A grand day out: Rare pictures of fairground history

It was some time in the 1860s, at the Midsummer Fair in Halifax, that thrill-seekers were treated to a glimpse of the future.

May 1936:  Holidaymakers on a fairground ride at Butlin's in Skegness.  (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
May 1936: Holidaymakers on a fairground ride at Butlin's in Skegness. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The steam-powered roundabout that the organisers had hauled in as the star attraction was a watershed moment in the history of popular entertainment. It was the first of its kind and it marked the end of the Victorian freak show and the dawn of a mechanical age of carousels that would come of age with the white-knuckle rides of Blackpool, Scarborough and a thousand other funfairs.

As these rarely-seen pictures from the archive show, crowds have always been drawn to these attractions. By the turn of the last century, some 200 fairs were pitching up on common land and in parks around the country every weekend, from Easter to November. And as primitive as some of the attractions seem now, they were new and exciting to those who handed over their penny or tuppence to ride them.

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As steam gave way to electricity, they got faster and more frightening, with new dodgems and waltzers replacing the galloping horses.

1905: The swingboats at Southsea Fair, circa 1905. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In Yorkshire, the fairs ranged from the very small – a permanent site operated at Shipley Glen until recent times – to the enormous, and none more so than the Hull Fair. With roots that can be traced to 1599, it is among the oldest and largest in Europe and takes place for a week every October, on a 14-acre site that has been a designated fairground since 1888.

Yet for all the glitz of the present-day version, the essential experience has hardly changed.

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1st September 1917: Nurses on a carousel during an entertainment day for wounded soldiers at Sidcup. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

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Visitors to the Hampstead Fair, London, enjoying a ride on the chair-swings. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

James Mitchinson, Editor

circa 1920: People enjoying a ride at the Crystal Palace fun fair. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
August 1910: People enjoying the 'wibble-wobble' (early bumper cars) at the Japan-British Exhibition, held in London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
December 1912: View of a fair, showing carousel and swing-boat rides, 1912. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)