Arcade Tales: The George Wilson Collection
March - May 2019
As Director of SEAS Photography I had the delight of curating Arcade Tales: The George Wilson Collection in the Daphne Oram Building for the Creative Arts at CCCU. The exhibition include photographs from George Wilson (housed at SEAS Photography) along with a bespoke Margate arcade game (made by Dr Alan Meades and Dr Jo Baxter-Webb) and a documentary film on George Wilson by alumni Shaun Vincent. I thank Dr Alan Meades for the exhibition’s introduction below:
George Wilson Arcade images above.
Arcade Tales: The George Wilson Collection Preview below.
INTRODUCTION: Most of us would recognise the amusement arcade as an essential part of the British seaside holiday experience, yet despite their cultural resonance they remain an under-researched and under-documented subject. We might associate the amusement arcade with the arrival of videogames in the 1970s, but its roots are far deeper, and far more intertwined with a history of working-class British play and entertainment. The first amusement arcades, sometimes called ‘gaff shops’ or ‘playlands’, originated in major British cities in the early 1900s. They were a product of the combination of widespread interest in automated coin-operated technology, public desire for inexpensive entertainment, and peculiarities of British gambling law that made arcades sites for illicit low-stakes public gambling. Early arcades were often the wintering premises of Travelling Showmen, who offered public access to entertainments and sideshows while they repaired rides and prepared for the following season of itinerant fairs. This pattern of arcades during inclement seasons and travelling fairs (containing arcade machines) continued until the post-war years when the seaside arcade became the dominant model. By the 1960s the rise of seaside tourism, the resultant decline of the itinerant fair, and liberalisation of gambling laws in the UK, meant that many Travelling Showmen purchased seafront plots and become full-time arcade operators. From this point the arcade became an essential part of the British seaside experience, while retaining its popular associations with illicit play, gambling, and carefree holiday license.
It is in part due to these associations with illicit fun, its framing as low-culture, and the periodic calls for greater regulation, or indeed prohibition of arcades from the seaside, that the amusement arcade remains rarely photographed or theorised. Seaside councils often attempted to block the development and expansion of arcades, citing the threat of moral decline, and arcade operators became vigilant to people photographing activity within their spaces. Of course, many holiday snaps and amusement trade photographs, will have been taken within amusement arcades, but there are very few that exist within the public domain, or that document activity within the arcades, and the British arcade remains a rather mysterious place.
In 1981 and 1982 George Wilson, a graduate of David Hurn’s School of Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales, Newport, spent two seasons as a bingo caller in Cain’s Amusements on the seafront in Herne Bay, Kent. As a trusted member of the arcade-staff and a talented photographer, Wilson was able to take the photographs that many were not able to. He documented the comings and goings at this typical British arcade and captures many of the features that are distinct to the British amusement arcade: the arcade as an intergenerational space; the presence of fruit-machines, bingo, penny-pushers, pool, and videogames; the arcade as social space.
“I was supposed to e working, [not] taking photographs,” says Wilson, whose collection was obtained in 2017 by Canterbury Christ Church University’s South East Archive of Seaside Photography. “So I used to take my camera down sneakily, and take a few… I wasn’t interested in the machines, it’s always about the people.”
The images offer an insight into the communities that formed in the arcades, and how important these places were to them, not to mention some complex social machinations. People coming from different legal and cultural backgrounds often find the subjects of gambling and youth profoundly interesting within the photographs. Gambling laws and attitudes towards low-stakes gambling, such as seen with coin-pushers, and fruit-machines - both of which are normal and legal within a British arcade context, are far more liberal in the UK than almost any other territory. Indeed, the amusement arcade’s ecosystem is one that balances low-stakes gambling, amusements, and entertainments in a way seen almost nowhere else.
Most importantly with Wilson’s work, however, is the way that is documents and brings to life a community and set of practices that have remained up until this point largely invisible. As Wilson states, “Photography does one thing really well – record and event”. Wilson’s photographs remain the only known body of documentary photographs from British amusement arcades, and as a result his work connects well with Ira Nowinski’s Bay Area Arcades archive held at Stanford University which offers a distinctly American perspective on a similar subject.
These photographs offer a unique perspective on British seaside culture and play, as Wilson explains, “I think it would be impossible [to make the work] now because they’d throw you out. But they couldn’t throw me out ‘cos I used to work there.”