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Amusements of Old London: Sundry Diversions

Amusements of Old London

William B. Boulton, 1901

“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

“Modern” folks less brutal and more sophisticated

People of condition in the reigns of Anne and the Georges flocked to the Strand or to Covent Garden to see waxworks at Mrs. Salmon’s, or puppet-shows at Mr. Powell’s, or to watch Mrs. Saraband’s dogs and monkeys going through the operations of a siege with toy cannons and scaling-ladders.

Side by side with these innocent simplicities flourished the brutalities which we have examined in our inquiries into the humours of Hockley, the cockpit and the prize-ring, the last two at least of which famous institutions depended upon the support of well-to-do people for their prosperity and development. So too with the great mass of the people, separated in those days much more sharply from the classes than to-day. They delighted, as we have seen, in the primitive joys of Bartholomew’s Fair or the tea gardens, and were always ready to see much fun in the spectacle of a man grinning through a horse-collar. From such innocent diversion they would turn with joy to the horrors of the duck hunt or the cockshy; and a good place of vantage from which to see old Lovat’s head roll on the scaffold at the Tower, or Jack Rann swing into the air at Tyburn Tree, was held worth while spending the previous day to secure.

Whatever else may be said of the modern entertainments which appeal to the tastes and the purses of the London of to-day, it will not be contended that they lack humanity or err on the side of simplicity in execution or design.

“Simple and curious entertainments”

The naïveté of the audiences of the early part of the last century, and the ease with which they were amused, appear very plainly, we think, in the success which rewarded some very simple and curious entertainments of a spectacular character, which, by reason of that success, became serious competitors of the legitimate drama at Drury Lane.

Puppet Shows

Great people flocked to Mr. Powell’s establishment under the Piazza in Covent Garden in numbers which seriously reduced the takings of the patent houses, and hampered the progress of the exotic opera, then lately introduced into England.

These included marionette plays mixing biblical stories with Punch and Judy characters, such as “Punch and Judy dancing in Noah’s ark, Punch subsequently seating himself on the Queen of Sheba’s lap, fighting the Duke of Lorraine, and selling the King of Spain a bargain.”

Mrs. Salmon’s waxworks in Fleet Street near Temple Bar, foreshadowed Madame Tussaud’s.

Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks

M. Bisset astonished the town… with his Cats’ Opera and troupe of other animals; monkeys taking wine together, riding on horses, and dancing minuets with dogs. One of M. Bisset’s hares walked on its hind legs and beat a drum… [He] also induced his six turkeys to walk through the steps of a country dance.

Pantomime, like Opera, crept into England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, “comique masques in the high style of Italie” were announced, and a ballet at Drury Lane of the Loves of Mars and Venus, where the whole story was told by gesture… foreshadowed the real pantomime which soon followed. Rich at Lincoln’s Inn Theatre produced a piece called “Harlequin Executed” in 1717, which is accepted as the first real pantomime by historians of the stage… Even Garrick himself found the pantomime a serious rival, and was wont to reproach his audiences in the prologues and epilogues which he turned so neatly.

GHL33155 Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, 1811

In the “modern” Victorian era, Boulton cites the “silly performances of the medical mountebank. Katerfelto

…took advantage of an epidemic of influenza to work upon the nerves of audiences with magic langterns and fearsome images of microbes and animalculae. His darkened rooms, black cats, and electric machines impressed his visitors hugely, instead of anticipating the fairly obvious fact later established by a magistrate, when his fire balloons set haystacks alight, that he was a rogue and a vagabond.

Dr. Graham, with the help of the lovely Emma, advocated mud-baths and lectured on “perpetual youth and beauty,” with the illustration of “blooming nursemaid… as the ‘Goddess of Health.'” The Celestial Bed held “great attractions for those wanting heirs, the ‘rosy Goddess of Health assisting at the celestial matters… and that sacred Vital Fire over which she watches.’ “With such attractions as these, Dr. Graham contrived to fill his rooms with a mob of silly people at five shillings a head.”

Philip Astley of Astley’s Amphitheatre was a “true pioneer” in the equestrian entertainment business “and should be canonised as the patron saint of all ringmasters. Astley saved George III’s life on Westminster Bridge and received a royal license. See more about Astley’s Amphitheatre in a previous post.

Like Heidegger, Tyers and others, Philip Astley and his son “claim mention here as men whose fortunes were made by devoting their energies to the amusement of the London of their day.”

Then there was cudgel-playing at open spaces like Spa Fields that drew large crowds. In 1768, “an extraordinary battle was fought in the Spa Fields by two women against two taylors for a guinea a head, which was won by the ladies, who beast the taylors in a severe manor.”

At Spa Fields and other places, grinning matches were popular attractions. In 1779, the authorities took advantage of “such assemblies of British manhood” by offering “an ox roasted whole and unlimited beer to the “friends of their king and country,” hinting at the advantages of enlistment. “Some men were enlisted, but more were impressed, as the bloodhounds were on the scent, and ran breast high.”

Boulton feels that Londoners came late to appreciate the value of the Thames as a source of entertainment, although its value for transportation exceeded London roads as late as the Regency.

People did swim in the Thames from Stuart times to George IV, however. “Mr. Benjamin Franklin, has left record of a swim which he took through London from Lambeth to London Bridge in the reign of George the Third.” In 1807, Lord Byron swam from Lambeth three miles with the tide.

The Thames appears to have been used as an opportunity for the common people to express their views without fear of retribution. People of fashion who traveled to Vauxhall by boat would hire musicians, not just for the entertainment value, but also for protection from unruly hecklers. “It was the pride and joy of the average boatload of apprentices from the city to unite the vulgarity of their whole company in an epithet of suitable brevity, and fire it off upon every passing boatload of their betters they encountered on the voyage.

The Folly, the only floating place of entertainment of which there is record, a large hulk moored off Somerset House in the days of the Restoration, and fitted up as a musical summer-house for the entertainment of the quality, sank from a resort of the fashionables “to a receptacle for companies of loose and disorderly people for the purposes of drinking and promiscuous dancing.”

The Ranelagh Regatta of 1775 was the first of many such functions. Later on, the proprietors of Vauxhall Gardens began offering prizes for sailing races, and that spurred on more interest in leisure sailing on the Thames.

Vauxhall Sailing Match, engraving, 1800 (Minet Library, London, Lambeth Archives Department, V. fo. 57). This appears to be the only surviving image of one of the Vauxhall sailing matches.

Then there was the cock-shy, or cock-throwing, which was celebrated on Shrove Tuesday.

On that holy day you might see, in all open parts of the town, cocks or hens tied by the leg, their owners offering sticks at twopence a throw at a range of a chain, or twenty-two yards, just, in fact, as one used to throw at cocoa-nuts at a country fair. The cock had a certain length of strong in which to manoeuvre, and his master had trained him to avoid the knock over, which him the property of his assailant, as long as possible, and so to earn may twopences.

The duck hunt, however, was not limited to a season.

The duck-pond was a small affair, and boarded to the height of the knee round its edges to prevent the excited spectators from falling in in their eagerness to follow the incidents of the sport. These all arose from the movements of a pinioned duck which was put into the water and hunted by a spaniel or spaniels. “It escaped,” we are told, “as long as it was able by diving.”

Survival of the Fittest

Of the amusements of our ancestors in London which we have examined in our inquiry, how many have survived to our times. Practically one, and one only, the theatre, which to-day perhaps fills a greater place than ever amongst the diversions of the town… Parks, of course, remain, but they are no longer the playground of fashion which London made of them in the days of the Ring or the Mall. The tea gardens and Vauxhall were features of the London of other days, which all who have studied their old delights must regret… We may congratulate ourselves upon the change in taste and manners which has rendered the excsses of the play tables impossible in these days. No one regrets the disappearance of Hockley in the Hole, or the closing of cockpits and prize-rings… Speaking generally, Londoners of all ranks have exchanged most of their former joys for diversions in which bodily exercise takes a chief part; the man who formerly lost his fortune at hazard or faro at White’s or Brooks’s now spends it in healthy forms of sport which take him over the country, and indeed, over the globe for its gratification. Men of a lower station play cricket and football or ride bicycles when they are young, and look on at others doing the same when age overtakes them. And London and England have surely gained by the change.

Amusements of Old London series

Amusements of Old London: The Fairs

Amusements of Old London

William B. Boulton, 1901

“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

In a country such as England that drew much more of its income from agriculture than manufacturing in this time period, it is interesting to note that the most popular time for holidays and festivities was late summer and autumn, when farming activities intensified. Just at the time when gentlemen itched to be in the country at their hunting and field sports, the peers were called to London for the rise of Parliament.

And yet it was in those months that this instinct of the English taught them to lay aside their cares and get what enjoyment they could from the means nearest at hand. Before the era of railways and cheap travelling the great mass of the population of London never went twenty miles from St. Paul’s, and the sport they enjoyed took the form of the delights provided by Hockley in the Hole, the Ducking Ponds, and the Cockpits… And yet, as the summer passed away, and the dog-days raised a heat from the cobblestones which drove the dogs themselves into the shade of alley and entry, the common people of London, instead of panting for the water-brooks or the sea-shore, prepared themselves for the great carnivals which were prepared for their delight in one or other of the great fairs of the town.

These annual gatherings followed each other in quick succession in the hot months of the year in the not very promising surroundings of Smithfield, or Southwark, or Westminster. The glory of these entertainments was at its zenith at the beginning of the eighteenth century…

…[T]heir origin was religious, their development commercial, and their apotheosis an unrestrained indulgence in pleasure or license…

The St. Bartholomew Fair

(see more on the origins of the fair on another blog post)

In the late seventeenth century, amidst all the rope dancers, jugglers, and puppet shows, a well-known actor by the name of Penkethman set up a theatrical booth. A plethora of theatrical entertainers followed, including Doggett (a comedian famous from the annual waterman’s race on the Thames), Miller (from Drury Lane), Bullock, Simpson, Colley Cibber (poet laureate and member of White’s), Quin, Macklin, Woodward, Shuter, and many more. “The theatrical movement, in fact, became so pronounced that as time went on most of the favourite actors of the day did not disdain to tread the boards in the temporary booths of the fair.”

Colley Cibber, bust now at the National Portrait Gallery

Colley Cibber, bust now at the National Portrait Gallery

The dramatic entertainments which were in fashion at the fairs… consisted almost invariably of some prodigious long-winded scheme dealing with such portentous subjects as “The Loves of the Heathen Gods,” “The Creation of the World,” “The Siege of Troy,” “Jephthah’s Rash Vow,” “Tamerlane the Great,” lightened up with much comic relief, in which an eccentric English character took a part totally irrelevant to the particular epic comprised in the plot. These productions came to be called “drolls,” and you may trace int hese drolls the germs of many forms of variety entertainment popular to-day, including, perhaps, that of English pantomime… The puppet-shows… followed the dramatic taste set by the actors.

Bartholomew Fair indeed became so great a nursery of dramatic talent that many actors afterwards famous obtained their first chance at Smithfield. The fair became a sort of theatrical exchange, where managers during their annual visits were often able to find the valuable recruits, and where strolling players from the provinces were accustomed to attend in the hope of engagements with regular companies.

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding

…[T]he managers of the great theaters found it profitable to close their houses altogether… and take their companies to Smithfield, where they found they could earn more money from the audiences who flocked to their shows during the whole day than from the single performances of the patent theatres… Mr. Henry Fielding, for instance, fresh from Eton and Leyden, but without a guinea in his pocket… set up a booth, and for ten years provided an entertainment for the people at the fair… Fielding produced “The Beggars’ Opera” at Smithfield, occasionally trod the boards himself, and received the honour of a visit from the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1732, who were much delighted with his historical drama of “The Fall of Essex.”

Unfortunately, the activities of the fair were periodically harassed by “persecution from the puritanical busybodies… [who] frequently succeeded in closing the booths, and left the fair to the gin-stalls, gaming-tables, and jugglers, diversions which were presumably less vicious in their eyes…” Sometimes the “puritanical spirits” would persuade the city government to disallow the booths on the night before the fair. “The ordinary attractions of the fair would then be enlivened by a riot of first-class dimensions, which always resulted in assault and battery, and sometimes in sudden death.”

The end of the theatrical entertainments at Smithfield came about when the powers-that-be limited the fair from fourteen days to three. Three days didn’t pay an actor or manager enough to make it worthwhile. At that point, the attractions changed to such things as menageries of wild beasts, or spectacles such as the “double-cow” or the “mermaid.” As the nineteenth century approached and the audiences became less naïve, the entertainments became slightly more sophisticated, with lion tamers putting their heads in the lion’s mouth, rope-dancing, magicians, peep-shows, etc. Just the chance of rubbing shoulders with nobles and even royalty was enough to draw people to St. Bartholomew’s.

It was no uncommon sight at St. Bartholomew’s, to see an exquisite like Chesterfield, or a great minister like Sir Robert Walpole, with his star on his breast, tasting the diversions of the fair alone and on foot. Parties of bloods from White’s and Almack’s were not above exchanging humorous badinage with the fruit-sellers, or the prettier of the strollers or acrobats, or even chucking them under the chin.

Southwark Fair

The Southwark Fair, on St. Margaret’s Hill near Southwark Town Hall, originated in the year 1550 and continued for more than two hundred years.

As the 7th of September came around in each year, the same gin stalls, gaming-tables, gingerbread stalls, and theatrical booths which had delighted Smithfield were packed up, taken across the river, and displayed in all their attractiveness to new audiences of South Londoners at Southwark.

Although smaller in scale than the fair in Smithfield, the acrobat and rope-dancing acts excelled at Southwark, primarily because of the more laissez-faire attitude of the local government. Mr. Cadman, who used to swing his way on a rope across the street from St. George’s Church tower to the mint, eventually “came to a sad end in attempting a bold flight across the Severn at Shrewsbury.”

southwarkall

The humours of Southwark Fair inspired Mr. Hogarth in one of his finest efforts, wherein are reflected so admirably the life of his times, and that excellent plate of Southwark Fair is as good an illustration as need be of the importance of the festival among the popular diversions of the middle of the eighteenth century. The greatly daring acrobat on the rope stretching from the church tower to the Mint, which is out of the picture, is the great Mr. Cadman himself; the artist on the slack rope on the other side of the picture is a back view of the Violante. Mr. Figg, the famous “Master of the Noble Science of Self-defence,” displays his honourable wounds on the right. His booth is round the corner and he is riding through  the fair with very martial aspect to gather clients to witness a set-to between himself and some other bald-pated hero of the sword or quarter-staff. On the right of the pretty girl with the drum and the black page, who is effectively advertising the show which she represents, is Tamerlane the Great in full armour, being arrested by a bailiff. The enormous posters of the background, which almost blot out the church, and display the attractions of the Fall of Troy, the Royal Waxworks, and the wonderful performance of Mr. Banks and his horse, are all quite typical of the London fair, and Mr. Hogarth’s grim humour appears to perfection in the title of the show which he represents as tumbling into the street on the right, with its actors and orchestra and monkey on the pole, the “Fall Bagdad.” Note too the peep-show and the hag presiding over the gaming-table, and the pleasant glimpse of open country between the houses.

May Fair

See more about the May Fair here:

The End of the Great Fairs

These fairs mostly came to an end around the mid-eighteenth century, when the crowd became wilder, the entertainments more tawdry, and the patrons (such as the “great people of St. James’s”) harder to find. The days of when people could be entertained by simple things like tea gardens and fairs disappeared into the annals of history.

Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

This particular book is available at googlebooks for free in ebook form. Or you can pay for a print version.

Mayfair

From Wikipedia:

Mayfair was mainly open fields until development started in the Shepherd Market area around 1686 to accommodate the May Fair that had moved from Haymarket in St. James’s.

Mayfair was part of the parish of St Martin in the Fields. It is named after the annual fortnight-long May Fair that, from 1686 to 1764, took place on the site that is Shepherd Market. The fair was previously held in Haymarket; it moved in 1764 to Fair Field in Bow in the East End of London, after complaints from the residents.

Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Baronet married Mary Davis, heiress to part of the Manor of Ebury, in 1677; the Grosvenor family gained 40 hectares (100 acres) of Mayfair. Most of the Mayfair area was built during the mid 17th century to mid 18th century as a fashionable residential district, by a number of landlords, the most important of them being the Grosvenor family, which in 1874 became the Dukes of Westminster. In 1724 Mayfair became part of the new parish of St George Hanover Square, which stretched to Bond Street in the south part of Mayfair and almost to Regent Street north of Conduit Street. The northern boundary was Oxford Street and the southern boundary fell short of Piccadilly. The parish continued west of Mayfair into Hyde Park and then south to include Belgravia and other areas.

Mayfair Neighborhoods

Present-day Mayfair Neighborhoods

May Fair a Century Ago

We find a curious picture of this west-end carnival by that painstaking antiquary, John Carter, who, writing in 1816, says: “Fifty years have passed away since this place of amusement was at its height of attraction: the spot where the Fair was held still retains the name of May Fair… The market-house consisted of two stories: first story, a long and cross aisle for butchers’ shops, and, externally, other shops connected with culinary purposes; second story, used as a theatre at Fair-time for dramatic performances… Below, the butchers gave place to toy men and gingerbread-bakers. At present, the upper story is unfolded, the lower nearly deserted by the butchers, and their shops occupied by needy peddling dealers in small wares; in truth, a most deplorable contrast to what once was such a point of allurement. In the area encompassing the market building were booths for jugglers, prize-fighters both at cudgels and back-swords, boxing-matches, and wild-beasts. The sports not under cover were mountebanks, fire-eaters, ass-racing, sausage-tables, dice-ditto, up-and-downs, merry-go-rounds, bull-baiting, grinning for a hat, running for a shift, hasty-pudding-eaters, eel-divers, and an infinite variety of other similar pastimes.”

Tiddy Doll, Gingerbread Baker (NYPL Digital Library) Tiddy Doll was a famed 18th century gingerbread vendor, a well-known sight amongst the butchers and toy-men, jugglers and fire-eaters at London’s Bartholomew Fair and Shepherd’s Market in Mayfair. He was even known to ply his wares at public executions, and can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of Hogarth’s Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn, waving a spicy cake to the boisterous mob. His real name was apparently Ford, acquiring his nickname from a habit of ending his addresses to the crowd with the last lines of a popular ballad, “tid-dy did-dy dol-lol, ti-tid-dy ti-ti, tid-dy tid-dy, dol.” Wearing a white apron over his customary white gold laced suit, ruffled shirt, laced hat and feather and silk stockings, “like a person of rank,” his name was associated for many years with a person dressed out of character, as “you are as tawdry as Tiddy-doll; you are quite Tiddy-doll,” etc.

Tiddy Doll, Gingerbread Baker (NYPL Digital Library)
Tiddy Doll was a famed 18th century gingerbread vendor, a well-known sight amongst the butchers and toy-men, jugglers and fire-eaters at London’s Bartholomew Fair and Shepherd’s Market in Mayfair. He was even known to ply his wares at public executions, and can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of Hogarth’s Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn, waving a spicy cake to the boisterous mob. His real name was apparently Ford, acquiring his nickname from a habit of ending his addresses to the crowd with the last lines of a popular ballad, “tid-dy did-dy dol-lol, ti-tid-dy ti-ti, tid-dy tid-dy, dol.” Wearing a white apron over his customary white gold laced suit, ruffled shirt, laced hat and feather and silk stockings, “like a person of rank,” his name was associated for many years with a person dressed out of character, as “you are as tawdry as Tiddy-doll; you are quite Tiddy-doll,” etc.

The Woman and the Anvil

anvil

18th century anvil

One of the marvels of May Fair, in its latest revival, was the performance of a strong woman, the wife of a Frenchman, exhibited in a house in Sun Court, Shepherd’s Market. The following account is given by John Carter, and may be relied on, as Carter was born and passed his youthful days in Piccadilly [Carter’s Statuary]. He tells us that a blacksmith’s anvil being procured from White Horse Street, with three of the men, they brought it up, and placed it on the floor of the exhibition-room. The woman was short, but most beautifully and delicately formed, and of a most lovely countenance. She first let down her hair (a light auburn), of a length descending to her knees, which she twisted round the projecting part of the anvil, and then, with seeming ease, lifted the ponderous mass some inches from the floor. After this, a bed was placed in the middle of the room; when, reclining on her back, and uncovering her bosom, the husband ordered the smiths to place thereon the anvil, and forge upon it a horse-shoe! This they obeyed: by taking from the fire a red-hot piece of iron, and with their forging hammers completing the shoe with the same might and indifference as when in the shop at their constant labour. The prostrate fair one seemed to endure this with greatest composure, talking and singing during the whole process: then, with an effort, which to the bystanders appeared supernatural, she cast the anvil from off her body, jumping up at the same moment with extreme gaiety, and without the least discomposure of her dress or person. That there was no trick or collusion was obvious from the evidence: the spectators stood about the room with Carter’s family and friends; the smiths were strangers to the Frenchman, but known to Carter, the narrator. She next placed her naked feet on a red-hot salamander, without injury, the wonder of which was, however, understood even at that time.*

Blacksmith's shop

Blacksmith’s shop

*Mr. Daniel, of Canonbury, thought the Strong Woman to have been Mrs. Allchorne, who died in Drury Lane in 1817, at a very advanced age. Madame performed at Bartholomew Fair in 1752.

 

Romance of London Series

  1. Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
  2. Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
  3. Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
  4. Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
  5. Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
  6. Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
  7. Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
  8. Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
  9. Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
  10. Romance of London: Lord Stowell’s Love of Sight-seeing
  11. Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax
  12. Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday
  13. Romance of London: Comments on Hogarth’s “Industries and Idle Apprentices”
  14. Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family
  15. Romance of London: St. Margaret’s Painted Window at Westminster
  16. Romance of London: Montague House and the British Museum
  17. Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble
  18. Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel
  19. Romance of London: Sir William Petty and the Lansdowne Family
  20. Romance of London: Marlborough House and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
  21. Romance of London: The Duke of Newcastle’s Eccentricities
  22. Romance of London: Voltaire in London
  23. Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper
  24. Romance of London: Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s Fear of Assassination
  25. Romance of London: Samuel Rogers, the Banker Poet
  26. Romance of London: The Eccentricities of Lord Byron
  27. Romance of London: A London Recluse

Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

This particular book is available at googlebooks for free in ebook form. Or you can pay for a print version.

The vow of a jester

Rahere_Jester_to_Henry_1st

Rahere, jester to King Henry I

This famous Fair, formerly held every year in Smithfield, at Bartholomewtide [August 24], and within the precinct of the Priory of St. Bartholomew, originated in a grant of land from Henry I., to his jester Rahere, who, disgusted by his manner of living, repented him of his sins, and undertook a pilgrimage to Rome. Here, attacked by sickness, he made a vow, that if he recovered his health, he would found a hospital for poor men. Being reinstated, and on his return to England to fulfill his promise, St. Bartholomew is said to have appeared to him in a vision, and commanded him to found a Church in Smithfield, in his name… The site, which had been previously pointed out in a singular manner to Edward the Confessor, as proper for a house of prayer, was a mere marsh, for the most part covered with water; while on that portion which was not so, stood the common gallows—”the Elms,” in Smithfield, which for centuries after continued to be the place of execution.

The Bartholomew Fair

St. Bartholomew's Church

St. Bartholomew’s Church

The Priory, however, looked to temporal as well as spiritual aid, for his foundation; and therefore, obtained a royal charter to hold a Fair annually at Bartholomewtide, for three days—on the eve, the fête-day of the saint, and the day after; “firm peace,” being granted to all persons frequenting the Fair of St. Bartholomew. This brought traders from all parts, to Smithfield: thither resorted clothiers and drapers, not merely of England, but all countries, who there exposed their goods for sale. The stalls or booths were erected within the walls of the priory churchyard, the gates of which were locked each night, and a watch was set in order to protect the various wares…

murmaid

At the dissolution of religious houses, the privilege of the Fair was in part transferred to the Mayor and Corporation; and in part to Richard Rich, Lord Rich, who died in 1560, and was ancestor of the Earls of Warwick and Holland. It ceased, however to be a cloth fair of any great importance in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The drapers of London found another and more extensive market for their woolens; and the clothiers, in the increase of communication between distant places, a wider field for the sale of their manufactures. It subsequently became a Fair of a very diversified character. Monsters, motions, rolls, and rarities were the new attractions to be seen; and the Fair was converted into a kind of London carnival for persons of every condition and degree of life. The Fair was proclaimed by the Lord Mayor, beneath the entrance arch of the priory; and its original connexion with the cloth trade was commemorated in a mock proclamation on the evening before, made by a company of drapers and tailors, who met at the Hand and Shears, a house of call for their fraternity in Cloth Fair, whence they marched and announced the Fair opened and concluded with shouting and the “snapping of shears.”

With respect to the tolls, Strype tells us that “Each person having a booth, paid so much per foot for the first three days. The Earl of Warwick and Holland is concerned in the toll gathered the first three days in the fair, being a penny for each burthen of good brought in or carried out; and to that end there are persons that stand at all the entrances into the Fair…

bartholomewfairup

The Fair lengthens to fourteen days

“In the reign of Charles II., as might be expected, the Fair was extended from three to fourteen days, when all classes, high and low, visited the carnival.” Pepys mentioned walking up and down the fair grounds on August 30, 1667, and discovering Lady Castlemaine at a puppet-play, “and the street full of people, expecting her coming out.” In 1668, Pepys went to the fair “to see the mare that tells money, and many things to admiration, and then the dancing of the ropes, and also the Irish stage play, which is very ridiculous.”

(c) Dover Collections; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Dover Collections; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Theatrical booths were very popular. “Ben Jonson, the actor (says Dr. Rimbault), was connected with the booth before 1694, in which year he joined Cibber’s company; he was celebrated as the grave-digger in Hamlet…

Here were motions or puppet-shows of Jerusalem, Nineveh, and Norwich; and the Gunpowder Plot played nine times in an afternoon; wild beasts, dwarfs, and other monstrosities; operas and tight-rope-dancing and sarabands [dances]; dogs dancing the morris; the hare beating the tabor; and rolls of every degree.

Bartholomew Fair 1825

Bartholomew Fair 1825

From a newspaper in 1734:

At Goodwin’s Large Theatrical Booth, opposite the White Hart, in West Smithfield, near Cow Lane, the town will be entertained with a humorous Comedy of three acts, called ‘The Intriguing Footman, or the Spaniard Outwitted;’ with a Pantomime entertainment of Dancing, between a Soldier and a Sailor, and a Tinker and a Tailor, and Buxom Joan of Deptford.

At Hippisley and Chapman’s Great Theatrical Booth, in the George Inn Yard, Smithfield, the town will be humorously diverted with an excellent entertainment; Signor Arthurian, who has a most surprising talent at grimace, and will, on this occasion, introduce upwards of fifty whimsical, sorrowful, comical, and diverting faces.”

The fourteen days were found too long, for the excesses committed were very great; and in the year 1708, the period of the Fair was restricted to its old duration of three days.

Hogarth 1733

Hogarth 1733

Three days of revelry

The influence of the fair in the neighborhood was to make general holiday… We read that in Little Britain, “during the time of the Fair, there was nothing going on but gossiping and gadding about. The still quiet streets of Little Britain were overrun with an irruption of strange figures and faces; every tavern was a scene of rout and revel. The fiddle and the song are heard from the taproom, morning, noon, and night; and at each window might be seen some group of loose companions, with half-shut eyes, hats on one side, pipe in mouth, tankard in hand, fondling, and prosing, and singing maudlin songs over their liquor. Even the sober decorum of private families was no proof against this saturnalia. There was no such thing as keeping maid-servants within doors. Their brains were absolutely set maddening with Punch and the puppet-show; the flying horses; Signior Polito; the Fire-eater, the celebrated Mr. Paap; and the Irish Giant. The children, too, lavished all their holiday-money in toys and gilt gingerbread, and filled the house with the Lilliputian din of drums, trumpets, and penny whistles.”

V0014666 Bartholomew Fair, site of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Bartholomew Fair, site of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, pictured in 1721. Aquatint with etching, c. 1800. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Bartholomew Fan

The end of Bartholomew Fair

The Lord Mayor and Aldermen had, for 300 years, tried by orders, proclamations, juries, and presentments to abolish the Fair, but without effect; when the Court of Common Council took the work in hand. Having obtained entire control over the Fair by the purchase of Lord Kensington’s interest, they refused to let standings for shows and booths; they prevailed upon the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs to give up the practice of going to open the Fair in state, with a herald to proclaim it, and officers to marshal the procession; the posting of the proclamation about the streets, interdicting rioting and debauchery during the days of the Fair and within its precincts, were discontinued… In 1852, not a single show was to be seen on the ground; and in 1855 the Fair expired… and Bartholomew Fair was extinct.

Author’s Note: I’m thinking of having my Regency characters attend the fair, even though it was rather scandalous. What do you think?

Bartholomew-Fair

Romance of London Series

  1. Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
  2. Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
  3. Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
  4. Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
  5. Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
  6. Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
  7. Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
  8. Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
  9. Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
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