All the Fun of the Fair

This England - - Contents - Bernard Bale

There is noth­ing quite like the joy of a brightly painted, bril­liantly lit English fair with ex­cited chil­dren grasp­ing their can­dyfloss sticks and tof­fee ap­ples, young men try­ing to win a prize at the darts stall and im­press their girl­friends by hand­ing them a gi­ant cud­dly toy and dads sport­ingly agree­ing to take a turn on the big wheel even though they are still feel­ing the ef­fects of a heavy lunch. Yes, we just love all the fun of the fair.

The tra­di­tional English fair has been a part of our her­itage for cen­turies. No­body re­ally knows how it started, but clearly it has de­vel­oped over the years from its ori­gins as a mar­ket. There were weekly and daily mar­kets even in Ro­man times but when the Mid­dle Ages ar­rived those mar­kets that were not daily events be­came more spe­cialised and much big­ger.

There were mop fairs at which work­ers pre­sented them­selves for hire. The “mop” part came be­cause do­mes­tics would show what they did by car­ry­ing a mop, but there were other forms of em­ploy­ment rep­re­sented at th­ese fairs and the men and women would carry a tool or some­thing sym­bolic of their work. Shep­herds held a crook or a tuft of wool, cow­men brought wisps of straw, and dairy­maids car­ried a milk­ing stool or pail. Prospec­tive em­ploy­ers would look them over and, if they liked what they saw, they would hire them for the com­ing year, hand­ing them a shilling to seal the deal.

Of course, mar­kets and fairs of that sort at­tracted big crowds who wanted some­thing to eat and to have some fun so it was not long be­fore games started to ap­pear as well as buskers and other en­ter­tain­ers in­clud­ing an­i­mal acts and at­trac­tions. The early fair­ground rides started to ap­pear as well but they were a long way off the com­puter-driven su­per-rides of to­day.

Strat­ford-upon-avon, Tewkes­bury, Ban­bury and War­wick are among a num­ber of English towns which still hold mop fairs although the tra­di­tion now only lives on by name and by the pres­ence of a fun fair in the town cen­tre.

There were also trade fairs, of course, and many of them still ex­ist. Ap­pleby Fair in West­mor­land is a great ex­am­ple. Tra­di­tion­ally a horse fair which be­gan life in the late 17th cen­tury, it at­tracts vast num­bers of trav­ellers. Other trade fairs seem to have gone in a dif­fer­ent direction and are now held in ma­jor venues with lit­tle sign of any fair­ground rides.

One of the most fa­mous fairs was the River Thames frost fair. It is of­ten re­ported that this hap­pened only once, but in fact the event oc­curred a num­ber of times be­tween the 17th and

early 19th cen­turies when the great river froze suf­fi­ciently for some se­ri­ous fun. Henry VIII is re­puted to have trav­elled by sleigh along the frozen river in 1536 and even Queen El­iz­a­beth I is said to have got her skates on to en­joy the nov­elty of slid­ing across the river.

The first frost fair ap­pears to have been or­gan­ised in 1608, although per­haps “or­gan­ised” is not quite the right word since or­gan­is­ing some­thing that may or may not hap­pen does seem a lit­tle point­less. In fact, when word got round that the Thames was frozen peo­ple were drawn to it, and where there are peo­ple there is trade — as many of the cater­ers, buskers and so on of the time were very well aware.

Among the at­trac­tions were sleigh rides, horse and coach rac­ing, bull-bait­ing, pup­pets, mu­sic, makeshift round­abouts, strolling play­ers, games and even, on one oc­ca­sion, an ele­phant. An en­ter­pris­ing artist cre­ated sou­venir cards on which you could have your name in­cluded.

Fairs be­came more thrilling as the years went by. The en­ter­pris­ing Vic­to­ri­ans in­tro­duced a wide range of ex­cit­ing new rides in­clud­ing steam-driven carousels, mostly with horse themes but also in­clud­ing other ex­otic an­i­mals. Dur­ing the same cen­tury fair­grounds also be­gan to have the new at­trac­tions of steam­boats and tun­nel rides which added to the thrill by be­ing

cov­ered. It was at the end of the cen­tury that the big wheel came into favour and which has grown in pop­u­lar­ity ever since. In the early 20th cen­tury came the cater­pil­lar, the cake walk and even­tu­ally the dodgems.

The rides be­came big­ger and more colour­ful but they were not alone in their de­vel­op­ment and their pop­u­lar­ity. Tra­di­tional fair­ground games also came into their own with hoopla, hooka-duck, ball-in-a-bucket, toss-a-penny, shoot­ing ranges and, of course, the fa­mous co­conut shy which took over from the tra­di­tional Aunt Sally. The prizes ranged from cud­dly toys to fruit bas­kets, sweets and even money. Of course, win­ning was not that sim­ple — noth­ing changes very much on that score.

The ex­otic gold­fish later be­came a pop­u­lar prize if you were able to get a ping-pong ball into an empty gold­fish bowl. Some did and many homes were en­riched by the ad­di­tion of a new pet. Hav­ing gold­fish as prizes has largely been out­lawed in re­cent times but many a gold­fish from a fun fair lived to a ripe old age af­ter it ceased trav­el­ling. I can re­mem­ber in the 1950s win­ning two and they lived on for decades. Mind you, as a boy I can also re­mem­ber win­ning the top prize of £1 on an­other stall. I was given a 10 shilling note and a box of choco­lates. That wasn’t ex­actly £1 but the stall owner did not look like the sort of per­son to ar­gue with. So the fair­grounds de­vel­oped into mag­i­cal places of won­der­ful rides and games of skill — or luck. They also de­vel­oped into places of fan­tas­tic smells with hot dogs and onions blend­ing beau­ti­fully with the se­duc­tive aroma of can­dyfloss.

So what is miss­ing? Of course — the sideshows! Dur­ing the cen­turies the bril­liant sideshows be­came more and more en­ter­tain­ing and ou­tra­geous, but sadly they are now al­most a thing of the past. The joy of sideshow op­er­a­tors of past cen­turies was that they could ex­hibit just about anything with­out be­ing chal­lenged by po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and make any claim they chose with­out is­sue be­ing taken. If a show­man said that he had a gi­ant rat which had been caught in the Lon­don sew­ers there was no­body to chal­lenge him. The fact that it was a capy­bara was largely un­known.

The “real live” mer­maid was ex­actly that — sort of. Yes, all right, it was a care­fully con­structed cos­tume. But who cared? It was fun. The “gi­ant oc­to­pus” was seen to breathe — a grue­some crea­ture. The fact that it was made of rub­ber and had a con­cealed pipe through which air was pumped to ap­pear to be its breath was of lit­tle con­se­quence. Freaks of all sort were not only ex­hib­ited but were paid good money to do what for most was the only job they would ever be able to hold down.

Fair­ground va­ri­ety shows, cir­cus per­for­mances, swordswal­low­ers, fire-eaters, ac­ro­bats and per­form­ing an­i­mals from li­ons to fleas were all part of this spe­cial area of show busi­ness. And let us not for­get the box­ing and wrestling booths and the won­der­ful wall-of-death. There are still some of those go­ing the rounds too: al­ways a great show.

For­tune-tell­ers have been very pop­u­lar through­out the cen­turies and can tell you anything about the fu­ture un­til you ask them which town they are go­ing to next. They can’t tell you just in case you are from the tax of­fice!

All th­ese de­vel­op­ments through the cen­turies have served to bring us to to­day’s fun fairs both trav­el­ling and static. Many show­men like the per­ma­nent sites at the sea­side or at theme parks be­cause they save so much on fuel costs and other ex­penses, but there are still plenty of trav­el­ling show­men who would not want to change their life­style for anything. They are mem­bers of fair­ground fam­i­lies that stretch back through the cen­turies.

Their hot dogs might now come with curry sauce, their rides might be louder and even more colour­ful and fright­en­ing, but their cud­dly toys are still dif­fi­cult to win. The show­men are keep­ing alive the tra­di­tion of the fun fair. Can­dyfloss any­body?



A for­tune-teller at Stow-on­the-wold, Glouces­ter­shire.

Cu­ri­ous Eng­land In 1701 the first croc­o­dile was brought to Eng­land by Es­sex res­i­dent Richard Bradley who kept it in the lake and grounds of his home in Brain­tree.

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