Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XV - Fairlop Friday

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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 [-123-] 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  ancient times.
    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?"