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MMD > Archives > February 2000 > 2000.02.23 > 02Prev  Next

Showman's Terms in Great Britain
By Russell Wattam

In reply to Tom McAuley's enquiry about the fairground terminology
used in the new FOPS book;

1.  Gallopers (always used in the plural) are roughly the same as a US
carousel.  In a British machine the direction of rotation is always
clockwise as opposed to the anti-clockwise rotation of most other
American and European rides.  On all but the smallest machines, the
horses (or cockerels, ostriches or other animals) rise and fall to
simulate the galloping motion of a horse; hence the name "gallopers".

In certain parts of the country these rides are also known as
"jumpers".  The horses are usually three and occasionally four abreast.
The organ is placed within the centre ring of the ride on a platform
alongside the steam engine which drives the whole operation (although
most are now driven by electricity).

2.  A Bioscope show was a huge travelling tented show in which
moving pictures (the "bioscope") were shown to the public.  The front
of the show was formed by a series of large carved and painted panels
in front of which stood a fairground organ and a stage.  Performers and
a front man, assisted by the organ, would attract paying customers to
the show.  Once inside, these customers would be entertained by silent
films, short reels of popular comedy, topical items, etc., appeared to
be the staple fare.

These shows started to appear in the 1890's; often films were shown
in addition to animal, variety or wax-work exhibits and were really the
first chance for the British public to see moving pictures.  Their
popularity began to wane shortly before the outbreak of the Great War
as permanent cinemas became established and the novelty wore off

Although their popularity was short lived, they were responsible for
the largest and grandest fair organs ever made; Gaviolis up to 112
keyless and Marenghis reputedly up to 120 keys were built specially
for British showmen.  The facades of these shows could be 60 feet wide
and 30 feet high, many being lit by that other miracle of the age,
electricity.  The electric current was supplied by a showman's steam
engine which, when not being used to haul the show from town to town,
drove a large dynamo mounted on the front of the engine itself.

3.  A Scenic Railway was a large circular ride, the main body of
which remained static.  They were developed from the earlier
"switchback".  Only the cars moved on a circular undulating rail
track running on the periphery of the machine.  The track consisted
of two valleys and two hills and the cars took the form of carved
gondolas, dragons, whales, dolphins, motor cars or in early examples,
plain cars known as "toastracks".  The diameter of the larger machines
could be up to 60 feet.

The main difference between a switchback and a scenic railway was that
in the former the cars were connected to and pulled round the track by
a spinning frame in the top of the ride driven directly by a steam
centre engine; in a scenic railway the cars had huge electric motors
which did away with the need for a spinning frame.

In both cases, an organ was placed in the centre of the machine;
scenics, being larger in diameter, often housed large organs made
redundant by the old bioscope shows.  Because scenics were driven by
electricity, supplied by the showman's road engine, this resulted in an
amount of free space in the centre of the machine; this was filled with
a mass of painted scenery and often a real waterfall.  These rides fell
from general favour at the time of the Second World War after which
most were broken up and destroyed.

All these shows and machines were intended to be assembled and taken
down regularly and in some cases, every few days during the travelling
season.  Many sets of gallopers still exist but no bioscope shows or
scenic railways survive.  Fortunately two switchbacks have made it into
the 21st century.

It is difficult to imagine what the atmosphere of a fair was like at
the turn of the last century, but with the help of old photographs you
can get perhaps a glimmer of a chance.  These rides and shows, with
their grand organs, really need to be seen to be believed.

A few books might be of interest to MMDer's who want to see them:
"Gallopers"; "The Travelling Cinematograph Show"; and "The Circular
Steam Switchback" are all by the British authors Stephen Smith and
Kevin Scrivens and are really surveys of known surviving machines (in
the former book) and those known to have existed (in the latter two).
They contain some valuable information as well as a wealth of excellent
old photographs.  They are available in the USA (I think) from Nancy

Best wishes,

Russell Wattam

(Message sent Wed 23 Feb 2000, 23:59:30 GMT, from time zone GMT.)

Key Words in Subject:  Britain, Great, Showman's, Terms

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