The British fairground Galloper is perhaps the only riding device to have sustained popularity through the 19th, 20th and into the 21st century. It is the ultimate fairground icon that is as recognisable today as it was in Victorian times.
The word “Galloper” is the trade name for an English horse roundabout, or merry-go-round. Although roundabouts carrying horses were common throughout Europe and America it never occurred to English showfolk to call home-grown devices Carousels, or to use “standing” horses that were physically attached to the revolving platform.
Instead, a tradition developed for horses carved in galloping pose, similar to those seen in paintings and illustrations of the day – and to go with a galloping pose a galloping action was a must!
Early horse roundabouts were aimed at children and were tame in comparison to their larger cousins of the future. 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.
Portable Dobbies with steam drive used a 4-wheel cart to transport the engine and it was around this cart that the ride was built. This “centre truck” idea would form the future basis of many riding devices.
The Galloper evolved from the Dobby, although Galloper mounts were never intended to be static. Neither was the Galloper really designed for children. Early on in its evolution the “galloping motion” was achieved by placing the horses on a circular platform and placing the “galloping mechanism” under the floor, although this arrangement didn’t last long due to the unwieldy nature of the “platform” Galloper (as it was called).
Soon the platform method was replaced by the gentle rise and fall motion generated by the more familiar overhead crank system still used today.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s the British fairground was the most fantastic cocktail of cutting edge engineering, the flair of the artist, the skill of the carver and the achievements of European organ builders. At the heart of all this was the Galloper, where all these elements came together in a single package.
The decorative boards placed around the top of the ride became large enough to accommodate the biggest boasts of any showman. This was the age of Empire and every available piece of wood, canvas and shield carried depictions of Colonial exploits, big game hunting and charging Cavalry officers. Animal images and mirrors were everywhere, as were canvas portraits of Kings, Queen’s, Dukes and Duchesses.
The mounts themselves were exquisitely carved by the leading exponents of the day, men like Spooner and Anderson. And some rides weren’t satisfied just with horses, but mixed them up with cockerels, ostriches, bears, farm animals and hybrid figures that were half horse, half Cavalry officer.
By the time of the first World War the Galloper was the most popular roundabout ride on the British fairground and remains in demand in the 21st century, having outlived many fads and phases of roundabout design.