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Wrong Side of the River: London's disreputable - page 18 / 25





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The association of the South Bank with pleasures of various kinds may go back as far as Roman times;80 its reputation as a

center of amusements in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, is due entirely to jurisdictional peculiarities: had

there not, fortunately, happened to exist certain illogical and absurd liberties and precincts in which the Mayor had no

authority, there may well have been no theaters (to give a single example) in the neighborhood of London. In a town which

was growing from about 170,000 to about 550,000 people, it was of course worth the while of a variety of professional

entertainers -- acrobats, actors, ballad-singers, bearwards, clowns, fencers, puppeteers -- to put on a virtually continuous

performance; and whereas villagers might see these kinds of shows only a few times a year, Londoners could see them all

the time. If they wanted to hear ballads sung, they would go to the Bridge; if they wanted to watch a bear-baiting, they

would go to Bankside, and so on. These professional entertainers were nothing new, but were successors of the medieval

minstrels. What was new was that they were not itinerant, that they could make a living by staying in the same place.81 And

while these places were frequently denounced by the vocal moral minority, they were popular with the majority. Lambeth

marshes and St. George's Fields, famous for the frolics of Shallow and Falstaff, provided scope for races and open air

games, and music and dancing were provided at a reasonable price.82 Medicinal water and music on most days cost

threepence, while on Wednesday there was a concert of "vocal and instrumental musick, consisting of about thirty

instruments and voices," for which one shilling was charged. On an annual basis, too, there were the amusements of Our

Lady Fair or Southwark Fair, established in 1462 by a charter of Edward IV and originally authorized to run from 7 to 9

September, although by Pepys' time it had extended its duration to last four fourteen days. Pepys himself twice mentions

Southwark Fair. On the first occasion, in September of 1660, he merely reports seeing it from his landing at the Bridge

Foot. Eight years later he paid the Fair a

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visit, and found it "very dirty," although this apparently did not prevent him from enjoying himself. He notes with especial

interest "the puppet show of Whittington, which was pretty to see," adding, "how that idle thing doth work upon people

that see it, and even myself too."83 John Evelyn, writing in September 1660, found other attractions of interest:

I saw in Southwark at St. Margaret's Faire monkies and asses dance and do other feates of activity on ye tight rope -- they

turn'd heels over head with a basket having eggs in it without breaking any; also with lighted candles in their hands and on

their heads without extinguishing them, and with vessels of water without spilling a drop. I also saw an Italian wench

daunce and performe all the tricks of ye tight rope to admiration.... Likewise here was a man who tooke up a piece of iron

cannon of about 400 lb. weight with the haire of his head onely.84

It requires no stretch of the imagination to suppose that the types of communal activities taking place during fair-time

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