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AMONGST those customs "more honoured in the
breach than the observance" which are rapidly being
stamped out by the advancing steps of civilization,
are the institutions which we can yet remember as so
popular in the days of our childhood, called pleasure
fairs. Like that social dodo in a higher section of
society, the "three-bottle man," with the stupid
Bacchanalian usages of which he was the embodiment,
these fairs are slowly but surely disappearing
as education spreads among the masses of the people.
In the country a fair is a simple and a necessary
thing enough. At certain seasons of the year, according
to the staple commodities for the sale of
which the assemblage was originally instituted, our
bucolic friends gather at early morning with the products
of their farms; a good deal of noisy buying,
selling, and barter takes place. Later in the day the
ladies invest their profits in a little mild finery, or in
simple pleasures; and, later still, when the public-houses
have done their work, comes a greater or lesser
amount of riot, rude debauchery, and vice; and then,
voila tout - the fair is over for a year. One can easily
imagine the result of the transition when, from the
quiet country, the fair removes to the city or suburb.
In such places every utilitarian element is wanting,
and the gilt ginger-bread and gewgaws are only a
speciously innocent attraction towards the drinking
and dancing booth where the mischief is done. Well-wishers
to society are unromantic enough not to
regret the decidedly waning glories of these gatherings,
from the great Bartholomew Fair itself down to
that which, on the Friday of which I write, converted
many miles of thoroughfare at the East End
of London, as well as one of the prettiest forest
scenes still surrounding the metropolis, into a vast
al fresco tavern, where the "worship of Bacchus"
was as freely indulged as in any heathen temple of
Fairlop Fair - which has not yet died out, though beginning to show satisfactory signs of decay - commenced its existence, innocently enough, about a century ago. At that time Mr. Day, a shipbuilder, wishing to have a day's outing in the forest with his friends and employés, fitted up a vessel on wheels, fully rigged, in which he conveyed his picnic party to Hainault Forest, on the outskirts of which, some distance from Ilford, stood the famous Fairlop Oak. The holiday became an annual custom, and gradually changed its character from the simple gathering of a master and his men into regular saturnalia; during which, each year, from the first Friday in July, over [-124-] the ensuing Saturday and Sunday, riot and debauchery reigned supreme in the glades of the forest and the eastern districts of London. The example get by Mr. Day was followed by other ship, boat, and barge builders, but of late years, more particularly by the mast and block makers, riggers, shipwrights, and shipyard labourers ; and more recently still by the licensed victuallers. Finding the custom good for trade, the publicans formed a society for building or hiring these boats on wheels, which, covered with flags, and provided each with a band of music and filled with revellers, annually make their progress into Hainault Forest. They go no longer, alas! to Fairlop Oak - for that is numbered with the things of the past but now to Barking side, where, at the Maypole Inn, the festivities of Fairlop Fair are still kept up.
These ship and boat cars attract immense multitudes along the Mile End, Bow, and Whitechapel Roads, down as far as Aldgate ; the crowd assemble in the morning to see the holiday people start on their expedition. The most remarkable sight, however, is at night, when the "boats" return lighted with coloured lanterns, red and green fires, &c. ; and at every public-house along the road similar fires are burnt, and brass bands stationed to strike up as the cars pass, and stop at certain favoured establishments "for the good of the house." Anxious to witness the fading glories of Fairlop Friday myself, before the [-125-] advancing tide of civilization shall have done their inevitable work upon them, I sallied forth to the East End, and walking along one of the finest approaches to London, from Aldgate, by Whitechapel, to Bow and Stratford Churches, succeeded in realizing more completely than ever before two facts: first, horn gigantic is the population of the East End of London; and, secondly, how little is required to amuse and attract it. There were only two of the "boats" sent to the Forest that year. Their return could gratify the sight of these people but for a single instant; yet there, from early dusk almost to succeeding daylight, those working men, literally "in their thousands" - and not in the Trafalgar Square diminutive of that expression - gathered to gratify themselves with the sight of the pageant. In comparison, the "Boeuf Gras," which annually sends the gamins of Paris insane, is really a tasteful and refined exhibition. Yet there they were, women, men, and children - infants in arms, too, to a notable extent - swarming along that vast thoroughfare, boozing outside the public-houses, investing their pence in "scratch-backs" and paper noses, feathers and decorations, as do their betters on the course at Epsom, under the feeble excuse of "waiting for the boats." The first arrived en retour at Stratford Church about ten o'clock; and certainly the appearance of the lumbering affair as it moved along, with its rigging brought out by means of coloured fires, lan-[-126-]terns, and lamps, was odd enough. As soon as it passed me at Stratford, I jumped outside one of the Bow and Stratford omnibuses, and so had an opportunity of following, or rather joining in, the procession as far as Whitechapel, where the "boat" turned off into Commercial Road. For the whole of that space the footway was filled with one seething mass of humanity, and the publicans were driving a rattling trade outside and inside their establishments. As the glare of the coloured fires lighted up the pale faces of the crowd with a ghastly hue, and I heard the silly and too often obscene remarks bandied between the bystanders and the returning revellers, I could not help agitating the question, whether it would not be possible to devise some innocent recreation, with a certain amount of refinement in it, to take the place of these - to say the best - foolish revelries. In point of fact, they are worse than foolish. Not only was it evident that the whole affair from beginning to end, as far as adults were concerned, was an apotheosis of drink ; but amongst another section of the populace, the boys and girls, or what used to be boys and girls - for, as the Parisians say, "Il n'y a plus de garcons"- one must have been blind indeed not to see the mischief that was being done on those East End pavements ; done more thoroughly perhaps, certainly on a vastly larger scale, than in the purlieus of the forest. It is an uninviting subject to dwell upon; but one could understand all about baby farms, and [-127-] Lock Hospitals, and Contagious Diseases Acts, out there that July night, in the crowded streets of East London.
It would be unfair to dilate upon these evils, and not to mention an organization which, for the last ten years, has been seeking to remedy the mischief. Some hundreds of working men of a more serious stamp, aided by a few gentlemen and ministers of various denominations, form themselves into small bands of street preachers, and sallying forth in a body, hold services and preach sermons at the most populous points of the Fairlop route. Being curious to see the effect of their bold labours - for it requires immense "pluck" to face a Whitechapel mob - I joined one of these detachments, where the Rev. Newman Hall was the preacher. Before starting, this gentleman gave it as the result of his long experience with the British workman that there is no use in waiting for him to come to church. If the church is to do anything with him, it must go out and meet him in the streets and fields, as it originally did. Mr. Hall gave some amusing illustrations of his experience at Hastings, where, for several weeks, he had been preaching on the beach to large congregations. He was idling there, he said, for health's sake, and one evening, seeing a number of men loafing about, he proposed to one of them that he should give them an address. This gentleman declined the address, but added, characteristically enough, "If ye'll gie me [-128-] some beer I'll drink it." Two others, being asked if they would listen, "didn't know as they would.". Under these unpromising auspices Mr. Hall began and, attracting a crowd, was "moved on" by a policeman. A gentleman who recognised him proposed an adjournment to the beach, and there a sermon was preached, and has been repeated by Mr. Hall on several occasions, with a congregation of thousands. He has a peculiar knack of speaking in a tongue "understanded of the people," and his address to the Fairlop crowd on that Friday night "told" considerably. At its conclusion he quietly put on his hat, dropped into the crowd, and went his way ; but the tone of criticism amongst his hearers was very favourable, and I quite agree with the critics that it's a pity we haven't "more parsons like that." It is not, however, simply by religious zeal such a want as that to which I allude is to be supplied, but by the substitution of some sensible recreation for the low attractions of the beershop and gin-palace. It is a problem worthy of our deepest thinkers : "What shall we offer our huge populations in exchange for the silly pageant even now being enacted in the outskirts of the metropolis - which may well be taken to embody the pastime of the lower orders - Fairlop Fair?"