Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Fairs - Greenwich Fair

see also George Cruikshank in the Comic Almanack - click here

    Till a few years ago, the first three days of Easter were a carnival season in this old town, during which the idle and disreputable part of London poured itself into the streets like an inundation of the Thames— as unclean as that turbid mixture of the offscourings of the vast city, and overflowing with its grimy pollution whatever rural innocence, if any, might be found in the suburban neighbourhood. This festivity was called Greenwich Fair, the final one of which, in an immemorial succession, it was my fortune to behold...
    This unfragrant crowd was exceedingly dense, being welded to­gether, as it were, in the street through which we strove to make our way. On either side were oyster-stands, stalls of oranges, (a very prevalent fruit in England, where they give the withered ones a guise of freshness by boiling them), and booths covered with old sail-cloth, in which the commodity that most attracted the eye was gilt gingerbread. It was so completely enveloped in Dutch gilding that I did not at first recognize an old acquaintance, but wondered what the golden crowns and images could be... What immensely perplexed me was a sharp, angry sort of rattle, in all quarters, far off and close at hand, and sometimes right at my back, where it sounded as if the stout fabric of my English surtout had been ruthlessly rent in twain; and everybody’s clothes, all over the fair, were evidently being torn asunder in the same way. By-and-by, I discovered that this strange noise was produced by a little instrument called ‘The Fun of the Fair’—a sort of rattle, consisting of a wooden wheel, the cogs of which turn against a thin slip of wood, and so produce a rasping sound when drawn smartly against a person’s back. The ladies draw their rattles against the backs of their male friends, (and everybody passes for a friend at Greenwich Fair), and the young men return the compliment on the broad British backs of the ladies; and all are bound by immemorial custom to take it in good part and be merry at the joke.
    But this was far from being the sole amusement. There were theatrical booths, in front of which were pictorial representations of the scenes to be enacted within; and anon a drummer emerged from one of them, thumping on a terribly lax drum, and followed by the entire dramatis personae, who ranged themselves on a wooden platform in front of the theatre. They were dressed in character, but woefully shabby, with very dingy and wrinkled white tights, threadbare cotton velvets, crumpled silks, and crushed muslin, and all the gloss and glory gone out of their aspect and attire, seen thus in the broad daylight and after a long series of performances. They sang a song together, and withdrew into the theatre, whither the public were invited to follow them at the inconsiderable cost of a penny a ticket. Before another booth stood a pair of brawny fighting-men, displaying their muscle, and soliciting patronage for an exhibition of the noble British art of pugilism. There were pictures of giants, monsters, and outlandish beasts, most prodigious, to be sure, and worthy of all admiration, unless the artist had gone incomparably. beyond his subject. Jugglers proclaimed aloud the miracles which they were prepared to work; and posture-makers dislocated every joint of their bodies and tied their limbs into inextricable knots, wherever they could find space to spread a little square of carpet on the ground. In the midst of the confusion, while everybody was treading on his neighbour s toes, some little boys were very solicitous to brush your boots..

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Our Old Home, 1870

    If the Parks be 'the lungs of London,' we wonder what Greenwich Fair is - a periodical breaking out, we suppose, a sort of spring-rash: a three days' fever, which cools the blood for six months afterwards, and at the expiration of which London is restored to its old habits of plodding industry, as suddenly and completely as if nothing had ever happened to disturb them.
    In our earlier days, we were a constant frequenter of Greenwich Fair, for years. We have proceeded to, and returned from it, in almost every description of vehicle. We cannot conscientiously deny the charge of having once made the passage in a spring-van, accompanied by thirteen gentlemen, fourteen ladies, an unlimited number of children, and a barrel of beer; and we have a vague recollection of having, in later days, found ourself the eighth outside, on the top of a hackney-coach, at something past four o'clock in the morning, with a rather confused idea of our own name, or place of residence. We have grown older since then, and quiet, and steady: liking nothing better than to spend our Easter, and all our other holidays, in some quiet nook, with people of whom we shall never tire; but we think we still remember something of Greenwich Fair, and of those who resort to it. At all events we will try.
    The road to Greenwich during the whole of Easter Monday, is in a state of perpetual bustle and noise. Cabs, hackney-coaches, 'shay' carts, coal-waggons, stages, omnibuses, sociables, gigs, donkey- chaises - all crammed with people (for the question never is, what the horse can draw, but what the vehicle will hold), roll along at their utmost speed; the dust flies in clouds, ginger-beer corks go off in volleys, the balcony of every public-house is crowded with people, smoking and drinking, half the private houses are turned into tea-shops, fiddles are in great request, every little fruit-shop displays its stall of gilt gingerbread and penny toys; turnpike men are in despair; horses won't go on, and wheels will come off; ladies in 'carawans' scream with fright at every fresh concussion, and their admirers find it necessary to sit remarkably close to them, by way of encouragement; servants-of-all-work, who are not allowed to have followers, and have got a holiday for the day, make the most of their time with the faithful admirer who waits for a stolen interview at the corner of the street every night, when they go to fetch the beer - apprentices grow sentimental, and straw-bonnet makers kind. Everybody is anxious to get on, and actuated by the common wish to be at the fair, or in the park, as soon as possible.
    Pedestrians linger in groups at the roadside, unable to resist the allurements of the stout proprietress of the 'Jack-in-the-box, three shies a penny,' or the more splendid offers of the man with three thimbles and a pea on a little round board, who astonishes the bewildered crowd with some such address as, 'Here's the sort o' game to make you laugh seven years arter you're dead, and turn ev'ry air on your ed gray vith delight! Three thimbles and vun little pea - with a vun, two, three, and a two, three, vun: catch him who can, look on, keep your eyes open, and niver say die! niver mind the change, and the expense: all fair and above board: them as don't play can't vin, and luck attend the ryal sportsman! Bet any gen'lm'n any sum of money, from harf-a-crown up to a suverin, as he doesn't name the thimble as kivers the pea!' Here some greenhorn whispers his friend that he distinctly saw the pea roll under the middle thimble - an impression which is immediately confirmed by a gentleman in top-boots, who is standing by, and who, in a low tone, regrets his own inability to bet, in consequence of having unfortunately left his purse at home, but strongly urges the stranger not to neglect such a golden opportunity. The 'plant' is successful, the bet is made, the stranger of course loses: and the gentleman with the thimbles consoles him, as he pockets the money, with an assurance that it's 'all the fortin of war! this time I vin, next time you vin: niver mind the loss of two bob and a bender! Do it up in a small parcel, and break out in a fresh place. Here's the sort o' game,' &c. - and the eloquent harangue, with such variations as the speaker's exuberant fancy suggests, is again repeated to the gaping crowd, reinforced by the accession of several new-comers. 
    The chief place of resort in the daytime, after the public-houses, is the park, in which the principal amusement is to drag young ladies up the steep hill which leads to the Observatory, and then drag them down again, at the very top of their speed, greatly to the derangement of their curls and bonnet-caps, and much to the edification of lookers-on from below. 'Kiss in the Ring,' and 'Threading my Grandmother's Needle,' too, are sports which receive their full share of patronage. Love-sick swains, under the influence of gin-and-water, and the tender passion, become violently affectionate: and the fair objects of their regard enhance the value of stolen kisses, by a vast deal of struggling, and holding down of heads, and cries of 'Oh! Ha' done, then, George - Oh, do tickle him for me, Mary - Well, I never!' and similar Lucretian ejaculations. Little old men and women, with a small basket under one arm, and a wine-glass, without a foot, in the other hand, tender 'a drop o' the right sort' to the different groups; and young ladies, who are persuaded to indulge in a drop of the aforesaid right sort, display a pleasing degree of reluctance to taste it, and cough afterwards with great propriety.
    The old pensioners, who, for the moderate charge of a penny, exhibit the mast-house, the Thames and shipping, the place where the men used to hang in chains, and other interesting sights, through a telescope, are asked questions about objects within the range of the glass, which it would puzzle a Solomon to answer; and requested to find out particular houses in particular streets, which it would have been a task of some difficulty for Mr. Horner (not the young gentleman who ate mince-pies with his thumb, but the man of Colosseum notoriety) to discover. Here and there, where some three or four couple are sitting on the grass together, you will see a sun-burnt woman in a red cloak 'telling fortunes' and prophesying husbands, which it requires no extraordinary observation to describe, for the originals are before her. Thereupon, the lady concerned laughs and blushes, and ultimately buries her face in an imitation cambric handkerchief, and the gentleman described looks extremely foolish, and squeezes her hand, and fees the gipsy liberally; and the gipsy goes away, perfectly satisfied herself, and leaving those behind her perfectly satisfied also: and the prophecy, like many other prophecies of greater importance, fulfils itself in time. But it grows dark: the crowd has gradually dispersed, and only a few stragglers are left behind. The light in the direction of the church shows that the fair is illuminated; and the distant noise proves it to befilling fast. The spot, which half an hour ago was ringing with the shouts of boisterous mirth, is as calm and quiet as if nothing could ever disturb its serenity: the fine old trees, the majestic building at their feet, with the noble river beyond, glistening in the moonlight, appear in all their beauty, and under their most favourable aspect; the voices of the boys, singing their evening hymn, are borne gently on the air; and the humblest mechanic who has been lingering on the grass so pleasant to the feet that beat the same dull round from week to week in the paved streets of London, feels proud to think as he surveys the scene before him, that he belongs to the country which has selected such a spot as a retreat for its oldest and best defenders in the decline of their lives. 
    Five minutes' walking brings you to the fair; a scene calculated to awaken very different feelings. The entrance is occupied on either side by the vendors of gingerbread and toys: the  stalls are gaily lighted up, the most attractive goods profusely disposed, and unbonneted young ladies, in their zeal for the interest of their employers, seize you by the coat, and use all the blandishments of 'Do, dear' - 'There's a love' - 'Don't be cross, now,' &c., to induce you to purchase half a pound of the real spice nuts, of which the majority of the regular fair-goers carry a pound or two as a present supply, tied up in a cotton pocket-handkerchief. Occasionally you pass a deal table, on which are exposed pen'orths of pickled salmon (fennel included), in little white saucers: oysters, with shells as large as cheese-plates, and divers specimens of a species of snail (WILKS, we think they are called), floating in a somewhat bilious-looking green liquid. Cigars, too, are in great demand; gentlemen must smoke, of course, and here they are, two a penny, in a regular authentic cigar-box, with a lighted tallow candle in the centre. 
    Imagine yourself in an extremely dense crowd, which swings you to and fro, and in and out, and every way but the right one; add to this the screams of women, the shouts of boys, the clanging of gongs, the firing of pistols, the ringing of bells, the bellowings of speaking-trumpets, the squeaking of penny dittos, the noise of a dozen bands, with three drums in each, all playing different tunes at the same time, the hallooing of showmen, and an occasional roar from the wild-beast shows; and you are in the very centre and heart of the fair.
    This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat, is 'Richardson's,' where you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes. The company are now promenading outside in all the dignity of wigs, spangles, red-ochre, and whitening. See with what a ferocious air the gentleman who personates the Mexican chief, paces up and down, and with what an eye of calm dignity the principal tragedian gazes on the crowd below, or converses confidentially with the harlequin! The four clowns, who are engaged in a mock broadsword combat, may be all very well for the low-minded holiday-makers; but these are the people for the reflective portion of the community. They look so noble in those Roman dresses, with their yellow legs and arms, long black curly heads, bushy eyebrows, and scowl expressive of assassination, and vengeance, and everything else that is grand and solemn. Then, the ladies - were there ever such innocent and  awful-looking beings; as they walk up and down the platform in twos and threes, with their arms round each other's waists, or leaning for support on one of those majestic men! Their spangled muslin dresses and blue satin shoes and sandals (a LEETLE the worse for wear) are the admiration of all beholders; and the playful manner in which they check the advances of the clown, is perfectly enchanting. 
    'Just a-going to begin! Pray come for'erd, come for'erd,' exclaims the man in the countryman's dress, for the seventieth time: and people force their way up the steps in crowds. The band suddenly strikes up, the harlequin and columbine set the example, reels are formed in less than no time, the Roman heroes place their arms a-kimbo, and dance with considerable agility; and the leading tragic actress, and the gentleman who enacts the 'swell' in the pantomime, foot it to perfection. 'All in to begin,' shouts the manager, when no more people can be induced to 'come for'erd,' and away rush the leading members of the company to do the dreadful in the first piece. 
    A change of performance takes place every day during the fair, but the story of the tragedy is always pretty much the same. There is a rightful heir, who loves a young lady, and is beloved by her; and a wrongful heir, who loves her too, and isn't beloved by her; and the wrongful heir gets hold of the rightful heir, and throws him into a dungeon, just to kill him off when convenient, for which purpose he hires a couple of assassins - a good one and a bad one - who, the moment they are left alone, get up a little murder on their own account, the good one killing the bad one, and the bad one wounding the good one. Then the rightful heir is discovered in prison, carefully holding a long chain in his hands, and seated despondingly in a large arm-chair; and the young lady comes in to two bars of soft music, and embraces the rightful heir; and then the wrongful heir comes in to two bars of quick music (technically  called 'a hurry'), and goes on in the most shocking manner, throwing the young lady about as if she was nobody, and calling the rightful heir 'Ar-recreant - ar-wretch!' in a very loud voice,  which answers the double purpose of displaying his passion, and preventing the sound being deadened by the sawdust. The interest becomes intense; the wrongful heir draws his sword, and rushes on the rightful heir; a blue smoke is seen, a gong is heard, and a tall white figure (who has been all this time, behind the arm-chair, covered over with a table-cloth), slowly rises to the tune of 'Oft in the stilly night.' This is no other than the ghost of the rightful heir's father, who was killed by the wrongful heir's father, at sight of which the wrongful heir becomes apoplectic, and is literally 'struck all of a heap,' the stage not being large enough to admit of his falling down at full length. Then the good assassin staggers in, and says he was hired in conjunction with the bad assassin, by the wrongful heir, to kill the rightful heir; and he's killed a good many people in his time, but he's very sorry for it, and won't do so any more - a promise which he immediately redeems, by dying off hand without any nonsense about it. Then the rightful heir throws down his chain; and then two men, a sailor, and a young woman (the tenantry of the rightful heir) come in, and the ghost makes dumb motions to them, which they, by supernatural interference, understand - for no one else can; and the ghost (who can't do anything without blue fire) blesses the rightful heir and the young lady, by half suffocating them with smoke: and then a muffin-bell rings, and the curtain drops. 
    The exhibitions next in popularity to these itinerant theatres are the travelling menageries, or, to speak more intelligibly, the 'Wild-beast shows,' where a military band in beef-eater's costume, with leopard-skin caps, play incessantly; and where large highly-coloured representations of tigers tearing men's heads open, and a lion being burnt with red-hot irons to induce him to drop his victim, are hung up outside, by way of attracting visitors. The principal officer at these places is generally a very tall, hoarse man, in a scarlet coat, with a cane in his hand, with which he occasionally raps the pictures we have just noticed, by way of illustrating his description - something in this way. 'Here, here, here; the lion, the lion (tap), exactly as he is represented on the canvas outside (three taps): no waiting, remember; no deception. The fe-ro-cious lion (tap, tap) who bit off the gentleman's head last Cambervel vos a twelvemonth, and has killed on the awerage three keepers a-year ever since he arrived at matoority. No extra charge on this account recollect; the price of admission is only sixpence.' This address never fails to produce a considerable sensation, and sixpences flow into the treasury with wonderful rapidity.
    The dwarfs are also objects of great curiosity, and as a dwarf, a giantess, a living skeleton, a wild Indian, 'a young lady of singular beauty, with perfectly white hair and pink eyes,' and two or three other natural curiosities, are usually exhibited together for the small charge of a penny, they attract very numerous audiences. The best thing about a dwarf is, that he has always a little box, about two feet six inches high, into which, by long practice, he can just manage to get, by doubling himself up like a boot-jack; this box is painted outside like a six-roomed house, and as the crowd see him ring a bell, or fire a pistol out of the first-floor window, they verily believe that it is his ordinary town residence, divided like other mansions into drawing-rooms, dining-parlour, and bedchambers. Shut up in this case, the unfortunate little object is brought out to delight the throng by holding a facetious dialogue with the proprietor: in the course of which, the dwarf (who is always particularly drunk) pledges himself to sing a comic song inside, and pays various compliments to the ladies, which induce them to 'come for'erd' with great alacrity. As a giant is not so easily moved, a pair of indescribables of most capacious dimensions, and a huge shoe, are usually brought out, into which two or three stout men get all at once, to the enthusiastic delight of the crowd, who are quite satisfied with the solemn assurance that these habiliments form part of the giant's everyday costume.
    The grandest and most numerously-frequented booth in the whole fair, however, is 'The Crown and Anchor' - a temporary ball-room - we forget how many hundred feet long, the price of admission to which is one shilling. Immediately on your right hand as you enter, after paying your money, is a refreshment place, at which cold beef, roast and boiled, French rolls, stout, wine, tongue, ham, even fowls, if we recollect right, are displayed in tempting array. There is a raised orchestra, and the place is boarded all the way down, in patches, just wide enough for a country dance. There is no master of the ceremonies in this artificial Eden - all is primitive, unreserved, and unstudied. The dust is blinding, the heat insupportable, the company somewhat noisy, and in the highest spirits possible: the ladies, in the height of  their innocent animation, dancing in the gentlemen's hats, and the gentlemen promenading 'the gay and festive scene' in the ladies' bonnets, or with the more expensive ornaments of false noses, and low-crowned, tinder-box-looking hats: playing children's drums, and accompanied by ladies on the penny trumpet. The noise of these various instruments, the orchestra, the shouting, the 'scratchers,' and the dancing, is perfectly bewildering. The dancing, itself, beggars description - every figure lasts about an hour, and the ladies bounce up and down the middle, with a degree of spirit which is quite indescribable. As to the gentlemen, they stamp their feet against the ground, every time 'hands four round' begins, go down the middle and up again, with cigars in their mouths, and silk handkerchiefs in their hands, and whirl their partners round, nothing loth, scrambling and falling, and embracing, and knocking up against the other couples, until they are fairly tired out, and can move no longer. The same scene is repeated again and again (slightly varied by an occasional 'row') until a late hour at night: and a great many clerks and 'prentices find themselves next morning with aching heads, empty pockets, damaged hats, and a very imperfect recollection of how it was they did NOT get home.

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836

see also James Grant in Sketches in London - click here

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - Easter and Whitsun Holidays

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THERE was not a goodlier day of merry-making, for the regular traditional Monday-keepers, passed in the neighbourhood of London than at Greenwich Fair. The Pool, and the Port, of London are always objects of astonishment to a foreigner; but to see them on Whit-Monday, or at the commencement of a fine Easter week, was the most extraordinary sight he could meet with.
    At a very early hour, there was a busy note of preparation sounded at the steam-boat piers along the river. The streets were thronged with decently dressed people, the greater part of whom were progressing towards the Thames. These increased as the day advanced; and by three o'clock in the afternoon, the masses of Londoners waiting for their chance of passage in the Greenwich boats were so immense, that they formed a sight in themselves. Nor was there a less multitude, in proportion, at the terminus of the railway. The trains could scarcely run fast enough to convey the passengers; and sturdy barriers were erected to break the pressure of the crowd, and only admit such a number at a time as could be conveniently accommodated in the carriages.
    Later still, the river below London Bridge - the parapets of which were swarming with idlers, clustering [-125-] like bees to the coping - presented a singularly animated scene. Nearly all the vessels in the pool hoisted their flags, in compliment to the holiday - bands of music, that only appeared competent to play "Love not" and "Jeannette and Jeannot," were stationed at some of the wharfs, or on board the boats; and almost every minute a steamer passed, deep in the water, by reason of her crowded freight of human beings. It was only by extreme look-out that numberless accidents were avoided; for the highway was covered with small boats as well, together with ships being towed into dock, and heavy barges always getting directly across the way, so that sometimes a perfect stoppage of several minutes was necessary. Every available corner of the decks, cabins, and paddle-boxes of the steamers was occupied; and more than two-thirds of the voyagers were obliged to be content with standing-room during the journey, which, under these circumstances, was not made very rapidly. Indeed, we were but little under the hour going from Swan stairs to Greenwich pier; but everybody was in thorough good temper with themselves and everybody else, so that there was no grumbling at the want of accommodation. They appeared only too happy to get there at all, albeit all the way the boats rolled and swayed until the water nearly washed in at the cabin windows.
    The fair began directly you landed. From the Ship Torbay Tavern up to the park gates, the road was bordered on either side with stalls, games, and hand-waggons, containing goods or refreshments of every description. Mr. Punch, too, sat [-sic, ed.-] up the temple of his illegitimate drama at three or four points of  the [-126-] thoroughfare, at each of which (in our belief that there is but one Punch and that he is ubiquitous), he was pursuing that reckless career of vice and dissipation with which his audience are always so delighted. Snuff-boxes to throw at  -refreshments of singularly untempting appearance, which nevertheless found eager purchasers - vendors of spring rattles, who ensured "the whole fun o' the fair for a penny" - speculators in heavy stocks Of Waterloo crackers and detonating balls - proprietors of small percussion guns, to shoot with at targets for nuts - k ept increasing, together with the visitors, as we neared the park; until the diminished breadth of the street brought them all together in one struggle to get through the gates, like the grains of sand in an egg-glass.
    It was a great relief to exchange the dust and jostling of the street for the greensward and wide area of the park, albeit the grass was, in some places, perfectly shuffled away by the countless feet that passed over it in the course of the day. Observatory Hill was the chief point of attraction, and here the great mass of people was collected. Nothing could be more animated or mirth-inspiring than the coup d'oeil from the summit of this rise. The myriads of visitors all in their gayest dresses ; for the humblest amongst them had mounted something new, be it only a ribbon, in compliment to the holiday - the perpetual motion of the different groups and their various occupations - the continuation of the bustle to the river, seen beyond the hospital, covered with ships and steamboats as far as the eye could reach - and above all, the clear bright light shed over the entire panorama, except where the cloudy smoke [-127-] of London hung on the horizon - altogether formed a moving picture of life and festivity only to be witnessed at Greenwich.
    The maimed and weather-beaten forms of the old pensioners offered odd contrasts to the lively active groups on every side. But even they were keeping holiday. Some of them, it is true, would have found it a task of no small difficulty to climb up the hill, or run down it, with the alacrity or headlong velocity of the younger visitors; so they contented themselves with sitting down upon the smooth turf to watch the others, or entertaining attentive listeners with their accounts of former engagements, in descriptions which depended more or less upon the fertility of their imaginations, but so ingeniously framed that they usually were contrived to end in an eleemosynary appeal to the generosity of the "noble captain" or other complimentary officer who listened to them. The other chief entertainments on the Observatory Hill consisted in running down with helter-skelter rapidity, or scrambling oranges and apples amongst the boys on its declivity, which fruits were liberally showered forth by the more wealthy visitors on the summit. Frequently, an unwary damsel, crossing the slope, was entrapped by a handkerchief extended between two swift-footed swains, and compelled to finish her journey down the hill in much quicker time than she intended. And then what struggling there was - what exclamations of "Ha' done, then!" and "Be quiet, now!" until there was no breath left to give utterance to these remonstrances, and the victim was hurried to the foot of the steep between her two reckless persecutors, fortunate if she arrived at the foot without any downfall. For such accidents were of [-128-] common occurrence, and roars of laughter arose from the crowds on either side when any luckless wight over-ran himself, and saluted the turf in consequence. 
    There was always the same concourse of people outside the upper park gates, upon Blackheath; but the style of amusement was here varied. Fortune-tellers and donkeys formed the chief attraction; and the hirers of the latter continually bestridden and belaboured animals met with as frequent falls as the runners on the hill, and apparently with as little consequences. The gipsies, also, were driving a brisk trade amongst the credulous, inviting everybody to peep into their own futurity; indeed we were so frequently addressed as "My pretty gentleman," and heard so many gratifying things for nothing, told in the hope of luring us on to cross the olive hand presented to us with a "piece of silver," that we began to think our own lot in life was not so miserable after all. Not, however, that we ever felt particularly despondent at holiday time. We always endeavoured to take the bright side of any circumstances we may be thrown amongst; and here there was so little care to be met with, and so much merriment - boisterous at times, it is true, and what very refined people would think common and vulgar, but, withal, innocent and heartfelt - that we were forced to be cheerful in spite of our own feelings, had we been otherwise disposed. There was so much, too, to entertain. Look at that fortune-telling group. A little fair man has evidently been prevailed upon by "the young woman he keeps company with" to treat her to a revelation of her future destiny. He has been listening, with a smirk of self-complacency, to the [-129-] commencement of the gipsy's oration; but his countenance gradually falls as he hears something about "a tall, dark gentleman as desires to go courting her," until, in the implicit belief that the Bohemienne, has not only the power of predicting but also of directing future events, he cuts short the story of the prophetess, and leads his intended away in high dudgeon. But, if you met them afterwards, you found that the cloud had completely passed away.
    Upon One Tree Hill, which derives its name from a trunk upon the summit, whose bare branches are presumed, at some period long lost in antiquity, to have put forth occasional leaves, but which now looks more like a tree growing topsy-turvy, with its root in the air-upon this elevation the principal array of telescopes was established; and the old pensioners who owned them, and adapted their focus to the eyes of the curious, found plenty of custom. Some years ago, when the late Mr. Hone visited the fair for his Every-day Book, the first sight always demanded was "the men in chains" - the bodies of the executed pirates formerly suspended on the river bank. But alas for the progress of civilization! These interesting objects had long since disappeared, and there was nothing equally exciting to supply their place, so that the pensioners were driven to invent fresh wonders. But what with the sights the visitors actually did see, and what with those they did not, and those they persuaded themselves they did, the end was, to all appearances, answered just the same.
    The "Fair," properly so called, was a long narrow thoroughfare of stalls, booths, and shows, in a lane leading from the town to the bridge at Deptford Creek. Perhaps this was the least attractive part of the day's [-130-] amusement. The crowd was so dense and disorderly as to threaten each minute the erection of barricades of brandy-snaps, and the overthrow and deposition of the gilt gingerbread kings ranged on each side. More refreshment stalls bordered the way - wonderfully uninviting shell fish, of shapes you had never before encountered - mysterious effervescing drinks, like dirty soap-suds and carbonic acid mixed together - eels in different states of cookery, pickled, stewed, and in pies - strangely indigestible lumps of pudding, studded at uncertain intervals with black lumps, presumed to be plums - masses of cold fried fish, liberally peppered with dust; and dreadful oysters as large as soup-plates - oysters in June! But all were doing good business; and rapidly disposing of their stock.
    The shows, possibly, were our greatest delight, for we love to be harmlessly imposed upon at these wandering exhibitions. The last time we were at Greenwich Fair, we saw one held in a dismantled dwelling-house, where various forms in wax-work, of the true Mrs. Jarley breed, were set up for inspection. In the recess of a window were placed two figures, evidently intended, originally, for Amy Robsart and the Earl of Leicester, but which represented, we were informed, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, enjoying the retirement of private life, apart from the pomp of royalty. ·Why they should have chosen to enjoy retirement in fancy dresses of the Elizabethan period, those best acquainted with the habits of those august personages can possibly inform us. All the characters of the exhibition were, however, old friends. We fancied that we once knew them in High Holborn, where the organ turned at the door, and the monkey sat on the hot [-131-] gas-pipe. At all events, if they were not the identical ones, the artist had cast two in the same mould whilst he was about it. We do not think he had been happy in the likenesses. Sir Robert Peel was, unmistakeably, Mr. Buckstone grown a foot taller, and wearing a light flaxen wig. Lady Sale we once knew as Queen Adelaide; and Oxford had transmigrated in to Wix, the eyes having been manifestly wrenched violently round to form the squint of the latter miserable culprit. In one point the artist had excelled nature. He had preserved the apparent dryness and coolness of the skin, whilst the folks looking on were melting with the heat.
    In another show were some learned birds. This was also held in an unfinished house. A curtain nailed to the rafters divided the rude interior into two parts; by pushing it aside we saw a flock-bed upon the ground, a mouldering fire, and a tin saucepan: a thin unhappy dog was persuading himself that he was asleep on the bed. In front of the penetralia was a dirty breeding-cage, in which five or six poor little ragged canaries were sitting on a perch, huddled up together as if for better self-defence. A man came to the front and said, "Stand back, gents, and then all can see - the canaries, the performing canaries, brought from the Canary Islands for the Queen." The birds were then taken out, and had to pull carts and draw water, sit on the end of a trumpet whilst it was played, and fire cannon; the explosion of the gunpowder throwing them into a state of tumbling, chuffing, and sneezing, from which they did not recover by the conclusion of the entertainment.
    As soon as it was dusk, the crowd in the Fair thick-[-132-]ened; and its sole object appeared to be to push a way violently through everything to the extreme end, and then to return again in the same manner. In the town every tavern and public-house was filled to overflowing with hungry, or rather thirsty, occupants; the clouds of tobacco-smoke from the open windows proving the crowded state of the apartments. The steam-boats had now ceased to ply, but the trains on the railway continued until a late hour. If you returned to town by the latter method of conveyance, you met hundreds more proceeding to Greenwich, even at very advanced periods of the evening. Where they got to when they arrived, how they contrived to return home again when the Fair closed, is beyond conjecture. Those, however, who went simply to look on were not sorry, by this time, to get clear of the increasing riot and confusion - to which, on arriving once more in London, the bustle of Cheapside appeared almost seclusion and tranquillity.


[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]

The Victorian Dictionary

Victorian London - Publications - Humour - Punch - cartoon 58 - Manners and Customs of Ye Englyshe in 1849 No.13

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A Prospect of Greenwich Fair

Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1849