The Story of St. Giles and the Show

The Showman, 31 August, 1906: In 1844, we read that the "shows embraced wonders of art and nature" One of the wonders was, according the loud-faced description of the showman "Nature's Mystery" Half a man and half a woman. Admission 1d, Gentlemen only! Ladies and children not admitted. The exhibit was of course a fraud and consisted of a dried up mummy of a large monkey, which the showman pulled out of an old box covered with a dirty sheet. Many shows were of a similar nature and pure fraud. Sixty years ago the shows were allowed to come into St Giles' Street at midnight Sunday, and as in those days there was no one to allot the ground, there used to be some pretty squabbles and the free fights for the best positions and it was generally daybreak when everyone had got comfortably - or uncomfortably - settled down. Wednesday was then called "packing up" day, but business went on the same as usual during the morning, many visitors reserving their purchases till that day for the bargains which were supposed to be obtained. In those days anyone keeping a beershop was allowed the privilege of bringing barrels of beer into the fair for sale. Another peculiar custom was that any householder in St. Giles could claim the privilege of selling beer and spirits during the fair by simply hanging the bough of a tree over his front door.

The World's Fair, 19 September, 1908: Mr. Bart Kennedy is, I think, the journalist who has exactly the gifts needed for an adequate account of Oxford's annual carnival at St. Giles'. The words in which he would describe the scene almost leap from the pen: "Noise, great noise, loud noise, rough noise, harsh noise, shrill noise, overall, noise. The noise of young men laughing, of old men grunting; the noise of young maidens shrieking, of old matrons sobbing; the noise of roundabouts, of steam engines, or flip-flaps, or toboggans, of sirens, of rattles, of everything and of all things. Noise! Noise!! Noise!!! By the accustomed habitue of the fair very little change is noticed in the constiuent elements of the show itself. Thurston's bioscope and flying pigs were there; Jacob Studt once more attracted colossal crowds by his great troupe of outside performers; Taylor's Coliseum occupied, as before, the place of honour at the end of the line. The only thing approaching novelty was a modification of the flip-flap at the Franco-British exbibition; it was stationed just outside the Ashmolean and each of the arms seemed likely to touch those grey stones walls every time the ascent was made. An increase of Houp-la stands was noticed, enticing sundry passers by to spend their money for what was always unattainable. There was the usual phrenologist, wearing a Turkish fez and an English smile, there was the loud faced auctioneer who proclaimed the merits of a set of six hall-marked English silver teaspoons, which would be given away absolutely free to any man who paid the ridiculous small price of sixpence for a set of six 25 carat gold topped studs; and there was the usual crowd of gypsy vendours of "ticklers" and "teasers." Round and about these attractions circled a multitude, somewhat smaller than last year - on Monday night at all events - but still big enough for pleasure and comfort. The crowd was like some great river clotted with matter, twisting and turning between its two banks as best it could. There was no coherent plan or purpose to its movements; the people simply swirled to and fro, eddying backwards and forward, up and down, across and along.

The World's Fair, 18 September, 1909: Every year one hears new lugubrious notes of sorrow sounded over the passing of the old fairs up and down the country, and yet each year there is new evidence of their very real vitality and popularity. St. Giles has never been more popular or alive than this year, when it has given us the usual yearly riot of noise and jollity which crowds into a squirming, wriggling mass, hundreds of people parading from St. Michael's to St. Giles'. There is little really distinctive, little which marks this fair from other fairs. Nor indeed does the character of the fair in one particular year differ greatly from that of any other. You find arranged in the two sides of the narrow alleys, the usual shows, amusements and attractions. There are the same quack medicine vendors, clad in what are apparently the same red gowns and the same black skull caps, there are the same leather lunged auctioneers, hoarse from the strain of offering daily cheap brass goods as realy gold, and peculiarly bad metal ones as superior silver; Thurston's bioscope is there at the side of St. Giles again; Jacob Studt's in another is another annual visitor and about thirty hoop-la stands, helter-skelters, cake-walk promenades, roundabouts, captive flying machines and swing boats complete the usual array ... Who ever heard of anyone among the revellers of St. Giles for whom the joys of helter-skelters and roundabouts were exhausted. Right up to the last possible minute on Tuesday evening were these thronged by those eager to get the last spasm of joy from the whirligigs of pleasure. And next year the same people will come out once more to enjoy the fun of the fair, to play the buffoon and to prove that the disappearance of the showman is about as far off as it was when old Thomas Frost first prophesied it more than a generation ago.

The World's Fair, September 23, 1911: Another Oxford carnival has passed into the limbo of historic curiosities. It requires experience of the actual thing to understand how the boisterous fun of the fair stirs the pulses of the multitude and destroys for the time being that level-headedness and sanity which ordinarily characterises the Britisher. That St. Giles is as popular as ever was obvious to the most casual observer on Monday and Tuesday and the fact that the railway companies brought in nearly 12,000 visitors from places as distant as Cardiff, Bristol, Wolverhampton and Birmingham shows that its popularity is by no means of a local character ... Of the shows there is not much to be said. There were the usual roundabouts; several cinematograph shows, which were not the novelty they have been and subsequently were not so well patronised; three Joy Wheels, a wheeler, a helter skelter of similar construction to those that have been there before, the latest improvement not being available; an animal with eight legs and a woman with three; several houp-las; palmists and fortune-tellers, cheap jacks and the usual variety of odds and ends. At night the fair was thronged with boys and girls, young men and maidens, who hilariously enjoyed themselves in the customary fashion, the girls being in the most cases quite as forward as the men.

Oxford Chronicle, reported in The World's Fair, 19 September, 1914: Despite the chilling influences of the war on pleasure, despite a restriction on hours, St. Giles Fair is still going strong. If they had the power to stop it, the City Council would have probably have done so. But the masses of the people in Oxford and the surrounding country districts are evidently as attached to the Fair as ever and it has rarely been more crowded that it was at certain hours on Monday and Tuesday. Whether as much money as usual was taken at shows and stalls it is impossible to say but at all events the people were there, people of all sorts and conditions. Largely the Fair was as usual a children's festival and from quite an early hour in the morning, eager little people had been tasting the delights of the merry-go-round and the swingboat. But there were plenty of older people, even invalids in bathchairs, and, to remind us of the times in which we are living, many soldiers in khaki; while just at the edge of the Fair, gorgeous in scarlet, was a recruiting sergeant on the look-out for likely young men for the Lord Kitchener's army. One cinematograph boldly depicted "The Invasion of England", but reasurred us by the addendum, "Saved by the Territorials".

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Chimpanzee and Rat Shows in 1960.

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Lady of the Lions Show in 1946.

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Tom Norman's Show in 1946.

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Tom Norman's Palladium Show in 1957.

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Allen's Casbah Show in 1979.

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Norah Sullivan's Lady Wrestlers early last century.

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Sonia Allen and Richard Chipperfield in 1946.

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Jack Gage's Boxing Stadium in 1955.