The Colourful History of the Carousel
6 August 2017
As Carter’s Steam Fair has returned once more to Bath’s Victoria Park we’ve been thinking about where the iconic fairground ride, the carousel, first came from...
They’re a long way from the hair-raising rollercoasters that are now the main attractions of amusement parks, but despite the fact that they can’t compete in terms of technology or in the adrenaline-boosting stakes, the traditional fairground carousel remains a firm favourite with all ages.
The word “carousel” was first given to a game played by Arabian and Turkish horsemen in the 12thcentury. When Italian invaders saw the game, which involved tossing a perfume-filled clay ball between riders, they thought it was played with such solemnity that they called it a “little war” or “carosello”.
The game eventually moved across Europe and made its way to France (where the Italian “carosello” became the French “carousel”). In order to get practice in before the game was played the French invented a practise device which featured wooden horses on the end of arms on a central rotating pole. The horsemen mounted the wooden horses and as a human, horse or mule turned the device the horsemen would try to spear hanging rings onto the end of their jousting lances.
These carousels were seen by passers-by who thought that they looked like fun to ride and soon carousels were being built purely for entertainment use. By the late 1700s the man/horse-driven carousels could be found at fairs across Europe, but it wasn’t until 1861 that Thomas Bradshaw revealed the first steam-powered roundabout in Bolton. This power boosted roundabout meant carousels could be much bigger and the “golden age” of carousels was begun, lasting from the late 1800s until the 1930s and the Great Depression.
Although begun in Europe, the biggest and most elaborate carousels had started to be made in America, but when the Great Depression came this, coupled with the loss of interest in preference for the exciting new rollercoasters, meant that when the economy recovered the demand for expensive hand-carved carousels was gone and instead fiberglass and aluminium carousels took over.
Now time for a small confession. When we came to look up the origins of the carousel that Carters Steam Fair has we discovered that it’s not actually a carousel but is a ride called the Gallopers! This is a British ride born “of a time when normal working people couldn’t afford their own horse and it provided a much-needed flight of fancy and often would be highly decorated with exotic scenes, portraits of actors and actresses, of great man and royalty. In the days before cinema or television, it was transporting people into a gaily-coloured world.”
However, the ride is similar to the original carousel and the horses are hand-carved wooden horses (mostly carved, incidentally, around 1910 by Andersons of Bristol – so they’re practically coming home for a visit).
Carousel or Roundabout or Gallopers, going down to Bath’s Victoria Park and taking a turn on the steam-powered flight of fancy is something we can highly recommend.
(Carters Steam Fair will be at Bath’s Victoria Park from August 5th until August 20th and open from 12pm-8pm each day.)