Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/At a country fair


With sad thoughts of once merry England on our mind, the other day, we came upon a remnant of the olden time. It was not a pilgrimage, nor a mystery-play, nor a fairy godmother, nor an old tory, but a genuine old-fashioned fair. Though not so humble as the village May-day festival, nor so renowned as the nine days of Nottingham Goose Fair, it yet combined the excellences of both, and seemed to us so faithful a reflection of “merrie England” as we love to fancy it, that others may not be displeased to hear of it.

One of the oldest towns in Lincolnshire stands on a ridge of the Wolds commanding a fine view over a stretch of low country, and it was towards this town we found ourselves driving one lovely autumnal morning. For some time well-to-do yeomen, plough-lads in gorgeous crimson waistcoats, and country girls with hats trimmed in wonderful modes, had passed by up, giving warning that we were approaching the fair. Soon the road became a muddy swamp, and we could see the farmers bustling about amongst the cows and sheep. One informed us as he rode by, that he had sold ten “beasts” for 32l. each, and seemed satisfied, as he well might be, with his bargain. From such stories we gathered that the agricultural mind deemed it a good fair. We, however, being simply bent on finding amusement, scanned with more eagerness than judgment the pens of cattle which skirted the road. There were the red Devon steers, the white-faced Hereford^, the neat-looking Kerries, smaller than the delicate Alderneys, but fully their equal in milk-producing qualities. Further on were herds of frightened Galloways, with large heads, liquid eyes, and coats black as night. Then came several Scotch drovers belabouring some curious specimens of the bovine race, which were not over amiable or “canny” after their long journey. Some black, others dun-coloured, but all shaggy, unkempt animals, with fire gleaming in their quick restless eyes, they would by no means be pleasant companions on one of their own wild moors. One could not help thinking of the wild cattle of Chillingham on looking at them, and the aurochs and uri of the vast Teutonic solitudes by the Rhine, where the Roman legions encamped, and enabled Cæsar to add to his stock of natural history. As may be supposed, this formed a very lively scene, diversified by the shouting of drovers and plunges of some maddened animal over the fences on one side of the road, as another took it into its playful head to run amuck down the centre. We passed through without any mishap, however, and proceeded to the market-place, where the interest of the fair centred.

It was very evident that, if business was the order of the day above in the cattle market, pleasure was to reign supreme here. There were the round-abouts, swings, nut-vendors, Cheap Jacks, &c., dear to boyhood. Yonder stall full of “real Grantham gingerbread” carried us back to other days at once, when one’s digestive organs could assimilate anything at any hour. Could you thus early in the morning eat gingerbread,—for the life of you now, actually an hour before lunch time? The country bumpkins speedily showed an observer how to do it, at any rate. They might be omnivorous, so indiscriminate was their onslaught on anything offered them,—boiled crabs, green apples, toffy, shrimps, &c. We will do the Phyllises justice, and say they were not backward in following the example of their swains in these delicate preludes to dinner. All were mirthful and noisy, with rough attempts at rustic wit, and when the appetite had been thus gently provoked, sallied on to the amusements.

The scene there was like Hogarth’s celebrated picture of the glories of old Southwark Fair. A medley of booths, shows, vehicles, mountebanks, fortune-tellers, and quacks occupied the central space. Here stood a man with four or five tame piebald rats, which he put on his shoulders and suffered to run over him, for the sake of attracting a crowd. We drew near, from curiosity, amongst them. “I am from forrin parts, and my accent will show you I know fourteen strange languages, and can converse in all cases correctly. I ’ave a ’andful of rat-poison ’ere—vary strong, and answers in all cases correctly” (this phrase came in at the end of every sentence, as being a very telling point with rustics). “Sprinkle a little between your finger and thumb in a stackyard, and you will see the varmint come out in swarms, like poultry to be fed. Buy a box of me, and you will clear your whole farm for a year; buy a dozen of them, and you exterminate the small hanimals from the country side! It is only for fear of cutting my own throat I refuse to sell any gentleman more than a dozen boxes, or else I should be starved out myself, for there’s not a rat would remain in the laud. Buy here! yoho! Answers in all cases correctly!” &c. &c.

From the quantity he sold we should suppose the natives were much troubled with these “small deer;” but clearly there are better times coming, now that this kind gentleman has appeared, for a dozen boxes at least were disposed of in no time.

Next we strolled on to a Cheap Jack, who indulged in the usual witticisms of his trade after the following sort:—

“Hooks and eyes! who’ll buy?—sixpence the lot! Such hooks and—my eyes! Thank you, ma’am,—here you are! Hurrah! Sold again!—sold again!—sold!—sold again!

“A knife for killing pigs or mending pens—what shall I say for this? I will give it away for eightpence—given away for eightpence! Thank you, ma’am,—please the pigs, you’ll save it in butchers’ meat, ma’am, in a week alone. Hurrah! Sold again!—sold!—sold!—sold again!”

This ejaculation probably suited both parties to the transaction equally well.

So on, backwards and forwards did he skip in shirtsleeves and a brilliant waistcoat, active, amusing, and energetic. It was curious to note the impassive faces of the buyers. Like all Englishmen, they evidently took their pleasure sadly. They traded on the principle of sailors, to get rid of superfluous cash at once, or else they had deep economic schemes, like the minerals lying under their familiar clay, which ordinary men cannot discern, to judge from the incongruous purchases they made. A small boy, not long breeched, for instance, bought the hooks and eyes; hedging gloves would be carried off by girls, necklaces by old men; a ploughboy of fourteen invested in a large wicker-work plate-basket, partly, we suppose, from the high recommendation that “it would suit any one or anything—this invaluable tray—the butler for his forks, the nursemaid for a cradle,—sold again!” and then the vendor informed the audience in a stage whisper, “that ere young man as has bought it, is a family man, they tell me, and means to use that little harticle for a perambulator!”

No need to tell of the scene in the public-houses; such things are too well known in most country districts. We will pass by where the stamping up-stairs indicates that thus early in the day dancing is going on. Of course the younger men are vigorously pulling at long clay-pipes round the doors, and the elder ones leaning against the posts, discussing prices and “osses.” Jacky, the ostler, is delicately chaffed as he leads out a refractory grey through the archway, and recommended to take an inside place, with various other scraps of Joe Miller left by him in the country.

As Jacky waxes wrath, a policeman approaches to receive the same fate; but the man in blue is too dignified to heed farm-yokels, and leaves them to their merriment. “Aunt Sallies” and “niggers” were unaccountably absent, but only to give the fair a more old-world look still. As mid-day approached, the fun waxed fast and furious; and as red, honest country-faces grew redder, and grey calculating eyes more twinkling, it is but natural to conjecture all were enjoying themselves, and determined (as all pleasure-seekers should be) to put the best face on every mishap. Perhaps it is hard for the educated mind to enter into the delights of all this; but, at all events, it is worth noting how simply an Englishman may be amused whore a Frenchman would find it triste to the last degree.

We must plead guilty ourselves to a pardonable interest in the next amusement we encountered.

A broken-down individual, eccentric about the knees, and dilapidated in his nether man, whose hat was quite in character, having but indistinct notions of propriety, and very oblivious as to who had, many long years ago, been its manufacturer, was carrying about a board inscribed—

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The hands did not convey much lucid information as to the direction in which these horses were to be found—whatever they might be; but we followed the man till he disappeared in an inn-yard, sign of the Golden Dolphin. In the hubbub of farmers, horsy-men, ostlers, et id genus omne, we plunged bravely, and emerged in an open space surrounded by a forest of top boots and bronzed faces. A few farmers were assisting a dapper gentleman, with a rattan in his hand, to the top of a beer-barrel, and the truth then flashed upon us,—Mr. Johnson’s horses were to be brought to the hammer.

As Lincolnshire is a great horse county (is not Horncastle there?) and as my Lord Yarborough’s hounds run straight enough to try the best fencers, we were very glad to ooze out of the ring to a position close to a vacant stable, and watch the animals trotted out. It is always advisable, whether in war or love, or a horse-sale, to secure an opening for retreat, as in this latter case young animals often show their heels rather recklessly to their admirers, when the latter only wish to inspect their teeth. We will linger here a moment.

“John,” says the dapper man from his barrel, “bring out the first lot. Now, gentlemen, this is a bonâ fide sale of Mr. Johnson’s celebrated animals. No need for me to praise them, those who have ridden in the first flight last season, and only they, know what their strength and endurance is. Real blood-horses these, gentlemen—bred by so-and-so—out of so-and-so—from the Rocket—dam, the Flash-in-the-pan,” &c. &c.

“Lot No. 1. The Perfect Cure—a beautiful bay—perfect condition—sound in wind and limb—goes any pace—from a cocktail to an Arab courser,” &c. &c.: “what shall I say for this valuable horse?”

The ostler trotted out the animal, and ran him up and down the yard with a beautiful disregard of the clustering buyers. This horse was a fine, prancing animal, rather too “leggy” for our mind, but seemingly in perfect condition; and, after sundry deprecatory sentences on the part of the auctioneer to the effect that “he was sacrificing him,” and many artifices usual with the fraternity of the hammer to produce eager competition, was duly “given away” at thirty-five guineas.

The same thing went on with the rest of the string of horses, some clearing a space round themselves very speedily, much as Cruiser at the Alhambra taught people to keep a respectful distance. Some were grey, others chestnut—about the only appreciable difference, a stranger might think, to hear the catalogue of the good qualities of these “fine animals.” The whole proceeding, however, to the cognoscenti was evidently absorbing in its interest, beyond a transient smile when the auctioneer unluckily asked Mr. Johnson the age of “this animal,” and received in return a very knowing wink to make him hold his tongue, their countenances were grave and impassive. It is an awful moment to a British farmer when an appeal is being made to his breeches pocket. We must confess that an old cart-horse and foal, which were sold after the blood-horses, possessed the greatest attractions to our artistic eyes. Treated with the most perfect indifference by the majority of farmers (even the younger ones, who had playfully touched up the nags as they passed, considering this group beneath their notice), it was interesting to see the mare’s solicitude for the little one, and how utterly, like all mothers, she lost her own anxiety at the crowd and noise in care for the foal. We never before appreciated fully Mr. Ruskin’s remarks on the dignity and beauty of such rough common-place animals as cart-horses.

Once more the farmers hustled about and craned over each other’s shoulders to look at a wonderful specimen of a hunter which was put up to sale last. Without warranty, of no definite age, with a suspicious lameness, and timid, lack-lustre eye, the brute, which had evidently mistaken its vocation as a hunter, was led up and down amidst the jeers of the knowing ones,—and who is not knowing when a horse is in question? Bids were few and far between, and we may state, for the edification of those who have missed the chance of buying so splendid a fencer, that he was bought in for six guineas! Most people probably deemed him “a screw;” and to our eyes he seemed just the animal for Mr. Briggs to mount the next time he wants a day’s hunting.

The sale being concluded, the crowd slowly oozed through the archway to the different ordinaries that had charms for them. We may fancy the “horsy” talk that went on afterwards—the old-world stories told, the jokes they roared at over their brandy-and-water. Nightfall would see them sauntering home in groups of two and three. Footpads are never heard of in that part of the country where the fair took place, but the true agriculturist is a cautious man, and always returns home early on such occasions.

Still the streams of country lads and lasses, all with merry faces and wonderful head-gear, wend their way from the outlying villages to the great attraction, the event of their year. Still the cracking that told of shots for nuts went on more energetically each hour, and the street-vendors became more importunate in offering you walnuts as the hours slipped on. And then dusk came over the pleased assemblage, and their happy, eager eyes were lighted up by the flaring lamps which the stalls and itinerant pedlars display at such fairs. The roysterers in the taverns grew more merry, songs suddenly became (as they will do towards evening) very full of chorus, and everyone, from the cattle-speculator to the beggar selling matches, seemed sorry the fair was so nearly over. Perhaps Sarah Ann will not see Mary Jane again till next year, and Stubbs drink no more beer with Lobbs for two or three seasons. It is but few pleasures our young rustics can enjoy, and we will not grudge them their annual fair. Any one who has ever gauged the bucolic mind in its lower manifestations knows how thick it is. Transient gleams from the world of reason and education make a precarious entry at such merry-makings as we have attempted to sketch, and perhaps it might prove no paradox to recommend the encouragement of fairs as about the only secular educational agent that tells upon the rustics. “Statutes” and “mops,” where lads and lasses stand with their backs to a wall to be hired, are utterly destructive of all moral and religious feelings amongst farm-servants. They cannot be too strongly condemned. But do not lot us drift away from “merry England,” and too hastily interdict May-poles and ginger-bread eating. A certain amount of harm is inseparable from all great gatherings of the scantily educated, but we are convinced that a noisy, crowded, English fair is fraught with far more good than evil to that difficult class to ameliorate—our farm-servants.