Snake woman

Goose Fair, Snake Woman montage, Paul Fillingham

Goose Fair 4: Giant Rats and Other Oddities

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.

The fifth featured location on the trail is Goose Fair, where anti-hero Arthur Seaton is caught with too many women; his wife Winnie and two people with whom he was having an affair, her married sister Brenda and Doreen. Goose Fair is an annual event in Nottingham during the first week of October and can be traced back seven centuries. In her final 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.


In the days before rides were the star attractions at Goose Fair, shows were what everyone wanted to see. From monstrosities and freaks to waxworks, ghost shows, boxing exhibitions and the cinematograph, every year madness descended upon Nottingham in the form of the Goose Fair shows.

Animal shows were always popular. The Goose Fair of 1850 had a learned pig – not the learned pig, of course, but one just like it! There had been so many, even one called Toby, and they were all startlingly clever.

Toby could spell and read, do sums, play cards, tell the time, tell anyone’s age and read minds. Arthur Seaton would have liked this, the interactive part of the show, trying to get one over on the showman – or the pig. In the old days he might have been invited to squeeze the Nottingham Fat Girl’s arm to make sure she was all flesh, or shake the hand of the lion tamer, Martini Bartlett.

And wouldn’t Arthur have enjoyed that too, having a blokey laugh with the tamer, seeing how far he could get with the Fat Girl, showing off to his women. And if he went too far and got a fist in his face from the showman, well that was Goose Fair, where anything goes.

To Be Seen Alive The Largest Rat In The World!

Arthur could still have seen the Giant Rat at Goose Fair in the 1950s and 60s: there does seem to have been an appetite among Goose Fair’s clientele for overgrown rodents (not even to mention Sherlock Holmes and the untold mystery of the Giant Rat of Sumatra).

At Goose Fair in 1874 you could have seen King Koffee’s giant rat, brought direct from Coomassie where, according to the advertising, “his teeth were kept in constant practice in tasting the flesh of such as were put to death in accordance with His Majesty’s pleasure.” A real king (King Koffee Kalkali), a real place (Coomassie on the Gold Coast of West Africa), a real conflict (the Anglo-Ashanti wars of 1873-4) and so, it stands to reason, a Real Giant Rat.

As the great showman, Tom Norman said, it was all about the tale you told.

Arthur’s taste for the animal bizarre was well developed. He threatened to throw Winnie to some half-dead pythons that needed fattening up in a Goose Fair ‘zoo’. This was probably one of the few menageries to be still travelling in the 1950s, a small affair, nothing like the massive shows of the 19th century for which Goose Fair was famous.

Mander’s, Day’s, Bostock and Wombwell’s, these were the giants of the menagerie shows, a zoo on wheels, where you could see anything from lions and wolves to badgers and fancy chickens. The outside parade show alone was worth seeing, as photographs of the huge crowds gathered around Bostock’s Show (always at the bottom of Beastmarket Hill adjacent to the Bell and the Talbot) suggest. Here, before you had handed over a penny, you could listen to a top-notch brass band, marvel at a giant pelican or see a woman snake-handler.

We think we live in the new age of extremes: the best, the worst, the fattest, the thinnest, the most disgusting, the most dangerous. There’s nothing new in it at all, except that nowadays you don’t have to wait for October to come round; you can see it every day on television.

But until TV took over, the show-row at Goose Fair had for centuries provided Nottingham folk with the experience of seeing the biggest and the smallest. Whales, stuffed, preserved and very smelly made regular trips to Nottingham.

Thousands of Goose Fair visitors went to see the Monster Horse standing 20 hands high (a Shire horse averages about 16 hands) in the Crown Inn Yard on Long Row. The Fat Bullock, about 6 feet high at its shoulder, was surpassed in all respects by the Monster Pig, which was 12 feet in length, 8 feet 6 inches in girth and weighed 110 stone. Grotesque but fascinating all the same.

Arthur Seaton would have been there in a shot. Like most folks, give him half a chance and he’d be inside the show, gawping at the rat or the horse or the Monster Pig, fascinated and horrified at the same time. Fag on, giving the poor creature a good prod and laughing like a drain at his own jokes.

“Bloody hell”, he’d say, “I reckon that there’s a rayt bobby-dazzler.”

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)


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