We are proud of our safety record in the funfair industry. Having never had a serious accident or incident with members of the public.
We have had a couple or three minor ‘incidents’ usually involving me, or Arthur (a one time collaborator) or in one case a poor sod we had shanghaied to work for us for the day. For some weird reason, they all involve helter skelters in some form. Perhaps subconsciously that’s why we got rid of our last example a few years back.
Fred Thompson’s Lighthouse Helter Skelter
My maternal Grandad, Fred, was one of the industries characters. He owned a massive amount of rides over the years, but also seemed to buy things like dodgems with no cars, only to sell the track and then buy a set of cars with no track. The helter skelter however he did own and operate right up to his death.
Not one of the smaller square latticework rides, this was the huge steel structured ride which was shaped like a lighthouse or pepper pot. Whilst Grandad was basically on his death bed, the famous Nottingham Goose fair rolled around. Due to some internal family politics, the offspring that usually took the ride to the fair refused to do so. So Uncle Garry, my dad, and by extension me were drafted in to set the ride up. None of us really knew what we were doing, but there were a couple of long time staff members helping, and another operator with the same type ride at the event, came and offered advice when we needed it.
The Great De-Rig
We managed to set up OK, and we ran the attraction for the three days of the fair. On the Sunday morning, we got up for the derig, only to be welcomed by a torrential down pour. Great, to compound matters the two staff members had done a runner, couldn’t blame them really. So it was left up to the deadly duo (Uncle Garry and Dad) and me.
Not fancying pneumonia, I had wrapped myself in a rubberised wet suit, and wellingtons. I had started in the top chute (the U shaped part of the ride that you actually slid down), undoing the bolts that held them together. You unfastened the twenty odd chutes then usually started at the top chute and took them down one at a time. Due to the water, I slipped into the chute and started to slide down. Because of the wet suit I couldn’t generate enough friction to stop my descent. Not a problem I could slide to the bottom and walk back up the steps so I just sat back and accelerated.
Which would have been OK, had not the other two started removing the chutes at the bottom and working their way up. The result was me imitating an Exocet missile exiting a launch tube as I shot off the number 7 chute, about 15 feet in the air. Luckily they had handily stacked all the other chutes in a nice row on the floor to break my fall.
After recovering from my high speed exit, I pulled myself together and climbed back up to try again. Now at this point, some poor innocent funfair enthusiast happened to walk past. Little did he know the fun he was going to be subject to. Looking back he was a bit like a Turkey strolling past Bernard Matthews just as he finished sharpening his knife.
“Oy Mate”, shouts Uncle Garry, “Fancy a job on the fair?” The poor sod did. Fifteen minutes into his new career he managed to fall down the steps at the front and break his arm. We packed him off the the local hospital, not expecting to see him again. Given that a&e was usually synonymous with about an eight hour wait.
He Comes Back
In the event he surprised us, as about forty minutes later he came back. Walked up the front steps into the centre of the ride, then holding his newly potted arm aloft like a badge of honour, perhaps Nottingham’s version of a purple heart, he shouted up, “Its me, I’m back!”
Now, this had an immediate and unfortunate effect. Uncle Gary and I were at that point taking side sections off the top of the ride. These were held on by massive bolts, think of something the size of a lemon. Gary had in his hand one of these very bolts, just as our unfortunate hero shouted up to us.
Garry turned quickly to see who it was, and unfortunately lost grip of the bolt he happened to be holding. With an aim worthy of William Tell, the bolt hit the guy slap bang in the centre of the forehead. Dropping him to his knees and producing a rather large egg shaped lump and a rather unfocussed look.
“Erm, listen guys”, he managed to croak feebly, “I think I am gonna resign, I don’t wanna work on the fair no more.” This time we didn’t see him again, can’t say I blame him really.
Some People Just Never Learn
Now, I swore this was enough to put me off helter skelters for life. So of course, a few years later, Rennie (another occasional collaborator) suggested purchasing a square type helter skelter that he knew of between us. It was a bit rough but we had the skills between us to rebuild it, and like the fabled lemmings, I hadn’t had any brushes with death for quite a while so I went for it.
We got it back to the yard, semi erected it and started on the multitude of jobs. One day I had climbed to the top and noticed that the bracket holding the highest section of steps on was cracked. Badly cracked, in fact it was held on by a sliver of paint. I thought to myself then that the next job should be to weld it back together. Just then, fate, in the form of my mother in law, turned up with a bacon sandwich and coffees for me and Renny. Being partial to a bacon sarny I shimmied down for breakfast.
After wolfing them down, and feeling recharged. I collected a large 8ft by 4ft wooden panel that needed affixing to the top of the ride and ran up the steps with it. As I stood on the topmost tread of the topmost section of steps, the malicious gods looking down decided that was the instant that the sliver of paint holding the steps on would finally expire.
They say that in moments of extreme terror, your life flashes before your eyes. Truth be told this didn’t happen, but I do distinctly remember that time seemed to slow on the way down, as I plummeted earthwards holding a large sheet of wood above my head. My first thought was “Bugger, I should really have welded that bloody step up”, followed closely by “I bet this is gonna hurt”, followed by “This is taking some time,” followed by the sound of a person hitting the wooden floor, followed even more closely by the sound of a large wooden panel hitting a person, and almost simultaneously the sound of a section of steps hitting a wooden panel.
Suffice so say, I survived, a bit battered but without breaking anything important.
The final entrant into our tale of woe, didn’t really involve the helter skelter, beyond the fact that I happened to be midway up the ride when the problem was brought to my attention.
We were at a corporate event in Salford. Renny ,Arthur and I with a range of attractions. Arthur, being afraid of heights tended to steer clear of the Helter Skelter, instead bagging the job of looking after the moonwalk. This was an inflatable attraction, that was enclosed in a dome. Arthur got himself comfortable on the front step, in front of the slit in the front that acted as a doorway. Because the dome had a high speed fan continuously blowing air in to keep the thing inflated, you tended to get a high speed stream of cold air blowing out the front. On perhaps the hottest day of that year this was a bonus for Arthur keeping him nicely chilled.
Anyway, there I was half way up our slide, when Arthur wandered over and shouted up “My head hurts”, oh FFS, “Look in the glovebox of my car there are some headache tabets” I replied without really taking any notice, tricky things these big slides so I was paying attention to what I was doing.
“I didn’t say I had a F**KING headache”, said Arthur, “I said my F**KING head hurts!”
When I looked I could see his issue, “FFS Arthur don’t walk out the gate of the park”
“Why he asked?”
“Cos you will stop the traffic, you look like a set of traffic lights on red”
Dear me, his full forehead and face were glowing, and I mean glowing, like he had been stood a bit close to Chernobyl when it went up. I saw him about a week later when the skin had started peeling off and he looked like the singing detective. He ended up with scars on his forehead the sunburn had been that bad. Serve him right for lazing on the step all day.
It’s Not Just Us
Another operator I know of ended up with two broken legs, when one day he was at the top of his helter skelter painting it. He happened to glance upwards, where the clouds were moving due to a stiff breeze. Becoming disorientated, and believing it was the ride moving he threw himself over the side, in the belief that it was better than being inside the ride when it hit the ground.
And yet another guy, was at Yarm fair in the North East, and managed to fall from his ride landing on a street sign and breaking a number of ribs. Whilst in hospital he was laid in bed with his hand dangling over the side, when his visiting mother leaned over the bedside cabinet to give him a kiss. Unfortunately the cabinet was on wheels and being shoved against his hand managed to break three of his fingers.
Eventually the health and safety executive decreed that fall arrest equipment needed to be worn when working on these things at height. To give them their due most operators did both buy and use said kit. The one guy I know that put them to test still managed to break his ankles, when I enquired how, he explained the the standard fall arrestor worked by expanding and slowing you descent without too much of a jerk. Sadly it needed about twelve feet to work and he was only ten feet high when he fell, so he hit the deck before it arrested his fall. He seemed quite cheerful though and vowed that in future he would only fall off higher up.