Goose Fair in the Market Square, late 19th Century
I can just about remember the fairground shows at Ilkeston Fair: it was the sixties and I was still innocent enough to be amazed by The Alligator Woman and The Snake Lady – bikini-clad women lying in tanks with two or three slumbering reptiles. Neither of them were as exciting as they promised to be; the dozy alligators and snakes bore little resemblance to the ferocious, rampant creatures in the advertising. No wonder then that the women smoked their Players No. 6 whilst reading the Daily Express, looking bored out of their minds. My dad was wholly unimpressed; when a snake uncoiled itself and slid across the painted sand, all he said was, ‘At least that’s alive.’
Real flesh and blood is the key to memorable fairground shows, and it was this that impressed Sydney Race when he went to Goose Fair in the 1890s. He kept detailed journals of what he saw: freak shows and menageries, performing seals and diving shows, fat ladies and skeleton men. Although he marvelled at the ‘accuracy’ of the pictures in the cinematography exhibitions - he liked the fact he could recognise the faces at W G Grace’s Jubilee and Gladstone’s funeral, and that the cavalry attending the Czar in Paris was; ‘so lifelike, you could almost hear them trotting’ - it was the live shows that Race really enjoyed.
However, the Goose Fair of the 1890s was on the cusp of change; the rides were increasing in numbers and popularity and they were getting bigger and noisier and more exciting. But with this, it seemed that year on year the shows were getting fewer on the Market Square. What Sydney Race described in his diaries between 1892 and 1900 were the final performances of some of the great shows – Burnett’s Military Academy, Wall’s Ghost Show, Wombwell’s Menagerie, Burwood’s Fisheries Exhibition. Burnett’s show was one of his favourites and he revelled in the Professor’s front-of-show spiel about the ‘manly and noble art of self-defence’ almost as much as the display of swordsmanship and boxing inside.
One whole penny? Twisters even then...
The menageries, particularly Wombwell’s, competed with the Ghost Shows for being the biggest and most flamboyant, their show-fronts covered in gold paint and magnificent oil paintings. The animal shows of the time had no tame alligators or stupefied snakes; there were wolves, bears and lions in cages which the animal-trainer ‘enraged’ in order to show how dangerous they were. Hyenas and strange pigs, badgers, otters, hounds, and playful lion cubs to stroke were also a part of these travelling zoos.
Then there were the Goose Fair monstrosities: Race was impressed by the Fat Bullock, standing around six feet high which he said was ‘a monster beast and its skin ... seemed stretched like banjo parchment.’ He was all too aware of the cruelty that went with the shows and was troubled to see the badgers confined in tiny cages and a seal locked up in a box with no light at all. ‘I was sorry for him,’ he wrote, ‘for his keeper seemed to think him something like the most ferocious animal which he represented that they had a painting of outside.’
Fat Girl, Goose Fair
Of all the animal shows that Sydney Race loved, it was the human exhibitions that he really relished. In an age when ‘human oddities’ were still displayed on fairgrounds and in ‘shop shows’ with little sensitivity, Race eagerly consumed the offerings. The list of shows includes Birch’s American Midgets, Polly O’Gracious, the Irish Fat Girl, Princess Paulina, a dwarf strong-woman, Count Orloff, the Living Skeleton and Madame Hartley, the Armless Lady. Birch’s Midgets, namely Major Mite and Princess Dot, were a regular show at Goose Fair. Paying your penny entrance fee, you would go inside the booth and stand around a roped-off circle into which the Major and his partner would drive in a miniature carriage drawn by a Shetland pony. After singing a popular song or lifting weights, the pair would then go around shaking hands and soliciting for further donations.
Fat women shows were also common at Goose Fair, either as fairground booths like Polly O’Gracious or as ‘shop shows’– vacant shops taken for a few days during the Goose Fair or for weeks throughout the year. They were often buildings marked for demolition in the great Nottingham ‘clean-up’ of the late 1800s and so were beyond cheap. Race was so fascinated by them that he wrote an article which was published in the Nottingham Argus. He went to a ‘Fat Woman’ show in a shop next door to the ‘Armless Lady’ exhibition. At only twenty-one years old, it was quite a shock to the nicely brought-up Race, because he soon realised that the show was highly sexual! The girl was ‘an enormous piece of flesh of some twenty summers’, wearing a dress cut short in front and behind to expose ‘a very plump pair of shoulders’ and bare arms. She lifted her dress three or four inches above her boots ‘displaying thereby a portion of green stocking enveloping a leg of considerable circumference.’ Had the spectators been willing to part with more money, the girl would have revealed more, the showman said.
Madame Hartley's main rival at Goose Fair
No less of a shock was the the Armless Lady next door, Madame Hartley; three feet high and adept at cutting paper patterns and drinking from a wine glass using her toes, and her showman-keeper in evening dress, sporting an ‘imperial’ (a tuft of hair on the lower lip) and no teeth. Monstrosities were not hidden away. In a shop-show on High Street during Goose Fair, Race went to see ‘the greatest curiosity on earth, a child with two heads, four legs and arms and one body.’ He was drawn not simply by the prospect of the ‘curiosity’, but also by the showy pictorial advertisement and the inducements of the showman. It was, however, a ‘baby in a bottle’, one of the commonest of fairground monstrosity frauds, and although Race says they were given the opportunity of viewing the bottle from all sides, he felt cheated. ‘The picture on the window showed ‘the curiosity’ to be living and walking about before an admiring audience,’ he writes. Instead, there was a creature ‘which could never have lived, shrivelled up and bottled in spirits.’
But that was the nature of Goose Fair – and all fairs. The bizarre, even horrific, sitting alongside the tragic. Sydney Race was acutely aware of this and felt for the ill-treated seal – ‘the poor beggar’ – and he thought that Madame Hartley seemed ‘in great fear’ of the showman. He considered the ‘Fat Girl’ show ‘a sorry exhibition’ and felt aggrieved that the two-headed child was a ‘fraud’, he was bothered by the ‘child-dwarf’ exhibition, calling it ‘a poor little thing’ and suspecting that it was only a baby. These are Sydney Race’s moments of reflection, often when he has deftly described the show, and giving a vivid flash of illumination and insight into the now lost world of the shows at Goose Fair.
Ann will be giving a free public lecture about the Victorian Goose Fair at the New Art Exchange, Saturday 6 October, 4.30 - 5.30pm
Ann Featherstone is the author of The Newgate Jig, published by John Murray books. Images courtesy of the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield and Ann Featherstone