Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The Day after the Fair

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IT was the very last thing expected. The two acres of land parted from the respectable and orderly highway only by a low fence, was bounded on three sides of its square by the garden walls of certain villa residences, in the occupancy chiefly of the families of men of City business, away from home during the greater part of the day. They are dwarf walls these. A tall man might rest his elbows on the top of any one of them, and any man or boy so evilly disposed might scale them in a twinkling. But nobody went in fear of anything of the sort happening. The piece of land before mentioned, ordinarily used as pasture for dairy cattle, was the property of old Mr. Wiggins, whose detestation for tramps and trespassers was well known, and who had set up on his land a notice that was no make-believe, to the effect that any one caught invading the privacy of his premises would forthwith be handed over to the police, and treated with the utmost severity of the law. It was a pleasant look-out from the back windows across the garden and over the meadow, and such was the sense of security that grew out of long immunity from persecution, that peaches were planted to flower and bear fruit against the walls, and not unfrequently the family linen was left out through a summer night to bleach on the grass plot.
    One day a short time since, however, poor old Wiggins went mad. It is rumoured that he has been seen about since, look-[-341-]ing and acting as sanely as ever, but it is to be feared that this is but a treacherous retiring of his malady, and that presently he will break out worse than ever. At all events, if he is sane now, he was mad last Wednesday three weeks ; and this according to his own showing. On the day in question a fiend in corduroy and brown leather gaiters, and wearing a closefitting hairy cap upon his head, made bold to wait on Wiggins as on his own land he was peacefully slicing mangold wurzel for the cows, and without preamble demanded to he informed of the sum that Mr. Wiggins would take to grant permission for a horse circus to be erected for the space of one month on this his meadow. It has been suggested that the fiend disguised in corduroy must have been a mesmerist, or a man who had extensive dealings in serpents of fascinating gaze ; how else could it have transpired that Wiggins, instead of at once warning the tempter off his ground listened to him, and named the modest sum of twelve pounds as that which would induce him to concede what the fiend required.
    Anyhow, he did concede, and straightway the little meadow, instead of being an advantage and a refreshing sight for the wives and the maid-servants and the little children of the surrounding houses with the low walls, became a theatre compared with which a bear garden is paradise. Within five-and-twenty yards of where good mothers and innocent children lived and slept, uproar and blackguardism, and all manner of sin and nastiness, held high revelry during one whole week. Gongs banged, drums beat, trumpets brayed, showmen roared and incessantly shouted "Hi! hi!" ruffians "larked' with any females they met, and shrieks of alarm or obscene laughter was the result the steam-engines that propelled the gigantic merry-go-rounds snorted and yelled through their steam whistles all in the stench and glare of the fierce naphtha lights, which were only eclipsed by sudden and frequent bursts of blue fire, and yellow and red and green, that now and again lit up the infernal [-342-] scene. Woe for the low walls and the neat gardens where the choice flowers grew! Woe for any and everything portable, even down to so small a thing as a shoescraper, or a house- flannel, or a clothes-prop, or a hank of line left without the locked and bolted doors of the pretty villa garden There is no class of ruffians so unscrupulous as that which attends fairs. The gipsy unadulterated is bad enough, but when he goes to a Whitechapel school, and on his ingrain cunning and foxiness grafts the sneakiness and meanness of the depraved Cockney, he becomes a delightful creature indeed.
    However, the fair is now at an end, and the peaceful occupiers of the pretty houses with the low garden walls may recover from their fright and repair the damage they have suffered.
    Quick march is not now the rule of the day amongst fair folks. In the old time, if a three days' fair commenced on the Monday, by Thursday morning not a vestige of it would remain; nay, hours before daylight the long string of caravans might be met on the road bound for new hunting-grounds. But now there is no demand for such expedition. At least a third of the ancient chartered fairs have been struck off the roll, while the laws regulating the letting of land for the temporary purpose of showmen and travelling theatricals have been made, if not stringent enough, at least sufficiently so to render it a matter of no little difficulty to secure an eligible "pitch," as it is called. The consequence is that when they do secure a pitch they make the most of it, working early and late, and exerting themselves to the utmost to keep the game alive, and not scrupling to resort for that purpose to manoeuvres that in the old times of legitimacy would have been regarded even by these worthies as undignified. The fair being brought to an end, however, there ensues a period of relaxation and rest, lasting nearly the whole of the day following, an example of which was here to be witnessed.
    It is one of the oddest sights imaginable this "day after" on [-343-] a modern fair-ground, and quite enough to cool the ardour of the most enthusiastic fair-goer, and to prove a terrible shock to the juvenile believer in wizards, and learned pigs, and Indian chiefs, and giantesses. No more of make-believe, and screens, and mystery; no more of masks, and tinsel, and romance. Here is the Cherokee savage, who last night appeared before a horror-stricken audience with his wrists manacled for safety's sake, showing his man-eating teeth, and rolling his terrible eyes as though nothing would afford him greater pleasure than to seize that blood-stained tomahawk with which, as his keeper declares, he has slaughtered "'ole tribes of his enemies out on the distant praries of his natif country," and exercise his sanguinary propensities on the multitude. Here he squats, a man of peace, on an upturned tub, smoking a short pipe, and driving hob-nails into the heels of his old boots. Here, too, is the giantess, that wonderful female who, if there is any truth in the painted canvas that yesterday hung before the wooden house on wheels that she inhabits, has been presented to the crowned heads of Europe, the Prince of Wales being so smitten by her charms that as he gazes on her he is compelled to still the beating of his bounding heart by resolutely plunging his hand in at the bosom of his waistcoat; while the more sceptical Emperor of the French, doubting if so much loveliness can be real, is depicted indenting the thick part of her arm with the tip of his forefinger - here is the giantess, nothing more than an inordinately fat and dirty middle-aged draggle-tail, frying bacon over a fire made in a hole in the ground, while her husband, the cockshy man, is busy, with a pot of colour and a house-painter's brush, "touching up" her fair portrait, the blaze of the naphtha lamp having the night before scorched her splendid waist.
    Here, too, is Signor Diabolo, the wizard. Since Monday last, and up to the preceding evening, he was invisible to mortal gaze, under a fee of threepence - an awful person, in a black velvet cap, with a funereal plume, and a blood-coloured tunic [-344-] spangled with jewels to such an extent that he appeared in the dim light as though the fire he was so constantly in the habit of breathing had at last burnt its way through him, and he must presently burst out into violent flames. What could not the wizard accomplish! He could discover gold-fish all heaping alive in any gentleman's hat. He could turn pennies into half-crowns, and vice versa, in the twinkling of an eye; he could take an empty ginger-beer bottle, give it a shake, and, ho! it was instantly filled with sherry wine - at least, so he called it, and no little boy invited to taste it ventured to contradict him. Well, here was the wizard, as vulgar-looking a mortal as ever drove a donkey, in his shirt-sleeves, and a very dirty shirt too, blackguarding his next-door neighbour in anything but supernatural terms, because that the stock-in-trade of the latter-to wit, a learned pig--had surreptitiously entered his dwelling, and stolen and devoured two fresh herrings that the magician had set aside for his dinner.
    Here was Fitzrashus Buckingham, the eminent tragedian, and the man who killed live rats with his teeth, and the ventriloquist, forming an harmonious group about the pot-boy with his cans from the nearest public-house, tossing for pints of beer; and here, too, was Mrs. Fitzrashus, desisting from her washing that she might spank the fairy (with whom every small boy in the neighbourhood who had seen her dancing in her gauze frock and diadem and wings had fallen madly in love) because that, being sent on a mission for a pennyworth of treacle, she had generously permitted several of her young friends she had met on the road to dip their fingers into the jar. And, speaking of children, here was one I should like to have kidnapped on the spot, and conveyed straight to my good friends in Great Ormond Street. This was the unlucky little boy whose only claim to be an article suitable for exhibition was that, owing to malformation, or illusage, his poor head had attained a size that was enormous. There was a painting of the "loosus natur," as [-345-] he was called, outside the caravan, representing the sufferer, his head bearing about the same proportion to his body as a turnip- radish to its tail; but, although this was a gross exaggeration, his appearance was monstrous enough to satisfy the craving of the most morbid appetite. There he sat, poor little chap, at the door of the van, with his mites of legs dangling over the steps, and his great head wearily rested against the door panel, and his baby face looking as old and pale and careworn as that of the very poor mother of a very large family. What was he thinking of, I wonder? Perhaps of the dinner he hungered for, and was by no means likely to get. Perhaps of his last beating about that poor head of his. Why not? Dwarfs are plied with gin to make them dwarfish, and the same principle would here apply: the size of the child's head is his master's capital, and is he the sort of man to stick at increasing his capital when it may be effected by a mere rap of his knuckles, as one may say? Poor little victim one felt it to be nothing short of mean and unmanly to pass on and leave him.
    And now let me say a word concerning an especially odious feature of modern fairing. Although a day after the fair proper, as its termination was doubtful a great many sightseers found their way to the spot to wander amongst the dismantled booths and shows, and gaze curiously at the grimy machinery now unmasked that made the hobby horses spin round so wonderfully, and at the horses themselves bereft of their flowing manes and tails, and looking very bald and ashamed, ranged against the wall, ready for packing. Moreover, there was something else to occupy their attention if they were so inclined, and this was the gambling, or, more properly speaking, the swindling and cheating openly indulged in by dozens of rascals whose proper place was a gaol.
    It really is incredible how these things go on. There are laws against it. It is as much a part of a policeman's duty to protect the public from the depredations of a card-sharper or [-346-] other rogue, with a pretty plan for fleecing foolish people of their money, as from those of the common pickpocket. It is known, moreover - and day by day fresh evidence to that effect is brought forward - that the vice of gambling is on the increase, and it is admitted that the most severe means should be adopted to check the abomination; nevertheless, the trade flourishes. It flourishes constantly amongst the betting scamps of Fleet Lane, at races, at processions, at any gathering of the people. It flourished at this little fair of ours to an alarming extent, and that within a dozen yards of the police on duty. Not one of the ancient dodges for swindling a dupe out of half-a-crown was there unrepresented. There was the gentlemen with the "little pea," and "prick the garter," and roulette, and dice, and cards. This last-mentioned phase of the vice was predominant. Without exaggeration there were fully ten of the card rascals down on their knees with the three cards, and loudly proclaiming their willingness to lay any gent "from arf-a-crown to a suvrin that they didn't find the little gentleman." Strange to say every cheat succeeded in drawing a mob of silly young fellows to listen to him, and not at all strange to say every card.sharper was attended by a gang of those detestable scoundrels known by the fraternity as "jollies," fellows who pretend to be strangers and win money, and who incite the unwary to profit by their example. And really, although to cheat as a rule is plain as A B C, now and then the villains work their game with wonderful ingenuity. I was witness to an instance of this. Hovering about the skirts of one of those card-sharping groups was apparently a highly indignant old gentleman, who could not control his impatience at seeing honest people done out of their money. He audibly alluded to the gang as swindlers and daylight robbers, and warned the bystanders to beware of them. So incensed grew one of the jollies presently that after threatening that he would do so, he knocked the old gentleman's hat over his eyes. "I don't care," [-347-] exclaimed the moral old fellow, " I won't stand by and see people robbed, not if you knock my head off. You've got one half-crown out of him (a green young carpenter), and you shan't get any more if I can help it." "Any gent arf-a-crown or a suvrin," continued the worker of the cards, shuffling them to and fro. Here the old gentleman hastily elbowed his way to the young carpenter and whispered in his ear, and at the same time holding up his hand and commanding the sharper to let the cards lie as they were. "What for?" asked the sharper. "Because if you do I'll bet you a pound I pick up the Knave of Clubs - he said that he'd lay a pound, didn't he? - (this to the bystanders) - I'll lay you a pound : two if you like." "One's enough to lose," grumbled the sharper. "Well, one then." "You might let the carpenter go halves," suggested a voice. " So he shall," exclaimed the kind old gentleman generously; "give me your ten shillings, my friend, and win ten by it, and then take my advice and be off, and never bet on cards any more." And the young carpenter straightway eagerly pulled out his ten shillings and gave them to the kind old gentleman, who staked it with ten of his own, and - lost, of course.
    I don't know whether the carpenter took the old gentleman's advice, and never bet on cards again, but I am sure that his unfortunate loss did not daunt the old gentleman, for half an hour afterwards I discovered him repeating his act of generosity towards a guileless young butcher.