Although the British fair has origins that are so distant they can barely be recorded, the modern fairground is very much a product on the Industrial Revolution.
The proliferation of road and rail networks during the 19th century meant getting around became much easier and the creation of densely populated industrial towns and cities created a ready market for the travelling fair.
The very same technology that made light work of spinning, weaving, pumping and the creation of giant slag heaps was employed to good effect on the swings and the roundabouts of Britain.
More to the point, it was steam that was to change the fair beyond all recognition and propel it rapidly into the “modern” era.
Steam power meant that fairground rides could be bigger, heavier and, by definition, more elaborate. As an added bonus the overall appeal of the travelling fair was supplemented by powerful Showman’s Engines that lugged equipment from town to town.
In the true tradition of the chicken and the egg it is hard to know what came first, the swing or the roundabout? Such a question, however, is irrelevant given that both pre-date the Industrial Revolution and any discussion of their steam powered versions is incomplete without considering their origins. For no reason in particular we will start with swings.
Swings date from antiquity and early devices were simple planks of wood, both ends of which were attached to an overhead framework with ropes. Over time passenger vessels evolved, commonly referred to in showland as “boats”.
The overhead frameworks of early swing devices evolved into a twin “A” frame configuration, with the boat suspended from a rod connecting the two. Initially the boats had to be pushed to make them swing, but over time the person, or persons, sitting in the boat provided motion by pulling on ropes passing through an overhead pulley.
Self-propelled swingboats eventually evolved into “sets” with a number of small boats suspended next to each other beneath the “A” frames. A common sight until the 1930s, swingboats can still be seen at vintage events.
Considering the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a good starting point when considering the steam swing. In the steam crazy 19th century there didn’t seem to be anything that steam couldn’t be used for, and applying its magic to the simple fairground swing must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
From the 1880s steam swings were constructed along similar lines to conventional swingboats, although the engine was placed beneath the “A” frames with boats on either side.
As with conventional swings motion was provided by the person, or persons, in the boat pulling on ropes threaded through an overhead pulley. However, the “big idea” of the steam swing creator was to “automate” this pulley by having it spinning constantly. Passengers pulling on the ropes caused a friction shoe to come into contact with the revolving pulley, thus providing a short burst of momentum to the boat.
Some swingboats were large enough to carry 20 or more people at a time and were “powered” by men pulling on ropes attached to the end of each boat. Applying steam to this idea certainly had a point, as it created the first true white knuckle fairground ride.
Such devices started appearing around 1900 and were christened “Steam Yachts”, although the relationship between them and anything remotely nautical remains a mystery.
Exploiting a general public interest in ocean adventure (which was considerable in the late 19th century) Steam Yacht devices used huge boats that were supposed to represent giant ocean-going liners. They were even named after ships like the Lusitania and Mauritania.
Steam Yachts were the ultimate expression of the swing idea. Early devices came with a single boat, but they became more common as a pair. The basic construction of a double-yacht machine wasn’t that different from the steam swing.
The mechanical idea behind Steam Yachts is to get a rocking motion going using crankshafts, chains and a highly skilled operator. With a two-boat device one yacht is started and then the second, timed in opposite phase. When in full swing the overall effect was (and still is) quite spectacular, particularly as the boats invariably had lavishly painted bottoms.
In its day the Steam Yacht was a genuine thrill ride and the basic idea can still be seen in the giant swinging “pirate” boats at amusement parks.
As with the swing, no discussion of the steam powered roundabout is complete without considering what went before. Roundabouts of various types date back to antiquity. Until cars came along humankind relied on the horse for transportation and horses have been, perhaps, the most common form of roundabout mount for the past few centuries.
Early horse roundabouts were aimed at children. In showland such devices were called Dobbies (or Dobby sets) and examples from the early 19th century were equipped with rough mounts that were no more than “enlarged examples of rough penny toys”, suspended from a spinning frame. Dobbies were propelled manually by the operator, or by children hoping for a free ride. Larger sets were pulled around by ponies. As with everything else on the fairground steam eventually replaced muscle power and Steam Dobbies were popular from the mid-19th century. Historians tend to agree that the first steam powered roundabout (a Dobby set) put in an appearance at Aylesham Fair (Kent), c.1865. It is also said this gave ideas to one Frederick Savage, who decided to try his hand at making similar machines using the expertise at his agricultural engineering works at Kings Lynn.
Savage’s first steam powered ride was the Velocipede (a bicycle roundabout). Early bicycles, or Velocipedes, were all the rage c.1870 and Savage had apparently been manufacturing bicycle roundabouts without motive power for a while. Although the roundabout was propelled by a steam engine the riders could still pedal their heavy machines around.
The bicycle and horse were not the only things Savage bolted to a roundabout. Using boats was an obvious move and a ride called Sea-on-Land made use of replica ships that were made to rock and pitch on cranks attached to large wheels moving over a circular track beneath a revolving platform.
This idea was also applied to mounts other than boats. The so-called “platform Gallopers” of the early 1880s used this idea, replacing boats with horses – another variant used galloping cockerels. These platform rides lacked the “top motion” of later machines, although the steam engine was connected to a spinning top that was, in turn, linked to the platform.
The railway was also a natural subject for the roundabout and by 1885 Savage was producing “Tunnel Railways” on which a locomotive pulled carriages around a circular track, partially obscured by a tunnel. Readers may be forgiven for thinking that the channel tunnel is a fairly recent idea, but a by-product of the 19th century railway boom was a much publicised desire to link London and Paris via a tunnel under the sea.
A bizarre postscript to this early period of roundabout building is something called the Razzle Dazzle of the 1880s and 1890s. Sometimes called an “Aerial Novelty” it consisted of a flat circular elevated platform mounted on a centre pole, with seats and an outer wall. A steam engine below the platform provided the revolving movement and the whole thing was designed to tilt as it revolved. On earlier machines this was achieved in true swingboat fashion by men yanking on ropes. This tilting movement was later automated with the introduction of a gimbal beneath the platform. It is said that this ride was never as popular to experience as it was to look at.
Although Frederick Savage enjoyed prominence as the pioneer of the steam roundabout he didn’t hold a monopoly. A number of engineering firms were also asked by showfolk to produce roundabouts, along with some enthusiastic amateurs. Robert Tidman of Norwich, Thomas Walker of Tewkesbury and William Howcroft, of Hartlepool, all emerged as competitors by the 1880s.
Between them, these companies (and those that followed) would evolve the roundabout through a myriad of phases, from the elaborate Switchbacks and Scenic Railways, to the breathless energy of the Arks, Speedways and Waltzers.