Monday, 11 November 2013

Old Greenock Characters - The Winter Fair (Part One)

The first of two seasonal outings from John Donald's classic Old Greenock Characters...

While the summer fair was the event of the year, and looked forward to with longing, I must not omit to recall the celebration of the Winter Fair. The late Mr George Williamson, in his history of “Old Greenock” published in 1896, tells us that John Schaw and Helen Houston, the Superiors were, by a Charter of Confirmation and Novodamus under the Great Seal of Charles I in 1635, empowered to constitute and continue in the town, two Fairs yearly – the first in the month of July to be called St Lawrence Fair, and the other in the month of November, to be known as St Helen’s Fair. That is the origin of our Summer and Winter fairs respectively, and probably they were of equal importance for many years; but old Father Time as is his wont, wrought changes, and, like two brothers setting out in the world, with apparently similar providence and under the same auspices, one rose to a brilliant eminence, the other to mere mediocrity. In their later years, while the glorious sunshine, verdant foliage and songs of birds formed a fitting accompaniment to the joyous summer festival, the bleak bare bough and the icy blast were the grim attendants of the poor relation.

Seventy years ago, [ed – note that the date here referred to would be approximately 1850]  the Winter Fair, which was held in Cathcart Square, and along Cathcart Street to some extent, consisted of an assembly of stands for the sale of all sorts of commodities. These stands not only occupied the centre of the Square, where the Lyle Fountain now is, but were ranked along each side, so that practically all available space was occupied. This was especially the case when, as frequently happened, horses and ponies were placed for disposal.

It was too, a veritable Paddy’s Market. Articles of wearing apparel, including boots, shoes and slippers (for both sexes and all ages) books, single song sheets, pictures, (framed and unframed), fruit, and, of course, confections from the interesting and sentimental conversation “lozenge” to the prosaic but popular “gundy”. There were also shooting stands, similar to those of a later date, with nuts for prizes; and some of my readers may remember the huge inverted umbrellas used for the display of cheap prints and small framed pictures (usually of religious subjects), song books and song sheets, these articles being placed around the inside of the “gamp” while beads and brooches etc dangled outside from the point of each rib.

Eminent and eloquent philanthropists, too, were there offering for a merely nominal sum, panaceas of incalculable value for the perfect cure of all diseases. These distinguished and disinterested gentlemen were (at least they said they were, and there assertions were not contradicted) on terms of the most remarkable familiarity with all the crowned heads of Europe, and might then, at that precise moment when they had the privilege and the pleasure to address such an intelligent Greenock audience, have been enjoying their “otium cum dignitate” (if any auditor had a lingering doubt of the speakers veracity, that phrase dispelled it at once). But the call of suffering humanity was insistent, and they could not – not their consciences, for they had such a thing, gentlemen, would not allow them to recline in opulent indolence while their fellow creatures suffered from coughs, colds, difficulty of breathing, or any affectation of the heart or lungs. “One does revives, one bottle cures Thank you sir!” and when he added “sold again” it was doubtful whether he referred to the commodity or the purchaser. The success of these mountebanks, depending as it always does upon the credulity of the public, was considerable.
Ballad singers worked their way through the crowded Square, and, occasionally Heather Jock or an itinerant juggler such as Old Malabar, lent variety to the amusement of the public.
As darkness fell, horse dealers and certain other vendors disappeared, only to make way for an increasing throng, and from six or seven o’clock until nine or ten, the scene was striking enough, and somewhat weird, as the oil lamps flickered and fluttered in the gloom.

The establishment of the Horse fair at St Andrew Square, remembered by many of our older citizens, may have tended to sap it’s vitality, but whatever the reason or reasons, the Winter Fair dwindled with each passing year, and at such a rate that about fifty five years ago, it consisted of only one row of stands, with one or two inverted umbrellas, along the pavement fronting the railings of the Mid Parish Church. Even this “relic of ould dacency” came to grief when a crowd of workmen, mostly apprentice shipwrights, at the dinner hour (then from two till three o’clock) in a wild rush, upset stands and umbrellas and scattered their contents.

That was practically the end of the Winter Fair; but its last vestige may have been observed about thirty five years ago, when an aged dame sat behind a plan deal kitchen table upon which lay a tray of yellow candy, a pair of scales, a hammer and an old knife, while underneath were stowed some old newspapers for wrapping the ha’pennysworth of candy in.

A man passing said to his companion, “What’s that?”
“That,” replied the other with a short laugh, “that is the Winter Fair!”

The original spirit of the Winter Fair lives on in The Dutch Gable House this year, with all manner of handcrafted gifts, prints and books available. It’s open Tuesday – Saturday from 9 – 5. Pop in and say hello! We're especially excited about the Violet Skulls Market on Saturday 30 November. Keep yer Christmas local this year. You can now download the FREE Dutch Gable House app.


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