Friday, September 13, 2013

Down with All Fairs! The Outcry Over Camberwell

Last week I shared my delight with our new Western Washington State Fair.  The young ladies and gentlemen of nineteenth century London were no stranger to fairs, either.  I've talked about the fair at Greenwich on Easter Monday, which was a delight or a terror depending on who you spoke with, and Bartholomew Fair, which was closer to the terror side.  But another fair near London had an even worse reputation, so much so that the local inhabitants actively campaigned for its removal, several times!

Camberwell Fair was held in the middle of August near the intersection of Church Street and Camberwell Road in what would become Camberwell Park on the south side of the Thames. Various businesses and individuals erected tents and booths from which fair goers could partake of food such as corn cakes and gingerbread.  In 1832, for example, Richardson's theatre set up a splendid tent and hosted dramas like Hamlet.  Alger's Crown and Anchor Tavern was given high praise for its sumptuous decorations, from chandeliers to flags and banners. 

During the day, the place was fairly tame, so much so that nursery maids brought their young charges down to see the animals that were displayed, the curiosities of nature, and the puppet shows.  Barkers cried out the amazing sights to be seen for only a penny behind the walls of their tents.  One year a mermaid was on display, "lately caught and highly accomplished," according to Old and New London of 1878.  She was said to have had the best instructors in her education and could debate on any topic.  She had, it was also said, recently leaped out of her tub to floor a member of the Royal Zoological Society who had disagreed with her on some topic. I imagine a number of the fairgoers had greatly enjoyed that sight.

But however amusing Camberwell Fair was by day, by night, it was another matter.  One contemporary called it "greatly animated."  That is putting it mildly.  Fires and rioting weren't uncommon.  Indeed, in 1807, a magician running a puppet show involving the devil and Napoleon had a sausage pan explode behind him, engulfing the booth in flames.  Luckily, the fire did not extend to the other booths. 

As more aristocracy and gentry displaced the farmers who had called the area home, the inhabitants began taking steps to have the fair cancelled.  Unfortunately, holding the fair was a right of the two lords of the manor associated with the area and brought the participating businesses considerable income.  A campaign in 1823 brought the matter to the courts, but ultimately failed in shutting down the fair.  The 1839 campaign involved the vicar and clergymen of the area as well as the editors of the London City Mission Magazine, who wrote to the two lords of the manor and begged them to end the fair.  Only one of the gentlemen was receptive, so that campaign too failed.  In 1855 the local inhabitants banded together and raised sufficient funds to buy the manorial rights to the area.  Only then could they cancel the fair.

And speaking of fair, it's only fair that you should have a voice as to the future of this blog.  Do come back next week for our annual birthday party and your chance to tell us what you'd like to see more (or less) of.  And you don't even have to buy the manorial rights!

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