OUR neighbourhood is particularly genteel, Grove especially so; the semi-detached villas are as much alike as two peas, and the laburnums and lilac-trees in our front gardens interchange their branches over the dwarf party-wall as affectionately as young school-girls interlace their arms. Close to us there is a field, long since devoted to ground-rents if builders would only prove agreeable; possibly, however, the “carcass” of a most desirable residence, with its exposed rafters like bleaching ribs, hard by, warns them off the ground. Be that as it may, the proprietor, evidently hard up for some return, lately let it, —for what purpose the Grove speedily knew.
My back bedroom window commands a view of the corner of the ground over the cropped lime trees of No. 6. We had been aware for some hours of a highly feverish condition of the neighbourhood by the constant passing of what ladies call “ugly-looking fellows” but when I began to dress for dinner I was enabled to diagnose the complaint at once, for, between the aforesaid lime trees, a painted canvas slowly rose between the slings, and by-and-by presented the bold proportions of a giant in a blue coat, gilt buttons, and knee breeches, with an admiring spectator by way of contrast, measuring on tip-toe the proportions of his resplendent calves. “A fair, by all that‘s wonderful!” I exclaimed; at the same time groaning heavily, more, I must confess, however, for my neighbours’ genteel feelings than for my own.
Before the dinner was over the thing was in full swing —the big drum, the trombone, and the . clarionet of the principal show had got into full E discord: a dozen gongs were a- going, and there was ‘a dwarf for certain, for I could hear his bell I ringing out of the bed-room window of his doll’s ,house as plainly as though I saw it. By eight ‘ o‘clock our Grove was vocal, and every head was out of window watching the full swing of the fair. Of course I could do no less than inspect the general nuisance that, toadstool-like, had sprung up so suddenly in our midst.
There is nothing more remarkable in a great city than the facility with which any due attraction will gather together strange and unlocked-for elements of the population. Let but a few yards of ice appear, and straightaway an army of “roughs” spring out of the earth, and here they were without any notice in full force at our fair,— “a perfect disgrace to the neighbourhood,” as the whole Grove declared.
And why is it, I ask myself, standing in the midst of the hubbub, that we have so suddenly discovered that fairs are such sinks of iniquity and folly? Why should we scorn the classes below us for their love of dwarfs and giants, whilst Tom Thumb has been flourishing at the “rest End, and all May Fair has been running after the Talking Fish? It may be painful, no doubt, to contemplate that sea of unwashed faces just now gazing on that painted canvas, representing the murderer Good cutting up his victim; but, if I recollect rightly, fair ladies pitied him whilst in prison, made his toilet with white roses for the scaffold, and accepted locks of his Newgate crop: the tastes of the populace are no doubt strong, but they are not a whit more silly in the main than those of their betters.
Just in the midst of this reflection, a sharp crack across the shins with a stick warned me that I had come across the path of that ducal pastime, Aunt Sally, and that musing in a fair is a very unprofitable business. Custom is doubtless fast ebbing away from the great out-of-door amusements of the populace, and fairs among the number, gay with streamers, bright with inexhaustible life and character, which never seemed to tire the pencils of Ostade or Teniers, are now hunted about like so much “varmint.” Nevertheless, in their present insignificant proportions they are picturesque and animated sights. As I watched, the blazing naphtha lamps swinging before every show, and streaming in sputtering tails of flame, light up the restless, moving crowd, in the midst of which, like vast paddle-wheels, the round-abouts with roaring, living freights, emerge from, and return into the dark air above. More tumultuous, and not less noisy, are the boat-swings, urged by half a dozen lusty fellows, who hurled, with evident enjoyment, shrieking cargoes of affrighted women higher and higher into the dusky air.
As a background to this lively movement rose the painted wall of canvas spread by the different shows. Here, as in the larger outer world, outside appearances make up for the poverty within. There was a gigantic Bengal tiger depicted struggling frantically with a huge boa, which has taken as many coils round its victim’s body as a hawser might round a capstan —the modest truth inside dwindling down to a common snake, which the showman for warmth’s sake kept inside his Jersey! Next door was the Theatre Royal, on the stage of which a haughty cavalier condescended to dance a measure with a charmer in spangled pink, who retired now and then out of public observation, to suckle a baby. Neither must I forget the only touch of the “fancy” to be found in the fair —the sparring booth of the Finchley Bantam— the Bantam himself, a little man, with a diabolical squint and an ugly-looking pair of biceps, politely inviting the biggest man in the fair to come up and have a round with him, an invitation which nobody seemed in a hurry to accept.
Every caravan, even to the meanest, was carefully painted and got up, so as to resemble a. little house; there was the street door with the panels picked out in different colours, and the inevitable bright brass knocker, whilst the windows boasted wire blinds and curtains of the whitest dimity, with here and there a flower-pot on the window-ledge. Do these wandering Arabs of our population thus endeavour to deceive themselves into the belief that they are householders, like other people? What do they want of knockers, when they are but too happy to throw open their doors to all comers? I ventured to interrogate a gentleman in a velveteen shooting-coat on this head, who relieved a persistent attack upon a black pudding, by now and then mechanically giving a lefthander to his drum; but he crustily replied that perhaps I had better walk in and ax, and taking the hint, I soon found myself in an interior, carpeted with the natural turf.
The assembled company were intently inspecting the contents of a corner cupboard full of the waxwork effigies of murderers, one or two of the more curious climbing up to inspect the clothes and the rope of one particular malefactor, warranted by his hangman (under his own hand and seal) to have formed his veritable execution dress.
Without any prefatory address, the showman entered, put back a sliding shutter, and winding up some moaning machinery with a bed-key, introduced us to “what had been pronounced to be the most splendid piece of mechanical waxwork in Europe.” The subject, Daniel in the Lions’ Den. The prophet mildly revolved his head and worked his eyes, and the lions as mildly opened their jaws, and when they were not so employed they lashed their tails: there was some trifling derangement of the machinery, for some of the tails went off with irregular jerks quite out of time. In the midst of the awful suspense created by this highly dramatic position, a kind of cockloft door in the den suddenly opened, and the head of King Darius was projected through to see how matters were getting on; but finding that the prophet and the lions were on such exceedingly good terms, he gesticulated wildly for a moment, and then shut the door with a slam, which set the audience a-laughing.
The other waxwork represented the Death of Nelson. The hero, according to the showman, is “represented falling into the arms of ‘Ardy, having been shot in the ‘eat of the fight.” A fracture in the abdominal region of the waxwork, however, had unfortunately doubled the hero up upon himself. The audience, however, saw nothing ludicrous at all in the representation: he was the popular hero still, and many a rough fellow listened whilst an old sailor behind me recounted where he lost his eye, and when his arm was smashed in the great sea-fight. The Death-bod of Napoleon followed, and there was more eye-rolling work; and, as a final effort of mechanical genius, the imperial jaw dropped, which movement being a little too strong for me, I left.
All the while a continual fusillade was being maintained by the rifle-galleries and nut-hawkers. Of the former, there were no less than nine in full work. The process was safe and simple: at the end of a tube a foot in diameter and thirty-five feet long, was the brilliantly-illuminated bull‘s eye, which, on being struck, rung a bell; the bell kept going all the evening, so I should advise the Emperor to keep civil. In front of each gallery there was a pictorial screen.
The proprietor must have had very decided Whig tendencies, inasmuch as his pictures illustrated the life of Dutch William; and one drawing particularly struck me—“William the Third consigning the Duke of Gloucester to the care of Bishop Burnet.” I cannot say that the spectators took much advantage by this effort at inculcating history, inasmuch as I overheard a costermonger asking a “pal” if it didn’t represent the Prince of Wales talking to Cardinal Wiseman! By far the most familiar representation, however, referred to Indian massacres —Sepoys throwing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets, as calmly as though they were playing cup and ball. The Cawnpore Massacre again figured largely, proving the interest the people take in contemporary events. In revenge, Nana Sahib, as the bull’s-eye, suffered indescribable agony the whole night, and yielded in return abundant nuts and — nightmares.
I must not omit to mention the canvas avenue of toys and gingerbread nuts —that fairy land of our boyhood some quarter of a century ago. There was the same eager inquiry, in shrill falsetto, “Will you take a nut, sir?” that leads one back to the days of George IV., when fairs were fairs, and society recognised amusements on a level with the tastes of the working-classes, instead of destroying them all for the sake of third-rate Athenaeums, with which the bulk of the people have nothing to do. During the hours I spent in our fair, I must candidly confess that I saw no impropriety or ill behaviour whatever —a statement which much surprised our churchwarden, who called upon me next morning with a memorial to enable the parish to get rid of what he was pleased to term “the scum of the earth,” and that sink of iniquity —our Fair.