Humours of May Fair (1760): or, Scenes of 18th-Century Life | Anonymous

 ‘The Humours of May Fair’ is an interesting poem, written at the middle of the eighteenth century, which depicts the scenes that could be seen at the annual May Day celebrations (so not a celebration held in Mayfair, London, but a fair held in the month of May, in Sussex). Eighteenth-century fairs were often wild affairs involving lots of drunkenness, bawdy songs, sexual liaisons, and even riots. It has been transcribed by Stephen Basdeo.[1]

May Day, or Jack in the Green (1795)

In Sussex country, once a year,

There comes a pleasant country fair;

Well known to all—a plain the place is

Fam’d much for mirth, and handsome lasses;

Here rakes and beaus and swagg’ring blades,

Resort with swords and fierce cockades;

Here o’er the green the milk-maid trips,

Whilst country-fellows snap their whips;

Here belles and smarts, bloods, bucks, and keepers,

Promiscuous mixt with chimney sweepers,

Hoarse pedlars, ballad-mongers, ploughmen,

Rogues, whores and thieves, and noisy show-men.

Here rang’d in rows, to number twenty,

(Suppose there’s more to make ‘em plenty)

Replete the little standings are

With ribbons, fans, and Brumbridge ware;

Strange gewgaw toys, both fine and little,

With jointed dolls, and master’s fiddle:

With sugar-plums, white, green, and red,

Sweet oranges and gingerbread;

With Spanish nuts, and figs the best,

That please the eye and charm the taste.

See yonder whisker’d Jew unlocks,

His little draw’rs and wooden box;

The glitt’ring store he soon discloses

To please your eyes, and fit your noses;

There puckles, puttons, scissors, rings,[2]

And fifty other pretty things,

He shews to captivate the fancy

Of Tom and Dick, and Doll and Nancy,

Who from their purse the money drains out

For him, who bites their shallow brains out.

Milk maids at May Day

Here serjeant Kite his fancy suits,

And gathers up a few recruits;

In all the state of Majesty;

Around him wait the gazing mob

Compos’d of Coster, Tom, and Bob;

Who charm’d to hear his syren speech,

Of coming home both fine and rich,

They heedless swallow down the bait,

Resolve at once to try their fate:

Drink off their glasses, take their fee,

And curse their fate the coming day.

In yonder walk about the middle,

Croudero scrapes his wretched fiddle;

To rustic swains and hoiden lasses,

Maids, prentices, and modern asses:

So ill the tune and motion suits,

You’d think of Orpheus, and his brutes;

Who, charm’d with music, felt love’s flame,

Kiss’d, hugg’d, and squees’d the very same;

The sight of these such wonder yields,

You’d think yourself within Moorfields,

Where mad-men skip, and phrensy reigns

O’er straw-crown’d Monarchs, bound in chains.

18thc ballad singer

With hideous face, and tuneless note,

A ballad-singer strains his throat;

Roars out the life of Betty Saunders,

With Turpin Dick, and Molly Flanders;

Tells many woeful tragic stories,

Recorded of our British worthies;

Forgetting not Bold Robin Hood,

And hardy Scarlet of the Wood:

At naming these young Roger calls,

For one to stick against the walls,

He grins and thinks it vastly pritty,

For he and Mall to sing the ditty,

Who smiles upon the simple swain,

And joins concordant in the strain;

But, ere he from these scenes must go,

His Mall and he must zee the show;

Of Punch they must behold the sport,

And view the tiney wooden court;

Must elbow in, as ‘tis the fashion,

To zee the tempting conjuration,

And sweat and stare with admiration.

Well pleas’d they view the glittering sight,

And straddle back, with great delight.

Here Rosalind her form displays,

And strives to charm a thousand ways;

From head to foot new modes of dress

Her various arts to please express;

She hews her skin of snowy hue,

Her slender waist and bosom too,

Then God of love his shaft employs,

Which tempts the mind to nameless joys;

Young Collin catch’d, within the snare,

Enjoys in am’rous bliss the fair;

Partakes of what his soul desires,

And in soft extacy expires.

Here Hodge aside takes country Nell,

And all his pain begins to tell;

First leans his elbow on her back,

Then swears his heart is like to crack:

He shakes her fist, begins his speech,

And hugs her as did Nick the witch!

Presents her with a scarlet knot,

Which he, that minute, for her bought;

Vows that person (being stout)

Has turn’d his body inside out,

And every part, from head to foot,

Is burnt as black as any foot;

And if her mind she does not alter,

His neck shall quickly stretch the halter;

Surpris’d at this the yielding maid

Now sighs, and downward hangs her head;

A blush o’erspreads her modest cheek,

Both stand aghast, and cannot speak;

For love, as learned sages say,

Like conqu’ring death, makes all obey;

Thus Nell, with various passions bent,

By mutual silence gives consent;

She follows Hodge thro’ all the vale,

Who both themselves must now regale.

New noisy clamours rend the air,

And drunken pedlars reel and swear;

Huge mastiff dogs begin the fray,

Whilst horses kick, and asses bray;

The gath’ring clowns together rise,

With noisy voices rend the skies:

A sad mischance proceeds from hence,

O’ersets[3] a gamester, dice, and pence;

Hence noise proceeds to blows and thwacks,

And women tear each other’s caps;

A sad catastrophe discloses

Of sable eyes and bloody noses;

At length the dismal storm subsides,

And reason thro’ its channel glides;

The warlike combatants disperse,

And part by giving each a curse—

Here ends the song, in Thetis’ lap,

The sun’s emerg’d, to take his nap;

Both nymphs and swains forsake the woods,

And busy pedlars pack their goods.

An 18th century street seller

[1] Anon. ‘The Humours of May Fair’, May 1760, 264–65.

[2] These are not typographical errors but are reproduced here as they were originally spelled.

[3] ‘Oversets’—an archaic term meaning ‘upsets’.