Oxford St Giles
Anyone who has visited Oxford during the vacation and has chanced to walk under the shades of the majestic elms in St. Giles must have been struck by the all-pervading air of serenity and of repose to be found there and must have fallen under the spell of the goddess of beauty who has chosen to bless this place with her presence. But, today all is changed. The showmen have taken possession of Oxford's beauty spot ... Oxford is given over to the democracy, it is the annual St. Giles Fair. And right well are the people enjoying themselves. All around is one sea of happy faces. (Worlds Fair, 20 September, 1913).
Oxford St. Giles Fair is held on the first Monday following the feast of St. Giles (September 1) and lasts for two days. The present fair is organised by Oxford Council in association with the London and Home Counties Section of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain. The rights to hold the fair at St. Giles are shared between St. John the Baptist College Oxford and the local council, and the fair itself is opened by the Lord Mayor of Oxford at 10.30 on the Monday morning. The showfamilies arrive early on the Sunday morning and the pull on starts for the larger machines at 6.00 a.m. with the juveniles and fun houses allocated 7.30 as their allotted time and kiosks, and side stalls building up from 9.00 onwards. History reveals that this was not always the case and up until 1851 the showpeople started to congregate at midnight on Saturday in readiness for the fair on the following Monday. With the modern fair the building up continues throughout the day with a break for an hour from 12.00 for Sunday service.
Oxford in line with many of the historic fairs held in the United Kingdom has a long pedigree. However unlike the annual fairs held in Nottingham and Hull, its ancestry cannot be traced back to a Charter fixing in the Medieval calendar. Over the years many claims have been made regarding the ancestry of the famous fair held on the Monday following the feast of St Giles in Oxford. H. L. Benwell writing in The Showman in 1906 claims an ancient pedigree, stating that:
The Oxford Fair is of Norman origin but its actual beginnings are lost in the mists of antiquity.
In this article he linked the modern festivities, to the medieval fair held in the manor of Walton where it took place on the "precincts of the churchyard itself on St. Giles Day and the following week. This connection with the parish of Walton is reaffirmed by R. W. Muncey in Our Old English Fairs, when after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the parish of Walton was passed to the crown until it was purchased by St. John's Baptist College in 1573. This link between the St. John's Baptist College and the fair continues today with the Council sharing a percentage of the net profit with the College. However, although the Manor of Walton and its rights passed into the hands of the College of St. John the Baptist, there appears to be no documentary evidence that a fair was held there during the medieval period. Despite this Benwell does state:
That Queen Elizabeth was herself in Oxford between September 3rd and 10th, 1567 and it is recorded that she looked at the fair from the windows of St. John's College.
The evidence for this claim has unfortunately not been forthcoming and no account appears in Muncey's Our Old English Fairs, in which he concludes that, St. Giles is a wake, for it is not held by charter. The earliest reference we have for the fair is from The Session Rolls of James I where it is recorded that Thomas Cantyn was fined six shillings for swearing six insufferable oaths at the Wake, obviously a tradition which has since died out! Muncey also refers to the writings of Sir John Pelshall, a Oxford historian who stated in 1773 that:
At present we have no Fair, a wake is at St. Giles, yearly the Monday after St. Giles Day.
Owen's New Book of Fairs of 1783 lists three fairs for Oxford including one which falls on the Monday after St. Giles, September 1. The fair itself is historically divided between the `college' and the `city' side, with the college side tracing its rights to the fair from the Manor of Walton. The west side of the fair falls beyond these boundaries and as the fair expanded in the Victorian period, the Markets and Fairs Committee took the initiative of collecting the tolls for this area. This practise is still maintained today under the co-ordination and management of the Property and Leisure Department with Mr. Dick Oldroyd acting as the management consultant on behalf of the City Council.
The most recent history of Oxford St. Giles is Sally Alexander's account published by the History Workshop in 1970. However, Ms Alexander traces its development from 1830 to 1914 and writes that before the 1830s it was remembered as a pleasure fair of the smallest possible extent with its distinctive character being that of a children's fair, with gingerbread stalls and a display of toys. By 1838 such was the popularity of the fair that the local authorities attempted to bring some control to the annual event by publishing a set of regulations to be observed during the commencement the progress and the conclusion of the fair. In line with Hull and Nottingham during this period one of the main attractions were the drinking booths which were in evidence until the 1840s despite an attempt to prohibit their attendance in 1838.
Despite the popularity of St. Giles in the last decade of the nineteenth century, between 1893 and 1894 attempts were made to abolish the fair by using the economic criteria stated in the 1871 Fairs Act. As is generally the case of the abolitionists the argument consisted of charges of drunkenness, and more importantly that any economic benefit of the fair was appreciated by the showpeople and not by the local tradesmen. This was repudiated by the supporters who writing in the Oxford Times stated:
It is a pity to abolish the fair, coming as it does at a time when in Oxford will starve a rat. The long vacation to the struggling tradesman is a serious matter ... In their estimation there is no place like it. If a great deal of cash is taken from Oxford by caravan tribes, a great deal is brought in.
The main form of entertainment on offer at the fair before the 1880s were the shows, including such famous names as Richardson's theatre and William Manders with his famous menagerie. H. L. Benwell's account in 1906 recalls in detail the type of performance one would have seen:
The shows, were in fact of a different character to those of the present day. Some of them which visited St. Giles in the fifties has as many as twenty performers for the outside parade and charged a shilling for the first seats... The last of these old-fashioned shows to visit Oxford was Scott's circus and Moreland's Theatre who, after faithfully serving the town for many years, were eventually ousted from their position by the modern roundabout.
Famous names associated with the shows presented at the annual fair included: William Mander and his famous menagerie, Dan Hartley a giant with six fingers and toes, Joe Hylton with an elephant named David who carried visitors around the fair, Tom Chappel with his family of acrobats and the usual array of freaks and pig faced ladies. According to H. L. Benwell the first showmen to introduce a steam roundabout at St. Giles Fair was Henry Hall of Uxbridge. By the late nineteenth century, Jacob Studt, Charles Thurston and William Wilson regularly attended the festivities with the Switchbacks and Galloping horses. These same families continued to attend the fair into the twentieth century, bringing with them the latest attractions.
The twentieth century fair continued from the success enjoyed in the previous century with roundabouts becoming a dominant feature of the festivities. However, the show line continued with several cinematagraph booths in attendance in 1908 including Jacob Studt's monster show and William Taylor's Coliseum proving as popular as the roundabouts. According to Sally Alexander's account:
The story of St. Giles Fair is a vivid illustration of how a traditional but small local feast was transformed into a modern holiday.
By the start of the first World War, the cinematograph shows were in decline and more innovative attractions had taken their place in the people's affections. The outbreak of the first World War did not at first affect St. Giles coming as it did very soon after war was declared as the Oxford Chronicle reports in 1914:
Despite the chilling influences of the war on pleasure, despite a restriction on hours, St Giles's Fair is still going strong. If they had the power to stop it, the City Council would probably have done so.
This power was soon in evident and during both the First and Second World Wars, amusements were curtailed around the country. Between the two world wars, Oxford St Giles' went from strength to strength. Many of the same showfamilies were in attendance during this period with William Nichols beginning his family's association with the fair directly after the First World War:
This annual fair of St. Giles of Oxford opened out in lovely weather on Monday last ... Here was a great variety of everything to be found at a country fair. Of the pleasure fair proper here were W. Nichols' jumpers, a smart kept machine with a A1 organ; W. Wilson's rodeo riding scenic; Jacob Studt's whirling whales; C. and H. Thurston's motors; cakewalks by Richards and Abbott; C. Abbott's gondolas; Mrs. Bird's jumpers (a very old tenant); F. Wilson's gallopers; J. Waddington's steam yachts; T. Clarke's motors
The showrow at the 1927 event included Tom Norman, Dot Rayner, J. Parry and the Shufflebottom family with their Mexican sports exhibition. In the decade leading up to the Second World War, new rides such as the Dodgem and the Noah's Ark made by appearance, with Harry Studt bringing his new Monster and Swirl in 1936 and competing against and John Collin's loop-o-plane. However, the World's Fair reporter writes that John Flanagan's golden gallopers were the only family ride in the fair.
The ending of hostilities brought the return of the fair to Oxford in 1945, a event that was greeted with enthusiasm by the local people and The World's Fair:
Owing to the war this Fair has been in abeyance, but I am certain that there were more people present this year on both evenings than was the case in 1938. There are some who say that the Fair is rapidly outliving its attractions; a visit to St. Giles at the beginning of the week on the contrary suggested that it will live and flourish and maintain its wide appeal for many years to come. In every way it may be said that the Fair was a success.
1945 saw the return of many familiar faces and the range of amusements on offer included Dodgem's, Swirls, Autodromes, juvenile rides including swings, double decker buses and a multitude of side stalls and houp-las provided by long term tenants such as the Hatwell's, Bucklands, Pickard and Rawlin's families to name but a few. During the 1950s Oxford continued to attract the visitors and the latest rides and novelties presented by the showmen, John Flanagan was there with Autodrome, the Traylen Bros, presented their Helter-Skelter and Dive Bomber and Harry Studt continued his family's connection with the fair with his Brookland Speedway. However, The World's Fair reported that one familiar tenant was missing:
One familiar face was sadly missed, in the person of Mrs Louie Hatwell, who up to last year was the oldest tenant in this fair. Mrs. Hatwell passed away at the age of 85 at the end of May.
Over the next decade, a whole range of attractions attended the fair with the shows and novelty stalls proving to be as popular as ever. Mrs. G. Pickard made her ninetieth visit to the fair since her first visit as a baby with her parents, and John Flanagan told the World's Fair reporter that he had first come to Oxford with his grandmother, Mrs Bird nearly eighty years ago. As in previous years, waltzers and dodgems were a prominent feature of the fair. The showrow contained such delights as Tom Norman with Takala and his Red Indian Troupe, Billy Raynor's Mouseland Circus, Mrs Jack Gage's boxing and wrestling show and Mrs Sonia Allen with the Crocodile Girl, the Chimpanzee Circus and Nyora the Rat Girl. By 1966 Bob Wilson's Trabant ride was the major new attraction at the fair which provided an interesting contrast to the Hatwell family shooter which had been attending St. Giles for over seventy years. Although the shows continued to attend the fair throughout the 1970s the report for the 1978 event reflects the emergence of a different type of show:
Shows included Mrs. Sonya Allen's Bat Girl, Snake Girl and Mirror Show; Wally Shufflebottom's Playland Fun House, Gilbert Chadwick's Fun House; John White's Hall or Mirrors; Jimmy Kayes' Mirror Show and Henry Birch's Little and Large Mirror Show.
The fair continued to reflect the latest trends on the fairground and in keeping with events held around the country, more and more showmen started to invest in trailer mounted rides a factor first noticed at Oxford in 1978:
Two first rate examples of the modern trend towards self contained, easily transportable rides needing a minimum of staff to erect and operate were Bob Wilson and Sons' outstandingly successful Maxwell Waltzer and Michael Philips's very popular Round-Up.
Over the past twenty years these changes, first apparent in the 1970s, have become a common feature of the modern fairground. The residents of Oxford have seen a wide range in the variety of rides, shows and amusements that the showpeople have brought to what is widely claimed to be the best street fair in Europe. The secret of its success and its enduring popularity with the residents of Oxford is mirrored is reflected in the 1945 report which appeared in The World's Fair, hopefully the 1998 fair will prove to be as memorable an occasion:
The Mayor, Corporation and the Chief Constable toured the fair and enjoyed the rides and shows. At the end the Mayor confessed that he had had the time of his life and the Mayoress added "It's the thrill of my younger years all over again.
Please click here for an article on the history of shows at Oxford St Giles.