St Giles’ Fair, 1899: Newspaper report

Types at the Fair

The above illustration appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 9 September 1899 under the heading ST. GILES' FAIR, followed by this long report of the fair that had been held on 4 and 5 September:

This historic pleasure fair, one of the largest of its kind now held in the country, took place in the city on Monday and Tuesday, and if the numbers attending from far and near are in any degree a criterion of its popularity, it is evidently as high in public favour as ever. Favoured with weather than which nothing could have been better, excursionists by rail were trooping into the city during the whole of the morning, and a train from Cardiff and stations between there and here brought a large contingent. Harvest operations in this part of the country having been brought to a completion doubtless accounted for the great influx from our country districts. During the whole of Saturday and Sunday the caravans and vehicles of all sorts, which convey from place to place the varied “attractions” that go to make up the fair, began to converge upon the city from the four points of the compass, and especially in the north, where along the Woodstock and Staverton-roads just over 300 vans were counted. Special precautions were taken as to the health of the persons who inhabited about one-half of this number, as not one of the vehicles was allowed to enter the city without the certificate as to their fitness to do so of the Inspector of Nuisances, Mr. Hull, who made a personal inspection of each. As usual, large crowds were attracted to the outskirts during Sunday afternoon and evening, where these collections of wheeled contrivances had been permitted by the authorities, for the occasion, to congregate. At four o’clock on Monday morning a general move for their allotted locations in the broad thoroughfare of St. Giles’ was made, and by nine o’clock most of the less pretentious stands had been erected, and their varied goods set out in tempting array, and the larger stalls, horse roundabouts, switchbacks, etc., were well advanced towards completion. In the extent of ground covered the fair this year was if anything rather larger than some of recent years; from Little Clarendon-street, the stalls reached in an unbroken line, save for the gaps cause at Alfred-street [now renamed Pusey Street] and Beaumont-street, along the pavement, as far as George-street, there were almost as many on the opposite side of the street, and on each side of the roadway there was not a foot of unoccupied space.

Of the general features of the fair, there was very little in the way of novelty to be noticed. Sedgwick’s menagerie held a commanding position at the end of the thoroughfare near the church and one of the principal attractions here was “Bloncko,” who “came, saw, and conquered” the identical lioness that attacked “Lorenzo,” at Chester; the collection of animals was a very good one, and drew a fairly good share of the patronage of the visitors. Occupying the same “pitch,” within a short distance from Sedgwick’s, were a couple of ladies, rejoicing in the appellations of Madame Vane and Madame Ella, whose abilities were of an entirely dissimilar character, the first-named, who wore an academic cap and gown, claiming the possession of the gift of second sight, and the other having the charm of no less than (exactly) 794 tattooed designs on her body. Adjoining, came Madame Levita, stated to be from Barnum’s, who gave performances with serpents, one of which she displayed wound around her body on the outside of the show, and crocodiles. Of persons who might claim to be natural curiosities – we hardly dare to use the term “freaks,” after the protest by the collective body of those individuals at the greatest show on earth,” – were “Beautiful Marie,” the “Congo Giant,” and the “Jersey Lily.” To the first-mentioned was ascribed the respectable weight of 20st. 7lbs., which, at the age of 17, entitles the young lady, we think, to the description given of her, as the giant school girl. The “giant” had no outside pictorial exaggerations to lead one to form any idea of the correctness or announcement that his “exact” height was 7ft. 11in., but if the proportions of the “Lily” were anything approaching the representations recorded on the canvas to the gaze of the public, there could be little doubt of her being able to hold her own in the scales against no less than five hundredweight, or 40 stones, with a few pounds to spare. The fact that “Lily” is a coloured specimen of humanity added somewhat to the jocularity of the term. In addition to a “bioscope and dyograph,” exhibitions of American origin, “Professor” Alf. Ball had a boxing booth, in the front of which some half-dozen worthies of more or less celebrity, for their capabilities in, and knowledge of, the “noble art,” were from time to time paraded, from feather-weights upwards; the proprietor’s announcement that they were “ready to spar against all comers” was looked at in the light of an invitation to have the gloves on, and it was accepted by a few. Barker and Thurston’s “electric veriscope,” another of the “scopes,” by which living pictures are so admirably represented on the screen, was quite up to date, the pictures including some, “just added,” of the bull-fights at Boulogne, a scathing and wholesome denunciation of the horrors of which appeared in Monday’s newspapers. Taylor’s biograph, with “everything bang up-to-date,” was an entertainment of a similar kind, and each was extensively patronised. Buckley’s circus of varieties boasted of “highly educated” goats and monkeys, and performing birds and hares, and was an exhibition well worth a visit. Nearly the whole of the east side of the main thoroughfare was, as has been the practice of late years, mostly occupied with steam roundabouts and switchbacks, each with its ear-splitting organ worked by mechanical means, wings, etc., and a couple of “circular horse,” in which ponies were the moving power, seemed to be very much lacking in grandeur and style in comparison with the more modern constructions. On one of the roundabouts, ostriches took the place of horses, there being room on each for three persons, and these, being a novelty, were hardly ever vacant. Among the miscellaneous assortments of articles on the stalls were sweets, cakes, toys, dolls, tools, china and glass, ices, ornaments, baskets, fruit, and so on; scores of visitors sought amusement in throwing for cocoa-nuts, the getting of which proved in many instances not to be so easy at it looked, shooting at bottles, small globes posed in the air on a squirt of water, and at the bull’s-eye, the throwing of balls at rows of fluffy figures, and at pipes stuck in the open mouths of horrid looking metal faces, photographs, mutoscopes, trials of strength, and in other ways. The enterprising photographers were present in shoals to produce faultless representations of their customers complete “while you wait.” Stalls for the dispensing of cooked shell and other fish, and the irrepressible “one and bread,” the “odour” of which betokened its presence from afar, were to be found here and there in out of the way places. Marquees and booths of large dimensions for light refreshments, under the proprietorships of Messrs. Hunt and Son, confectioners, etc. St. Ebbe’s; Mrs. Grace, St. Giles’; Mr. J. Arnatt, and Mr. F. Lyster were thronged, especially during the evenings. The Oxford Bible stall, which was in charge of Mr. Wheelhouse, occupied a piece of ground near to St. John’s College free of charge, and it may be mentioned that the same gentleman has every year undertaken a similar work since 1869, in which year he disposed of Bibles, etc., to the amount of £50. He was assisted on this occasion by the Rev. J. C. Casher, curate of St Aldate’s.

The cabmen’s shelter at the north end of St. Giles’ was utilised, the vehicles being necessarily off the rank during the fair, as a police-station and as a place for rendering first aid by the members of the St. John Ambulance Association, and during each day several cases of slight indisposition were attended to. They were under the command of Supt. Thos. E. Foort. Sixteen cases were attended in the two days, none of which were of a very serious character. They included two sprained ankles, three cut hands, and three scalp wounds caused by falling off the horses, etc., faints, hysteria and confetti and other foreign bodies in the eyes; two cases were sent to the Radcliffe Infirmary, and two were removed to the homes of the patients. The members of the division were also called to a case in Leckford-road, which was promptly attended to, and the patient taken home. The hon. Surgeon, Dr. W.J. Turrell, was in attendance during both days of the fair, rendering valuable assistance both to the patients and members of the division. The hon. Local secretary, Mr. E. C. Hale Jessop, was also present. The following members were present on duty: Supt. Foort, First Officer C. Harris (police inspector), Sergt. J. Cantwell, Privates F. Merriman, F. Dearle, T. Jones, T. G. Smith, F. W. Crane, G. Hetherington, F. Narroway, Hutchings, E. Purser, C. Foster, F. G. Cooper, Private Cyclist H. H. Carter, and T. W. Booker (hon secretary). It may be interesting to note there were 20 cases in 1898, and 25 in 1897. The division was greatly assisted by members of the City Police force.

An entirely new feature was the provision of a ladies’ cloak-room at the south end of the enclosure in front of St. John’s College, at the instigation of Mrs. Green, Mrs. Hughes, and other ladies, who shared a portion of the expense, the City Council bearing the outlay for hire, etc.

During the whole of Monday afternoon the fair was rather crowded with promenaders, who found the heat (which was 80 degrees in the shade at one o’clock), and dust uncomfortable, and as the evening drew on the throng became so dense that locomotion was extremely difficult. The magistrates had issued the customary warning that, “assaults by means of scratchback, cracker, whip, or brush, or by rice, flour, meal, sand, or any similar substance or article of an objectionable nature,” would render the perpetrators liable to a fine not exceeding £5, or imprisonment not beyond the term of two months. But other substitutes for some of these articles, which in their time were regarded as the “fun of the fair,” were brought into use in the form of bunches of paper streamers fastened to short sticks, with which people’s faces were brushed more or less gently, and confetti, which was showered broadcast to plentifully that the roadway was covered with it, and it was swept up in heaps on the following mornings. A novelty in the way of “fun of the fair” was the extensive use of inflated bags, of more or less strength, depending from a stick, and known as “bangers,”, which were used by the promenaders to strike each other. Considerable noise, and little harm resulted, although there were some cases where the victim was accidentally struck with the stick.


On Tuesday the attendance was again considerable, but hardly so large as on the first day, and the heat and dust, especially in the evening, were almost suffocating. Each evening, the police stopped the business of the fair punctually at eleven o’clock, and by twelve o’clock the last stragglers had gone home, and St. Giles’ resumed its normal quietude. There was a smart shower about half-past eleven on Tuesday evening, which had the effect of clearing the boulevard earlier than would otherwise have been the case. By dint of considerable pressure on the part of the police, the whole of the caravans and other vehicles were cleared away shortly after nine o’clock on Wednesday morning. The roadway was then swept, the large accumulation of debris and rubbish left by the temporary occupants was removed by the Corporation employes [sic], and, helped by a steady downpour or rain, there were soon no traces left of the 1899 fair.

Mr. W. Beeson, the bailiff of St. John’s College, had the letting of the ground in the Manor of Walton, while a similar duty was undertaken by Mr. J. Beckwith, the Mayor’s Sergeant, for the city portion of the fair.

Messrs. Henry W. Taunt and Co., the well-known photographers, of 34, High-street, secured seven views of the fair taken from different points. The three specimens which they have sent for our inspection are excellent pictures, and were taken at the busiest time of the fair when the roadway was thronged with visitors, the features of many of whom are easily recognisable. They form a capital memento of the gathering.


Mr. Oswald Cole, the Chief Constable, has made the following report to the Watch Committee, to whom it was presented on Thursday:—“I beg to report that St. Giles’ Fair was held on Monday and Tuesday, the 4th and 5th inst., there being the usual number of stalls, shows, roundabouts, etc. Excursion trains were run from Cardiff, Birmingham, Coventry, London, and all intermediate stations in connection with the Fair, the number of persons thus brought into the city being about 6,700. The cab shelter at the north end of St. Giles’ Fair was again utilised as a police and ambulance station, and was found to be of very great convenience. There were several slight accidents reported, the most serious being two cases of sprained ankles, through falling from roundabouts; in each case, after first aid had been rendered, the patients were removed to their homes. Twenty-eight children who had been lost in the Fair were found and restored to their relatives. In four mutoscopes machines pictures were found that were considered unfit for public exhibition, and in each case the exhibition was closed and removed from the Fair. During each evening there was a very large crowd present; the people were, however, very orderly, and everything passed off in a satisfactory manner.”

St Giles’ home

Stephanie Jenkins

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