The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Fairground rides

A Venetian gondola on the 'scenic railway'
Travelling fairs have been a part of English life for centuries. Back in the 19th century, like many other aspects of life, fairs had the industrial revolution makeover and steam driven rides became one of the attractions.

The Thursford Collection is the world's largest collection of steam powered machines, including farm equipment, showman's engines, mechanical organs, and amazing fairground rides. It's all set in a magical world that looks like Christmas all year long.

Of course, the ornate decoration, intense colours and bright lights are all part of the fairground atmosphere, and Thursford emphasises all of that. It talks about the history of travelling fairs and shows off its selection of wooden pillars and carved swags that were made in the great Victorian showman's workshops in Kings Lynn and Burton on Trent. It discusses the families who ran their fairs around the country throughout the showman's season, starting with the Kings Lynn Mart in February, all the way through to the famous Nottingham Goose Fair in October.

Ned and Jane - our Galloper mounts
Each one was the equivalent of a small village, built from scratch at the start of every halt, and then carefully dismantled and packed away a few days later so the fair could move on. There's a first-hand account by 91-year-old John Farrar of the work involved in setting up a ride called the 'scenic railway' that's still in operation at Thursford. It took three days of hard graft, starting Wednesday, to be ready for a 5pm opening on Friday.

We had a go on the 'scenic railway' which is also known as the Venetian Gondola. It's a switchback ride that goes at a stately pace but rises up and slides down two rolling slopes during each rotation - all the while playing the grand, exciting fairground organ music. We also had a go on the Gallopers - the familiar up and down horse figures of the traditional carousel. My photos do neither of them justice.

I was in my element at Thursford, descended as I am from carnies and circus folk. This was my history. But I suspect anyone with a sense of fun would have loved it. There's lots more to Thursford too - and I'll probably tell you more in later posts.


  1. Really interesting, thanks for sharing!

  2. I remember the fair coming to my home town of Macclesfield twice a year in May and October during the late 40s /early 50s. There was the excitement of seeing them setting up and then the Friday night outing with my dad who invariably won a coconut for me. The Gallopers were and still are my favourite ride, There were all kinds of side shows too - I still remember the immortal line in my school writing book when I was five years old ' I saw some snaks at the May Fer' Happily my spelling has improved a bit since then:)

  3. Yes Anne, we went to Thursford when we were in Norfolk a couple of years ago - I love those old fairground rides - cockerels and horses used to be one of my favourites, along with the flying chairs.
    Bus loads from here go down to Thursford nearer to Christmas then they put on special shows.


Why not add your two pennyworth?