Mixing it with the big boys
A brief history of the R.J. Lakin company
What was the true golden age of British fairground? Ask some experts and you’ll be told things have never been as good as they are today, ask someone else and you’ll be told the effect of steam power can’t be beaten. Ask the question again and you may find it was when a little firm from London took on the mighty Orton & Spooner at their own game.
To review the output of the R.J. Lakin company during its lifespan of 1926 to 1952 is to examine fairground itself during a period of time where the intense rivalry of two companies created an environment in which there has never been a more innovative period for both engineer and artist.
The Lakin factory at 67 Besley Street, Streatham (south London) had been formerly occupied by showman’s decorator Arthur Oram. In the early 1920s Oram went into partnership with Robert James Lakin, who, at the time, was working for Orton & Spooner demonstrating the construction and operation of fairground rides to their new owners.
Over the next few years Lakin poached staff from his old employers and eventually bought out Oram in 1926, re-forming the business as R.J. Lakin & Co. At first the new company built simple children’s roundabouts, as well as producing side-stalls, or hooplas, some fitted with elaborately carved spinners in the centre.
But these dry facts disguise Lakin’s ambition and he soon started making larger rides in direct opposition to Orton & Spooner. The first of these big hitters was probably Thomas Miller’s Scenic Whales, a machine rebuilt as an Ark in 1933 and travelled for many years by the Briggs family.
Another early foray into this world was with the Swirl or Skid, introduced into Britain from Germany in the late 1920s. It was an immediate success on the fairgrounds and a British version was devised in 1929 by Bob Lakin in associaton with showman John Thurston. A large quantity of Skids were built around this time by Lakins and the ride continued to be popular for many years.
Dodgems and Speedway tracks first appeared in the UK in the 1920s as amusement park attractions and were later available in portable form. Speedway tracks employed miniature petrol-driven cars but were never popular until the advent of proper electric drive, at which point the ride became better known as the “Monte Carlo Rally”. Lakin was credited as manufacturing a few of these rides, but it was with Dodgems that the company was better known.
By the mid-late 1930s Dodgems were the most popular fairground ride of all (remaining so for many years) and Lakins had certainly played a big part in making this happen. But it was a totally different ride that would cement the company’s reputation.
While everything else was going on Lakin was quietly assembling a team of artists to produce Noah’s Arks, the fast undulating roundabout with the stunning decor that would take British fairground by storm. A member of this team was a young man called Edwin Hall.
Initially, Hall designed the Ark mounts, but soon he had unofficially assumed the role of Lakin’s chief designer and artist. The combination of Hall’s artistry and Lakin’s shrewd handling of his staff and showmen, meant that the little factory was busy seven days a week.
Arks were essentially a German creation and the first to arrive in England was imported by showman William Wilson in 1930, who opened it at Mitcham Fair. The first Ark built by Lakin was delivered to showman Charles Thurston at the end of that year, resulting in legal action from Bothmanns, the German maker.
The actual term Noah’s Ark comes from the fact that assorted animal mounts were fitted to both the imported and earlier English machines. The early British Arks were small machines, built and decorated as economically as possible in the face of competitively priced German imports.
But the Wilson machine sparked furious activity and both Lakin and Ortons were soon knocking out Arks like nobody’s business, joined later by the Lang Wheels company of Uxbridge.
The Orton & Spooner five-hill Arks were amongst the first built, the first coming in 1931. The five-hill configuration only lasted until around 1933, by which time the four-hill machines became more-or-less “standard”.
By 1935 Arks were everywhere and the showmen loved them. As competition between Lakins and Ortons intensified the rides became more imposing and the decoration more spectacular.
To spice up the rivalry Edwin Hall hit on an idea that would win universal acclaim. From a sketch of “the chariot race”, a once famous painting hanging in Manchester art gallery, he created the Ben Hur Ark. The dramatic scene of the racing charioteers was reproduced on a frontpiece that was four panels high and the traditional Ark figures were replaced by horses, set in rows alternating with chariots, which in many cases were carved to represent dragons or art deco seahorses.
In 1937 Orton & Spooner countered when they fulfilled an order (Corrigans) for an Ark with motorcycle mounts, a concept exploiting the current popularity of motorcycle speedway racing. The Speedway, as it became known, was an instant success and Ortons were able to offer a highly original alternative to the Ben Hur machine.
As time went on Orton & Spooner were building even more elaborate Speedways, prompting Lakins to fit motorcycles onto their platforms and feature motorcyclists on their extension fronts. Arguably, the most elaborate examples of Ark-type rides ever produced came from this period as Lakin produced two machines in 1937 that were christened the “Coronation Speedways” (although they retained the Ben Hur-themed scenery).
As the “Ark wars” were in full swing the major players were also involved in other projects. An interesting aside occurred in 1935 following reports of a gigantic monster in Loch Ness. As the story was given such attention by the media a fairground ride was designed in Nessie’s honour. As produced by Lakins and Lang Wheels it was of three-hill Ark style, but minus the platform.
This ride never proved as popular with the punters as the builders had hoped, but the basic design lived to fight another day and became the Autodrome, introduced in 1939 by Lang Wheels. Lakin never cared much for the Autodrome and apparently built just one adult sized ride, although the company built quite a few in juvenile form.
Meanwhile, a direct and obvious development of the Noah’s Ark lay in the fitting of movable cars to the platform in place of fixed mounts. Accordingly, in 1933 Lakin (in association with showman Charles Thurston) introduced a travelling version of the Waltzer, a ride in which cars pivoted on a vertical axis as the platform(s) moved around.
As a machine the Waltzer has a long history, but it only appeared in something approaching its modern form in 1930 when Thomas Jackson embellished a design created by his own company in the 1920s.
It was Jackson’s work that was perfected by Lakin and Thurston, but despite travelling widely Thurston’s new machine was not as popular as the Arks. The Waltzer would have to wait its turn to become a serious money taker on the fairground.
Also during the 1930s Lakin was involved with rides like the Airways (after acquiring the building rights from their continental inventor), and in conjunction with Scottish firm George Maxwell, was producing another ride of German origin, the Moonrocket. This fast-moving machine seems to have been the creation of the Friedrich Heyn company in 1936.
It’s no exaggeration to say that during the closing years of the 1930s fairground in Britain was on a serious high, just as it was, ironically, immediately prior to the Great War. Almost as ironic is the fact that many of the great machines seen on British fairgrounds at this time were of German origin.
Images on this page tell the story of what it must have been like in those days at Lakins. Look around and you’ll see Skids and Swirls built in 1934,1935 and 1937. Mont Blancs built in 1933 and 1935 (Lakins were building these as late as 1937) and even a good old Loch Ness Monster ride, delivered in 1936.
Then there’s the Moonrocket, the last great innovation before Mr. Hitler came along, the first Lakin machine making its debut at Hull in 1937 in the ownership of John Hoadley.
And there’s the Waltzer of course, the first went to Charles Thurston in 1933, with the last pre-war machine coming in 1938 for W.H Marshall & Sons.
Don’t forget the Ark “project” either. Beginning in the early 1930s many evolved into “Ben Hur” machines and Speedways. Indeed, it is said by historians that the finest Ark built by Lakins came right before the war when Enoch Farrar took delivery of his bike-themed machine in 1938.
What would have developed had the war never occurred is anybody’s guess, but hostilities disrupted production at Lakins and the firm was never the same again once the war ended. Instead of churning out Waltzers, Arks and Moonrockets the company had to make do with cable drums for military purposes. And although ride production resumed after the war it was at a reduced capacity and remained so until Lakin retired.
In the immediate post-war years the company continued the association with Maxwells and life revolved around the Waltzer. It is not clear how this relationship came about, but it involved Lakin artist Sid Farmer transferring to Scotland to oversee production of a new series of Waltzers, initially designed by Edwin Hall. These were built entirely at the Maxwell factory from 1948.
What set this type of machine apart from anything that had gone before was the elaborate design style, which owed a great deal to the buildings designed for the Odeon cinema chain in the 1930s. Consequently these rides were referred to as Odeon Waltzers.
Although, interestingly, the first ride influenced by this Art Deco style of cinema architecture was Corrigans Kentucky Derby (designed by Sid Howell at Ortons in 1939) and probably one of the last new rides delivered before the outbreak of war.
One final “development” by Lakins was the “Silver Rodeo” Ark, two of which appear to have been built in 1949. One was built new for Corrigan’s, but was soon sold to Culine Bros in 1951 and was travelled by them virtually unaltered well into the 1970s. The other was new to Felecey’s at the Wonderland in Cleethorpes and although converted to a Waltzer it remained in otherwise almost original condition for many years.
But by 1952 Robert Lakin had had enough and closed the roundabout manufacturing side of his business. He offered the first floor paint shop to Edwin Hall, who continued working as a showman’s decorator for a short period, before branching into the more lucrative business of manufacturing coin-operated children’s rides and roundabouts.
Authors: Dave Page, Mike Smith, Steve Smith (with a little help from Weedon & Ward’s Fairground Art)
R & E Ingham had their Lakin Ark new in 1931. It was one of the “Royal Hunt” themed rides, and was later converted to a Waltzer, in which guise it is seen here. It can still be seen travelling in Scotland with Thomas Wilmot jnr, although it does look rather different now!
The earlier Arks developed into the “Ben Hur” themed machines, this one being built for Joe Ling in 1935. Unusually, it had 21 platforms, and was therefore never converted to a Waltzer. It continued to be travelled as an Ark by the Ling family until the 1980’s, but was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1996.
Probably the finest Ark built by Lakins, this was new for Enoch Farrar in 1938, being later travelled by son-in-law Charles Doubtfire. It had a relatively short life, being rebuilt in 1949 for Edwin Carter as a MkII Odeon-style Waltzer.
The final pre-war Waltzer was this magnificient ride built in 1938 for W.H. Marshall & Sons. They only kept it a short time, and after several changes of ownership was bought by Wilkies, and operated at New Brighton from 1950 until 1997. It is now owned in preservation, and is undergoing extensive restoration.
The first Waltzer was delivered new to Charles Thurston in 1933, being sold in 1940 to J.P. Collins. It is seen here at Blackburn Pot fair in 1954. J.P’s son Kevin travelled the ride for many years, eventually packing it up. Sadly, it was destroyed by fire in 1990.
The immediate post-war years saw the arrival of the famous “Odeon” waltzer. This is John Murphy’s, built in 1947, and still travelled by the family.
The last great innovation prior to the war was the Moonrocket; the first Lakin machine was John Hoadley’s which made its debut at Hull Fair in 1937. This picture shows Joe Ling’s (built in 1938) at Pudsey Feast, Leeds, in 1950.
This wonderfully evocative photograph shows J.H Shaw’s Moonrocket at Halifax in 1951. In 1954 this ride had the fixed cars replaced by 16 swing-out cars, and was re-themed as the “Space Cruisers”. It continued to travel until 1984; it is now owned by Howard Maden, and has been extensively restored.