Often, when I’m looking for something brilliant to tell you about, I find a single, intriguing sentence and, when I try to find out more, I just find the same words posted over and over on different sites with no further explanation. It’s very frustrating. Today I found: ‘May 17th 1620, 1st merry-go-round seen at a fair (Philippapolis, Turkey)’ This sort of thing is worse than useless to me if I can’t tell you any more about it…
But, today is brilliant because I’ve got to the truth behind one of these irritating factlets. In May 1620, a Cornish man named Peter Munday set off from Constantinople, where he had been living for three or four years, on a journey overland back to England. He had begun his working life as a cabin boy in 1608 and eventually became a merchant traveller. He estimated that he’d already travelled well over seventeen thousand miles before he even set off on this journey. I haven’t been able to find out why he journeyed overland, but he was accompanying the English Ambassador to Constantinople, Paul Pindar, who had been recalled to London. His four month adventure is described in his book The Travels of Peter Munday in Europe and Asia. On May 17th he arrived at the city of Philippapolis, which he tells us was founded by Philip, the father of Alexander the Great. He visited a fair with extremely high swings for the grown ups and a sort of big wheel and a carousel for the children. He even drew us a picture and describes:
“…a great Cart Wheele, on whose circumference is fastned little seats, whereon the Children, beinge sett, the wheele is putt about, they all goeing round Horizontallwise”.
So that clears that up. He tells us about the fair as a bit of light diversion between describing some truly awful methods of execution, which he also illustrated, and how they had to camp on the opposite side of the river because there was plague in the city. This is certainly not brilliant, but you can read about it here if you like. The ambassador seems to have remained in London after that. The most interesting thing I can tell you about him is that the whole facade of his house is preserved in the Victoria and Albert museum. It was saved after the building was demolished to make way for Liverpool Street Station and it’s the biggest thing they have. Peter continued his travelling life. In later years he also visited Russia, China and Japan. He wrote and illustrated accounts of some of these journeys too. If you clicked on the link and read any of his work, you’ll notice that he’s very observant, but not very compassionate. He estimated that, all together, he travelled 100,883 and 5/8th miles.
But I don’t think what Peter Mundy saw was the first merry-go-round. There were probably others. The word ‘carousel’ comes from the Italian word ‘garosello’ or the Spanish ‘carosella’ which mean ‘little battle’. It was a training method for cavalrymen that had been observed amongst Turkish and Arabian horsemen, by crusaders back in the twelfth century. Then, they would ride in a circle tossing a ball to each other as they went. By the seventeenth century, they were , instead, trying to spear rings that were suspended from poles above them. Although it was originally intended to train knights on horseback, it was so much fun that everyone wanted a go. A version with wooden animals was made for children. It would have been powered either by an animal walking in a circle or by people cranking it or pulling on a rope. So that is how it became a popular fairground ride. The animals weren’t originally attached to the floor with poles, but suspended on chains, so they would fly outwards as they went.
You can tell a British merry-go-round horse from an American or European one, even after it is detached, because in Britain, the left hand side of the horse will be more ornately decorated but elsewhere, it is the right hand side. That is because British carousels usually turn clockwise but the ones in America and Europe tend to turn anti-clockwise and the most heavily decorated side faces outward. But, solving one mystery today has presented me with another… I haven’t been able to find out why this is.