Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The Onion Fair

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You may smell them long before you reach the Bull Ring, which is the place where the fair is held. They give a pungency to the air, and you can taste them on the lips, as salt of the sea may be tasted before the watery waste is yet in sight. But this mild foretaste by no means prepares you for the spectacle that greets the visual organs, when from the High Street you look down the hill at the foot of which is St Martin's Church. There is a square paved space as large, say, as Clerkenwell Green, piled, heaped, stacked in blocks of onions, large as four-roomed houses. Onions in enormous crates, such as crokery arrives in from the Potteries, onions in hogsheads, onions in sacks, in bags like hop-pockets, in ropes or "reeves," loose in waggons that three horses draw ; onions of all sizes and all qualities - "brown shells," "crimsons," "whites," "big 'uns," and "picklers." Onions block the roadway and brim over on the pavement, and hang in bulky festoons about the railings that surround the statue of Lord Nelson, who is so exposed to the mounds and shoals that one might almost imagine the sourness of his iron visage was due to his dislike for the odour of the chief ingredient of goose-stuffing, and that he would be thankful could he but raise a handkerchief to his heroic nose and shut out the fragrance.
    Not so with Birmingham's teeming population. The term "Onion Fair" is no empty name to them. From [-320-] all parts they come flocking, as eager as though onions were the staple of their lives and they had sliced up their last one a week ago. Why it should be so is a mystery. Why should Birmingham, of all places in England, exhibit such affection for the onion as to find it necessary to hold an annual sale of the coveted vegetable ? What is there peculiar in the nature of the inhabitants of the town of locks and guns, that the pungent esculent should be so highly prized by them? Is it eaten raw, or is it cooked? Are steaks and onions a favourite dish in Birmingham ? Is roast pork, with appropriate stuffing? There are three-four pork shops in the Bull Ring; the proud proprietor of one of them exhibiting in his window the silver medals that have been conferred on him because of his prowess in venturing to buy the fattest pigs at succeeding annual shows.
    Who can tell how much this enterprising tradesman has been influenced in his purchases by the confidence, annually renewed, that every Birmingham housewife will have a store of onions, and that the onion suggests stuffing for pork? Onions are eaten with tripe, and tripe is an esteemed article of food in Birmingham. Tripe-shops - not shops for the sale of raw tripe, but establishments where it may be obtained all hot and well done - are as common as penny pie shops are in London. In Digbeth there are several tripe shops, each one claiming to be the "real original;" and of evenings such fragrance of onions issues from the kitchen gratings as is enough to make the eyes if not the mouth water. In these various ways may the enormous demand for "brown shells" and "big 'uns," be to some extent accounted for; but as one contemplates men, women, and children busy among the [-321-] heaps as ants on an ant-hill, and bearing off, with satisfaction beaming in their faces, onions enough to garnish stake or tripe through all the days of the year, one cannot help thinking that the explanation is weak and insufficient.
    It is not, however, to onions alone that the fair held annually in the Bull Ring, at Birmingham, owes its high popularity. It is not altogether the craving to secure the pungent vegetable in ropes and bushels that tempts people to start at an unseasonable hour on a September morning, on a journey of a hundred miles, or that induces railway companies to advertise through the length and breadth of London that, on a certain day, a cheap and gigantic excursion train will leave Paddington and Euston Stations for Birmingham re turning the same evening, The secret lies in the fact that the onions are, to strangers at least, only a seasoning to something much more attractive - a real old fashioned pleasure fair. None of your modern semi scientific and strictly proper entertainments, that may be attended in dress-shoes and kid gloves, but the dear and almost bygone rough-and-tumble, sawdusty, naphtha-flaring carnival that our fathers recollect, with a merry crowd elbowing its way through long avenues of gingerbread booths, or responding loyally to the bewildering invitation to "Walk up, walk up," accompanied by the clash of cymbals and the bang of gongs.
    Bartlemy is not dead. Frightened out of London it has fled to Birmingham, and taken settled quarters in the Bull Ring there. It may be recollected that hot sausages were a much admired and prominent feature of the fair that was held in old Smithfield - well here they are, fizzing in a dozen different spots; and you may buy one and a slice of bread, by way of a plate, [-322-] for one penny. Oysters used to figure creditably at Bartlemy. They were cheap then. You might buy them as large as saucers at the rate of sixpence the dozen, and a dozen was a substantial feed for a family. But oysters are oysters now-or rather, speaking of the Bull Ring fair, they are not oysters now - they are mussels. I would willingly conceal the fact if I might, and for the town's sake; but, alas for human nature! Brummagem is Brummagem even to its oyster stalls. It is a masterpiece of counterfeit. In the distance, nay, when you have closely approached them, they look quite the genuine article; and you rejoice at the sight of the tempting, fat, little oysters at a penny a row of six; twopence a dozen! But it is a delusion. What you see so delicately reposing on the pearly shell are nothing but innocent little mussles, compelled to act the part of impostors. The supply of pearly shells is limited, and in constant demand. As fast as a customer licks a mussel off one, another is popped on it for the benefit of the next customer.
    I am glad to have got the above-mentioned grievance off my mind, because all that remains to be narrated is unexceptionably pleasant and satisfactory. It is a most extensive fair. The Bull Ring itself could not contain half the shows that are there - no, nor a tenth part. There are all manner of shows. The drama, horse-riding, the menagerie, and waxworks. The drama may be always seen at home, and the horse-riding, but not the menagerie. To be sure, there is something of the sort in Regent's Park; but the directors of the Zoological Gardens permit no Daniel in their den of lions. At the Onion Fair there was a den of lions, and a Daniel as well. Not the original Daniel. With an honest candour that did the proprietor credit he ad-[-323-]mitted that. The modern Daniel was named Day as well, and he was described as the "most infantile lion-tamer that ever appeared in public."
    He was produced at the door of the show wiping his hands on the anterior of his little tunic, and covertly sucking sweetstuff; and certainly for a child of his tender years, who was "just about to begin," he looked as undaunted a little hero as could he imagined. I paid my threepence and went in, and shortly afterwards saw him "begin," and still more shortly afterwards wished that he'd leave off. Not on account of the frightful peril he was in. A less eatable-looking boy cannot be conceived. He was arrayed in blue, and covered with indigestible-looking spangles, as though they had been poured over him. But the lions even though they thought their teeth equal to the task, had no desire to eat him. They didn't want to be bothered with him at all. There was a jolly coke fire in a great brazier not far from their cage, and it was evident that the meat-man had been already round, and peaceful as a pair of old donkeys they were resting their mangy muzzles on their paws, and blinking and winking at the comforting glow. When the young lad stepped into their lair one of the monarchs of the African forest lazily looked round, and, discovering that it was only Daniel, betook himself to blinking at the fire again, while the other yawned frightfully, and, raising itself languidly to it's feet, resigned itself to be tamed with a docility that must have been re-assuring to the female part of the auditory who, a moment before, had drawn horrible conclusions from the lion's gaping jaws. Lion-taming, like every other difficulty in life, may be accomplished by perseverance; and really there is very little in it - certainly not threepen'orth when the tamer and the [-324-] to-be-tamed are in the habit of repeating the performance about fifteen times a day.
    The waxworks were much more exciting - more bloodstirring; for there were effigies of departed monarchs that had sat on the English throne, quite as lifelike as the weak-kneed old lions; and there was a chamber of horrors-three chambers in fact, any one of which might be backed to give a visitor the "creeps" in half the time anything Madame Tussaud has as yet produced. They certainly do go in for everything strong at the Onion Fair. Signor Picketo's waxwork collection was not housed in a vulgar booth, but in a brick-built shop - a tenement that, by good luck, happened to be to let in the very heart of the fair. I am decidedly of opinion that the exhibition, being in a private house, was a great advantage, especially as regards the chamber of horrors. Perhaps, on the other hand, the limited accommodation was somewhat against Signor Picketo's "Kings, Queens, Statesmen, and Warriors," and accounted for nine Kings and Queens holding a levee in the kitchen, and for Garibaldi and Mr Gladstone and Pope Pius IX., and about twelve other persons of eminence, elbowing each other in the shop-parlour, and staring in blank dismay at the shameful lack of accommodation. Likewise if Signor Picketo had been master of the situation, it is likely that he would not have bestowed the Grecian Daughter administering infantile nourishment to her aged parent in a cupboard that still smelt strongly of cheese. But, as before remarked, I believe, these little disadvantages were fully compensated by the manner in which the various rooms of the house enabled the Signor to lay out his horrors - to lay them out literally.
    The principal part of the exhibition was on the first [-325-] floor, which consisted of three rooms, as dingy and gloomy as rooms of a house long uninhabited invariably are. The front room was in possession of the present royal family and King Solomon, and the apartment adjoining was tenanted by modern murderers - an awful assemblage, so closely packed that they jostled each other's descriptive card askew. But the crowning horror was in the further room. As you approached the half-open door you could see a bedstead foot; that was in no way startling. From the position of the chamber it would naturally be used for sleeping in. You put your head in at the door, and then you saw a sight that was almost enough to make you scream out "Police!"  There was a bedstead by the wall just where a bedstead usually stands, and with a bed on it - a made bed with sheets and bolster and pillows, exposing six children, each one with its throat cut in a manner so horrible that the shocked feelings of the beholder were immediately comforted by the reflection that their death must have been instantaneous. Gore on the little waxen faces, gore on the sheets, and on the hands that had been thrown up to protect their tender lives; and there was the murderess - she had left the razor in the windpipe of her last victim - with her throat cut as well, standing upright in her sprinkled nightdress, to welcome you, with a label round her neck that provided the edifying information that "this woman was nurse to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales." It is difficult to describe how appallingly real it all looked. Had the representation been on view at a public show-room it would have been only grimly ridiculous and disgusting; but being in that small room, to which just such a family of youngsters in so poor a house might have retired to rest, it was, from a [-326-] dramatic and sensational point of view, a perfect success. The women and the young men and their sweethearts crowded round the bedstead, and gauged the depth of every gash with their sorrowful eyes, which in many cases were watery and red. Perhaps this last-mentioned fact was due to their recent explorations among the onion groves.
    But those and similar horrors which need not be enumerated were not all the curiosities offered for public exhibition by Signor Picketo, at his shop in the Bull Ring. He was possessed of a curiosity, that was not of wax, but that was flesh and blood, and human and alive - a something that, according to the placard in the shop window, "would speak and shake hands with any party as wish to talk with her." It was a terrible sight indeed - a lady who was in part a lioness, and who was regarded as so choice a novelty that she was kept quite apart from the rest of the show, and lodged at the top of the house. An extra penny was charged to see the lioness lady, and a young man guarded the foot of the rickety stairway. Ushered into the back attic, bare and empty, save for a form on which the company was to sit, one saw that the open door disclosed a passage, at the end of which was another door, the bright streak at the bottom of which betrayed that there was a light within; and, moreover, there came from that room the civilised sound of the clinking of teaspoons against teacups.
    When six visitors had assembled, the young man knocked for the lady-lioness. She came immediately, emerging from the chamber where the tea-things were, hastily wiping her lips as she came. Her appearance, as she came and stood before us, was startling. Comely of shape, and attired in white muslin, and with her [-327-] magnificent hair streaming over her shoulders, she seemed not so awful. But then her face. There was the lioness. Her broad forehead ~vas covered with a tawny-coloured horny skin, and it was wrinkled like that of the lion; her eyebrows were shaggy, and one side of her nose was just as is the lion's nose, the other nostril being white, and small and delicate. Both her cheeks were covered with coarse straight hair. It would not have been in the least surprising if she had roared her displeasure at being interrupted while at her tea; but, on the contrary, after having, in a mild and gentle voice, bid us "good evening," she civilly proceeded to inform us that she was born in Graham's Town, in Southern Africa, in the year 1846; that her father was a soldier in the 86th Regiment, and that during the Kaffir war, and before she was born, her mother was taken prisoner; and that the kraal in which she was lodged was attacked by a lion, which nearly succeeded in carrying her off. Thus she accounted for her leonine appearance, further assuring us that she was very happy under Signor Picketo's protection, and that he permitted her to sell little books of her history, which were one penny each. After this the lioness lady gracefully curtsied, and I have no doubt sought once more the social teapot.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874