Scrape, Rattle and Roll

We’ve talked about Greenwich Fair before several times – not least including a traditional Greenwich pastime that was, like the fair itself, banned by the Victorians but I still think should be reintroduced as an Olympic sport.

I was chatting with the extraordinary Julian Watson recently, though, and he told me something that made me think.

I confess that I always assumed that the fair, which took place every Easter, Whitsun and August Bank Holiday was in the park itself. Every engraving/painting/illustration I’ve ever seen of it shows drunken revellers whooping it up amongst the greenery.

Most concentrate on the tumbling, of course, so that they can include scantily-clad ladies revealing their bloomers (though I doubt many Greenwich maidens actually wore them at all…) but some show general merriment and dancing, or even peg-legged pensioners hiring out telescopes near the Observatory, the instruments being trained not on the stars but the decaying remains of corpses flapping in the wind over at Execution Dock.

One item I’m very sad there seems to be no illustration of is the comedy Greenwich scraper that used to be sold at the booths, presumably for pence.  I’ll bet if one exists now no one will know what it is.

Basically, the wag who bought one would creep up behind someone and roll it quickly down their back. It produced a terrible ripping sound, and the victim would panic and think their dress/coat/jacket had been shredded. They’d whip round in fury only to have the scraper waved in their face, fingers pointed and hilarity poured upon them.

I have no idea what one of these contraptions would have looked like. I am wondering whether it might have been a bit like a pastry wheel:

but in truth I really don’t know. I wonder if one survives somewhere, in a museum, perhaps, labelled ‘kitchen gadget’ or ‘torture instrument.’

But I’ve digressed again. The one thing that all the pictures I’ve ever seen of Greenwich Fair have in common is that they’re all in the park, which always slightly puzzled me as to why the Victorians hated it so much. I mean, I know that after the railway opened the fair often attracted over two hundred thousand revellers – but if they up in the park, was it so much of an issue?

When we were talking about the lost St Peter’s recently, I was puzzled that it seemed the church was built on the site of Greenwich Fair – to prevent it coming back. But this was in Creek Street, which is nowhere near the park.

Happily Julian came to my rescue. He confirms that Greenwich Fair spread out all over town and that it

was held in Bridge Street, now Creek Road. The main booths etc. were there to catch the visitors as they arrived at Garden Stairs (off the steamers – TGP) The frolickers then spread out from the fair site through the town and then to the park where they frolicked to the full having walked or crawled via many, many pubs and beerhouses.

Garden Stairs had the Peter Boat public house on the east side and the Salutation on the west – a good start to the day. In short, the Fair was in the town with the park as an added pleasure or pain depending on whether you were the tormentor or the victim. Up to 250,000 visitors on a fair weekend with only parish constables to keep order.

Which brings me to the rattle part of the title. I visited the City of London Police Museum a few weeks ago (tiny, but well worth a visit. I was with a group but you can just get a tour by yourself if you wish) which had a collection of early police rattles – the precursor to whistles for attracting attention (also handy for clonking your perp if the truncheon’s not enough). This rattle’s actually from The People’s Collection of Wales as the City’s museum’s too small to have a proper website. Don’t let that put you off – it’s fascinating.

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