Goose Fair boxing stage.
Goose Fair 3: Fairs and Fisticuffs
Originally published in 2012 as part of theSpace arts project funded by Arts Council England and the BBC
The Sillitoe Trail focusses on five locations from the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958): Old Market Square, The White Horse, Raleigh, the River Trent and Goose Fair.
In the third of four essays, Ann Featherstone, a historian, shows how fairs and fighting have become synonymous with each other over the centuries.
By day, fairgrounds are family places. Candy floss, tuffy-apples, kiddies’ roundabouts: the exciting trip on a bus or tram, an eager walk and then diving in, having a ride on everything. Going a bit wild.
But when the sun sets fairgrounds put on another face. They become wild and dangerous places. Out come lairy adults, fuelled with sex and beer and, as the night goes on, sometimes an urgent desire to hit something.
Of course, fairs have always been violent places. London’s Bartholomew Fair (banned in 1855) was notorious for its marauding gangs and pickpockets, where the unwary ‘hayseed’ up from the country could find himself stripped naked and penniless – or worse.
Donnybrook Fair in Dublin (banned in the same year as Bartholomew) gave its name to a violent brawl – a donnybrook. In the world-turned-upside down at fair-time, people get reckless and punch-ups happen. An insult, a flying elbow, a shove, and there’s an excuse for a fight.
And Goose Fair, though it was no worse than anywhere else, could occasionally claim more interesting excuses for a set-to than “Are you looking at me?!”
The ‘Great Cheese Riot’ of 1766 is one famous example from Goose Fair’s history. Public outrage at the steep price of cheese at the produce fair (which meant that locals couldn’t afford it) meant that people lost their tempers. Stalls and vendors were attacked, a man died guarding his cheeses.
The angry mob picked up huge truckles and sent them rolling down Wheeler Gate and Peck Lane like bowling balls! The Mayor himself was knocked for six by a 100-pound cheese when he tried to stop one, and only the intervention of the 15th Dragoons restored order. It is a great example of a free-for-all and popular protest combined, a Food Riot and the out-of-control fever that bubbles just under the surface every October.
No wonder, then, that Arthur Seaton looked forward to Goose Fair. It was his kind of world. Mad, bad, brutal, brilliant. He liked the uncomplicated, in-yer-face pleasure of fast dangerous rides and the opportunities for mischief that the dark rides offered.
No wonder he called the Bobby Horses “an old age pensioners’ roundabout” and preferred the Rockets. No wonder he liked disappearing with his women into the Caterpillar where he could steal a quick kiss as the hood came down.
And didn’t he enjoy upsetting everyone in the Ghost Train by jumping into other carriages and demanding blood, “on’y a cupful, for supper”, before shouting there was a fire “with all the power of his lungs”. And who else would end up taking on the skeleton, causing so much havoc that “a spanner-brandishing mechanic” rushed over as the train burst into the open air wanting to know what all the racket was about.
But being a bad lad and playing around with other men’s wives invites trouble, and there were Swaddies in khaki waiting at the bottom of the Helter Skelter to give Arthur a good hiding.
He made a very quick exit into the crush of the fair when he saw them, but if they were lined up in a boxing booth, if he had a pair of gloves and £10 waiting, would he have taken one of them on? Surely he would for Nottingham is a town of fighters! ‘Bendigo’ and ‘Big Ben’ Caunt were native bare-knuckle fighters.
In the 1850s, Jem Mace, the Champion of England, had his Gladiatorial Circus at Goose Fair where you could see a boxing exhibition, wrestling and strength acts.
A hundred years later, Arthur would have seen Ron Taylor’s show, lights blazing, the show-front adorned with portraits of great champions, his ‘stable’ of fighters presented in their robes before every show and Ron himself, microphone in hand, smart as a button in his evening suit and dickey bow.
But Arthur would have had to have been a better fighter than he was a talker to even touch one of Ron Taylor’s men. He might floor a drunken youth, but he would have struggled to have lasted 3 rounds in a booth with a professional fighter.
It was a rule that a trained man could and should beat the public, even (or especially) the local hard man. Goose Fair boxing shows were rarely a refuge for a worn-out fighter with broken hands or a ‘punchy’ man on his uppers.
Fighters trained hard, earned £1 a round in the 1950s, plus their ‘nobbings’ – whatever they collected from the crowd – and made a decent living. Great champions came from the fairground shows – the Turpin brothers, Randolph, Dick and Jackie, Freddie Mills, Tommy Farr – but, with up to 15 performances a day, including sparring and exhibitions, this was no place for a washed-up man.
Would bravado and the encouragement of his women and his mates have persuaded Arthur into the ring? Maybe, but he would have been on his back in minutes, unless the pro’ decided to give the crowd a show and let him land a few blows or chase him around before flooring him.
Arthur was a pub fighter, a street scrapper. “I can allus fight better when I’ve had summat to drink,” he told his older brother, Fred. Not with one of Ron Taylor’s men you wouldn’t, Arthur.
Ron Taylor died in 2006 at the grand age of 95 and was perhaps the last of a dying breed of boxing show proprietors. Which is a shame, because despite the reservations of the health and safety brigade they were great shows and, you could argue, provided a public service as well as entertainment in the good old Goose Fair tradition.
As Ron Taylor himself said: “Much better for people to take out their aggressions by fighting in a ring, with rules, than brawling outside. If people have an argument they can come and settle it in the ring where all is fair.”
Giant Rats and Oddities
In her fourth essay, historian Ann Featherstone, suggests that while Arthur may have been a ‘love rat’ it is the ‘real’ rats and oddities that people have flocked to see for centuries.
The Sillitoe Trail
Take your own interactive tour of the author’s city and follow in Arthur Seaton’s footsteps around Nottingham, exploring the real locations of key scenes from the novel. You can go back to the Old Market Square or visit The White Horse pub, the Raleigh factory, the River Trent and Goose Fair. For updated content, visit Sillitoe Trail Xtra
Follow: Arthur Seaton @Thespacelathe on Twitter
Download: Sillitoe Trail Factory Handbook (17MB PDF)
Fillingham and Walker 2012 - 2023