9 October: 'A Peep Behind the Scenes' of Hull Fair

'All the stalls on the green are as fine as can be
With trinkets and tokens so pretty to see
So it's come then, maidens and men
To the fair in the pride of the morning'
From ‘Come to the Fair’ Words by Helen Taylor c1917

When I was a little girl my Aunt Bella gave me a book every Christmas and birthday. It was usually a Collins Children’s Classic in a red cloth cover but when I was about eight she gave me this and I just loved it.

I loved the binding, the etched illustrations and the fact that the book had been read by many other people before I got it; that alone made me feel like a 'proper' reader. I also loved the very unsophisticated story; which has sad bits – the mother dies, frightening bits - the father is cruel (but he comes to a bad end) and a there's a happy ending for little Rosalie, when after many trials she avoids the workhouse and finds a new home. The story, whilst laying on the virtues of religious belief with a very heavy hand, is full of fascinating details of the life of Victorian fairground folk.

‘A Peep Behind the Scenes’ was published by the Religious Tract Society in 1877 and was the most famous work by Mrs O.F. Walton who was born Amy Catherine Deck the daughter of the vicar of St Stephen's Church in Kingston upon Hull. In 1875 she married her father's curate Octavius Frank Walton, and during her married life wrote several sentimental religious books for children. ‘A Peep Behind the Scenes’ draws heavily on the knowledge she must have had of Hull Fair which was held only a few streets from where she lived. By a curious coincidence the fair which takes place this week, is now located on the Walton Street Fair Ground just off Spring Bank.

Hull Fair is still the largest annual fun fair in Britain and has had various sites in the city since its first Charter was granted in 1278. The fair was of course originally a market, but has like most fairs become an opportunity to have a lot of fun eating sticky fairground delights and then sitting in some strange device that goes round and round or up and down until you feel sick. That sounds as though I don’t like it, but actually I do. Especially after dark the atmosphere is electric, it’s noisy – shouting, music, machinery; smelly – pies, hot dogs, candy floss, diesel fumes and it’s mysterious - there are still lots of caravans, gypsy fortune tellers and dark handsome men in waistcoats.

When little Amy Deck the vicar's daughter was growing up, the fair would have had a larger circus element, booths where plays were performed, Bostock's famous menagerie and troupes of acrobats. In 'A Peep Behind the Scenes' she describes some of the acts – 'The Lady Without Arms' - ‘whose wondrous feats of knitting, sewing writing and tea making were being rehearsed to the crowd’. Then there was ‘The Entertaining Theatre’ with the stuffed cat who played the drum, the ‘Royal Show of Dwarfs’ and ‘Roderick Polglaze’s Living Curiosities.'
She also tells us about the food ‘a long succession of stalls on which were sold gingerbread, brandy snap, nuts, biscuits, cocoa-nuts, boiled peas, hot potatoes and sweets of all kinds.’

Many ancient fairs were discontinued as a result of pressure from Victorian employers and evangelists like Mrs. Walton. The Fairs Act of 1871 provides that if ‘the Home Secretary (is persuaded) that it would be for the convenience and advantage of the public that any such fair shall be abolished, it shall be lawful for the said Secretary of State... to order that such fair shall be abolished '

There was a movement to abolish Hull Fair in the 1870s but the city remained loyal to its annual feast as the Hull and Lincoln Times reported in 1874:
‘Fair time is regarded by the Hullitos in something the same light as Christmas is by the denizens of more southern counties — a kind of open house period when scattered members of families are reunited and when invitation go forth to country cousins to come and see the town...When another year has passed...there will be the same excitement, the same pushing, the same squandering of time and money. It is surprising indeed how many people of every class and age seem to give themselves up to the abandon of this great carnival.’

Long may it continue.

It's not too great a leap from fairground fun to coconuts and my Mum often used to make these little coconut macaroons. I'd come home from school and the kitchen table would be laden with the day's baking. I'd take something and head off with a glass of milk and a book.....

Coconut Castles
Oven 170c
1½ oz plain flour
½tsp salt
7oz desiccated coconut
Half a tin of condensed milk
1tsp vanilla extract and/or grated rind of half an orange

Sift the flour and the salt into a bowl, add the coconut and mix well. Add the condensed milk and the vanilla/orange rind and combine well - you should have a stiffish but not dry mixture. Have a greased or lined baking tray ready and either spoon on rough mounds or use an egg cup to make even sized towers. Bake for about 15 minutes – take care, they brown very quickly, use a sheet of foil if they brown too fast. They should be soft in the middle and they are even better the second day if you can resist that long. You can dip the tops in chocolate too to create a sort of 'Bounty' effect.

'Most people are discussing the vices of the Fair,
But don’t forget its pleasure, the reason’s why it’s there.
They say that’s its indecent and this I do declare
The Fair is not immoral but the people who are there.
To solve the problem easily, without the least delay,
For those who disapprove of it - Well, let them stay away.'

Anonymous poem in the Hull and Lincoln Times 1874


Bernard said...

I found that bit about Hull Fair really interesting. :)
You see, I just love the old traditional fairs. The small local fairs rather than anything too large, noisy and 'hi-tech'. It is a shame that the quieter days have gone and been replaced by 'head thumping' disco noise. (I don't recognise it as music. :(
Here in Amersham we have a fair every year, going back hundreds of years, but now it is nothing more than heavy rotating machines flying people around to ear-splitting decibels, in streets far to small. See here :

The High St. has many lovely old buildings and there is serious concern for their foundations and structure as these giant rides shake (literally, the windows and the tiles) of the old buildings.
The residents who live there, move away for the three days of the 'fair' and of course the whole thing leads to much letter writing to the local press about getting the 'fair' moved.
So you see: Yes to fairs, but gentle tradition fairs for gentle traditional people (like me). :)

Liz said...

Thank you Bernard - yes I'm with you on the noise front! and gentle traditional fairs ( and people) are few and far between , I do love old steam fairs as well - and they sound more up your street...

Dom at Belleau Kitchen said...

oh Liz... we're so in tune you and I... we were talking about The Hull Fair just the other day, my mum is from Hull and my partners family are from Hull and they were both telling me hilarious stories about the Fair! Plus, I was also thinking about these classic types of coconut macaroons which I simply love and will have to make soon. Great, informative post, thank you x

Anonymous said...

Susan tried and failed to post this comment so I'm doing it for her..

I loved this too, Liz, not least because Hull Fair has very different connotations in my family. I don't know whether it coincided with 'your' fair, but there was also an annual Hull Hiring Fair, where indoor and outdoor servants (the latter mainly farm labourers) were hired out for the year. In about 1900 a great aunt of mine, Honora (known as Annie), aged eight, was hired there as a skivvy. Her employers were very harsh, and at one point Annie scalded her face very badly when she fell asleep over her porridge. Her mother (my great-grandmother, for anyone keeping count) was a hard woman herself by all accounts, but she was sufficiently concerned by the way Annie had been treated to take her away after this accident. She also swore that none of her daughters would ever go into service, and eventualy the family moved back to Lancashire, where the rgirls got very well paid work in the mills.

Any road up, I hope that my grandmother and her siblings went to your Fair, Liz, and had a high old time!
love Susan

Choclette said...

Long may these fairs continue indeed - although I'm with Bernard really on preferring them a bit smaller and a bit quieter. We've just had our "St Matthews Fair" and all those noise machines were much appreciated by many, so I try not to be mean spirited about it. But that's an outrageous power for the home secretary to have - power to the people I say!

So wish I could get home from work and someone had made a nice pile of baked goods which I could grab and go off and read for a while - sigh!

Gerry Snape said...

there's nothing as comforting as a real fair with the smell of baking and cooking and lots of exciting things to buy that you may never actually ever use but you just might one day! And the recipe...well aunt Helen called them coconut haystacks..but the taste was the same!