St Giles’ Fair 1953–2003: Joan Williams


The Hebborn Foden S106 Haulmaster, and the
“build up” of the Waltzer — St Giles 2002

My showman great-grandfather, Henry Hebborn, first attended St Giles Fair in 1883. The rights to a position in the street are traditionally passed down within the family, and the Hebborns’ rides and stalls still occupy the same ground, near Pusey Street corner, to this day.

Hebborn's Waltzer

The immaculate Hebborn Waltzer is ready to open – St Giles 2002

My school summer holidays were long fun-filled days at fairs, fetes and feasts in Oxfordshire villages and Oxford parks, but the very best, most exciting fair of all was, and still is St Giles. There wasn’t a child in Oxfordshire who didn’t look forward to this superb, two-day street fair, but I “belonged” to the Fair and looked forward to it more than most. I could have all the toffee apples, humbugs and brandy snaps I could eat, and could enjoy the rides all day long for free!

Nowadays the showmen are allowed to “build up” on the Sunday, but when I was a child, they could not enter St Giles until 5 o’clock on the morning of Fair Monday. My grandfather would polish (Brasso) the roundabout’s brass rods one more time, and the lorry and living wagon would leave home on Sunday afternoon and be parked outside the Marlborough pub in Littlemore ready for the off. At about 4.00 a.m. next morning the loads made their way to The Plain, and on the policeman’s wave it was full speed ahead for the Fair. The policeman at Carfax had his work cut out, with loads and wagons entering the City from High Street, St Aldates and Queen Street, but at the break of dawn the showmen pulled on to their positions in St Giles. There was good-natured competition amongst them to be “first in the fair” and first to be “built up”. The setting out of a fair is a complex and highly skilled job and it was pandemonium for the next few hours, but somehow by 9 a.m. every last nut and bolt was secure, every light bulb had been tested, and the fair opened on time.

The roundabouts and stalls which comprise a fair do not move from town to town always as an unchanging group; showmen who stand next to each other on the final day of one fair may be separated by a hundred miles on the following day. The Fair was a time to meet up with old friends — some not seen since the previous year. When I was a child the “living wagons” were allowed to be parked alongside the pavements either side of the street, and once built, the Fair was not only a technological marvel but also a human village. For the showman it was as much a social gathering as a business enterprise.

St Giles was a sea of people from early morning until the fair closed for the night. The juvenile rides and stalls were popular during the day, but as dusk fell the showman’s engines spluttered and fumed to life providing lighting for the rides and side shows. This was when the coconut shy, darts, shooting gallery, boxing booth, Wild West Show, Dodgems and Waltzer came into their own, and when the Fair was at its liveliest.

The Fair-goers, wearing kiss-me-quick bonnets and sailor hats, went home with their prizes, The Eagle & Child and Horse & Jockey had sold out of beer, and the showmen counted their takings. Everyone was happy, and there was another day to follow.

Swings and Roundabouts

Grandfather Hebborn’s best buy was a hand-turned Victorian roundabout bought in 1937 from “a man in Gloucester”. It made its first appearance at St Giles later that year alongside his coconut shy, hoop-la and swinging boats.

During the 1950’s grandfather was proud to be the only showman ever allowed to build, and operate, a roundabout inside Oxford Town Hall and the Tower of London. His roundabout was already dated when he bought it and other showmen would jokingly call it “Fred Hebborn’s wall of death”, but it was very popular with the parents of young children in Oxford. There was never any fear of them falling off at speed and it was always “a nice little earner”. It is now lovingly stored.

The search for new and more thrilling rides with which to entertain the Oxford public has become more intense over the years. In 1959 the Meteorite, the first ride using hydraulics, made its first appearance at the Fair. Gradually since then, the rides have become more technically advanced and more stomach churning. The Evolution, Top Buzz and Chaos are a few examples of the 21st-century fast rides.

Grandfather’s business plan only amounted to putting his prices up — from one penny a ride in the villages and parks to threepence at St Giles. I often wonder what he would have to say about his grandchildren’s “big thrill rides” today.

St Giles’ Fair Today

The Fair will, as always, strive to be bigger and better than last year, but in my opinion, James Noyce’s Gallopers, which stand near to the Martyrs’ Memorial, will continue to contribute most to the wonderful atmosphere of this University/City fair. Built by Savage c1895, it is a Galloper in the grand tradition. Despite changes of ownership and refits over the past hundred years or so it remains a spectacular sight and is famous amongst enthusiasts for its mixture of Anderson horses and cockerels fitted in about 1900. The ride also comes complete with a magnificent Gavioli organ.

The Sunday service and blessing of the fair, conducted by the vicar of St Michael at the North Gate, is held at 7.15 p.m. on the Noyce Gallopers. It is a very moving and emotional occasion for family and myself. A thousand coloured lights illuminate the ride in all its splendour, and the choirboys clearly enjoy singing to the sound of a fairground organ!

The service begins with A PRAYER for the Fair:

O Lord of love and happiness, we pray thee to send thy blessing upon the great fair to be held in this City.
May it be a source of recreation and innocent pleasure to old and young, may all come to know that their gladness comes from thee, the source of all true happiness;
Through Christ our Lord. Amen

The last hymn is the showman’s “God be with you till we meet again” and the service ends with “God Bless the Prince of Wales”.

The official “Opening Ceremony” of the Fair attended by the Mayor of Oxford and representatives of The Showman’s Guild is held on Hebborn’s Waltzer at 10 am on Fair Monday.

St Giles’ home

Stephanie Jenkins

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