Book Review: The Story of Greenwich

The Story of Greenwich, by Clive Aslet

Taking place every Whitsun and Easter, the organised mayhem of Greenwich Fair was one of the events of the London year. Even the French philosopher Voltaire visited it, entranced by what he took to be ‘people of fashion’ – who turned out to be only the servant girls, apprentices and other townspeople of Greenwich dressed in their finery.

That was in 1726. Then there was a racetrack, for the use of both equines and humans, but the scale of the fair was still manageable and the atmosphere generally sedate. Respectable people went to meet each other, dine in specially erected booths, listen to music and dance quadrilles. But in the second half of the century the crowds coming to the fair were so great that they could not easily get through the entrances into the park. The tone degenerated. An account in The Gazetteer describes how, in May 1776, the road from London was lined with every sort of conveyance, containing pickpockets and disreputable women. Once the Greenwich Railway had opened in the next century, as many as 200,000 people poured into the fair.

The chief amusement, mentioned time and again, was scratching. The trick was to buy a little serated wheel, made of wood, at the end of a wooden stick. You then came up behind someone and ran it over his or her back. The noise was supposed to make the victim believe that his clothes had been torn. Scratchers were such a feature of the fair that one can hardly imagine that there were many people innocent enough to be caught out. Still, it was all part of the general hilarity. A more sedate pleasure was to look through the telescopes set up by Greenwich pensioners on the top of Observatory Hill, offering views of the other bank of the river for a halfpenny. The principal feature of interest, in the previous century, was the gibbet on the Isle of Dogs, where the bodies of pirates swung in their chains. Naturally, great quantities of rum, brandy and gin were consumed and the public houses were thronged, fuelling the sort of misbehaviour that culminated in a riot of drunken soldiery in 1850.

It was all rather too uproarious for the more established citizens of Greenwich. They began their campaign to close the fair in 1825, but it was not until 1857 that the forces of Victorian propriety proved too much and the fair was shut down. There was now less need for a great popular jamboree to take place so close to London, since the railways made it possible for holiday crowds to reach seaside towns like Margate and Brighton.