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1856: All the fun and excitement of Cuckfield Fair recalled in Victorian verse

‘Cuckfield on a Fair Day’ by Thomas Rowlandson 1789

This is 1500 words of a 9000 word poem from a book called “Mrs Funnell” and concerns her visit to Cuckfield Fair. She was on a mission - but to find out what it was - you’ll have to read the whole poem by downloading the pdf, see below.

The book was written by Twynihoe William Erle (born 1828) when he was 27. It conveys the hussle and bustle of the highlight of Cuckfield' year - and describes the stalls for quack potions, toys, food delicacies, sweets, cakes, and the entertainment and much much more.:

In the nicest of all the nice country towns

Which Sussex, the nicest of counties, owns,

(On a prettier spot The sun shines not,

With its slender spire which the hill-side crowns,

And its exquisite view to the soft South Downs),

In the primmest of all the prim little rows

Of prim little streets which the town compose,

And in quite the most prim of the primmest of those,

There resided (her name into verse doesn’t run well)

An elderly lady, who called herself Funnel …

… Cool weather, ripe apples, and other good things;

And the town where the scene of our story is laid

Has long an unwonted excitement displayed:

The Talbot is full, and there isn’t a bed

To be had at the Ship, the White Hart, or King’s Head;

And the stream of new comers continues to flow,

Though the streets were all crowded a long while ago,

And rows of green vans, booths, and waggons, extend

So far up the road that you can’t see their end.

But who shall describe the magnificent mines.

Of treasures displayed in long glittering lines ?

Chains, necklaces, lockets, and brooches, and rings,

China figures, glass boxes, and gingerbread kings

With impossible heads, and improbable crowns,

And queens represented in solid gold gowns;

The dynasty also can boast its princesses,

With bright gold-leaf faces, as well as gold dresses:

The race of King Nugget, who rules California,

Resplendent in garments not commonly worn here.

And heavens! the marvels of wooden creation,

Which to look at is mirth, but to name desperation;

Cats, horses, and dogs, of a vivid sky-blue,

And legs of a pattern decidedly new;

“The two-homed rhinoceros, spotted chamelion.

And that werry remarkable beast, the sea-lion,”

With locks like a full-bottomed wig, to explain

The tie which subsists between might, main, and mane:

Canaries, which, pressed, chirp, and flutter their wings.

Like Miss Twits, when on pressing, much fluttered, she sings;

And that singular fact—that—whatever you please

You suppose it a sheep, till a dexterous squeeze

Elicits a sort of spasmodical wheeze,

Combined with a hiccough, a growl, and a sneeze;

And the vendor, in raptures, cries " Hear how it mews

So you find you may call it a cat if you choose:

And various beasts fitting into an ark all.

And Noah himself in costume patriarchal.

In a "Raglan Surtout” of a violent red,

With a structure which baffles our pen on his head;

Green — somethings — whose name ’tisn’t lawful to mention,

And boots so superb as to rivet attention:

If such was in truth the “costume of the period”

The remark is provoked, that the fashions were very odd.

The artificer probably meant we should trace

The jocular man in that smirk on the face,

And perhaps by that waggish expression he meant

To show the good Patriarch does not resent

The treatment which some might consider as scurvy,

Of being rammed into his ark topsy-turvy.

Only look! what gay thickets of rosy-cheeked dolls

With deeply blue eyes and luxuriant polls,

But shame on the makers’ unprincipled tricks,

Their nether proportions are nothing but sticks.

Then follow rich booths full of porter and beer,

Bread and butter, cold mutton, and other good cheer.

But Siste viator! Dry traveller, stop!

Nor hazard a draught of that “prime ginger pop;

”For as soon as the reckless consumer has quaffed

That fearsome and strange deleterious draught,

With sudden pangs smit, he is tempted to say

What Juvenal wrote of such things in his day:

“Triste feretrum,""bier followed by wailing,” [Latin: sad shrine]

When after some bad beer or ale he got ailing.

What stuff we do write! gentle reader, pray pardon,

And don't our delinquencies be very hard on;

You have certainly much too good cause to be vexed,

So we wont make another bad joke—till the next.

And the hoops and the rattles, the whistles and tops,

(Not those which accompany “bottoms” in shops),

Cobbler’s - waxed frogs making unforeseen hops,

Guns discharging moist pellets of paper with pops,

The Israelite harp to be played by the chops,

Accordions with highly unfeasible stops,

And drums, pipes, and trumpets, in plentiful crops,

Barley sugar, and hardbake, and peppermint drops,

And bull’s eyes, and all other known lollipops.

And for housekeepers crockery, brushes, and mops;

In short, every useful or useless utensil

To tempt wise investment, or spending spare pence ill,

From the “starlin’ gold ring” to the the leadless lead pencil.

And then only think of the wonderful shows !

Ah indeed ! but we mustn't get talking of those,

Feeling sure as we do, that if once we begun

To work at a mine of so very rich fun,

Our gouty old muse would so friskily run,

That the tale we are telling would never be done.

But O! what expressions at fancy’s command

Can describe that so quite indescribable band ?

Such howlings and hiccoughs from husky trombones,

Which your teeth set on edge as do razor-blades hones;

The rusty key bugle’s lugubrious groans,

The ophicleide’s lusty stentorian tones,

And oboes suggesting the agonized moans

Of a youth who by local affliction atones

For window-panes broken by throwing of stones.

The crackling and gay Ethiopian bones,

In discord like that Pandemonium owns

When a concert is given by old Davy Jones.

Could Handel but hear such unnatural sounds

He would leap from his grave crying, “Hang it!” and “Zounds!”

With his hair all on end like the sensitive locks

Of the heads used for showing electrical shocks.

Quite as powerful “shocks” would his ear have appalled

Evinced by like signs, or, supposing him bald.

With a wig of the prevalent fashion, then that

Would have bristled up stiff like a tooth-brush or mat,

Unsubdued by the weight of his large broad-brimmed hat,

And his whiskers would quite have pushed off his cravat,

Erect like the back of an angry tom-cat,

And never “come round again,” that is got flat;

And the crack of brass guns, and the cracking of nuts,

Rich trophies for fortunate shooters at butts;

And the world and his wife, as the phrase is, are there,

And much do they wonder, and giggle, and stare,

And of course all are dressed In their holiday best,

And old Mrs Funnell is out with the rest:

Ere this, your discernment no doubt will have guessed

That the scene we are writing of is — Cuckfield Fair,

Up and down, up and down.

Through the tightly-packed town

Our heroine struggled and pushed, till her gown

Was torn all to bits, and her holiday shawl

Soon scarcely retained any pattern at all

Its original sumptuous hues to betoken,

And the ivory-handled umbrella was broken!

And her cap was squeezed flat, and her bonnet still flatter,

And alas! the poor ribbons and roses! the latter

Reduced to a pulp of sad squashed floral matter;

And a bump from an elbow demolished her nose,

And the heaviest people all trod on her toes,

Till the round little fellows were rolled out as thin

As “Bath note” “hot pressed,” or as goldbeater’s skin.

Or the slimmest of soles’ tissue-paper-like fin.

Till learning by actual proof how immense is

The pang when one’s corns are stamped flat as sixpences,

Our suffering martyr was moved to a cry

In that form of expressive emotion, “O my!”

“Fire! murder! police! help! they’ll kill me surelye”

Till a neighbour, to calm her emotion, observed

“If jammed to a jelly you must be preserved.”

Mrs Funnell was thrifty, so thrifty indeed

That her purse-strings loosed not but on desperate need;

So the vendors of toffee, nuts, elecampane.

Those favourite esculents proffered in vain.

To praises of hardbake she listened unmoved,

Even gingerbread not irresistible proved:

But appetite’s clock having loudly struck one

Suggested investment in cake or a bun.

“Buns,” mused she, "if sugared and plummy, are good;

When new, too, they form economical food,

Being found at the price undeniably filling.

And then you get always two in for your shilling.”

And when she reflected how nice they would be

Slightly browned, and then salted and buttered for tea.

She with reckless and grim resolution put down

Elevenpence, and vice the twelfth, half-a-crown.

The bun merchant showed by an ugly grimace

That he quite understood the true state of the case;

The silver he unhesitatingly pocketed

Without the least sign that his conscience was shocked at it;

And then gave a leer of profane satisfaction,

Having made a nice job of that little transaction.


Source: Mrs Funnell, Chisman, 1856. Full text:

Mrs Funnell
Download PDF • 2.41MB

Illustration: ‘Cuckfield on a Fair Day’ by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827). The painting dates 1789 and is from a set called ‘An Excursion to Brighthelmstone’.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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