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Orton & Spooner

Burton’s Finest Factory of Fun

A brief history of Orton and Spooner

These days there are not that many companies in the fairground game that manufacture rides and shows – and those how do are not exactly household names. But there is one company that is just as famous now as it was in its heyday, in the first half of last century. DAVE PAGE takes a brief look at Orton & Spooner.

George Orton, a wheelwright and coachbuilder by trade, was born in 1843 at Measham, Leicestershire. Charles Spooner, a wood carver, was born in Burton-on-Trent in 1871.

George Orton’s first premises in Burton-on-Trent were said to have been at the bottom of Bearwood Hill, where he started building Gipsy and other wagons, and in 1875 he established the ‘Lion Carriage Works’. It has been recorded that his first commission from a travelling showman was around 1883/4 and subsequent work of this type mainly involved the construction of living wagons that were used as dwellings and as part of the highly decorated fairground showfronts of the day.

Orton’s were best known initially for making living vans for travelling Showmen.

One of Orton’s suppliers was a young man named Charles Spooner, who set up his own business in 1892 having been apprenticed to Walter Gifford Hilton, a wood carver of Victoria Street, Burton. Spooner’s father had been the landlord of Burton’s Old Swan Hotel and it was in the hotel yard that Charles set up shop, hence the name ‘Swan Works’.

The two firms worked together from 1894, but although they were often referred to collectively as Orton & Spooner they did not officially amalgamate until 1925, when a company was formed called George Orton, Sons and Spooner Ltd.

They also made lots of other stuff with wheels on, like this beast wagon for a travelling menagerie

Charles Spooner was first married in 1894, but his wife died shortly after giving birth to their son, Jack. By 1897 he was married again, this time to George Orton’s daughter, Rose Ann. In 1900, with the business prospering, Spooner moved his works to Meadow Road, just of the Burton Bridge (known locally as the Trent Bridge).

Spooner produced much of the carved work for the living wagons and showfronts produced by his father-in-law, as well as his doing his own work for showmen and ride builders. He became a major supplier of mounts for roundabouts built by the likes of Savage of King’s Lynn and was regarded by many as the finest showman’s carver of them all.

He produced a huge variety of animal figures for fairground roundabouts, ranging from the usual galloping horses to ostriches, bears lions, donkeys, pigs, goats and turkeys. He was also good at seizing the moment and catering to public taste. During the Boer War, for example, famous generals of the day were turned into carved centaurs, much to the delight of the paying public.

Spooner’s workshop also fitted out rides with carved work. Circular Switchbacks (a very popular machine that took riders up and down hills in a variety of devices) for example made by Savage, often found their way to Burton-on-Trent for embellishment.

Meanwhile, the competition between travelling Bioscope owners (Bioscopes were an early type of cinema) produced a healthy demand for ever more elaborate showfronts.

Those produced by Orton’s were generally considered the most elaborate, particularly when combined with gigantic fairground organs. These huge instruments were integral to Bioscope shows and firms like Gavioli and Marenghi would ship them to Orton’s where they were built into box trucks for travelling.

In 1911 George Orton bought some land in Victoria Crescent, Burton-on-Trent and the following year new Erecting Sheds were built there, capable of housing a complete adult-sized fairground ride. It is said the structural woodwork continued to be made at the Lion Works and moved to Victoria Crescent by hand cart.

The major ride of the day at this point was still the Circular Switchback, but they were about to give way to Scenic Railways. Scenic Railways were based on Switchbacks, although they were bigger and powered by electricity instead of steam.

Savage built the first Scenic Railway in 1909, which stirred up a lot of interest as showmen either ordered them or had their old Switchbacks converted. But despite all this Savages, who had been in financial difficulty for some time, went into liquidation shortly afterwards, leaving the field wide open for others, Orton’s in particular.

Adding the Scenic Railway to their portfolio of fairground work offered a unique opportunity for Orton’s to properly enter the field of roundabout manufacture.

At this time the business was in the hands of George Orton’s two sons Tom and Charles, his daughter Annie and Charles Spooner – Orton senior having retired in 1910.

The first Orton & Spooner Scenic Railway was built in 1912, for Holland brothers of Swadlincote, Derbyshire. It was 57 feet in diameter, had a circular undulating track, was controlled from its paybox and ran eight electrically driven motor cars, each in charge of a Chauffeur!

Each Scenic weighed some 30-40 tons and cost between £3-4,000 each. The Scenic cars were carved at Meadow Road, and moved to Victoria Crescent on a coal dray. Each car is said to have weighed 30 cwt.

Charles Spooner would carve just about everything imaginable for fairground use.

Within the peak period of twenty years, some 32 similar machines were either built new, rebuilt, or modified by Orton’s, while Spooner concentrated on the various vehicles and other mounts that changed as taste dictated. Once again, he showed great innovation in producing spectacular offerings like dragon cars, whales, Father Neptunes, dolphins and peacocks. Not forgetting the famous ‘tanks’, fitted to John Green’s Switchback towards the end of WWI.

By 1914 Charles Spooner had stopped designing and carving and became a travelling salesman for the company. During the 1914-16 war Orton’s was run by the government and made portable aircraft hangers, but re-entered the fairground business in 1919 by producing the a Dragon Scenic – for Dagnall’s Ltd., of Cricklewood.

The Crescent Erecting Sheds were destroyed by fire in December 1924 at huge cost to the company and many valuable patterns and other important material was lost. Two days after the fire George Orton died, aged 81 years, at his home in Stretton, near Burton-on-Trent.

Business was temporarily transferred to The Crescent Brewery, which was situated on the opposite side of Victoria Crescent, near to the Junction with Horninglow Road. New Erecting Sheds were built on the same site and became fully operational during 1926. Bigger now they were capable of holding two complete roundabouts at the same time.

With the exception of the Blacksmith’s and machine shop, all other workers were transferred from the Lion Works in 1926 to the new premises in the Crescent. It is said the Lion Works in Princess Street were sold to a Mr R.E Cooke in the late 1920s, although the works in Meadow Road continued in use until 1932.

Two Noah’s Arks under construction at Burton

Orton & Spooner built their last Scenic Railway in 1925, a machine delivered to showman William Davis of Stoke-on-Trent.

The late 1920s and early 30s saw a change in the type of roundabout being manufactured. Gone were the heavy and expensive rides to be replaced by Noah’s Arks, which were easier to build, decorate, transport and were very cost effective; in some cases, they were less than half the price of previous machines.

The picture above is of a Jungle ride

Arks came originally from Germany and were so called because of their animal-shaped mounts. They proved very popular with both showmen and the public and soon Orton’s was making its own version. The company soon led the field in Ark manufacture and production of their subsequent variants, Speedways and Waltzers.

During this period Orton’s would also build any fairground machine or side stall imaginable. The first Swirl, or Skid, for example, was built for Pat Collins in 1928 and it is said that from 1930 over 50 Dodgem tracks were built, along with Ghost Trains and Rotors.

Charles Spooner died in 1939, and during World War II the bulk of company work was connected with the war effort, in particular the manufacture of military vehicles.

And this is a Caterpillar.

After the war work re-commenced on fairground rides, but changing conditions, both in the management and workforce, resulted in more general engineering work being undertaken.

The final break with fairground manufacture came in 1954; labour problems and the fluctuating demands of the showmen being the main factors. George Orton Sons & Spooner Ltd then concentrated on light engineering work, being particularly concerned with the construction of mechanical handling equipment, and finally closed for business in 1977 after falling into receivership.

Author: Dave Page

Pics on this page, courtesy of Bass Museum, Suttons, JS. Simnett (Burton-on-Trent).