The Ghost on the Fairground

by Ian Trowell, National Fairground Archive

Professor John Henry Pepper conjured up his famous Ghost in 1862 for an audience at the Royal Polytechnic (Regent Street, London) - then described as the "greatest scientific exploratorium of the Victorian Era". The presentation drew upon the methods of the magic lantern phantasmagoria (literally - a gathering of ghosts) popular from the 1790s. These magic lantern shows had become widespread on the fairgrounds.

Fairground showmen were quick to pick up on the Pepper's Ghost illusion, and the fairground Ghost Show emerged around 1873, with Randall Williams exhibiting at the Agricultural Hall. By the late 1880s the Ghost Show was a popular theme on the fairground, and flourished for over 20 years.

Huge ornate shows were built by George Orton (Burton-Upon-Trent), with carved decorative fronts. These shows were the precursors to the Bioscope Show, and were quickly surpassed at the turn of the century as the moving image hit the fairground. For a brief while the Ghost went into the background.

George Orton went on to form the company Orton and Spooner, who began manufacturing Ghost Trains in the 1930s. The ride was actually a cross between a show and ride, and emerged at a time when mechanical rides were developing at a rapid rate, in effect signalling the slow demise of shows as the driving force of the fairground.

Ghost Trains were built at static seaside and park locations, with a small number of travelling machines added later. The structure was a single deck with a strictly twisting track bursting through various partition doors to reveal new horrors in each compartment.

Braithwaite's "Fairground Architecture" describes the Ghost Train as follows: "At discreet intervals, dummy trains running on an energised rail, carrying no more than two passengers, penetrate the darkened booth. A labyrinth of hair-raising spectacles, optical tricks and sudden cloying tactility awaits them".

Early Orton and Spooner artwork was created by Sid and Albert Howell and featured incredible replica scenes of classic British Rail life. Sid Howell had an ability to memorise faces, hair colour and styles of dress, and many of the scenes showed carefully observed BR buffets - men in trilby hats, women in utility line suits, stockings and heels, drunken sailors. It is suggested that the film 'Brief Encounter' played a major part in influencing this artwork.

By the 1950s fairground Ghost Trains were rising in popularity. Clapham based artist Fred Fowle stamped his own impressive style on the rides - Fowle used skeleton train drivers taking over steam engines, the runaway locomotive chasing the BR driver down the track. Another popular theme was the backwater station, where passengers and staff were held to ransom by various ghouls and demons, meticulously submitting the characters to various disconcerting experiences.

Coventry-based company Supercar invented the dual-level Ghost Train which, in the same way as multi-storey parking, allowed a better monopolisation of space. However, a dual-level ride allowed a big dipper style thrill dip to be performed on the front of the track.

By the late 1980s the Ghost Train ride was now travelling on multiple levels, thanks to innovative showmen like Gilbert Chadwick. However, as the ride got higher the need to extend backwards into a twisting labyrinth of rooms was slowly diminished. The Ghost Train rose vertically from a smaller and smaller footprint, and the classic challenge of creating a thrill using a multitude of darkened rooms was replaced by a set of twisting and turning surprises as the carriage descends from its highest point. In many ways the Ghost Train was becoming less of a show, a product of the showman's imagination, and more of a thrill ride.

As these Ghost Trains got higher the frontage became more vast, with extended artwork to match. Airbrush art has now taken prominence, with artists such as Paul Wright sampling from an extended palette of grisly modern horror films and franchises.

Photo: Ghost Show
Biddall's Ghost Show, 1880s.

Photo: Ghost Show
Interior of Clark's Ghost Show, 1890s

Photo: Ghost Train art
Classic Orton and Spooner Howell artwork.

Photo: Ghost Train artwork
Classic Orton and Spooner Howell artwork.

Photo: Ghost Train artwork
Classic Orton and Spooner Howell artwork.

Photo: Ghost Train car
A classic 'Hayes Fabrication' car from Manning's Ghost Train.

Photo: Ghost Train
Track detail of Lock's Train, 1967 - note the exit message.

Photo:Ghost Train
The first Roller Ghoster with leading showman Pat Collins, Birmingham, 1967.

Photo: Ghost Train
'Worse Than Ever' - great advertising for this Scottish Train.

Photo: Ghost Train
Up and away - Gilbert Chadwick pioneered the multi-deck rides.

Photo: Ghost Train
Paul Wright's first airbrush work was on Ghost Trains and Castles.

Photo: Ghost Train
Classics old and new - Frankenstein takes his place in front of Freddy Kruger.