A family with a passion for restoration have created a touring funfair filled with colour and nostalgia.
The faint strains of a pipe organ waft across the park as families make their way towards an area corralled by vintage trucks decked out in maroon. Inside the fairground, the senses are bombarded by a nostalgic mix of rock ’n’ roll, clanging bells, excitable shrieks and candyfloss.
Riders on traditional Gallopers rise and fall sedately as they go round on horses with names such as Teddy, Eve, Frank and Amber. Children’s legs hang kicking out of the seats as a Chair-o-Plane ride gathers momentum, and white-knuckled hands grip the rail as the Dive Bomber somersaults over at speed.
This is Carters Steam Fair, an unashamedly old-fashioned funfair, which tours the south of England from Easter to Bonfire Night. All the rides and sideshows are restored originals dating from the 1870s to the 1960s. The same applies to the gleaming showmen’s wagons, and even the lorries that tow them from site to site. A large sign entreats visitors to “try something old today”.
The fair was started by John and Anna Carter in the late 1970s,
a result of their obsession with all things mechanical and old. Neither came from a show family, but they did own a test-of-strength machine, the Mighty Striker, and one ride,
the Steam Yachts.
“My late husband just couldn’t stop collecting things, and finally got around to fairground rides,” says Anna. “We were trying to make a living organising collectors’ fairs and vintage car shows. Part of our revenue was having fairground rides come along to those. When we got let down by the showmen, John decided to buy a set of Gallopers to fill the gap, and that side of it just took over.”
Returned to beauty
Gallopers are the British version of the American carousel ride. The difference is they rotate clockwise, not anti-clockwise as the American ride does, and the horses are not prancing. The bones of the Carters’ set date back to the 1890s, though they have seen plenty of alterations since then. It is one of two rides still powered by steam, with the rest running on electricity.
The dilapidated set John found was thought to date from approximately 1910, and was built by Robert Tidman & Sons, of Bishop Bridge Iron Works in Norwich. The wooden horses were carved and fitted together in sections by a company of renowned early 20th century fairground carvers, Andersons of Bristol. The Carters paid £1,500 for them, then spent all their free time restoring them. This involved stripping back the woodwork, making spare parts, and repainting them using skills they had both learned in art school.
A friend had a steam engine, also built by Tidman, that fitted exactly. The sounds are produced by a century-old Gavioli organ, bought from Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who.
“We made sure the set was structurally sound and brought them out plain, painted in basic colours,” says Anna. “We had to get them out to earn some money.” Since then, they have been decorated with paintings of exotic creatures and famous people, and the horses given names of friends and family. “I grew up with them. They’re beautiful and quintessentially English,” says the Carters’ son, Joby. “It’s the classic ride everyone thinks of when they think of a funfair.”
At first, the family toured the Gallopers as part of other funfairs. Then they bought other rides, such as the Chair-o-Plane, a revolving swing ride from the 1920s. The 1921 Steam Yachts were eventually added to the touring rides when a steam engine, Yorky, built in 1901, was restored. The two ‘boats’, with seats inside, swing to an almost perpendicular angle.
“Dad went up to Scotland to buy them, and they were just a heap,” says Joby. “It wasn’t until Harry Lee, who had the only other set of Steam Yachts, sold us his spare steam engine that Mum and
Dad restored the ride, using the original drawings.” Lee, who died in 1997, was
a well-known travelling showman.
Setting out on tour
In the early 1980s, the first Carters Steam Fair went on tour with a handful of their own rides and some run by other showmen. By this time, the public were being seduced by state-of-the-art white-knuckle rollercoasters at large theme parks. “Everything we did was a risk,” says Anna. “We were definitely bucking the trend,” adds Joby. “When we started, there were very few sets of Gallopers travelling. Now, there are at least 100. I’d say we’ve had an influence.”
The Carters regard the Gallopers as part of the family. Anna recalls one fair some years ago when they experienced a problem with youths behaving badly. “They were jumping all over the Gallopers. I actually got out of the paybox, all 5ft 2ins of me, and unpeeled their hands from the ride,” she says. “You can feel real love for these machines.”
In 2000, John Carter died. By this time, three of his children, Joby, Seth and Rosie, had become too fond of the fair to let it go. “I told the boys I couldn’t do it without them,” says Anna. “It’s a hard lifestyle. It’s hard for men because it’s very physical, and hard for girls to adapt to moving every week in a living van.”
Joby now manages the fair with his wife Georgina. “To be a showman, you’ve got to do a bit of everything,” he says. “I project-manage restorations, find the sites, and do some of the painting.” Anna is officially retired, but has rediscovered her love of scenic painting, creating some of the backdrops for the rides. Seth and Rosie manage their own rides.
The fair tours the region now with approximately 10 big rides,
10 small rides and 10 stalls.
The oldest ride the Carters own are the Overboats, a scaled-down version of a big wheel, dating back to 1875. However, because the ride requires hand-cranking, which is hard and labour intensive, it is not touring at present. The Swingboats are another gentle ride whose popularity harks back to the 19th century. They are operated by the riders themselves pulling on a central rope. This gave rise to the phrase “the fair is in full swing”.
Perhaps the most heart-thumping ride is the Dive Bomber, which originates from circa 1946. Two mechanical arms with pods at each end somersault and spin simultaneously. A notice warns thrill-seekers to hold on to their spare change.
The Toytown and Cars & Bikes roundabouts for younger children feature old pedal cars that were restored by John. When he originally acquired the 1930s rides, they had had modern versions added. After advertising for originals to replace these, he ended up with enough for two rides.
Although the fair is currently of a manageable size, the Carters would consider adding a big wheel or helter-skelter if one came their way. “I’d love to keep buying old rides, and I’ve always fancied a waltzer, but it takes a lot of work to get them on the road,” says Joby.
The 1948 Mighty Striker was the first piece of fairground equipment the Carters owned, buying it before they had any rides. They reckon that today’s showgoers do not have the hammer-wielding ability to hit the bell. “I think people are a bit too much in touch with their feminine side,” says Anna. They have two other machines which are more popular, as they are smaller and require less strength.
Other sideshows include the Ball Blower, which dates from the 1930s, and involves catching a ball with a net on the end of a stick. The Cork Shooter is also pre-war, and offers people the chance to bag a prize with a cork-firing rifle.
Living on the road
True to form, the living wagons and lorries used by the fair are also vintage. One, a 1955 Hurst, was bought by Joby from Gerry Cottle, the circus owner. While restoring it, he found that the sun had etched the original scroll pattern into the aluminium under a layer of paint, so he was able to recreate it.
The 1954 Royal Windsor is Joby’s family home on the road. Originally owned by the Smart family, of circus fame, he bought it in 2012, restoring and extending it. The polished woodwork inside is maple and mahogany veneer. The 1948 Vosper is Anna’s living wagon, and even includes a marble fireplace. It is thought to have cost approximately £6,000 when new, a fortune at the time. This was another purchase from Gerry Cottle, this time in 1986.
The lorries include a 1950s Scammell dairy truck, a Second World War petrol tanker, a 1970s council gritter lorry, a cattle truck, and a 1932 Ford.
Setting up shop
The fair stays at each site for anything from two to eight days. Fifteen large loads, weighing 250 tons, are conveyed from one venue to the next. In advance of this, there is a pile of forms to complete, concerning everything from site access to health and safety. A team is also dispatched to put up posters.
The more complex rides can take up to five hours to install, with the aid of a crane. Others need only to be staked into the ground. All the vehicles and rides are washed before a fair, and the machinery is cleaned, oiled and inspected. “You’re putting on a show, so presentation is very important,” says Anna.
“We pull down on Sunday night or Monday, move on Tuesday, then it takes three or four days to set the fair up,” says Joby. They are helped by 25-30 other family members, part-timers and volunteers.
“I’ve got rides that should be left in the shed or sold, but it’s not the point. We love them,” Joby adds. “William Morris said do not have in your home what you do not believe to be beautiful or useful. That’s our fair. Every ride makes me smile.” He’s not alone in that.
Words: Caroline Rees Photography: Clive Doyle