Greenwich Fair.

It feels a bit wrong to talk about a May Monday fair on one of the few May Mondays that doesn’t have a holiday on it, but that’s the way the Christian Moveable Feast crumbles. I almost missed this morning, having forgotten that Pentecost and it’s old name Whitsun were one and the same festival, but I noticed just in time to be able to talk about the scandalous Greenwich Fair* that went on for centuries before the authorities closed it down.

This was the day when all of London seemed to flock here. It was a great leveller – toffs would rub shoulders (and heaven knows what else) with their servants, tradesmen with their customers, dockers with muckers, sailors with soldiers, and, of course, the criminal fraternity with practically anyone who didn’t have their eye (and one hand) firmly on their valuables.

For the duration of the Fair, anything went. The place teemed with life – and the inhabitants, for the most part, took advantage of it. Houses would open up their front rooms as ‘tea shops,’ locals would hawk whatever they could to the hoardes of visitors and even the Greenwich Pensioners got in on the act by hiring out their telescopes so that people could ‘look at St Paul’s Cathedral.’ They were, frankly, more interested in ogling the pirates hanging from the gibbets down at Blackwall.

Hawkers, sideshows, wax works, lurid theatrical entertainments – there were booths for anything the partying cockney could want, and as the years went on, the upper classes left them to it more and more.

They could get a tooth pulled or watch a prize fight. They could buy a trinket or dance a quadrille. They could hear a trumpet voluntary or get their fortunes told, watch wild beasts fight or drink a barrel of beer. They could visit Wombwell’s Menagerie or any one of the dozens of alehouses on the Thames. They could ‘meet’ a nice young lady and if they were really getting on, that they could engage in a spot of tumbling together. He could even get himself a Scratcher to tease her with. (no – not some strange marital aid – it was little serrated wheel on a stick which you rolled up and down your victim’s back. The noise it made sounded as though you’d ripped their clothes. Hilarious.)

By the Victorian age it was really getting out of hand. Charles Dickens described it as “a sort of spring-rash, a three day fever which cools the blood for six months afterwards.” Nathaniel Hawthorne wasn’t so charitable. The fair merely reminded him that “the common people of England, I am afraid, have no daily familiarity with even so necessary thing as a washbowl, not to mention a bathing tub.”

The ‘nicer’ people of Greenwich, largely those who were moving into the smart new houses going up during the early 19th Century, agreed with him and started to campaign to get the fair closed down. At first the hawkers, tradesmen – and punters – took absolutely no notice. After the railways arrived, it got even more crowded – 200,000 people and more. The Greenwich elite got even more panicked and eventually, after a riot of drunken soldiers in 1850, the fair was suppressed in 1857.

So as we sit here on a May Monday morning, considering another week at work, have a care for the cockney lad and his lass enjoying one of the few days off they’d get a year…

* There was a fair at Easter and also in October. AD Webster reckons it was on 12th, 13th and 14th May and 11th, 12th and 13th Oct – but I find it hard to imagine that it would have always been on those exact dates.

2 Comments to “Greenwich Fair.”

  1. [...] talked about Greenwich Fair before several times – not least including a traditional Greenwich pastime that was, like the fair [...]

  2. [...] Fair. An Easter fixture until those boring old Victorians closed it down for being too unruly, anything went at Greenwich Fair. The 2011 revival will give old traditions a new twist with a life-sized Punch and Judy, [...]