Football Objects: The Turnstile

Gainsborough Trinity-5

Before you get up to your seat to watch a game of football, you have to enter the ground, cranking through the turnstile as you hand over your money. Football as it exists today, could hardly exist without the turnstile. It is fitting that such a revolutionary object, itself revolves as you pass through it.

There’s something oddly magical about going through a turnstile. Most modern turnstiles are distinctly functional in their look, with none of the late Victorian design sensibilities of those first installed at many grounds throughout Britain and Ireland. The turnstiles I most often went through were pretty basic affairs, usually a small little structure made of concrete blocks which housed these creaking, loud and claustrophobic machines that can be vaguely terrifying to a small child.

Turnstiles have many applications in many settings, but their use at sports grounds, though perhaps most famously at football grounds, has truly cemented their place as a significant part of the material culture of the game. It was the installation of the turnstile at major access points to grounds that transformed football from a largely recreational and participatory sporting endeavour into a commercialised form of entertainment for the masses. Famously, JB Priestely wrote in his novel from 1929, The Good Companions, it is only when

having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art…

that you are properly alive in his fictional town of Bruddersford. When Simon Inglis wrote his book Played in Manchester he wrote turnstile remains a powerful cultural experience; a rite of passage even, marking the transition from the real world into the fantasy realm of sport.” On this score, Inglis mirrors Priestley’s created world where once through the turnstiles you find yourself in another and more splendid kind of life, one Priestely writes where

you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements like lords of the earth…

An advertisement for WT Ellison turnstiles.
An advertisement for WT Ellison turnstiles.

One of the major manufacturers of turnstiles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was WT Ellison and Co. Ltd. based in Salford, the city across the river from Manchester. Ellison’s patented turnstiles are precisely the turnstile type many people have in mind when they think of the classic turnstile of the past. Installed not just in major grounds throughout Britain, the WT Ellison model turnstiles can be found in the approach to the Mardyke pitch of University College, Cork from the Western Road side of the ground and in plenty of other places in Ireland too I am sure. The Ellison “Rush-Preventive” turnstile was a vital development in ensuring for clubs that they got to know how many passed through their gates, and to charge people accordingly. So too was their tamper-resistant counter which could tally up the numbers who entered with the sums collected, reducing fraud my the stilesmen who manned the machines. Their commercialising effect is perhaps offset by that sense that once you do get through you are in a world seperate from the one you normally occupy; that you have passed through mechanical gates to something bigger, something better.

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