St Giles’ Fair, 1888: Beatrice Batty

Beatrice Batty, Some Oxford Customs (1888):

The land on which the fair is held in College property; and were it not that one knows that the annual rental brings in a large sum to the St John’s coffers, it would seem strange enough that it should still be held in ‘St Giles’, where some of the best houses and best families of the place are located, to whom the uproar and the turmoil of the fair must be a sad nuisance — added to which there is the imminent danger of fire from the numberless lamps, and lanterns, and cooking stoves, fed with highly inflammable oils, appertaining to the vans.

We had some idea of what the horror of fire breaking out might be, from the rapid kindling and flaring up of a heap of small properties lying about a kettle hung over a lamp just filled from a huge paraffin can. The woman to whom it belonged flew like lightning to the spot, and whilst we were already picturing to ourselves the awful scene of a stream of flame running along the line of vans and canvas booths that stretched the length of St Giles’, hemmed in on all sides, by crowds of sightseers and holiday-makers, many of them swinging high aloft in cars, boats, &c, she, equally alive to the danger, had caught the great vessel up in her sturdy arms and removed it to a distance.

We had hastened to a point whence we might hope to get free of the surging crowd, if needful, as we passed on stopping some mothers with little children, and warning others not to approach. Our hearts beat fast as we watched the flames leap wildly into the air for the space of a minute or two. Then they succumbed to the efforts made to quench them, and probably few but ourselves and those in the immediate vicinity knew anything of the awful peril which that vast throng of persons had escaped. Had the preachers of the ‘Church Army’ band, who held forth to a small, changeful crowd during the whole time of the fair, seen what we did, they might indeed have found a vivid moral for their texts — ‘In the midst of life we are in death.’ ‘My times are in Thy hands.’ But the preacher did not see — he was too far off, and surrounded by a dense little crowd who were joining in singing a hymn. In the Bible and Prayer Book booth, near at hand, some country men and women were deeply immersed in selecting from the neat, darkly-bound volumes such as were to their taste; and a rough honest -faced fellow was handing over the small price of a copy as we passed.

The ‘sea-on-land’ cars, with canvas sails full set, and a full complement of joyous, careless riders, were floating round and round with a motion so terribly true to nature that we watched the faces of the occupants, expecting them to turn grey or ashy white! But the steam whistle shrieked, and one set got out only to be replaced by another.

Meanwhile, the braying organ belonging to a merry-go-round kept time with the prancing of wooden steeds and the dash of painted chariots whirling round at a rapid pace, while the riders held on for dear life as they swayed towards the centre to preserve their equilibrium.

Drums and fiddles accompanied the dancers in two or three dancing tents. Almost every show had its drum, organ, brass-band, gong, or instrument of some sort to bray forth its whereabouts; and those which had not were advertised by the stentorian voice of a show-man or show-woman ceaselessly inviting persons to enter and see the show ‘about to begin’. And the shows were various and varied indeed!


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Stephanie Jenkins

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