King of the Jungle
The Albert Howell Story
Sid Howell is recognised as one of the great fairground artists, but where did all that creative talent come from? His dad Albert, of course!
Albert Howell was born in Bristol in 1877 and was educated at the St. James Boys School. He progressed to a very high standard in his artwork and between 1897 and 1899 went on to gain certificates in painting, drawing, ornament and still life subjects at Bristol’s Merchant Venturers’ Technical College.
His interest in art was no doubt passed on from his father, also called Albert Sidney Howell, who restored and lined oil paintings for a living and was an accomplished picture frame maker and gilder.
The earliest record of any fairground connections go back to 1895, when at the age of eighteen Albert had made contact with showman H.Jennings, of Devizes, Wiltshire – a roundabout proprietor of that period.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that Albert got directly involved with fairground work; this coming about while working with William Spilsbury who trained him in jungle scenery, animals and birds; just the type of art for which he would become well known.
Spilsbury was a well known Bristol artist who specialised in animal paintings. He had premises in the Hotwells area close to the docks and also the workshops of Anderson’s, the renowned designers and wood carvers. Spilsbury was well known to local showmen and also had connections in other parts of England, one of these being C.J. Spooner.
Albert and Spilsbury worked together until Spilsbury’s death in 1907, which is perhaps why Albert placed the following in the “Wanted Engagements” section of the Music Hall and Theatre Review on May 31st, 1907: “A.S. HOWELL (for several years with W.Spilsbury) Artist to Menageries and Exhibitions, Café, &c. Estimates free”.
This was a busy period in Albert’s life. Not only had he started work, but in 1902 had married Susannah Mary Stokes, in Pill, Bristol, and three years later he was a father following the birth of their first daughter, Mildred. Albert’s eldest son, Sid, was born in 1906, followed three years later by his second daughter, Phyllis. The family was growing and Albert’s income needed to keep pace.
Continuity of work was essential to keep this ever expanding family secure. As there was only so much work to be had from the West Country showmen now was a good time to advertise his many skills further afield. In February 1909 there is record of Albert placing an advert in the showman’s newspaper, World’s Fair, which read: “A.S. Howell, Artist and Decorator, high class painting and decoration for all kinds of exhibitions.”
By this time Albert’s scenic art was well known to showmen in the West of England. The distinctive shields used on many Galloper sets of the time were his trademark and were decorated with wild animal heads, some of which still exist today.
He also became skilled in decorating fairground showfronts, panels and banners for the many travelling Menageries and Bioscopes that were so popular at that time and was working directly for better known showmen like Anderton & Rowland, Marshall Hill and William Symonds.
Over the years Albert had developed a strong working relationship with Marshall Hill which was to pay dividends in 1911 when Hill offered him an eighteen month contract, at an agreed rate of £1-10s-0d per week. This offer was readily accepted by Albert as it would give him a basic guaranteed income. In any case, he would need more money to support another addition to his family, his second son, Gordon, was born that year.
However, by 1912 he was lodging in Burton-on-Trent and working for George Orton. Orton had heard of Albert’s expertise and offered him a job.
By 1913, Susannah had given birth to their third daughter, Susan, which meant Albert now had five children to support. It was probably this, coupled with the fact that he now had regular work, that finally persuaded him to move his family to Burton that year.
In 1911 George Orton had bought some land in Burton-on-Trent’s Victoria Crescent and in 1912 had built new Erecting Sheds there, capable of housing a complete adult-sized fairground ride.
The major fairground ride of the day was the Circular Switchback, but this was about to give way to the Scenic Railway. Scenic Railways were based on Switchbacks but bigger, but more importantly they were powered by electricity and not steam which meant that all the space formally occupied by the steam engine was now used to keep such delights as waterfalls, painted scenery and imitation rock formations – a new concept to fairground visitors.
The first Scenic Railway was built by Savage of King’s Lynn in 1909, a firm with which Orton & Spooner had a close working relationship as suppliers of carved work. The ride stirred up a lot of interest as showmen either ordered them or had their old Switchbacks converted. Despite this Savage, who had been in financial difficulty for some time, went into liquidation shortly afterwards leaving the field wide open for others, Orton & Spooner in particular.
Adding the Scenic Railway to their portfolio of fairground work offered a unique opportunity for Orton & Spooner to properly enter the field of roundabout manufacture, despite Savage’s subsequent rescued by a consortium of businessmen.
Albert had all the necessary expertise to tackle the artistry demanded for the decoration of Scenic Railway rounding boards and he joined a team led by Herbert Darby, Orton’s chief designer, and was given free reign to use his many specialities while Darby concentrated one the enormous boards that adorned the Scenic Railway fronts.
Albert also became very well known at Orton’s for his artistry on the interiors of showman’s living wagons. These vehicles were very well appointed and some even quite luxurious. With living van interiors Albert would use his specialist skills painting different types of birds and beautiful and flower designs.
The first Orton & Spooner Scenic Railway was built in 1912, for Holland brothers of Swadlincote, Derbyshire. It was 57 feet in diameter, had a circular undulating track, was controlled from its paybox and ran eight electrically driven motor cars, each in the charge of a Chauffeur!
Each Scenic weighed some 30-40 tons and cost between £3-4,000 each, which showmen paid Orton & Spooner in instalments. Within the peak period of twenty years, some 32 similar machines were either built new, rebuilt, or modified by Orton’s, while Spooner’s concentrated on the various vehicles and other mounts that changed as taste dictated.
Albert continued to work into his late seventies, but he was not just another scenic artist. He was a big influence on his son, Sid, and the other artists and craftsmen who worked with him. In fact, it could be argued it was his influence that helped retain jungle scenery on so many fairground rides for so many years. Even though the rides changed beyond recognition as the 20th century progressed, these wild jungle scenes became almost traditional, irrespective of the ride’s theme.
Author: Dave Page
Images on this page, courtesy of the Howell collection and Craig Cooper.