in public. The boiler for the engine was constructed at Pollit's Boiler Yard in Lever Street, Bolton, while the engine was the work of Messrs Rogerson and Brimelow of Deansgate. Bradshaw who made the horses himself, patented his idea in 1863.
It is quite likely that it was this same merry-go-round which visited the Midsummer Fair in Halifax in 1863 being reported by the Halifax Courier as:
‘… roundabout of huge proportions, driven by a steam engine which whirled around with such impetuosity, that the wonder is the daring riders are not shot off like cannon- ball, and driven half into the middle of next month.’
The impact of the addition of steam power to fairground rides at the time cannot be underestimated, although the above seems an unlikely and rather exaggerated account of events. It matches the concerns raised by contemporary gentlemen of the medical profession on the dangers of travelling at speeds of over 30 mph on the railways.

Concern was also raised by a local resident worried by the risk of explosion. ‘It endangers the lives of scores of children’, he claimed, ‘considering the state of pressure at which it is worked’.

The introduction of steam and faster rides was received with a certain degree of apprehension. However, these anxieties were obviously not shared by all, for in 1865 another innovator, Sidney Soames, demonstrated his version of the steam roundabout at Aylsham Fair. The same year the best known of all fairground engineers, Frederick Savage of King's Lynn, constructed his first steam-driven ride and Uriah Cheeseman was reported to receive a set of steam Velocipedes. A Report in the Lynn News suggests that this ride was present at King's Lynn Mart and Oxford St Giles in 1866. The evidence suggests that this was Savage's first such ride.

Unfortunately, the company's records for these early years are incomplete and this cannot be verified with total certainty. The next record of another steam roundabout built at King's Lynn dates to 1868. This time it was a set of steam Dobby horses which were built for George Twigdon, an East Midland traveller who already operated a Dobby set.

A decade later, Savages were regularly producing steam Velocopides and Dobbies for travelling showmen. The involvement of William Sanger led to the title of "Steam Circus" being adopted.
The impact of the steam machine on the development of the riding machine was profound. As the nineteenth century drew to a close numerous patents were taken out for new ideas and designs. Sometimes it was the roundabout proprietors themselves who tried out new ideas, including Abraham Waddington of Yorkshire who patented his idea in 1870.

The partnership of Frederick Savage and William Sanger gave birth to another novelty ride in 1880 when they launched the Sea-on-Land. Replicas of seafaring vessels, complete in later designs with sails and rigging and often named after liners of the day, were pitched and tossed by mechanisms beneath their hulls. The earliest versions incorporated another new idea, the traction centre engine, which combined the haulage engine with the central drive. Savages were not the only company supplying this type of machine, John and Henry McLaren of Leeds also built some examples.

During the 1880s several manufacturers competed to try to make the 'still' Dobby Horses gallop. In 1885 Savages built their first Platform Gallopers for John Murphy from Tyneside. The same year Messrs Reynolds and King designed the overhead crank system which was improved upon the following year by Tidmans of Norwich. By the end of the century crank-action Gallopers were being supplied by several British engineers and still remain a popular ride on the contemporary fairground landscape.

Steam Yachts

Cartwright built steam yachts

If the roundabout could be mechanised, so could the swing. A patent taken out in 1888 introduced the Steam Yachts. William Cartwright of Bromwich first succeeded in building a set using upright cylinders. Savages also began building Steam Yachts, using Cartwright's improved patent of 1894. Their first set was built for John Collins. The Yachts were often given the names of the latest liners: Lusitania and Mauretania, Cymric and Celtic, although Olympia and Titanic proved short lived names on John Collins’ set.

Switchback Rides

Anderton and Rowland's GondollaSavages designed and constructed the first Switchback in 1888, cannibalising an older ride. Their first model was delivered to George Aspland of Boston. The idea proved popular and within a matter of months several important travelling roundabout proprietors, including Greens, Baileys, Studts and Murphys had similar machines.

The earliest examples featured plain toast-rack cars, which proved uninspiring to customers and soon were transformed into elaborate chariots at the hands of skilled wood carvers.

In 1894 the idea of the Venetian Gondola was introduced by Pat Collins of Walsall. He boasted in 1899 that his were a faithful reproduction of the Gondolas used by the Doges of Venice Grand Procession as immortalised by Shakespeare and Byron. These Switchback rides, along with their electrified counterparts the Scenic Railway, were a highpoint of early fairground art and aesthetics, indicating the way forward in reaching for decorative benchmarks. Italian designers and craftsmen were imported at the showmen's expense, and a lavish centre organ became a standard of exuberance.

It was John Green's brother, George, who helped to develop the Switchback Galloper in 1889. Virtually a cross between a Switchback and a Platform Galloper, it was built by Savages, although never in large numbers. Despite this, an example was travelled in Scotland by the Wilmots and the ride continued to attend fairs north of the border until the 1930s.

Tunnel Railways

J.W. Waddington’s Tunnel RailwayA century earlier than the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, train journeys of this type were already being simulated in the British fairgrounds. By 1895 some of the biggest names in the fairground were travelling this type of ride. Pat Collins of Walsall, George Thomas Tuby of Doncaster and William Davis of Stoke on Trent presented models built by Savage while other engineering firms in the north of the country such as John Fowler and Thomas Green from Leeds also invested in the design of such rides.

Novelty has always been important in attracting customers, if a trip through the Channel Tunnel, complete with smoke and steam did not appeal, then a ride on Razzle Dazzle might. Sitting on seats on a circular platform, it dipped from side to side as it rotated. As early as 1893 Savages held a patent for the machine, but later examples built in Hartlepool by the Howcroft Carriage and Waggon Works proved superior.

Savages, Tidmans and Walkers continued to supply steam driven rides until the outbreak of the Great War and also applied the technology to old ideas and designs which reappeared in slightly different formats. Pat Collins took delivery of a Velocipede as late as 1896 and Reuben Holdsworths' Pigs and Balloons built in 1908 were essentially a Platform Galloper of the 1885 patent with the addition of a counter-rotating top.

Electric Rides

Chair-o-PlanesThe most important development prior to the First World War was the Scenic Railway. Electricity now drove the massive motor cars. Enoch Farrar of Yorkshire took delivery of the first in 1910. He claimed it to be the most important invention in electrical science as applied to amusements ever introduced to a discriminating public, and that he was offering ‘journeys in real motor cars ... travelling at 60 mph ... over mountains and valleys through beautiful Alpine Scenery’.

Many fairs were cancelled during the war and the building of new rides came to a near halt. Under blackout conditions, whilst the threat of Zeppelin raids existed, some fairs managed to remain active. However, the impact of the war, together with the economic depression that followed in 1918, made the construction of new roundabouts an expensive investment and severely slowed down the development of new inventions. At this time of decline Savages only managed to build a few sets of the old time classic Gallopers, Steam Yachts and Scenic Railways, while Orton, Sons and Spooner of Burton upon Trent continued working with the idea of the Scenic Railways, featuring new themes such as; Dragons, Peacocks, Whales and Dolphins. Their final Scenic Railway was built in 1925 for William Davis of Stoke on Trent.

During the 1920s most of the new ride designs came to the UK from Germany and America. "The Whip", built in the United States by W.F. Mangels Co of Coney Island, was one of such new age rides finding their way into the British fairgrounds. However, it was the German Chair-o-Plane that became a much more common scene on the British fairground landscape. Although a few were built in the UK, most Chair-o-Planes were imported from Germany where they were built by companies such as Bothmann of Gotha, Saxony. This ride was easy to bring into the country by the chair load in living wagons by British showmen such as Tippler White from Yorkshire.


Pat Collin's CaterpillarAnother novelty introduced to Britain in the early 1920s was the Caterpillar. After a season in a permanent park, the first example was taken over by the Green Brothers, who travelled at least four of these rides. Most Caterpillars were built either on the continent or in America, but a few did begin life in Britain. Today they are restricted almost exclusively to parks. Sadly, Green's original machine was broken up in Morecambe in the 1980s.

Big Wheels

The Giant Wheel at Earl's CourtThe Big Wheel has been in existence as long as the swings and roundabouts and, just like these classic fairground rides, its basic design principles have remained unchanged since.

The most spectacular wheels, comprising of 40 carriages and capable of carrying over 1,000 passengers, were specially built for early exhibitions such as the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the Empire of England Exhibition at Earls Court in 1894. Their specific production for travelling the fairs did not start until the mid-twentieth century with modest machines containing 16 cars, which were eventually scaled down to more portable 12 car versions.

Giant Wheels have lost their appeal as a thrill ride in the modern fairground. However, they have been sprouting up in every major city in the world, marketed as tourist attractions and geared towards sightseeing; The London Eye is a fine example of this new concept.

European manufacturers are now capable of building giant travelling wheels, but the wheel has become more of an icon of the fairground than a popular ride.

Cake Walks

Manning's Cake WalkThe Cake Walk emerged around 1909, named after a fast and frenetic dance, and the advertising of this machine as 'Captivating', 'Invigorating', 'Rejuvenating' and a 'Progressive British Sport' captured the spirit of the time. The mechanism consisted of undulating bridges and gangways driven by cranks, with the belt drive often connected to the organ so that a speed up of the music meant a speed up of the ride and a speed up of the riders 'dancing'. This made for a good spectacle and showmen quickly learnt that a ride that makes a good viewing spectacle makes a good profit.


Anderton and Rowland's DodgemsThe Dodgems as we know them today were introduced in Britain in 1928 by Messrs Lusse Brothers. Earlier models of this type of ride had been in existence before this time, but they did not gain popularity in the UK until they were presented in the fairgrounds by a number of British firms including Orton and Spooner, Robert Lakin, Lang Wheels and Rytecraft. Savages were in decline by this time but they did build a set of Dodgems for London showman Patsy North.

The origin of the Dodgem track is difficult to trace with several claims to its invention and a multitude of patents in existence. However, the most important aspect of the Dodgems is their development into their current format; a controllable bumper car powered through an electrical pick-up linked to the roof nets.
The Pleasure Beach at Blackpool had a Dodgem type machine as early as 1913 called the Witching Waves whereby motion was provided by a complex arrangement of tilting floor panels. This is likely to have been upgraded in 1921 with the Dodgems introduced and patented by concessionaire George Tonner.

Paul Braithwaite's index of patents has various entries for Dodgems; the first patent is simply described as a 'Dodgem system' in 1921, it is not clear if this resembled a modern day machine. The next ones date of 1923 and are described as, ‘Dodgem type rocking horse and Bumper cars on dished track’, and 'Bumper Car' patented by Lusse Brothers. Lusse Brothers provided further patents in the following years for drive mechanism and steering, which indicates a development towards the modern Dodgems. It is still unclear whether the famous electrical pick-up via pole was in operation at this point. Three more patents followed in 1928 from different companies including Lusse Brothers for ‘Dodgem electrical apparatus’, ‘Dodgem Car power unit’ and ‘Dodgem Car improved bumper’. Certainly in this latter period Lusse perfected the Dodgem car as a microcosmic motor car with futuristic designs appearing up until recent times.


A. Lane's Coronation ArkIt was again Bothmanns who were to introduce what was to become possibly the most popular of all roundabouts of the inter-war years. The first German Noah's Ark was opened at Mitcham in 1930 by William Wilson. Almost immediately both Orton and Spooner and Robert Lakin began to build their own versions. Although both firms tried different constructions, it was the various themes adopted which are best remembered.

The early Noah's Ark survived into the mid-1930s when Lakin introduced their famous Ben Hur rides, horses and chariots were now featured on the platforms. Edwin Hall's introduced scenes of the Circus Maximus in Rome made famous by the 1925 film, which were reputedly breath-taking. Later horses gave way to motor cycles, and so the Speedway theme was introduced. Even royalty was celebrated with a number of Coronation Speedways built in 1937.

Swirls, Waltzers, Mont Blancs and Loch Ness Monsters

Arthur Holland's MoonrocketMore ideas came over from both France and Germany between the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Skid or Swirl, a close imitation of the Whip but circular in construction, was built by Lakins, using additional features suggested by Charles Thurston, who also worked in close liaison with Lakins in building the first Waltzer in 1933.

The Mont Blanc, originally brought from France, was also built by Lakins, who later changed its theme and called it the Airways.

Fresh interest in subterranean movements in Loch Ness in 1935 gave rise to a new ride in the same year. Both Lang Wheels and Lakins built rides based on the Loch Ness Monster theme, however these did not prove popular. The concept of this ride nevertheless did give the idea for another new ride which came in just before the outbreak of the second wold war, the Autodrome.

The old serene pace set by Gallopers and Switchbacks was taken over by the new trend for speed which became the essence of new rides. The perfect example of this new fast thrill ride of the 1930s was the Moonrocket. The first of these rides was imported by Joseph Schipper for John Collins, although Lakin built models proved more popular with the customers. The illusion of speed was increased by having the whole centre dome, including a figure of Popeye astride a small rocket, rotate the opposite way to the cars.

The Second World War and After

Edward Danter's MiamiThe development of fairground rides after the Second World war was fast and frantic.

Just before the war a few new American novelty rides found their way into Britain. The Octopus and the Dive Bomber, built by the Eyerly Company, were functional in nature and striped of the rich decorations that once defined the early British Fairground. The British showmen quickly adapted these rides to give them unique identities to indicate the thrills on offer through artwork. Britain also added its own ideas, and attractions with names such as the Hurricane, Jets, Twists, Satellites and Meteorites soon populated the fairground.

Slowly, however it was the influence of the German and Italian builders who put the decorative skills of the British Fairground artists back to use. The Superbob, Matterhorn, Pirate Boat and the Break Dance, all have "back-flashes" which give the ride a theme. Sometimes these were inspired by blockbuster films and pop music hits such as Ghostbusters and Thriller. The final part of this re-birth in fairground art came with the introduction of the Miami Trip whereby the UK established itself at the top of fairground art design.

Competition in the 1990s still encouraged showmen to invest in new rides, but increasingly this demand has been supplied by foreign manufacturers. Top Spins, Orbiters and Quasars have been built in Britain, as was Wilson's Super Bowl, but 'big-hitting' rides increasingly come from Dutch and Italian manufacturers. The development of highly advanced spinning and looping rides is still underway, and looks set to continue long into the twenty first century.

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