All the Fun of the Fair
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?
An illustration of a frost fair on the Thames in the 18th century, Nottingham Goose Fair in 1908 and (above) beautifully painted rides on a carousel.
A helter-skelter on Hampstead Heath, 1938; a boxing booth and forerunner of the ghost train (1900); Appleby Horse Fair; traditional fun-fair rides at Peterborough Show.
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.