Greenwich Fair

Whitsuntide at Greenwich Park by Phiz. The Illustrated London News (21 May 1853) 


A twice-yearly fair was once held in Greenwich Park and Greenwich town. It was held over three days during Easter and Whitsun from the eighteenth century until it was suppressed in 1857.

Greenwich Park was a popular day out for people living in London seeking fresh air and fun. They came in their thousands by road and river, and later by rail, visiting the park for picnics, dancing, and the notorious sport of ‘tumbling’.

‘Tumbling’ consisted of couples running and then literally tumbling down Observatory Hill and the steep slope below One Tree Hill – or ‘Holiday Hill’ as it was nicknamed. There are stories that many often ended the activity with broken limbs and serious head injuries. There were also dances such as ‘Kissing in the Ring’ that allowed the opposite sexes a chance of some closer contact not normally allowed in Victorian society.

The fair began with just a few stalls selling gingerbread outside the park gates to catch the holidaying crowds, but gradually expanded down the modern-day King William Walk to the pier, where the boats disembarked their passengers. By the 1820s, the fair had spread into Creek Road with the arrival of the big shows and fairground rides. Soon, crowds of up to 100,000 riotous revellers were arriving each day, as famously described by Charles Dickens in his 1835 publication ‘Sketches by Boz’.

By the 1850s, the fair’s notoriety became its undoing, with the police struggling to deal with pickpockets, gambling, drunken behaviour, and alleged prostitution. This led Park Ranger Lord Haddo, and some of the townspeople to call for its suppression. Magistrates eventually ordered the fair to close in 1857, declaring it was illegal as it had never been granted a charter.

A more detailed history of the Greenwich Fair can be found in this article by Ronald Longhurst.