Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 12

GREENWICH FAIR

If the Parks be 'the lungs of London,' we wonder what Greenwich
Fair is--a periodical breaking out, we suppose, a sort of spring-
rash: a three days' fever, which cools the blood for six months
afterwards, and at the expiration of which London is restored to
its old habits of plodding industry, as suddenly and completely as
if nothing had ever happened to disturb them.

In our earlier days, we were a constant frequenter of Greenwich
Fair, for years. We have proceeded to, and returned from it, in
almost every description of vehicle. We cannot conscientiously
deny the charge of having once made the passage in a spring-van,
accompanied by thirteen gentlemen, fourteen ladies, an unlimited
number of children, and a barrel of beer; and we have a vague
recollection of having, in later days, found ourself the eighth
outside, on the top of a hackney-coach, at something past four
o'clock in the morning, with a rather confused idea of our own
name, or place of residence. We have grown older since then, and
quiet, and steady: liking nothing better than to spend our Easter,
and all our other holidays, in some quiet nook, with people of whom
we shall never tire; but we think we still remember something of
Greenwich Fair, and of those who resort to it. At all events we
will try.

The road to Greenwich during the whole of Easter Monday, is in a
state of perpetual bustle and noise. Cabs, hackney-coaches, 'shay'
carts, coal-waggons, stages, omnibuses, sociables, gigs, donkey-
chaises--all crammed with people (for the question never is, what
the horse can draw, but what the vehicle will hold), roll along at
their utmost speed; the dust flies in clouds, ginger-beer corks go
off in volleys, the balcony of every public-house is crowded with
people, smoking and drinking, half the private houses are turned
into tea-shops, fiddles are in great request, every little fruit-
shop displays its stall of gilt gingerbread and penny toys;
turnpike men are in despair; horses won't go on, and wheels will
come off; ladies in 'carawans' scream with fright at every fresh
concussion, and their admirers find it necessary to sit remarkably
close to them, by way of encouragement; servants-of-all-work, who
are not allowed to have followers, and have got a holiday for the
day, make the most of their time with the faithful admirer who
waits for a stolen interview at the corner of the street every
night, when they go to fetch the beer--apprentices grow
sentimental, and straw-bonnet makers kind. Everybody is anxious to
get on, and actuated by the common wish to be at the fair, or in
the park, as soon as possible.

Pedestrians linger in groups at the roadside, unable to resist the
allurements of the stout proprietress of the 'Jack-in-the-box,
three shies a penny,' or the more splendid offers of the man with
three thimbles and a pea on a little round board, who astonishes
the bewildered crowd with some such address as, 'Here's the sort o'
game to make you laugh seven years arter you're dead, and turn
ev'ry air on your ed gray vith delight! Three thimbles and vun
little pea--with a vun, two, three, and a two, three, vun: catch
him who can, look on, keep your eyes open, and niver say die! niver
mind the change, and the expense: all fair and above board: them
as don't play can't vin, and luck attend the ryal sportsman! Bet
any gen'lm'n any sum of money, from harf-a-crown up to a suverin,
as he doesn't name the thimble as kivers the pea!' Here some
greenhorn whispers his friend that he distinctly saw the pea roll
under the middle thimble--an impression which is immediately
confirmed by a gentleman in top-boots, who is standing by, and who,
in a low tone, regrets his own inability to bet, in consequence of
having unfortunately left his purse at home, but strongly urges the
stranger not to neglect such a golden opportunity. The 'plant' is
successful, the bet is made, the stranger of course loses: and the
gentleman with the thimbles consoles him, as he pockets the money,
with an assurance that it's 'all the fortin of war! this time I
vin, next time you vin: niver mind the loss of two bob and a
bender! Do it up in a small parcel, and break out in a fresh
place. Here's the sort o' game,' &c.--and the eloquent harangue,
with such variations as the speaker's exuberant fancy suggests, is
again repeated to the gaping crowd, reinforced by the accession of
several new-comers.

The chief place of resort in the daytime, after the public-houses,
is the park, in which the principal amusement is to drag young
ladies up the steep hill which leads to the Observatory, and then
drag them down again, at the very top of their speed, greatly to
the derangement of their curls and bonnet-caps, and much to the
edification of lookers-on from below. 'Kiss in the Ring,' and
'Threading my Grandmother's Needle,' too, are sports which receive
their full share of patronage. Love-sick swains, under the
influence of gin-and-water, and the tender passion, become
violently affectionate: and the fair objects of their regard
enhance the value of stolen kisses, by a vast deal of struggling,
and holding down of heads, and cries of 'Oh! Ha' done, then,
George--Oh, do tickle him for me, Mary--Well, I never!' and similar
Lucretian ejaculations. Little old men and women, with a small
basket under one arm, and a wine-glass, without a foot, in the
other hand, tender 'a drop o' the right sort' to the different
groups; and young ladies, who are persuaded to indulge in a drop of
the aforesaid right sort, display a pleasing degree of reluctance
to taste it, and cough afterwards with great propriety.

The old pensioners, who, for the moderate charge of a penny,
exhibit the mast-house, the Thames and shipping, the place where
the men used to hang in chains, and other interesting sights,
through a telescope, are asked questions about objects within the
range of the glass, which it would puzzle a Solomon to answer; and
requested to find out particular houses in particular streets,
which it would have been a task of some difficulty for Mr. Horner
(not the young gentleman who ate mince-pies with his thumb, but the
man of Colosseum notoriety) to discover. Here and there, where
some three or four couple are sitting on the grass together, you
will see a sun-burnt woman in a red cloak 'telling fortunes' and
prophesying husbands, which it requires no extraordinary
observation to describe, for the originals are before her.
Thereupon, the lady concerned laughs and blushes, and ultimately
buries her face in an imitation cambric handkerchief, and the
gentleman described looks extremely foolish, and squeezes her hand,
and fees the gipsy liberally; and the gipsy goes away, perfectly
satisfied herself, and leaving those behind her perfectly satisfied
also: and the prophecy, like many other prophecies of greater
importance, fulfils itself in time.

But it grows dark: the crowd has gradually dispersed, and only a
few stragglers are left behind. The light in the direction of the
church shows that the fair is illuminated; and the distant noise
proves it to be filling fast. The spot, which half an hour ago was
ringing with the shouts of boisterous mirth, is as calm and quiet
as if nothing could ever disturb its serenity: the fine old trees,
the majestic building at their feet, with the noble river beyond,
glistening in the moonlight, appear in all their beauty, and under
their most favourable aspect; the voices of the boys, singing their
evening hymn, are borne gently on the air; and the humblest
mechanic who has been lingering on the grass so pleasant to the
feet that beat the same dull round from week to week in the paved
streets of London, feels proud to think as he surveys the scene
before him, that he belongs to the country which has selected such
a spot as a retreat for its oldest and best defenders in the
decline of their lives.

Five minutes' walking brings you to the fair; a scene calculated to
awaken very different feelings. The entrance is occupied on either
side by the vendors of gingerbread and toys: the stalls are gaily
lighted up, the most attractive goods profusely disposed, and
unbonneted young ladies, in their zeal for the interest of their
employers, seize you by the coat, and use all the blandishments of
'Do, dear'--'There's a love'--'Don't be cross, now,' &c., to induce
you to purchase half a pound of the real spice nuts, of which the
majority of the regular fair-goers carry a pound or two as a
present supply, tied up in a cotton pocket-handkerchief.
Occasionally you pass a deal table, on which are exposed pen'orths
of pickled salmon (fennel included), in little white saucers:
oysters, with shells as large as cheese-plates, and divers
specimens of a species of snail (WILKS, we think they are called),
floating in a somewhat bilious-looking green liquid. Cigars, too,
are in great demand; gentlemen must smoke, of course, and here they
are, two a penny, in a regular authentic cigar-box, with a lighted
tallow candle in the centre.

Imagine yourself in an extremely dense crowd, which swings you to
and fro, and in and out, and every way but the right one; add to
this the screams of women, the shouts of boys, the clanging of
gongs, the firing of pistols, the ringing of bells, the bellowings
of speaking-trumpets, the squeaking of penny dittos, the noise of a
dozen bands, with three drums in each, all playing different tunes
at the same time, the hallooing of showmen, and an occasional roar
from the wild-beast shows; and you are in the very centre and heart
of the fair.

This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly
illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat, is
'Richardson's,' where you have a melodrama (with three murders and
a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some
incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes.

The company are now promenading outside in all the dignity of wigs,
spangles, red-ochre, and whitening. See with what a ferocious air
the gentleman who personates the Mexican chief, paces up and down,
and with what an eye of calm dignity the principal tragedian gazes
on the crowd below, or converses confidentially with the harlequin!
The four clowns, who are engaged in a mock broadsword combat, may
be all very well for the low-minded holiday-makers; but these are
the people for the reflective portion of the community. They look
so noble in those Roman dresses, with their yellow legs and arms,
long black curly heads, bushy eyebrows, and scowl expressive of
assassination, and vengeance, and everything else that is grand and
solemn. Then, the ladies--were there ever such innocent and awful-
looking beings; as they walk up and down the platform in twos and
threes, with their arms round each other's waists, or leaning for
support on one of those majestic men! Their spangled muslin
dresses and blue satin shoes and sandals (a LEETLE the worse for
wear) are the admiration of all beholders; and the playful manner
in which they check the advances of the clown, is perfectly
enchanting.

'Just a-going to begin! Pray come for'erd, come for'erd,' exclaims
the man in the countryman's dress, for the seventieth time: and
people force their way up the steps in crowds. The band suddenly
strikes up, the harlequin and columbine set the example, reels are
formed in less than no time, the Roman heroes place their arms a-
kimbo, and dance with considerable agility; and the leading tragic
actress, and the gentleman who enacts the 'swell' in the pantomime,
foot it to perfection. 'All in to begin,' shouts the manager, when
no more people can be induced to 'come for'erd,' and away rush the
leading members of the company to do the dreadful in the first
piece.

A change of performance takes place every day during the fair, but
the story of the tragedy is always pretty much the same. There is
a rightful heir, who loves a young lady, and is beloved by her; and
a wrongful heir, who loves her too, and isn't beloved by her; and
the wrongful heir gets hold of the rightful heir, and throws him
into a dungeon, just to kill him off when convenient, for which
purpose he hires a couple of assassins--a good one and a bad one--
who, the moment they are left alone, get up a little murder on
their own account, the good one killing the bad one, and the bad
one wounding the good one. Then the rightful heir is discovered in
prison, carefully holding a long chain in his hands, and seated
despondingly in a large arm-chair; and the young lady comes in to
two bars of soft music, and embraces the rightful heir; and then
the wrongful heir comes in to two bars of quick music (technically
called 'a hurry'), and goes on in the most shocking manner,
throwing the young lady about as if she was nobody, and calling the
rightful heir 'Ar-recreant--ar-wretch!' in a very loud voice, which
answers the double purpose of displaying his passion, and
preventing the sound being deadened by the sawdust. The interest
becomes intense; the wrongful heir draws his sword, and rushes on
the rightful heir; a blue smoke is seen, a gong is heard, and a
tall white figure (who has been all this time, behind the arm-
chair, covered over with a table-cloth), slowly rises to the tune
of 'Oft in the stilly night.' This is no other than the ghost of
the rightful heir's father, who was killed by the wrongful heir's
father, at sight of which the wrongful heir becomes apoplectic, and
is literally 'struck all of a heap,' the stage not being large
enough to admit of his falling down at full length. Then the good
assassin staggers in, and says he was hired in conjunction with the
bad assassin, by the wrongful heir, to kill the rightful heir; and
he's killed a good many people in his time, but he's very sorry for
it, and won't do so any more--a promise which he immediately
redeems, by dying off hand without any nonsense about it. Then the
rightful heir throws down his chain; and then two men, a sailor,
and a young woman (the tenantry of the rightful heir) come in, and
the ghost makes dumb motions to them, which they, by supernatural
interference, understand--for no one else can; and the ghost (who
can't do anything without blue fire) blesses the rightful heir and
the young lady, by half suffocating them with smoke: and then a
muffin-bell rings, and the curtain drops.

The exhibitions next in popularity to these itinerant theatres are
the travelling menageries, or, to speak more intelligibly, the
'Wild-beast shows,' where a military band in beef-eater's costume,
with leopard-skin caps, play incessantly; and where large highly-
coloured representations of tigers tearing men's heads open, and a
lion being burnt with red-hot irons to induce him to drop his
victim, are hung up outside, by way of attracting visitors.

The principal officer at these places is generally a very tall,
hoarse man, in a scarlet coat, with a cane in his hand, with which
he occasionally raps the pictures we have just noticed, by way of
illustrating his description--something in this way. 'Here, here,
here; the lion, the lion (tap), exactly as he is represented on the
canvas outside (three taps): no waiting, remember; no deception.
The fe-ro-cious lion (tap, tap) who bit off the gentleman's head
last Cambervel vos a twelvemonth, and has killed on the awerage
three keepers a-year ever since he arrived at matoority. No extra
charge on this account recollect; the price of admission is only
sixpence.' This address never fails to produce a considerable
sensation, and sixpences flow into the treasury with wonderful
rapidity.

The dwarfs are also objects of great curiosity, and as a dwarf, a
giantess, a living skeleton, a wild Indian, 'a young lady of
singular beauty, with perfectly white hair and pink eyes,' and two
or three other natural curiosities, are usually exhibited together
for the small charge of a penny, they attract very numerous
audiences. The best thing about a dwarf is, that he has always a
little box, about two feet six inches high, into which, by long
practice, he can just manage to get, by doubling himself up like a
boot-jack; this box is painted outside like a six-roomed house, and
as the crowd see him ring a bell, or fire a pistol out of the
first-floor window, they verily believe that it is his ordinary
town residence, divided like other mansions into drawing-rooms,
dining-parlour, and bedchambers. Shut up in this case, the
unfortunate little object is brought out to delight the throng by
holding a facetious dialogue with the proprietor: in the course of
which, the dwarf (who is always particularly drunk) pledges himself
to sing a comic song inside, and pays various compliments to the
ladies, which induce them to 'come for'erd' with great alacrity.
As a giant is not so easily moved, a pair of indescribables of most
capacious dimensions, and a huge shoe, are usually brought out,
into which two or three stout men get all at once, to the
enthusiastic delight of the crowd, who are quite satisfied with the
solemn assurance that these habiliments form part of the giant's
everyday costume.

The grandest and most numerously-frequented booth in the whole
fair, however, is 'The Crown and Anchor'--a temporary ball-room--we
forget how many hundred feet long, the price of admission to which
is one shilling. Immediately on your right hand as you enter,
after paying your money, is a refreshment place, at which cold
beef, roast and boiled, French rolls, stout, wine, tongue, ham,
even fowls, if we recollect right, are displayed in tempting array.
There is a raised orchestra, and the place is boarded all the way
down, in patches, just wide enough for a country dance.

There is no master of the ceremonies in this artificial Eden--all
is primitive, unreserved, and unstudied. The dust is blinding, the
heat insupportable, the company somewhat noisy, and in the highest
spirits possible: the ladies, in the height of their innocent
animation, dancing in the gentlemen's hats, and the gentlemen
promenading 'the gay and festive scene' in the ladies' bonnets, or
with the more expensive ornaments of false noses, and low-crowned,
tinder-box-looking hats: playing children's drums, and accompanied
by ladies on the penny trumpet.

The noise of these various instruments, the orchestra, the
shouting, the 'scratchers,' and the dancing, is perfectly
bewildering. The dancing, itself, beggars description--every
figure lasts about an hour, and the ladies bounce up and down the
middle, with a degree of spirit which is quite indescribable. As
to the gentlemen, they stamp their feet against the ground, every
time 'hands four round' begins, go down the middle and up again,
with cigars in their mouths, and silk handkerchiefs in their hands,
and whirl their partners round, nothing loth, scrambling and
falling, and embracing, and knocking up against the other couples,
until they are fairly tired out, and can move no longer. The same
scene is repeated again and again (slightly varied by an occasional
'row') until a late hour at night: and a great many clerks and
'prentices find themselves next morning with aching heads, empty
pockets, damaged hats, and a very imperfect recollection of how it
was they did NOT get home.

Charles Dickens