North Greenwich Map

Greenwich Fair

Five minutes’ walking brings you to the fair. The entrance is occupied on either side by the vendors of gingerbread and toys: the stalls are gaily lighted up, the most attractive goods profusely disposed, and unbonneted young ladies, in their zeal for the interest of their employers, seize you by the coat, and use all the blandishments of “Do, dear” – “There’s a love” – “Don’t be cross, now,” etc., to induce you to purchase half a pound of the real spice nuts, of which the majority of the regular fair goers carry a pound or two as a present supply, tied up in a cotton pocket-handkerchief. Occasionally you pass a deal table, on which are exposed pen’orths of pickled salmon (fennel included), in little white saucers; oysters, with shells as large as cheese-plates, and divers specimens of a species of snail (wilks, we think they are called), floating in a somewhat bilious-looking green liquid. Cigars, too, are in great demand; gentlemen must smoke, of course, and here they are, two a penny, in a regular authentic cigar box, with a lighted tallow candle in the centre.

Imagine yourself in an extremely dense crowd, which swings you to and fro, and in and out, and every way but the right one; add to this the screams of women, the shouts of boys, the clanging of gongs, the firing of pistols, the ringing of bells, the bellowings of speaking-trumpets, the squeaking of penny dittoes, the noise of a dozen bands with three drums in each, all playing different tunes at the same time, the hallooing of showmen, and an occasional roar from the wildbeast shows; and you are in the very centre and heart of the fair.

This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat is ‘Richardson’s’ where you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five and twenty minutes. The grandest and most numerously-frequented booth in the whole fair, however, is “The Crown and Anchor” – a temporary ballroom – we forget how many hundred feet long, the price of admission to which is one shilling. Immediately on your right hand as you enter, after paying your money, is a refreshment place, at which cold beef, roast and boiled, French rolls, stout, wine, tongue, ham, even fowls, if we recollect right, are displayed in tempting array. There is a raised orchestra, and the place is boarded all the way down, in patches, just wide enough for a country dance.

There is no master of the ceremonies in this artificial Eden – all is primitive, unreserved, and unstudied, The dust is blinding, the heat insupportable, the company somewhat noisy, and in the highest spirits possible: the ladies, in the height of their innocent animation, dancing in the gentlemen’s hats, and the gentlemen promenading “the gay and festive scene” in the ladies’ bonnets, or with the more expensive ornaments of false noses, and low crowned, tinder-box-looking hats: playing children’s drums; and accompanied by ladies on the penny trumpet.

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The noise of these various instruments, the orchestra, the shouting, the “scratches”, and the dancing, is perfectly bewildering. The dancing, itself, beggars description – every figure lasts about an hour, and the ladies bounce up and down the middle, with a degree of spirit which is quite indescribable. As to the gentlemen, they stamp their feet against the ground every time “hands four round” begins, go down the middle and up again, with cigars in their mouths, and silk handkerchiefs in their hands, and whirl their partners round, nothing loth, scrambling and falling, and embracing, and knocking up against the other couples, until they are fairly tired out, and can move no longer. The late hour at night: and a great many clerks and prentices find themselves next morning with aching heads, empty pockets, damaged hats, and a very imperfect recollection of how it was they did not get home.

Charles Dickens, 1836 The Greenwich and Docklands International Festival

“An event whose annual contribution to the happiness of the people of London is unrivalled.” The Guardian

The GDIF is an annual festival of outdoor arts, theatre, dance and family entertainment. In its 16th year in 2012, it is consistently spectacular. Events take place at sites all around Greenwich and at Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, Woolwich and Mile End Park. In June of 2012 the Festival presents the world premiere of CROW (jointly commissioned by the London 2012 Festival and The Royal Borough of Greenwich), a dance theatre realisation of Ted Hughes’ powerful poems by Handspring Puppet Company (of War Horse fame).

Until 1862, when it was closed down for being too unruly, Greenwich Fair was the largest and most uproarious outdoor gathering in London. In 2011, GDIF initiated a 21st century reinvention of the Dickensian Fair (see previous pages). A two-day outpouring of British and international street arts, Greenwich Fair proved so popular that it has become a fixture. The programme of family-friendly outdoor arts, sideshows and fun games takes place at the Old Royal Naval College, Cutty Sark Gardens, St Alfege Park, and at Greenwich Market. In April 2012, the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth a month-long series of dance workshops were held by Greenwich Dance.

Pages 64-5 show Compagnie Off’s astonishing “Giraffes” performance marching through the Royal Arsenal as the finale to the 2011 GIDF. Featuring a herd of life-sized, animated crimson giraffes, a team of zoo keepers, a ringmaster and an operatic diva, the production moved through Woolwich’s magnificent new squares in a procession accompanied by dazzling special effects and music.

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