Last week we were lucky enough to get the chance to sit down with Elaine Pritchard to talk to her about her new book, to coincide with ‘The Big Burton Carousel’ auction in October 2022!
Elaine was a journalist before running her own business for 11 years in Burton on Trent. She originally found out about Orton and Spooner back in 2003 and was very surprised she had not heard of them before, as someone who had been born and raised in Burton on Trent, she always believed somebody should do something about them. Now through ‘The Big Burton Carousel’, she has made that happen! Having retired last year, she is also now taking the opportunity to write a book titled ‘Labour of Love, The Orton and Spooner Story’ with the aim of hopefully allowing more and more people to learn about such a key part of Burton on Trent history.
(Image Description – set of 3 horses carved by Spooner around 1900 for W.H. Marshalls Juvenile Ride)
So who exactly were Orton and Spooner?
George Orton was born in 1844 in Measham where he got into making what was then called living wagons, which were caravans that showmen would live in as they went around the country, travelling to fairs. These were hugely ornate vehicles with lots of intricate carvings. Elaine spoke about one that she’d seen earlier in the day that in 1910 would have cost £1000.
Through this, he met with Charles Spooner, who at the time was one of his suppliers. Charles was 27 years younger than George and from Burton on Trent. Eventually, they began working together, with Charles Spooner doing the designs whilst George would build the wagons and then paint them. Through this, they progressed to working on fairground rides.
Elaine said “Charles Spooner had some wonderfully mad ideas”, one such idea that she went into more detail about was Charles' Boer War carousel horses. “At the time the war was a big conflict and it was all in the news, so as a gimmick he created these sort of centaurs, half horse half Boer War general, which was really popular for a few years”.
(Image description – Boer War Generals)
That is just a brief snapshot of some of the amazing things these two men did together, to learn more definitely give the book a read when it releases in October!
What was it like working with all the families?
Throughout her time writing this book Elaine has managed to speak to the families of people who had worked for Orton and Spooner as well as even the family members of the two men, which sounds like a truly fascinating experience!
“Well the people that I knew first were the Howell family and they had three ancestors who were all fairground artists who worked for Orton and Spooner doing some amazing work on the big rides, creating huge rounding boards around the gallopers and what they call scenic railways, which were a massive craze in the first few decades of the 1900s.
So I got to know Paul and Kath very well and they're sort of the main people that are helping me in the book. Then I've been fortunate enough to meet a guy who's a great-grandson of Charles Spooner and I've just made contact with a great
-grandson of George Orton. So that's all very exciting.
It’s been quite an emotional journey, but also quite fast because we're desperate to get this book out for October to coincide with the auction of the big Burton carousel
(Image description – Albert and Sid Howell)
Most interesting parts of writing the book?
“It has been fantastic the way it's captured the imaginations of some of the organizations around the UK, for instance, there's an amazing collection at the University of Sheffield called the National Fairgrounds and Circus Archive.
And I told them what I was doing and they have a huge Orton and Spooner collection there which is probably the biggest collection of pictures. Around 1500! So I got to go through all those and they let me choose whatever I wanted for the book. Yesterday I had a brilliant morning in the archives for the National Brewery Centre in Burton on Trent because they have got a quite eclectic collection of letters, memos and invoices from George Orton in the very early days. So It was a fascinating morning.
When I opened the first envelope, it was a thrill and it felt really emotional to be holding this piece of paper, but there was some fascinating stuff there. It was great to see the evidence of something that people talk about a lot, which is how committed Orton and spoon were to keeping money in the town and how much economic activity they generated.
it's just really sad that they've not been remembered over the years, but hopefully, we're going to put that right.”
(picture of Orton and Spooner)
How has interest in Orton and Spooner developed since the start of the trail?
During the talk with Elaine one topic that seemed to come up frequently was that Orton and Spooner were a part of Burton's history, that for whatever reason is just not really known about. This was something the team hoped ‘The Big Burton Carousel’ and this book would change.
From the sound of it, there has definitely been a growing interest in people keen to learn more. During an open day at the ‘Making Trails’ Headquarters where people could come and see the artists of the project, Elaine was given a space to set up and talk to anyone interested in learning more. It is safe to say that she was definitely taken by surprise by how many people came over to her!
“I thought, I'm not going to be that busy, you know? So I took my laptop and I thought I can do a bit of work when it is quiet. Well, it was just never quiet because fantastically Tilly got lots of visitors, and everybody was like what's this? They're looking at the pictures and they're saying “I've lived in Burton all my life. I've never heard about these people. So it was just fantastic. There is a lot of interest there and again and the pictures I've had access to some of which have never been in books before. They are really going to bring it to life because it is really compelling when you see the work and the craftsmanship and the artistry that went into these rides.”
The importance of looking after mental health
Throughout this talk with Elaine, it became clear, that whilst these two men managed to achieve some truly amazing things together, they also faced many challenges along the way such as their struggles with mental health.
“We look back at people like George Orton and Charles Spooner and we can see the challenges and the difficulties they had to deal with. Some of the documents I've looked at show the incredible pressure that they were under sometimes at work as well as the difficulties and tragedies that they faced in their personal life as well.
And obviously, that's been the same throughout history but these days I think technology has put a whole new spin on things and people have those same pressures and those same difficulties and challenges they always have had but everything seems to be sped up very much. We live in a really fast-paced society and everything's instant. In George and Charles' day, it was letters and telegrams. That was the communication. But now you've got that speed. You've got the pressures of social media and the negative way that that can make people feel.
I think particularly having come out of the pandemic, that the demand for the services of a charity like Mind has absolutely skyrocketed and obviously will do in the future because I think the impact of the pandemic will be felt for a long, long time that it's had on people at all ages, really from the young to the old. It's a charity I've been interested in and I've always watched the work that you've done with huge interest. It’s a source of great pride to be able to do something, to help through a book that I really wanted to write as well.”
(Picture of construction)
How can you get involved in the release of this book?
There is currently a crowdfunder that will end on the 22nd of August, so if you are interested we definitely recommend getting that done quickly! This is a great opportunity of supporting getting this book published as the production costs can be quite high. There are several tiers of support that you can choose, each coming with its own reward. For example, one tier will get your name or the name of your business in the acknowledgement section of the book!
You can find this here -> https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/oands
The book will be launched alongside the auction for ‘The Big Burton Carousel’ in October, with all the profits of the book being donated to us here at Burton and District Mind. So this truly is a fantastic way of supporting what we do here and also taking the opportunity to learn more about some of the amazing history of Orton and Spooner.
Elaine has done an absolutely fantastic job writing this book and ensuring this story gets told. When speaking to Tilley Bancroft of the Making Trails Team, it was made clear that Elaine had a real eye for picking out a story which has definitely been demonstrated through her work on Orton and Spooner. When asked about her discovery of stories Elaine says “Every street in Burton will have stories and it's just amazing when you do a bit of digging and I would recommend to anybody go and have a look in things like the British newspaper archive and just putting random searches on names and perhaps names of your grandparents or great grandparents or places in Burton.
It’s definitely really nice just to get these stories that may not be known about and give people a new chance to learn about them. So that's really cool because there have always been amazing people that have done extraordinary things.
We've called the book ‘Labour of love, The Orton and Spooner Story. And that kind of just feels like it fits because it's kind of what it is for me and Paula Howell and her daughter Kath, but it's also a lot of what it was to Charles and George”. The two men faced a lot of challenges through their time but used their work as a way of supporting themselves through it like a “type of art therapy”.
Thank you so much to Elaine for talking to us, and we are so excited about the launch of the book in October! From all of us here at Burton and District Mind we wish you the best of luck in getting it finished and again thank you for helping us to continue to support our local community!