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.


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