There is a Season, Turn! Turn! Turn! – A Short History of Football Turnstiles

While the irregular beauty of grandstands, covered stands, and open terraces have been a source of wonder and admiration for football ground enthusiasts for at least fifty years, other parts of the make-up of a football ground such as floodlights and turnstiles have only recently seen an upsurge of interest and appreciation. This has largely been attributable to the increasing influence of social media, with searchable hashtags like #FloodlightFriday and #Turnstiles becoming increasingly popular.

One aspect of turnstiles I have always found exceedingly interesting is their provenance. Quite often you will find yourself sat in a ground that was only built in the post-World War II period, yet your method of egress will quite often be considerably older, maybe even as old as the Victorian period. In that era football was still relatively in its infancy, but clubs were progressive and the need to cover operational costs deemed charging of admission essential to survival. The first report of the installation of mechanical turnstiles at a British football ground was in 1873 at Hampden Park. This replaced the open gate system prevalent at the majority of football grounds which often saw operators completely overwhelmed with people trying to get into matches.

The means of restricting access to paying customers was relatively simple, a cast iron heavyweight barrier controlled by and operator once the admission charge had been paid. Several manufacturers of such devices appeared on the scene to cater for the demand of a burgeoning market. Interestingly several of the manufacturers centre around the Manchester area.

W.T.Ellison were one of these manufacturers and all their turnstiles have an individual serial number on the manufacturing plate. Ellison’s original workshop was in the intriguingly named Irlam O’ Th’ Height. The small town that sits on top of the Irwell Valley, had a railway station on the Pendleton and Hindley line of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway so was ideally situated to deliver these heavyweight devices to eager clientele.

W.T.Ellison’s plate at Colne FC

One of the scourges of early football was overcrowding and uncontrolled entry to football grounds led to many reported incidents of crushing injuries and even fatalities. Football club owners had also become patently aware that gate receipts often fell considerably short of expectation leading to the obvious conclusion that certain gate operators were “on the take”, and others were simply overwhelmed by eager spectators “rushing” the entrances. Ellison’s came up with a design which included a sealed in, tamper proof, incrometer to record the number of people entering each gate. Records show that Ellison’s Rush Preventive Turnstiles were patented by William Thomas Ellison Jr of 323 Bolton Road, Pendleton, Salford and James Unsworth Jr of Manchester. Their application was filed on February 19th, 1892 and assigned patent number 3,225. It gave Ellison’s a clear market lead which is why you will find they are the predominant manufacturer of turnstiles still in use today. The rush preventative turnstiles were design to safely admit up to 4,000 spectators per hour, reduced to 3,000 if change needed to be given. These figures are quite staggering when you consider the Taylor Report contended that safely operated turnstiles needed to admit 660 people per hour.

Ellison’s advert highlighting their patented incrometer

While there is no surviving definitive list of to whom their turnstiles were sold to, some diligent research by club historians has thrown some interesting light on the matter. For example, in the excellent “Farewell to Maine Road”, author Gary James and “Turnstile” Ted Pearson spent their spare time recording them and trying to date them. Four of Maine Road’s “Irlam” turnstiles were numbered 48, 59, 75 and 76 and club accounts show turnstiles were purchased from Ellison’s in 1896 and 1898. This, of course, means these were purchased for their previous Hyde Road ground and subsequently moved to Maine Road for the opening in 1923.

Ellison’s advert and clientele list

Maine Road also had nine Ellison’s Rush Preventative turnstiles which club records show were purchased from Ellison’s in 1904 and 1910, so would have also been at Hyde Road. Gary James also records that King George VI visited Hyde Road in 1920, the first reigning monarch to visit a provincial football stadium, and is likely to have used a turnstile. There is also proof that a future prime minister, A.J. Balfour, clicked himself through one of these earliest known turnstiles. The Kippax Stand had two very ancient W.Bailey’s turnstiles, also likely to have come from Hyde Road. Anecdotally, the wall of Kippax turnstiles was added to when the club acquired some from Belle Vue speedway stadium, highlighting the second-hand market for these heavy metal fixtures, which is still prevalent today. Two of the low numbered Ellison turnstiles were supposed to have been preserved for the club to take and display at the new stadium but sadly they were stolen and never recovered. 

Ellison’s already had lucrative customers like Hampden Park, Twickenham and Murrayfield so they were the obvious choice for the prestigious installation of 100 turnstiles at the new Wembley Stadium in 1923. William Ellison died around 1949 and was survived by his wife Mabel who died in 1984 and a daughter.

An Ellison plate from Winsford United FC and decoration plate from Stourport Swifts FC

The story of W.H. Bailey turnstiles begins with his father’s company, John Bailey & Co who opened the Albion Works, Oldfield Road, Salford in 1832 manufacturing turret clocks and steam and water gauges. Upon retirement in 1865 ownership passed to William Bailey and it is from this date turnstile manufacturing started to boom particularly for use in crowd control on pleasure piers, swimming baths, amusement arcades and horse racing venues.

Bailey’s huge factory

Under William Bailey the firm boomed into all sorts of heavy manufacturing, offering a book “Bailey’s Illustrated Inventions” replete with 1,000 engravings, free with orders over £10! He opened a second works at Hall Bank in Patricroft in 1885 and received a knighthood for industry in 1894.

William Bailey

In order to compete with Ellison’s hugely popular Rush Preventative mechanism, Bailey’s came up with a “Quick Action” turnstile but it never really dented Ellison’s market dominance. When Chicago Cubs renovated their historic Wrigley Field in 2009, a vintage “Bailey’s of Salford” turnstile was replaced and subsequently auctioned off. Sir William Bailey passed away in 1913 and, although, the Salford site was totally destroyed by bombing in 1940, the entire business continued to operate from the Patricroft works. The company continues to this day as Bailey-Birkett Valves, primarily producing components for the water industry.

Bailey’s manufacturing plates at Wingate & Finchley, Sutton United (since removed), and Bishop’s Stortford.

The invention of rush preventative turnstiles had a huge impact on match day income, Simon Inglis recorded that in the season Aston Villa installed turnstiles, gate receipts rose by over 300% and Everton reported a similar hike in revenue. In 1895, Celtic are recorded as spending £445, a not inconsiderable sum at the time, on Ellison’s turnstiles for the “new” Celtic Park which had opened three years previously, the club would soon recover their outlay. Smashing the admission scams of a generation of crooked gatemen were not wholly successful, however, as some cunning operatives found the new mechanisms could still be beneficially tampered with. It was found that clever use of the foot pedal and marking the gate of a turnstile with a scratch or a piece of tape, could see the device only half rotate, allowing two people to enter on one click of the incrometer. If you look closely many of the old housings for the incrometer housing have gauges or even smashed glass as cruder attempts were made to stop the dials turning. While clubs thrived on their return of investment in turnstiles, they were not wholly popular with spectators, gentlemen of larger proportions complained about the narrow apertures and women found the experience demeaning and would often ruin their dresses!

There were other manufacturers of turnstiles, but none could wrestle the market share Ellison’s held over all the others. R. & B.M. Mayor of Manchester turnstiles are still a fairly common sight at non-league grounds. Mayors eventually moved to Ashton under Lyne and continued manufacturing turnstiles until the company was dissolved in 2007.

A Mayor’s turnstile still doing fine service at Goole AFC

There were two manufacturers that were primarily Abyssinian tube and Artesian well engineers who diversified into turnstile manufacturing during the heyday that saw incredible demand for the devices. Two such companies were Le Grand and Sutcliff (from 1920, Le Grand, Sutcliff and Gell) of Bunhill Row, London and Camillo Isler of Bear Lane, Southwark.

A Norton plate from Sutton United (since removed) and a Le Grand & Sutcliff advert

Le Grand and Sutcliff were originally sole manufacturers of the Norton’s patent turnstile, although later a licence was also granted to Hill and Smith Ltd of Brierley Hill. Norton’s were a particularly stylish looking turnstile and were commonly used in swimming baths. There is a particularly fine Norton’s turnstile at the Nelson Monument in Edinburgh and Norton’s are still actively used at Torquay Rugby Club, Frickley Athletic, Sutton United, Eastbourne Town, St Albans City and Tonbridge Angels. Le Grand, Sutcliff and Gell expanded into works at Southall and Rochester but were taken over by Platt & Co in 1956.

Isler’s “Elliptical Improved Patent” turnstiles were perhaps more common placed on piers, gardens and cliff lifts and were renowned for the large, heavy, brass counter housed under the manufacturers plate. Remaining Isler turnstiles in use at football grounds can be seen at St Albans City and Ebbsfleet United.

An even rarer manufacturer was Henry John Slark of Walham Green, Fulham. A Slark’s turnstile was still going strong at Boston United’s York Street until it’s recent closure and there is also one at Ardley United. Slark’s lattice metalwork designs are particularly ornate.

The only John Mann Lockerbie & Arthur Wilkinson of Tipton turnstile I have seen was at Walton & Hersham’s former Stompond Lane stadium. Lockerbie & Wilkinson started at a small factory in New Street, Birmingham before moving to the huge Alexander Works in Locarno Road, Tipton, from where they still conduct business today. Trading under the name “Locwil” they made all sorts of iron furnishings, vending machines, agricultural and abattoir equipment, but became famous for patenting the coin operated door locks for public conveniences in the 1880’s.

While many grounds still use these antique devices, they are slowly being replaced by more modern turnstiles and barcode scanning systems. One thing is for certain though, the Victorian design of these incredible machines still serves the purpose they were invented for, and long may they continue to click those customers in!

If you get bitten by the bug of “turnstile spotting” feel free to copy in @PeterRMiles into your Twitter posts especially if you locate one of the rarer manufacturers!

A version of this article first appeared in Issue 104 of the superb football grounds magazine, “Groundtastic”.