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A Boy's Progress

Young Will stepped out of the dark, cramped house into the light and warmth of the late August morning. The narrow streets were, as ever, bustling. But today was not market day, with its cows and sheep and cloth. No. Today was far better than that. Today was the first day of the Fair.

Will’s heart beat faster at the thought of what lay in store over the next three days. The smell of roasting pig was all around and a few streets away the clamour and din was rising. It was calling him, urging him to join in, to dive into the sea of bodies and smells and sights. He hesitated a moment. This would be his first fair alone. At first their father would take he and his older brother Richard. But last year the boys, along with their cousins and some other lads they knew from Ludgate had formed a small gang and proceeded unchaperoned. Shouting and jostling, the boys had charged headlong into the proceedings and had such a riotous time and laughed so hard that at one point Will gave himself the hiccups. This year, he knew, would not match it. For one thing he was alone. His brother died two months previous from the sweating fever and smallpox had taken both his cousins the previous winter. Will’s eyes pricked at the thought of Richard. He missed his big brother with a pang that hurt his belly and he worried for his distraught parents and younger sisters, who now seemed so vulnerable. However, Richard would have expected him to enter into the proceedings and fully savour the pleasures, for both their sakes. 

Will pulled up his britches, checked the coins in his pocket and stuffed his kerchief over them to block the nimble fingers of pickpockets’. He sniffed the smoky air and stepped boldly into the riptide of bodies. He was going to Smithfields and the St. Batholomew’s Fair. The year was 1707 and he was ten years old.

Stepping over a pile of fresh dung he made his way down St. John’s Lane. It would lead him directly to the market place. It was clear from the almighty roar in the distance that the festivities had already begun. Cries of ‘What do you lack?’ ‘What is it you buy?’ could be heard above the general babble and bleating of the thickening crowds. Faint strains of balladeers and minstrels drifted in the air as he ducked and squeezed through legs and under bellies of sweating, heaving masses. He would need to keep his wits sharp today. A stocky and pugnacious lad, Will was of small stature but alert and fully acquainted with the back alleys and side streets of the city, aware of the delights and dangers they held. When the fair was in full swing, anything could happen. A big crush at Cowcross Street, on the north side of the square forced him to crouch and worm his way through the skirts of a corpulent madam, who booted him in the backside for his trouble. As he emerged from the crenellated and fusty petticoats, rubbing his arse, he beheld a sight that took his breath away.

At the far edge of the crowd was a huge Whirligig Ferris wheel hung with carts in which sat flirts and fops, howling in delight as it made its mad revolutions. In the place of the old gallows, stages and outdoor theatres had been built and were peopled by declaimers, enunciators, emoters and wits, barking out their poetic appeals and wise words. The audience roared and honked as the players trilled and squawked and all around were tents and stalls and hawkers with trays and baskets selling goods and foodstuffs. 

Propelled forward by the surging mass, Will found himself wedged between the capacious belly of an elderly gentleman who reeked of cheap gin and the bony back of a pungent cutpurse. Squashed and stifled, he remembered Richard’s advice from last year. ‘Be as an eel, young Will. Wriggle and slither and you will find a way.’ This he did until, free of the crush and able to breathe once more, he found some crates stacked by the side of a stage. Clambering up, he gained an excellent view and watched with shining eyes.

Booths of all shapes and sizes were scattered about containing all manner of entertainment. Everywhere men and women milled around, seeking diversions, thrills and guilty pleasures. Countrymen peeked through the curtains and then over their shoulders before darting, guilty, inside. Couples clasped close, all the time being lured and seduced and persuaded to buy this thing or that, a sweetmeat here, a trinket there. Better still a flagon containing an elixir that prolongs life, imparts vigour and cures all ills. What is it you seek? What do you lack? Everything is here at St. Bartholomew’s Fair, everything you could think of or wish for. And all around, the people – the mumpers and bawds, jesters and charlatans, piemen, alemen, fishwives. All of humanity comes to the fair and rubs along together. Beggars, actors, contortionists, illusionists, poets and pickpockets, ladies and maids, rope walkers and singers, children, bears, puppies in baskets, horses that did tricks, dogs that played cards and birds in cages. Ale flowed and hogs roasted, burnt crackling and sotweed filling the air and laughter filling the ears. Up high, Scaramouche balanced on his rope, complete with a balancing dog, a small child in his arms and a duck on his head. Will gawped, eyes open as wide as can be. And he looked closer still. 

Never before had he beheld such a collection of Tyburn faces or Billingsgate countenances contrasted alongside the genteel and the refined. This strange jumble of humanity delighted young Will. The chopfallen debauchee brushed against the pious but curious priest. A delicate lady passed him close by, her head and its contents were almost equal in height and dimension to the rest of her body. Her clothes hung on so loosely she might shake them off with a sneeze. Several young jacks from the Continent, strode past with an air of such vanity they caught Will’s eye. Their hats were, he thought, scarcely big enough to cover their empty noddles and their enormously thick pony tails, exceeding in size their spindle shanks, were plastered thick with powder or flour. With their noses in the air and their shrill laughter they paraded ostentatiously in order to be seen by all. A thin harlequin in party coloured dress assumed a diversity of gestures and went about sadly affirming that life itself is but a masquerade. A ruddy faced butcher in his blue sleeves and apron, greasy and bloody as if fresh from the slaughter house supped ale and smoked his pipe alongside a crestfallen and shabby gentleman, who had all but worn the nap off his coat and the lace from his hat. All of this Will saw and kept safely in his head, stored away for when he could return home and pick up his pencil.

He paid a penny for a hot meat pie and a halfpenny for some gingerbread from a fresh-faced country lass, who stroked his cheek and looked at him with sad eyes and a faraway smile. ‘Don’t eat it all at once, little man’ she said. ‘The gingerbread is for my baby sisters’ he replied. She smiled at him kindly and gave him another piece. ‘That’s for you, for being so kind.’ Speechless, Will gazed at her lovely pink cheeks, enchanted by her ample bosom and sturdy arms. ‘Tomorrow I’m back to the sea, to sell my shrimps. But today it’s the London fair for me. You take care young master.’ With that she swung the basket onto her head, sashayed into the crowds calling out ‘Pies! Buy my pies. Tasty hot pies! Gingerbread. Gingerbread. Fresh and sweet! Will sighed as the multitude swallowed her up.

The bellowing of the assembled herd increased as the afternoon fast faded into twilight. The air became more smoke filled and heavy and the music louder and more frantic. From inside the theatre booths, shouts of ‘Show! Show! Show!’ filled the air, mingling now with the blare of penny trumpets, catcalls and the cries of nut sellers. He watched, astonished, as an outrageous young man overdid himself and fell headlong from a cart on the Whirligig, into the hordes below.  Freaks, conjurers, giants and costumed devils cavorted and pranced in front of the elaborately painted backdrops. Dream, desire, illusion and trickery all manifest here, in the flesh of the fair. And Will breathed it all in, soaked it all up and turned his gaze once more upon the extraordinary company.  ‘I will be back tomorrow’ he said to himself ‘and again and again.’ 

With that, young William Hogarth squeezed and jostled his way through the swaying, braying crowd and headed for home, eager to record every last sight, each and every face, eager to make his mark.

Pubs. City Lit
‘Between the Lines’