Oxford St Giles


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.

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. 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. 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.

The shows were the main form of entertainment at the fair before the 1880s, famous names included: Richardson's theatre, William Mander’s 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.

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 war did not affect St. Giles immediately, coming as it did very soon after it was declared and the fair went from strength to strength between the two World Wars with many of the same showfamilies in attendance.

The show row 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, an event that was greeted with enthusiasm by the local people and The World's Fair.

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.

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. As in previous years, waltzers and dodgems were a prominent feature of the fair. The show row 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. The shows continued to attend the fair throughout the 1970s, although by this time they were already changing in nature including fun houses and halls of mirrors.

The fair continued to reflect the latest trends on the fairground and in keeping with events held around the country increasing numbers of showmen started to invest in trailer mounted rides a factor first noticed at Oxford in 1978.

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 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 beer shop 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 habitué of the fair very little change is noticed in the constituent 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 exhibition; 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 Hoop-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 vendors 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 really 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 hoop-la; 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 reassured us by the addendum, "Saved by the Territorials".