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All the fun of the fair
by Julia Ashby

When we look at the few rides and stalls which constitute the Mexborough Feast of the 21st century it is hard to believe that 120yrs ago the feast lasted for days and the grounds that it occupied extended from: the Red Lion, Bank Street to High Street; along Station Road, Market Street and onto Church Street; and incorporated the Athletic Grounds and many others areas besides. Also that if an ‘Open House’ was to be kept for the fair, where meals and a bed for the night could be obtained, then everyone in the family, including the children, were expected to help in the running of it. Also that individuals travelled from as far afield as Germany, just to entertain us with their huge, brightly coloured, steam, coriate-organs, blasting out the raucous music made popular in the dance and music halls of the day, and that the proprietors could make as much as £50 per day, approx 20 weeks wages.
As Mexborough Parish Church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist the feast, which is in his honour, was a holy day and traditionally began on the Sunday prior to St. John’s Day, 24th June, with a church service. This was followed by a feast held on the Green Yard, which was a walled enclosure situated on Church Street between the Ferry Boat Inn and the parish church. This was followed by a trades fair on the Green Yard, which over the years became a fun-fair and, by 1881, had become the main event in the area’s calendar, and a holiday.

This month, therefore, I would like to take you back to 1881, when an item appeared in the Mexborough & Swinton Times, written by a visitor to that fair.

“Walk up, walk up. “Try and buy”. “Now young gents, have a fly at the eye”. “Only a penny”. Were some of the cries that met our visitor as he begun his preamble. Firstly he was struck by the free entertainment available to the onlooker, with Swing Boats, musical entertainers, painted stalls and the brightly clad procession of performing dogs. He then visited ‘Taylor’s Original Burlington Arcade’ and although not to modern tastes, he viewed the array of ‘freak shows’, one of which displayed a chicken with three legs. The Wax Works came next with, for payment of one penny; he was able to see such sculptured marvels as ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’ ‘The Judgement of Solomon’, also ‘The Prince Imperial parting with his mother before he went to the Zulus’ and ‘A collier with his dying child’. Other items were also to be seen within the amusement tents such as sword swallowing and conjuring tricks. All the proprietors of which vide for the attention of the passer-by with blasts on their horns or banging drums, all adding to the deafening cacophony of the night.

Meanwhile a troupe of artist performed in a field between the canal and Ferry Boat Lane, I presume this to mean acrobats and jugglers. In this location some residents held ‘Open House’ where a refreshing glass of beer could be purchased with a meal, a group of friends could join together in a song and ‘knees up’, or for those who had travelled a distance to the fair, a clean bed could be obtained for the night.

Our visitor goes on to state that “some may think it strange that the residents of this area went to such extremes”. But, although Mexborough, by this time, was the centre for many industrial towns and villages, and the magnet for many of its citizens, there was a decided lack of entertainment, with the nearest adequate venue being Sheffield. This, of course, was prior to the opening of both the ‘Prince of Wales Theatre’, Montagu Square, Mexborough, in 1893, and the ‘Grand Theatre’, Doncaster, in 1899. Our visitor informs us that it was necessary, on holidays, for groups to organise a day out to: the Theatre Royal, opened in 1773; the Surry Music Hall, opened in 1851; the Britannia Music Hall, opened in 1869; or a few years after this article went to print, the Montgomery Hall, in 1886. Our writer goes on to plea for the setting up of a good theatre in the town as many are becoming too fond of the public house and becoming “Lushington”. He also makes the comment: “so that our theatre might be devoted to the proper purpose, instead of being the arena for groans, yells, and other discordant cries, as it is at present”. I ask myself if this could be a comment made about the Paragon Mobile Theatre, the forerunner of the Prince of Wales Theatre or the Hippodrome, or did Mexborough at that time have another theatre, to date undiscovered?

The fair concluded on the Athletic Ground, which hosted cricket matches between Mexborough, Hemsworth, and Nether Hallam, plus a fete and gala. Here Professor Bailey, of London, had brought a company of comedians, and a Punch & Judy Show. Professor Tatersall could also be seen there, said to be the strongest man in Europe, he swung a weight of 12st. from his teeth and placed an anvil on his stomach while men struck a plate of steel, on it, until that plate was the thickness of a coin. As night fell, and the fair came to an end, Swinton Old Brass Band struck up, a display of Sky Lanterns, were released into the night sky, dancing commenced, and as the evening’s entertainment came to an end a firework display could be seen, from this elevated position, large enough to be witnessed from many miles around.

Oh! What it would be like to see just a fraction of these festivities in Mexborough today.

Information Obtained from:
Mexborough & Swinton Times 24th June 1881.
The Music Hall and Theatre History Website.
Wikipedia notes on St. John’s Day. Although Midsummer was originally a pagan holiday, in Christianity it is associated with the nativity of St. John the Baptist, which is observed on the same day, June 24, in the Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant churches. It is six months before Christmas because Luke 1:26 and Luke 1.36 imply that St John the Baptist was born six months earlier than Jesus, although the Bible does not say at which time of the year this happened.

News From the Local History Room

In the past few months your society has helped to write features for both the ‘Yorkshire Life’ and ‘Picture Post Card Monthly’ Magazines.

Firstly may I wish all those of our members, who are of Scots decent, a very happy Burns Night. Well what a busy few months this has been:

Yorkshire Life Magazine
On 28th October 2010 a reporter, from the nationally well know monthly magazine ‘Yorkshire Life’, having previously interview Brian Blessed, came to see Julia at the Local History Room. There he interviewed her concerning Mexborough in bygone times and also publications written by the society for an article, on the subject of Mexborough, for the December issue of the magazine and was particularly interested in our new book. Following the interview, as it was a bright sunny day, he took a number of beautiful photographs of Mexborough, all of which are to be seen in his outstanding feature to be seen in the December Issue of ‘Yorkshire Life’. This item includes illustrations of: Mexborough Top Lock; the Indoor Market showing the flower stall in the foreground; High Street showing the Outdoor Market; the plaque in honour of Mike Hawthorn, the first British Formula One World Champion, who was born in Mexborough; plus his write-up which covers Brian Blessed and your society. But the whole joyful occasion was yet again marred by the petty bureaucracy of ruling, imposed on us by officials of DMBC. As, following the taking of photos elsewhere, he wished to take some of Julia, at work, in the library, but he was prevented from doing so and we were told that, if in future we wished to take photos in the library, we have to give 48hrs notice, this will enable the staff at the library to contact head office to obtain permission for this to occur on DMBC property.

Picture Post Card Monthly
In December Julia received an e-mail from the magazine ‘Picture Post Card Monthly’ who had been sent a card which was causing much confusion and was able to identify it as Wath Road, Mexborough. This postcard and its description will be seen in the latest issue.

T.V. Programme on Sapper Hackett VC
Shortly a film unit from the BBC, led by the military historian and author Peter Barton, will interview Freda Warren, granddaughter of Sapper Hackett. A further interview will then take place, later this year, at the Sapper Hackett Memorial, Givenchy, France which was unveiled in June last year.

The Passing of People Well Known to the Society
Jim Sleight
It is my sad duty to have to inform you of the death of Jim Sleight, who took our society on so many enjoyable excursions over the years. He lost his long fight with cancer on 28th December 2010 at Rotherham General Hospital. As he was a Kilnhurst man his funeral and internment took place at St. Margaret’s Church Swinton on Friday 7th January 2011. Margaret Roper, Secretary of the Society, attended the funeral, both as a friend of Jim and as a representative of the society.

Tony Greathead
Last Sunday I heard the sad news that Tony Greathead, Chairman of Conisbrough & Denaby Main Heritage Group, died late on the night of Saturday 15th January 2011.  He will be missed by so many of us, not just for his unlimited knowledge of local history but for his happy, outgoing, disposition.

Copyright: This newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety, without the permission of J.R. Ashby.