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Trying Your Luck for a Prize

On the British fairground the rides and shows are all very well, but what would the fairground be if the visitor went home without a trophy of some kind, or a tale to tell of heroics on the subject of gunfire and conquest?

It’s easy to talk about the rides you’ve been on and the thrills you’ve had, but what about the games you may have played that make any visit to a fair a more “rounded” experience? Quite literally in most instances, as the round stalls and side shows on the fairground are the glue that holds the place together and no tale of fairground life is complete without considering them.

Everyone likes a little bit on the side.

For most people, a distinctive feature of the “modern” British fairground are the small round stalls that may be found dotted around among the rides, offering prizes for various games. Although stalls have been a fairground feature for hundreds of years the round variety appear to be a product of the 20th century, emerging among the heavily ornamented roundabouts either side of the first World War.

The primary function of the round stall is to offer games in return for prizes. Their shape enables them to offer access from all points of the compass and in this respect they are very efficient when it comes to “churning” custom.

Round stalls are perhaps better known for their games of Hoopla. Indeed, in showland circles the stalls themselves are invariably referred to as “Hooplas”. Although throwing games have been around since antiquity Hoopla, like the round stall, is probably a product of the 20th century.

For those readers who have been living under a rock in recent times, Hoopla involves players throwing hoops over prizes arranged on a table at the centre of the stall. Goldfish in bags were popular prizes for many years, although more “valuable” prizes could be easily found for those wishing to risk a few pence and take a chance.

It was games of chance that were very popular in the mid 20th century. “Housey Housey” (now called Bingo) was a firm fairground favourite and although not seen any more it still features in seaside amusement arcades. The round stall was ideally suited to Bingo. Players sat around the circumference of the stall and could come and go as they pleased. Games ran continuously and the “caller” sat at the centre of the stall surrounded by prizes.

Another round stall favourite was the Spinner, based on the popular 19th century game, Wheel of Fortune. At the centre of the stall a long arm span horizontally around the inner perimeter of the circle. In true pass-the-parcel tradition, when the arm stopped the person to which its end pointed was entitled to a prize. Spinner stalls were invariably more elaborate than those not fitted out as such. On the arms, for example, were beautifully carved figures of chariots, animals, etc

Other popular round stall games are darts (where players usually have to hit playing cards to win) and “roll ups” that involve guiding a ball into a number of slots or holes, or into the mouths of constantly moving comical figures, like clowns. Nowadays “hook-a-duck” type games abound.

Sides and Shooters

Just as familiar as round stalls are the wooden framed side-stalls (or joints) which form the perimeter of any fair. In the sometimes testosterone filled atmosphere of the fairground winning your girlfriend a cuddly toy while demonstrating proficiency with a loaded weapon is a “must” for the courting male. Much the same can be said of throwing things at targets. Let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy smashing things up with heavy projectiles without fear of arrest?

“Knock ’em down” games go way back into the mists of time. Coconut Shies come from this tradition, as do the “Aunt Sallies” that offered players the chance to knock the block off some grinning effigy, or familiar public “enemy”.

Darts is also a game popular on the “joints” and stalls. The origins of darts can’t be established with any great certainty, although it is said it came from the military and might have been a way of teaching archery to new recruits. How it got into pubs and onto the fairground is probably a whole research project in itself. Suffice to say it is ingrained enough into the popular culture of this country that finding it on the fairground is not surprising. The traditional fairground darts stall offered huge boards that couldn’t really be missed, although these days the more “pub friendly” board is employed – either that or rows of playing cards.

Perhaps the ultimate throwing game is the “tip ’em out of bed”, in which a paid occupant of a bed is tipped into a vat of water by a mechanism triggered by a direct hit from a ball.

The invention of the gun offered a natural progression for the more traditional “knock ’em down” stall and the Shooting Gallery takes full advantage of a public obsession with firearms. By the mid 19th century fairground shooting games were commonplace and even considered desirable by those looking for a cheap way of training potential soldiers before they’d even been recruited into the military.

The concept of taking aim at an enemy was ideally suited for the Shooting Gallery and over time familiar targets for assassination have included the Tzar of Russia, the Kaiser and our old friend, Adolf Hitler. The idea was also well suited to the British colonial view of the world.

In (very) general terms there have been two basic types of Shooting Gallery. The “Tube Shooter” of the 1850s had public safety very much in mind. Bullets were fired down a long iron tube. The target was placed at the end of the tube in a metal box, which was either illuminated naturally, or by candle light.

The problem with tube shooters was that only a couple of people could play at the same time. The more familiar Shooting Galleries, on the other hand, could easily accommodate several people at once.

Early on in their development these galleries were populated with figures actually holding targets. Eventually they became mechanical and evolved an ability to move targets back and forth, or up and down. Rows of ducks, for example, could be made to move across the gallery as customers tried to shoot them down.

Buffalo Bill was to change all this. Following his influential British tours cowboy fever spread quickly and showfolk began buying Winchester repeater rifles that enabled them to rename their attractions “Winchester Rifle Ranges”. The Wild West remains a common fairground theme to this day, although arcade “shoot up” games offer stiff competition.