Frederick Savage: Genius of fun

Frederick Savage Statue

Christopher Oldfield looks at the life of the man who put the fun
into funfair – and the only public figure to be commemorated with a statue in King’s Lynn…


At the junction of London Road and Guanock Terrace in King’s Lynn, just a stone’s throw from the South Gate, stands a statue of a noble-looking gentleman of around 60, full-bearded and looking splendid in his mayoral robes. His name is Frederick Savage.

Erected in May 1892 to celebrate the second of Savage’s three terms as mayor, it’s the only statue of a public figure in the town and a fitting tribute to a man who was a liberal and reforming mayor who used his personal wealth for good causes such as the improvement of hospitals and the welfare of the poor. But he’s best remembered as an outstanding engineer of his time and who (thanks to his numerous inventions and innovations) is in no small part responsible for the funfair as we know it today. He’s been rightly hailed as the ‘genius of fun’.

As a man he was a larger-than-life figure (literally, standing 6’2’’ at a time when the average height of an adult male was 5’8’’) and gregarious, a quick witted conversationalist, but he was blunt as well. A man who spoke as he saw – the temperament of an engineer quite possibly, but also, perhaps for want of an education that didn’t extend beyond the church Sunday school and the village Free School, for his were  inauspicious beginnings and there’s nothing of his early life to prefigure his later successes and fame.

The elder of two brothers, he was born in Haversham near Norwich on March 3rd, 1828. His parents were hand-loom weavers but that trade had been decimated by the Industrial Revolution and his father was soon forced to sell his smallholding and was later deported to Tasmania for poaching (a crime the iniquity of which was regarded as second only to murder). He never returned.

With the loss of his father it was necessary for ten-year old Frederick to take such employment as he could get until he was able to secure a position with the engineering firm of Coopers of East Dereham. Here, Frederick discovered an innate gift for engineering, building (for his own use) a two-seater, four-wheeled go-kart that was powered and steered by means of pair of hand-operated levers mounted on either side of the driver’s seat. It must have been an amazing sight in the days when the pedal bicycle was still a novelty and the first recognisable automobile some 35 years away.

In 1848 he moved to King’s Lynn to take an apprenticeship with the firm of Charles Willet (he never left the town) and ehen Willet retired in 1850 Savage set up on his own in Tower Street, making simple farming implements such as hoes, forks, spades and rakes.

The business prospered and within two years he’d moved to more spacious premises on London Road,  maintaining and repairing more sophisticated machines, including steam-driven threshers and seed-drilling machines. It was this kind of work that enabled him to understand the power and potential of steam, and to offer new and improved designs for all sorts of agricultural implements and equipment.

Frederick Savage posterSavage’s own first locomotive traction engine, the ‘Juggernaut’, was built in 1856 for a farmer in Terrington St Clements. Despite opposition from the local populace who feared (quite correctly, as it turned out) that the ‘iron monsters’ would further erode their already limited employment potential, this new business flourished and between 1856 and 1870 he  designed and built almost 100 agricultural steam engines for different purposes.
In 1872 the firm moved into purpose-built premises, the St Nicholas Ironworks Works at the north end of Lynn, where it would remain until it finally closed its doors in 1973.

With King’s Lynn being the home of England’s first fair of the year, Savage soon began building fairground rides, starting with an merry-go-round consisting of up to 18 bicycles slotted into a circular metal track – the riders cycled themselves around the track.

This popular Velocipede gave the masses the chance, for only a penny a ride, to experience the thrill of cycling – it was the nineteenth century equivalent of the flight-simulator.

Savage now turned his attention to the carousel. Savage didn’t actually invent the steam-driven carousel but his great engineering innovation was to incorporate the engine at the centre of the carousel, enabling a smoother ride. Moreover, it was portable – it was a simple matter to pack up and transport it as a single unit at the end of each fair.

Savage went on to innovate a series of enormously popular carousels, starting with the ‘’Gallopers’ – a magnificent machine with horses fixed to a circular platform running on a set of eccentric cams, so imparting a vigorous back-and-forth rocking motion in simulation of the galloping motion of horses.

Other rides were based on the ‘switchback’ roundabout ride with the riders passing over hills and through valleys as they completed a circle. Still others mimiced the motion of sailing boats, or had a waltzing motion.

They were lavish affairs, extravagantly populated not only with horses but with racing bantams, strutting ostriches, rampant cats, flying pigs or Venetian gondolas, and lavishly decorated – Savage’s machines were works of art. As Savage himself proudly claimed, the only parts not made at the St Nicholas Works were the horses’ glass eyes and horsehair tails.

By the time Savage died 1897, aged 69, he was exporting fairground rides all over the world and bringing pleasure to millions – he really was the man who put the ‘fun’ into funfair, and his carousels remain to this day enduring symbols of his genius.
A Savage Carousel continued to operate at the Lynn Mart until 1996. Nowadays, working Savage carousels can only be found in the Thursford Collection and at the Bressingham Steam Museum – there is also a working ‘’Venetian Gondolas’ switchback at Thursford.  KL

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