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|The Glasgow Fair
In Victorian times, the Glasgow Fair was the major annual summer holiday event for Glaswegians, particularly those from the working classes. People with more money usually left the city at this time, often going 'doun the watter' to holiday towns on the Firth of Clyde.
The fair was held in July at the foot of Saltmarket Street and on the adjacent Glasgow Green - right next to the MacGibbon grocery shop. In this extract from 'Going Abroad', ten year old Thomas MacGibbon and a friend have sneaked into the fair to take a peek at the attractions. This would definitely not have been acceptable behaviour for Thomas, given the pious Free Church, middle class character of his parents. But it was Thomas's last chance to find out what really happened at the fair, before he and his family emigrated to New Zealand. The characters and performances described in this extract are all historically accurate.Thomas and Sandy stepped out of the fraudster's tent and joined the jostle and cacophony of the festival. The air resounded to the strains of bagpipes, trumpets, trombones, cymbals, bass drums and touters' horns. Sideshow touters, dressed in threadbare stage clothes of many and soiled colours, were doing their shouting and cavorting best to attract people with pennies in their pockets.
Tumblers performed miraculous feats of gymnastics, bears danced, jugglers juggled and clowns wandered about with fixed smiles painted on tired faces, among pressing crowds of eager urchins, grown-ups and the young men and women-about town.
"Losh, Sandy, tak a look at tha'!" exclaimed Thomas, pointing to a sign showing an enormous boa constrictor to be viewed within for a half-penny.
"Hoots, that would be somethin' to see, wouldn't it?"
"Shall we gang in?"
"Nah. I bet you if there's any snake at all in that tent, it will be a pitiful wee thing in a blanket. I'll nae be fooled twice in one day."
"Then look o'er yonder - there's a tent that has a black giantess and a pig-faced lady, and it's only a half-penny to see them both."
"Ugh! Who wants to gawp at a pig wumman?"
"I do, and I'm ganging in. Are ye wi' me or no?"
The boys joined a crowd of fellow gullibles inside the tent and waited. After a short interval a statuesque female wearing a bright yellow dress, yards of multi-coloured beads and a headdress of tall ostrich plumes walked onto the stage. "Hoot-toots - take a look at that! She really is a muckle giant," exclaimed Sandy. "She maun be at least six feet tall and look at the size of her feet!"
"And see where she didna shave properly this mornin'," said Thomas, who had been looking out for such tell-tale evidence. The giantess fraud was well-known.
"Weel noo, an' when I tak' another gawp at her, I can see her face isnae quite sae black on the left as it is on the right," replied Sandy.
Throughout the tent, boys of all ages up to 60 had realised the giantess was a hoax, and were laughing and hurling insults. The burly poseur showed not the least bit of distress at being unmasked, and proceeded to announce the second part of the double act.
"Ladies and gentlemen - I give you the lady with the face of a pig!"
The giantess pulled on a cord, and a length of sacking fell aside to reveal a frightened bear with its head shaven, dressed as a woman and strapped to a sturdy chair.
This was too sick, even for the hardened and sceptical Glasgow audience, which filed out of the tent, muttering darkly.
"Tha's the last freak show I'll be seein' the day," declared Thomas. Sandy agreed heartily, and for the rest of their visit they avoided all such establishments, thus losing the opportunity to see the Savages from Africa, the Armless Lady from Newfoundland who could sew and cut watch-papers using her toes, the Fire-Proof Lady who pranced about on a hot iron, the Hercules who could bear tons of weight on his body and toss immense weights around like balls of wool, the Smallest Married Man in the World and sundry pairings of giants and dwarves.
They did enjoy the Punch and Judy show, but declined to visit the juggler who, they were hoarsely informed via a voice trumpet, swallowed knives and forks and vomited flames of fire and endless yards of silk ribbon .
Section of a picture from 'Going Abroad' of the Glasgow Fair, drawn in 1825. The fair was held at the foot of Saltmarket Street.
Copyright © Ngaio Press,2004