The Waltzer

Age c. 100 years
Duration 3 minutes
Rate of Change Annually
Physical Scale Medium
Experiential Scale Large

A ride with freely spinning tub-shaped cars mounted on an undulating, rotating platform, forming part of the ‘Switchback’ family.

As with many other kinds of rides, the core switchback technology of the Waltzer hasn’t changed much since the early C20th versions (the earliest photo I’ve got, c.1910, is of Thurston’s Waltzer on Oxford St.Giles, earlier than Braithwaite suggests) but the ways in which the interior is dressed has changed significantly. The most recent and significant addition of technology is to the internal environment, involving sound, light, and other club effects such as dry ice.

The movement of the Waltzer is unusually complex, with each of 8 or 10 cars spinning independently, helped by a number of gaff lads who move over the platform of the ride more or less independently, minding two or three cars each; at the center of the ride the DJ/controller is located; on the periphery, stewards and (sometimes) spectators, externally a token/pay here booth, plus more spectators.

The degree of enclosure seems to be increasing; see various illustrations, moving from more or less open-sided to more or less fully enclosed. The materiality of this enclosure varies: some appear to be canvas, some transparent, some translucent, some opaque.

The relationship between the inside and outside the ride also varies by fair: in some situations, the Waltzer remains fairly and evenly open (Hoppings), in others, it is open to certain directions (Oxford St.ilesG), and finally in others (Ilkeston, Loughborough) it is very closed off. Some (Anthony Harris, Ilkeston) have mirrored finishes to the interior, emphasising this internalised nature. Cox’s Waltzer (Ilkeston), has semi-translucent exterior panels, a much more open and easy threshold (fewer steps, small height, more of a ‘skirt’ than a barrier).

The Waltzer, in common with a group of the more traditional rides (including gallopers, helter-skelter, dodgems) has a more ‘architectural’ presence, in the sense that its presence is fairly constant and physically determined. (In contrast to other rides with either v. small footprint but major elevation, or others that are a light framework for significant movement, light, and / or sound. The latter tend to be dependent upon more recent technologies / transport.) In contrast, though, the Waltzer exceeds the complexity of these others, offering a far wider range of experiences (experientially, spatially, operationally, spectatorially)

The Waltzer also frequently emerges as an alternative club space as much as it is part of the fair. As the evening wears on the ride closes in on itself, closes itself off from its surroundings while attracting a predominantly under-18 audience with the promise (and delivery) of pseudo-transgressive hardcore techno music and a rave environment that they would not otherwise (well, legally, or with parental consent) be able to access. As much as the Waltzers changes its identity as dusk settles, becoming partly peripheral to the fairground crowd, it also provides an example of the complex range of interactions between different individuals and groups of people that can take place within a single ride and throughout the fair. Here, at a basic level, a distinction can be made between the main ride operator (and DJ); temporary operators who ride the ride/dancefloor, circulating around and spinning the booths while remaining apparently unperturbed by the rough motion of the ride; small groups of punters in the spinning booths, and lines of spectators described by Paul Needham: ‘Crowds sat around the back of the waltzer listening to the latest tunes with light shows better than any night club—free to all no entrance fees here! The screams of the girls—"if you wanna go faster you gotta scream, let's hear you scream come on"!’ (Needham 1999–2000: vol II: 23-24). Even within this one ride, each of these constituencies remain in close physical proximity but barely acknowledge each other, each behaving according to distinct codes and rituals, acting and moving in very different ways. This is but one example of the opportunities for multiple and varied uses, or mis-uses, that are taken up within the fair environment.

Fred Cox's Waltzer W50, reappearing in different guises between 1979 and 2012.

(All photographs are from the collections of the National Fairground Archive.)

While this selections of photographs supports our understanding of how this particular fairground ride—the Waltzer—has developed since its introduction around 1910, they also provide a useful reminder that the fairground constantly reinvents itself to reflect changes in fashion, to appear to provide novelty. In this case, the images show a general decrease in the depth of fascia that most rides have undergone during the past century, principally to avoid excessive labour time (and associated costs). This sequence also shows differing architectural treatments given to these rides, which include an extravagant baroque tendency around the time of the second world war, to more fashionable art deco styles immediately after.

on the Market Place

On the Pimlico site.

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