First recorded as a parish wake in 1624, St Giles' Fair in Oxford has been a vibrant annual pleasure fair since Victorian times. One of the most prestigious in the country, it is held after St Giles' Day every September.
Collins Helter Skelter during the annual St. Giles' Fair in 1907
By Jessica Davidson
(St Edmund Hall, Modern History)
Home of carnival rides, candy floss and end-of-summer fun, St Giles Fair is held every September, and stretches between Broad Street and St Giles church. It has been celebrated in Oxford for centuries, and is part of a long tradition of such events in Britain.The modern fair dates back to the seventeenth century when it was a parish festival to celebrate the feast of St Giles
Before the nineteenth century, fairs were critical sites for trade, providing a greater variety of goods than weekly markets or local shops, and often held at the same time and place over centuries. The Victorian pleasure fair followed, as changes to transportation made them less commercially relevant.
A few ancient fairs survive, such as those in Nottingham and Hull, which have both passed their 700th anniversaries, but it is more common for them to have been successful in one period or the other. Transition from trade to recreation is often painted as a narrative of decline, but both types were important community events, times for welcoming outsiders and out-of-town relatives as well as promoting local business and identity.In the eighteenth century it was a toy fair, then in the early nineteenth century it became a general children’s fair
St Giles' Fair was originally a parish wake, a celebration of the local patron saint that, like a fair, was a festive occasion combining business and pleasure. Unlike a fair though, a wake had no royal charter offering legal protection. Oxford had two medieval charter fairs, one held by the priory of St Frideswide from the twelfth century in July near what is now Christ Church, and a May Fair founded in the fifteenth century, located where Wadham is today. These, however, gradually declined in importance, while the previously modest St Giles event flourished from the late eighteenth century onwards.The funfair grew during mid and late Victorian times when improved transport meant that large numbers of people could come to the city for the festivities
The Fair has long been more of a town than gown occasion. John Betjeman noted in 1937 that ‘Beyond St Giles’ the University is silent and dark…and in the alleys between the booths you can hear people talking with an Oxfordshire accent, a change from the Oxford one’. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the fair was a major working class festival, drawing revellers from great distances. From the 1860s special trains were organised to bring people to the fair from Midlands cities, and even in the 1950s cheap tickets were offered at fair time from any station within 65 miles of Oxford.St Giles Fair of 1895 where a large crowd was drawn to Day's Menagerie
Entertainment was the main purpose of the fair, which embraced the latest festive technology. St Giles was an early adopter of steam power, electric light and cinema. Menageries and circuses were popular amusements; in 1889 over 500 animals, including lions, tigers, wolves and ostriches were displayed. Carousels and rides were a key feature, particularly after 1866 when they became steam powered. By the twentieth century there were miniature railways, giant swinging ships, and other rides mimicking car or motorbike races.
Trade remained an important element of the fair. In 1765 St Giles was listed as selling ‘toys & small ware’ which then meant any small trinket, such as thimbles, snuff boxes or toothpick cases. Stalls in the nineteenth century sold not only cheap luxuries but also practical items like household goods, tools and fabric. Local shops welcomed the influx of people at fair time, which fell, according to one shopkeeper, ‘at a time when trade in Oxford will starve a rat. The long vacation to the poor struggling tradesman is a serious matter.’ Less reputable hawkers were also common, including fortune-tellers and quack doctors, one of whom wore a very short scholars gown and promised cures for tuberculosis and deafness.The Henry Hall Swing Boats operating in 1899
The fair was often a source of anxiety for the town corporation and residents of the city who saw themselves as the face of respectability. The earliest record of St Giles Wake was an item in the session rolls in 1625, when Thomas Cantyn was fined 6s. for swearing ‘sixe unsufferable oathes’. In 1832, a time of cholera outbreak, a notice warned fairgoers, against ‘dancings, revellings, surfeitings’ as ‘Death and Drunkenness go hand in hand’.
Moralists lamented behaviour at fair time, with one local vicar noting that young men ‘exhibit their vulgarity by…unceremoniously kissing any and every young women they meet.’ Despite efforts to shut down the fair on moral grounds in the late nineteenth century, as well as breaks in the entertainment during both World Wars, St Giles Fair is alive and well today.
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