St Bartholomew’s Fair, George Cruikshank


The collection of sideshows, amusements and diversions that appear on parks, commons and other open areas from time to time are usually known as fairsin Britain and as carnivalsin America. Fairground folk in Britain have their own language, known as parlari(parleyaree, polari), probably spoken since the earliest formation of travelling fairs.

Strolling players, mountebanks, mummers and other such entertainers, often referred to disapprovingly as knaves,were on the roads of Britain in medieval times. Sometimes difficult to distinguish from sundry beggars and other itinerants, these acrobats, jugglers, fire-eaters, rope walkers, actors and the like performed wherever and wherever they were likely to earn a crust, preferably before the local authorities moved them on. These venues might be in properly built or makeshift theatres, at fairs and festivals or just on a street corner.

The nefarious reputation of fairs continued over time. A report from eighteenth century Essex tells of performers being jailed for ‘dancing, conversation pieces, tumbling, and fiddling and, by means of a pretended lottery and other subtle craft, deceiving and imposing on many unwary subjects of his Majesty…’.

The most famous of the many fairs was Bartholomew’s Fair, held several times a year in London until 1855. Southwark Fair was another London favourite, especially popular with sailors. In the seventeenth century it featured monkeys, then very exotic animals, an ass that walked a suspended rope and an Italian dancing girl.

In 1800 a continental visitor described one Bartholomew’s Fair, claiming it was unique in Europe. The booths were many, all featuring a noisemaking crew referred to as a ‘band’. Strolling musicians from the streets added their skills to the din, which was further amplified by the shouting of those who pretended no musical abilities at all. There were menageries, roundabouts, open air shows and theatres, many of them converted local houses, where unusual plays were performed. The Punchy and Judy shows were there, of course, along with crowds of prostitutes. Bartholomew, and other fairs, were also frequented by men and women of the respectable classes looking for a little lowlife titillation. By most accounts, they usually found it. Many fairs of this kind were gradually shut down, or carefully regulated, by concerned local authorities and respectable citizens during the Victorian era.

But travelling fairs have a rich and continuing history in Britain, despite regular predictions of their demise. Writing on the history of fairs in 1874, Thomas Frost claimed that: ‘The Nation has outgrown them and the last showman will soon be as great a curiosity as the dodo’.

Frost did not take into account the ability of show people to adapt to change, a talent that saw them rapidly adopt moving pictures after their introduction in 1896, as well as other good ideas from abroad. The popular fair attraction known as the ‘Wall of Death’, in which motorbikes are ridden in perpendicular fashion around circular walls, derives from the United States where it seems to have originated early in the twentieth century. The close-knit character of the fairground community was expressed in their special language.


In Britain, fairground language is often called parlari and has been spoken by show people for as long as anyone knows. In some versions it includes more than a smattering of Romany, Shelta and words borrowed from a variety of western European languages. The fairground itself is known as a gaff, cheap shows being known as penny gaffs. A gaffmay also be a game that is designed to cheat its players, a usage also found in American carny. The gafferis the boss of a fairground, a term that has passed into general English slang and used with the same meaning in American circus talk. A gaff ladis a male staff member resident at the fair and a skippyis a female staff member.

Erecting a tent is a buildup, accomplished with kingpoles, while the top or roof of a tent is a tilt. A paper houseis a performance where most of the audience have been given free entrance to fill otherwise empty seats. A spotis a particular performance or act. A Dobbyor Dobby Setis a merry-go-round with fixed seats, or a galloperif all theseats move up-and-down. Dukkeringis fortune-telling. The word slangmay be used as a verb meaning to perform, or as a noun, meaning a sideshow or circus tent. To spielis to introduce an act or to announce information to the audience. This word also turns up in American carnyspeak and in Australian show lingo.

The close connection between the rumbustious entertainment of the fair and various forms of chicanery was one continued until almost to the present day. Crowds attracted pickpockets, thimbleriggers and other tricksters anxious to separate dull yokels up from the country or unwary townsfolk from their possessions.


For more on the rich history and culture of fairs go to the National Fairground and Circus Archive.


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