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Mr Mills' Fairground Organ

A group of Christmas shoppers in 1968 watch and listen to
Arthur Mills' fairgound organ which had been set up in College Street

Part of the sights and sounds of festivals, events and celebrations in the first half of the last century was the fairground organ. Even today, the evocative appeal of their sound will recall for many people the fairs, fetes and fun of their childhood. Even if the entertainment is not sophisticated by today's standards, the solid engineering which went into these large devices certainly was.

In the middle of the last century, a 1902 Gavioli organ was obtained and preserved by Rushden businessman Mr Arthur Mills, who was President of the Fair Organ Society, and he made it available for fundraising activities around Rushden. It was later sent to a funfair at Southport.


One of the short cine films Bill Houghton made in 1968 was of Arthur Mills' fairground organ being used in College Street to advertise the pantomime at the Ritz. There is even a short view of the folding book of perforated pages which synchronised the music of these organs as each page was loaded. The film has been digitised and edited for web transmission. You will need the Quicktime Player to view it. If you don't have it installed on your machine, click here to download it.

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Click here to see Bill Houghton's cine film

A very rare photo of Arthur Mills' organ, in situ,
on "James Crichton's Palace of Varieties & Bioscope Cinematograph Show" in 1902.

Jack Perkins & the Mills' order, c.1967
Arthur Mills at the Organ Shed
at the Express Drycleaning Works, Wellingborough Road
My Dad (Jack Perkins) and the Mills' Fairground Organ, c1967
(From the collection of Jon Anton)

Arthur Mills' Organ in College Street Arthur Mills' Fairground Engine
The Fairground Organ outside The Rose & Crown, College Street.
This was a familiar sight during the pre-Christmas period each year.
Note Father Christmas with his collecting bucket for charities,
and Jon Anton in the fur-collared coat standing at the rear of the organ.
Arthur Mills' Showman's Burrell Traction Engine "Princess Mary"
outside the Express Drycleaning Works in 1961/2
(From the collection of Jon Anton)

Two records of the Organ Tunes

You may wonder why a fairground organ and a show­man's steam traction engine are owned by a Dry Cleaning Company. The explanation is simple. Mr. Arthur Mills, the Managing Director of The Express Dry Cleaning Works (Rushden) Ltd, which controls shops throughout Northamptonshire, has been a great fairground enthusiast since a boy, and his particular fascination was for fairground organs. These magnificent organs, always the centrepiece of any fairground, are now fast disappearing and the handsome steam showman's engines, also a familiar sight, have now completely vanished from this scene. Mr. Mills realising the danger of extinction decided to purchase one of each of these machines to preserve them.

Most people will remember the wonderful old rides on the fairground, the hand-carved ornamentations, the huge roundabouts and the scenic railways. Perhaps the best known of the rides were the 'Dragons' which were an art in themselves. These machines were so huge that the ride-master usually employed about 20 men to erect and pull them down. In the centre of these attractions was the fairground organ, playing tunes of the day as well as marches and popular overtures and always drawing large crowds.

This Gavioli Organ was built in 1904 for Mr. James Crighton's Bioscope Show. This type of show was the forerunner of the cinema. The organ stood at the front of the show and before each performance, the showman mounted the platform, hat in hand and announced: 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the latest marvel of our age— The Organ. It will now play.' Then a troupe of dancing girls came onto the platform and danced to the music of the organ. By then, a large crowd had gathered to view thjs spectacle during which the showman took the opportunity to point out the fabulous show that could be seen inside. 'Adults one penny, children half-penny'. These shows often played from early morning till late at night. After many faithful years with the bioscope show, this particular organ was transferred to 'roundabouts' and so travelled the fairgrounds for many years, finishing its working life with a set of modern dodgem cars just a few years ago.

But for steam power, travelling from town to town with such enormous loads would have been quite a task for any showman. As a result the handsome showman's Steam Traction Engine was developed, with its shining brass work and gay colouring. These steam giants could be seen pulling four or five huge trailers, the entire load being of some fantastic tonnage.

The showman's engine 'Princess Mary' owned by Mr. Mills, was built for London showman, Mr. Billy Nichols in 1923, by Messrs. Charles Burrell and Sons, late of Thetford, Norfolk. This engine weighs 15 tons, is 20 feet long and its back wheels are 8 feet in diameter. The 'Princess Mary' can pull a load of over 40 tons without any trouble. With the large dynamo mounted on a bracket in front of the funnel and coupled by a belt to the engine's fly-wheel she supplied all the elec­tricity for the roundabout. At night, when the fair was in full swing, the engine would rock gently to and fro, its brass gleaming in the blaze of light from rows of coloured lamps under the full-length awning. This, to­gether with the hiss of steam and the rhythmic throb of the pistons, was a delight to all boys from 'nine to ninety'. This fine engine was the last one to work on the fairground.

Much work has been carried out on the locomotive since it was purchased from an amusement caterer, and it is kept going by enthusiasts. The 'Princess Mary' now generates electricity for the organ motors and lights. During the summer months she can be seen puffing majestically in and around the vicinity of Rushden, Northamptonshire, going to carnivals through roads full of modern traffic.

The organ, which is housed in a large truck, is 18 feet long, 12 feet high and weighs 3 tons. When a recital is be given the entire front of the truck is removed, revealing the organ—as shown on the front of cover. The work on the organ is carried out by Mr Mills, and the technical side is taken care of  by Mr Victor Chiappa, the London organ builder, whose skilful help is much appreciated. His company maintained these instruments when they were so popular on the fairground.

Many people may wonder how this instrument works. The basic principle, that of compressed air, supplied by a 3½h.p. motor, is fed to the pipes via valves. These are operated by an 89-key board. A wide cardboard roll, containing music notes in the form of perforations, works this keyboard. Each roil of musk has to be cut by hand. No mass production here!

The maintenance of this machine is a very exacting job, there being 550 notes. These lovely instruments are now being superseded by the gramophone record and the tape recorder.

This recording had to be made out-of-doors as it was obvious that no studio would be large enough to accommodate both organ and steam engine. It was not a simple job, as microphones are extremely sensitive to movement and several attempts were made before wind noises could be eliminated.

Even after 50 years' work the organ still entertains the public by giving charity recitals and taking part in local carnivals. It has also appeared on several radio programmes and was televised on the BBC programme 'Tonight'. Mr. Alan Whicker interviewed Mr. Mills at Rushden and recorded the organ.

The Fairground Organ Preservation Society, now presided over by Mr. Mills was formed to stimulate interest in these instruments and to keep enth-touch with one another. It is hoped that through this society the fairground organ will enjoy many more years of active life despite changes that progress inflicts - WHILST LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE LET US NOT FORGET THE GLORIES OF THE PAST.

© Copyright 1961                      Cover designed by Brian Bull
Recording produced by Bernard Mattimore

record cover

Side 1

Under the Double Eagle

Sons of the Brave

Semper Fidelis

King Cotton

Napoleon's Last Charge

Mills' Choice

Children of the Regiment


Side 2

Sunshine of Your Smile

Baby Face

Lonesome and Sorry


I'm Looking over a Four Leaf Clover

Robert E. Lee

Veterans of Variety Selection

There's a Good Time Coming

A Stereo Merry-Go-Round with The Mammoth 89 Key 'Gavioli' Fairground Organ

The Gavioli organ was built in 1902 and was considered to be one of the marvels of its day. It was made for Mr. James Crichton's No. 1 Bioscope show and was presented at fairs in front of a very ornate building wherein showed another wonder of the age, namely; moving pictures. When the moving picture shows were eventually transferred to "picture houses," the organs became the centre-pieces for large merry-go-rounds, with highly coloured carved animals which young and old could ride on for a penny. The duration of the ride was the length of the tune that the organ was playing. This is how most people remember them.

The Gavioli organ is one of the world's finest specimens of fairground organs, and it is maintained in superb condition by its owner Arthur Mills, who is also President of the Fair Organ Preservation Society.

The organ is eighteen feet long, eleven feet wide and weighs about four tons. It is driven by a 3½h.p. motor that supplies compressed air to the organ pipes via valves. The valves are operated by a board of 89 keys. A wide carboard roll containing musical notation in the form of hand cut perforations, works the keyboard. Music from one of the earliest computer banks!

The motto on the side of the organ reads, "Whilst looking into the future let us not forget the glories of the past."

Recorded in Northampton, England, 1972
under the direction of Jack Dorsey

record cover

Side A

Under The Double Eagle

Sempre Fidelis

El Capitan

Sons Of The Brave

Blaze Away

Old Comrades

Side B

Marche Militaire


The Household Brigade

Martial Moments



Mr Mills used to take the organ to various events and to other towns for fundraising:
Arthur Mills with the Organ

Evening Telegraph, 2nd January 1973

Organ's £237 'take'

A 70-year-old restored Gavioli organ played for six hours in a town centre to raise £237 for charity.

With 300 tunes available for playing, the organ, owned by Mr Arthur Mills, of Rushden, was used to help Corby Rotary Club collect money in the town centre at the weekend.

The proceeds are being given to CARE—an organisation for the mentally handicapped who are hoping to build houses for 100 people at Shangton, near Market Harborough. The organ was never short of an audience as Corby people gathered round either in amazement or to remember the music of the old fair-grounds.

Mr Mills explains the organ works

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