Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The Delights of Barnet

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HAD it been the railway station nearest to Donnybrook at the time when the celebrated fair of that district is in full swing, it would not have so much surprised me; but in peaceful England, within twelve miles of Charing Cross, to find the road impeded by a gang of men and lads crying "Who'll buy a stick? Who'll have a ground-ash for a penny? What gen'leman haint got a stick?" was somewhat amazing. The proposition so earnestly pressed was the more alarming from the aspect of the sticks offered for sale. No make-believe dandy shams, varnished and tasselled were they, but stout twigs of timber in the bark, and wanting only a prog at the end to make them worthy the handling of a bullock drover. "Who'll 'ave a ground-ash ? Here yer are, sir! You'll want it." This was by no means what I had bargained for, my mission being one of peace; but the individual who made the last offer accompanied it with a wink so significant that it seemed the extreme of rashness to disregard it. So I bought a ground-ash and took the road, the dust of which was already dotted all over like a sheep-run with the impressions of other ground-ashes that had gone before.
    It was the first of the Barnet Fair days; but business before pleasure. This was Monday, and the time-honoured and dearly-cherished carnival of the London costermonger was not until Wednesday. There was much business to do in the interval. Between the [-272-] Whetstone side of Barnet and the common, the meadows were teaming with cattle-little black oxen, old-fashioned and tough-looking, from Wales, and Highland steers, and Devons, and Herefords, and dairy cattle, to say nothing of sheep. But a glance at the enormous crowds that the railway brought to Barnet, made it evident that though nine-tenths meant business, it was not in the sheep and oxen line. There is a solemn deliberation of gait, a slowness of eye, a solemnity of visage about folks who deal in beef and mutton producing animals, that makes it impossible to confound them with those whose hearts are fixed on horses. There is a smartness, a glibness, a springiness of the legs in the latter that would as ill fit the former as tandem harness would a bullock team. The dress of the two is markedly different. The man of bucolic tendencies has a disposition to be loose in his attire. His ample wide-awake admits of side winds to keep cool his solid calculating head there is room to thrust in a hand between his neckerchief and his throat. It doesn't in the least matter if his coat is three sizes too large for him, or that the laces of his boots are slack even to slovenliness. On the contrary, with a certain class of persons the possession of a horse, or a pony, or a donkey - nay, the mere hankering after one, induces a contraction of the habiliments which it seems impossible to resist. Every article of attire must fit as tight on the wearer as the skin of the well-beloved quadruped adheres to its body. His bullet head in his all-round hairy cap fits like a pudding in a basin. He winds lengths of white woollen cloth about his neck, so that it looks like surgical bandaging. His jacket is buttoned tight up, and it is a miracle how he contrives to thrust his enormous feet through the ridiculously narrow legs of his corduroys. [-273-] Of this sort were the great majority of the merry troopers who tramped over the mile that lies between the railway station and the Fair-ground.
    I will have nothing to say respecting the oxen and sheep. I don't know a teg from a wether, and I have not the remotest idea what a full-mouthed stock ewe is like. I passed on the road a printed placard testifying that David Jones, from some remote place in Wales, would hold his black cattle market on a piece of land behind some inn ; and a little farther on, through a gap in the hedge, I saw chalked on a board the mystic inscription, " Cow Fair ; traps a shillin'." But I had come on purpose to see the horses, and I pushed on. Presently I obtained a glimpse of them.
    From the main road the horse-field at Barnet presents a spectacle to describe which is as difficult as it is at first sight to understand it. I already knew what a horse-market was like - a metropolitan market, that is to say-and was prepared to find this one slightly uproarious; but that first glance brought me to a standstill. The horse-field was distant about two hundred yards or so ; and what I saw from the main road was a gradual slope ascending from the front, on which was a row of refreshment booths; the most capacious and prominent of them being kept by prize-fighters, whose names in full, or affectionately abbreviated, are inscribed on flags which flutter out bravely from the top of the tent poles.
    On the summit of the slope, exactly opposite, are other refreshment booths ; and I may here mention, though unhappily without being able to explain the singular gastronomic fact, that the staple viands at Barnet fair are roast pork and roast goose. The consequence is that the prevailing aroma of sage and onions [-274-] is very striking. The tent-keepers are proud of this feast of pork, and make all the display of it they can. Suspended above the heads of those who sit at the dining-tables are mighty joints of the recently-slaughtered animal, and exposed at the farther end is the kitchen and the powerful cooks, with bare and hairy arms, looming moist and shiny in a mist of well-basted crackling.
    On a slope between the two ranges of tents the horse fair is held ; but at a distance it appears like a tremendous battle between horses and men. It is one heaving sea, quadrupeds and bipeds being so wedged together as to be terribly suggestive of crushed ribs and mangled bodies trampled under foot. It is a chaos of manes and hoofs, and tails and heads, open mouths and teeth on which the sun glistens, and waving human hands and arms. There is an incessant bobbing up and down of human heads - gaol-cropped some, hideously tangled and uncombed others - the mouths of the owners being almost as wide open as the horses' mouths, but with far less innocent intent. What materially assists the fanciful imagination bent on framing to itself the picture of a field of battle is the brilliant display of pennons of crimson and yellow and green affixed to what from the roadway might easily be mistaken for pike-staves. These gay fluttering things rise high and then fall as though suddenly struck out of the hand that grasped them, and all in the midst of clouds of brown dust that betray how fiercely the war is raging, and amidst the warlike noise, the neighing and screaming of horses, the agonised howls and yells of men, the clapping of hands, and the stamping of feet.
    It is, indeed, a fearful and wonderful sight this fair: [-275-] but it must be admitted that a closer inspection somewhat spoils the romance with which distance invests it. You scramble across an intervening meadow; you trespass at this spot on the premises of a railway company who have sliced their right of way from the previously not over large and ancient horse-field, and here you are at the very verge of the arena. Then you discover that all this horrible din - all this roaring and raving - this Bedlamitish shrieking and howling-is simply the accompaniment of the sale of certain harmless and inoffensive quadrupeds. In the distance it looked a fierce struggle between the four-legged and the two-legged - a struggle in which the chances of victory were about equal; but a nearer inspection at once destroyed this pleasant delusion. At a glance it became certain that the two-legged brutes had the best of it. It is a fact no less remarkable than melancholy, that when human nature sinks to the extreme of abasement, so that its blunted intellect is but little superior to what is called instinct, it takes infinite delight in torturing animals that are only beneath it in so far that they go on four legs.
    The horse especially is an object of this impish hostility. Any one who recollects old Smithfield market, or, for that matter - for we have not improved in this respect to the extent some folks may think - any one whose misfortune it has been to pass through the northern market of Islington on a horse-market day - cannot fail to have observed the pleasure which certain savages of the human species take in ill-using any unlucky nag that is there trotted out to display its paces. It has to run up and down a lane edged on either side with enemies, each one of whom thinks himself unlucky, and deprived of a treat, unless he can [-276-] administer to the bewildered animal a prod with a spiked stick, or a slash with a sharp-thonged whip. Should he be baulked in this, he seeks solace in shouting and yelling after the escaped victim, as though it were some satisfaction to affright him.
    The cruel propensity of this barbarous tribe is held somewhat in check by the presence of the police and the market inspectors. But at Barnet these are wanting. It is a grand day with the horse-torturing fraternity. They gather on the horse-field hundreds strong, with no man to check them in their wicked freaks. It must be a dreadful day for the poor beasts. One can easily imagine that dreary company of worn-out horses standing under the shed in Mr Atcheler's yard, and, while they wait their turn to be fetched into the pole- axing- department, beguiling the tedious time by telling stories of their past experiences. There are horses whose knees have been broken in omnibuses; horses that can recount dreadful experiences of night cabs one, perhaps, that brings tears into the eyes of the others by relating the harrowing story of a blind horse in a brick field. But presently one that has not yet spoken says, in a hoarse whisper; "Friends, were you ever at Barnet? Was it ever the fate of anyone here to spend a livelong day in that field of horror?" They have heard dark rumours of it, some of them ; but now they lay their heads together, and listen with staring eyes till the horrifying narrative is at an end ; and then, with a shiver of sympathy, they resign themselves to their fate, blessing their stars that they have been spared such an infliction, and edging quite cheerfully towards the door that will be presently opened by a man with a red axe in his fist.
    I do not mean that this is so - I merely submit the [-277-] possibility of such equine communing. Horses are wonderful creatures. Everybody has heard of the Arab steed that gnawed his tether through with his teeth, and then, seizing his master bound hand and foot, carried him in triumph off the battle field to the bosom of his family. It is said to be on the records of the Veterinary College that an equine patient of theirs committed suicide by dashing his brains out against the wall, unable any longer to endure the pangs of toothache. Just imagine then, a creature capable of such reasonable behaviour - a helpless, friendless victim in Barnet field - in the hands of his persecutors. I am afraid to make a guess at the number of horses that were in that one field. Probably there were a couple of thousand, exclusive of the immense droves of ponies, unkempt and fresh from the Welsh mountains. Closely huddled together, however, as were horses and men, space had yet to be made in which to shew them off, as possible purchasers came up, and then ensued the demoniac spectacle already hinted at. Let the reader imagine a row of horses, tethered so closely by each other that their sides touch, and further that there is a grey horse among them. Some one wishes to view the grey horse, and straightway its head is loosed, and it is backed out. Then the fun begins. To the calm observer it seems that what the possible purchaser desires to be convinced of is that the grey horse is of such a patient disposition that no amount of goading or exasperation can drive him raving mad. If this is so, the test is as honestly severe as can be desired. A long and strong rope is affixed to the creature's headstall, -and the first manceuvre is to give a tremendous tug at this, and at the same time, a cruel sting with the whip, and then, when the poor beast starts back in terror, "Yah! hi! hi! yah!"  is shrieked [-278-] in insulting mockery at his frantic efforts to break away.
    But by this time other demons appear on the scene, and now I learn the secret of the flags before mentioned. They were not pennons attached to pikestaffs, but simply yards of stout coloured calico made fast to long hazel sticks. Experience has proved that with this ingenious instrument a horse, purblind with age, and desperately indifferent to blows, may be startled out of its wits, and made to exhibit a frantic activity which the unsuspecting buyer may be persuaded arises from the skitishness of youth. While the unhappy grey is resenting these tugs at the rope which threaten to tear away its upper lip, another tormentor rushes at him behind, and, by a dexterous movement of his red flag, causes it it to go snap, snap, with a noise like so many pistol shots. So urged, the grey springs round, and encounters a yellow flag snapped before its eyes, with a fiendish yell of "Yah! hi! yah! hup!" and if he has any spark of spirit in him he now rears on his haunches, only to be speedily brought to his four feet again by a tug at the rope.
    All the time that the tortured and terror-stricken animal is panting and sweating under these various injuries, there are eight or ten of the gang performing a dance about him, yelling out sounds indescribable, and with their sticks executing a lively imitation of the drum on theii~ hard felt hats and caps. And be it understood, this is going on in twenty different parts of the field at one and the same moment. Of course, these trials do not invariably result in a sale, but when the transaction does so terminate, it appears to be the custom to celebrate it in the same manner. "Sold again! Yah! hi! yah! hip! Sold again!" and the con-[-279-]federates engage in a dance of delight, flapping their flags, rattling their sticks, and flinging their cap, or that of any bystander, for they are not in the least particular, up in the air.
    But I think the most curious spectacle, and the most amusing, only that there was a touch of pity in it, was to be seen among the Welsh ponies. They are disreputable, shabby looking, shaggy little animals, with tangled manes, and their ears exhibiting that interior fluffiness that bespeaks the uncultivated colt. Wild as they are, however, they are not tethered. They stood in droves of, say, fifty each, and the most scientific picketing would have failed to bring them closer together or more compact. They made a ring, with their noses towards the centre, and their tails outward; and there they stood, shifting a little way to the right or left when the great roaring mob came pressing against them, but remaining as firmly side by side as though they were strung together. So docile and quiet did they seem, that any one unacquainted with their peculiarities might have wagered that he would have fetched out one and led it home as quiet as a sheep. He would have speedily discovered his mistake, however. As I gazed on the apparently timid flock, and mused on the gentleness of nature in all things mountain-born, an individual who was standing by inquired of Mr Reece, the proprietor, the price of a bay pony, the size of a small donkey. Eight pounds was the price asked, and Mr Reece cryed to his man Davis to fetch the animal out. Davis was a stiff-built young fellow, with broad shoulders and a weight that must have almost equalled the pony's; and it surprised me to see him "pull himself together," as the vulgar saying is, and take up another hole in his waist strap before he commenced the job.
[-280-] Then he made a manful leap into the midst of the drove, and pinioned the bay in a twinkling. One arm was round its neck, while his right hand firmly grasped it between the nostrils. The suddenness of the assault seemed for a moment to fill the pony with dismay. It suffered itself to be dragged away from its comrades for a short distance, but then, recovering its presence of mind, it made a stand. It reared up on its hind legs, with its mane bristling and its eyes glaring, and its mouth viciously open. It was a fair stand-up fight between Davis and the pony; and from the cool manner of the former, it was plain that it was no more than he had bargained for. To release his unfortunate nose, the pony reared high, but Davis's grip was sure. The pony reared higher still, and rolled over, but Davis rolled with him, puffing and blowing, all the time sharply reprimanding the perverse little brute in the Welsh tongue. It wanted to get back to the drove. It had been brought up in the drove, and felt no terrors while permitted to remain there. Its struggles, its agonised gasps and snorts, told how painfully it felt the severance, while the scared looks of its comrades were significant signs that they heard, and deplored their inability to help. It was only when the frantic little bay had been dragged by a dozen strong hands out of sight and sound of the herd, that it consented to stand on its four legs, and to permit the halter, that was symbolic of its future condition of slavery, to be slipt over its ears.
    Nor was this an exceptional instance of the courageous determination evinced by the Welsh ponies to resist to the last the subjugating hand of man. Before I left the horsefield, I witnessed at least a dozen of these man-and-pony fights; and in no instance [-281-] did the animal yield without a struggle that caused infinite amusement to the fiends of the calico flags and the other merciless howlers and yelpers, whose violence increased as the business of the day grew hotter. It soon grew too hot for me. An hour since I had come to be grateful to the vendor of "ground ashes for his friendly hint. But, lacking the heart to inflict unceremonious blows on every hoof that came dangerously near me, and having some regard for an old established corn on a middle toe, I made my way back across the railway, and so gained the comparatively peaceful high road.