ST GILES’, OXFORD

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St Giles’ Fair, 1838: G.V. Cox


George Valentine Cox, who was Master of New College School, recalls in his Recollections of Oxford (1868) how the gipsies were banned from St Giles’ Fair in 1838:

The first week in September is marked, at least by the citizens of Oxford, as the season of St. Giles’s Fair. Falling, as it does, in the Long Vacation, it never possessed any interest for the University…. At the Oxford Fair a striking and picturesque group had been always formed by a large body of gipsies, men, women, and children, with their rough ponies and rougher donkeys; but this wild tribe was looked upon unfavourably by the City magnates, and the Mayor of this year (1838) issued an order for the positive exclusion of the gipsies from St. Giles’s Fair. Pity for them, and early recollections of their fiddling, tumbling, stick-throwing, &c., &c., suggested the following lines, inserted in the Oxford Herald:–

Addressed to the Worshipful Mayor of Oxford.

“O Mr. Mayor, O Mr. Mayor !
What have we Gipsies done or said,
That you should drive us from the Fair
And rob us of our ’custom’d bread ?

O had you seen, good Mr. Mayor,
Our wond’ring, weeping, wailing band,
And marked our looks of deep despair
When first we heard your stern command ;

Could you have witness’d, Mr. Mayor,
How, young and old, and weak and strong,
Excluded, branded, cold and bare,
We sat astounded all day long;

Your heart had ach’d, good Mr. Mayor,
And felt that Gipsies too were men ;
Then deign our losses to repair,
Nor drive us thus to try the pen.

Alas ! ’tis true, good Mr. Mayor,
Our friend, Sir Walter Scott, is dead ;
But heav’n, that hears the Gipsies’ pray’r,
May raise another in his stead.

Dread not the name, good Mr. Mayor,
No more the witch’s pow’r we claim ;
But still we are the Muse’s care,
And Oxford’s Poets guard our fame. [1]

What place then so unfit, good Mayor,
A war against our tribe to raise,
As that which lately fill’d the air [1]
With Gipsy-lore and gipsies’ praise?

You welcome Lions to the Fair,
Tigers and Monkeys, Punch and Fool :
Then suffer us, another year,
To hold there our Gymnastic School.

Meanwhile farewell, good Mr. Mayor,
Your frowns dismiss, resume your smiles;
We’ll leave off cheating, take to prayer,
And claim thy patronage,
St. Giles !”

 

1. See the Newdigate Prize poem for 1837, entitled “The Gipsies”. Below is an extract, where the Gipsies give the cause of their curse:

“They spake of lovely spots in Eastern lands,
An isle of palms, amid a waste of sands –
Of white tents pitched beside a crystal well,
Where in past days their fathers loved to dwell;
To that sweet islet came at day’s decline
A Virgin Mother with her babe Divine;
She asked for shelter from the chill night breeze,
She prayed for rest beneath those stately trees;
She asked in vain – what though was blended there
A maiden’s meekness with a mother’s care;
What though the light of hidden Godhead smiled
In the bright features of that blessed Child?
She asked in vain – they heard, and heeded not,
And rudely drove her from the sheltering spot.
Then fell the voice of judgment from above,
‘Who shuts Love out, shall he shut out from Love;
Who drive the houseless wanderer from their door,
Themselves shall wander houseless evermore;
Till He, whom now they spurn, again shall come,
Amid the clouds of heaven, to speak their final doom.”

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Stephanie Jenkins

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