Take Me to the Southwark Fair:

William Hogarth's Snapshot of the Life and Times of England's Migrating Early 18th Century Poor


Benjamin N. Ungar

(This online essay is part of The Site for Research on William Hogarth.)

Southwark Fair is an engraving by William Hogarth, originally called the Humours of the Fair. The engraving was based on a 1733 painting of the 1732 Southwark Fair (now Cincinnati Art Museum).

William Hogarth, 'Southwark Fair' (1735)

Hogarth put the engraving and his eight plate series called A Rake's Progress up for sale on a subscription basis. The subscription entailed a deposit of half a guinea and another guinea upon delivery, as was advertised in the Craftsman, 1733 (Nichols/Steevens, II, p.84):

'Mr. Hogarth', stated the Daily Advertiser, was 'now engraving nine Copper Plates from Pictures of his own Painting, one of which represents the humours of a Fair; the other eight the Progress of a Rake.' Subscriptions would be taken at 'the Golden Head in Leicester Fields, where the Pictures are to be seen' (Uglow, p.239).

Putting the works together made sense because Southwark Fair was considered a natural sequel to the series, particularly the final plate:

Although finished and delivered before the Rake (because of the delays involved with finishing the Rake), Southwark Fair was intended - and should be seen - as essentially a coda to the madhouse of Rake Plate 8, putting it and the whole series in perspective (Paulson, Hogarth's Graphic Works, p.87).

The eighth plate of the Rake's Progress depicts a scene of madness and disorder called Scene in Bedlam. This is connected to Southwark Fair, which also depicts confusion and turmoil, but on a larger scale:

They are complementary in form and in substance; one being a single scene with several stories, and the other a single story with several scenes (Uglow, p.240).

Hogarth delayed publication of Southwark Fair and A Rake's Progress until June 25th, 1735, because Parliament passed an act on the 24th protecting prints from being copied "without the consent of the proprietor, and thereby preventing a scandalous and unjust custom (hitherto practised with impunity) of making and vending base copies of original Prints" (Nichols/Steevens, I, p.82). The act of Parliament that provided protection for artists was known as Hogarth's Act (Wheatley, p.425; Paulson, Hogarth, Volume 2, p.36-44). Ironically, Hogarth's painting of the Southwark Fair had already been copied, and the copy even appears in many publications today. The copy is a mirror image of the original (Fox, p.422).

Artistically some of Hogarth's works, such as Southwark Fair, are unusual, as they depict crowd scenes that seem to be very disordered:

As noted above, some of Hogarth's pictures, particularly crowd scenes such as Southwark Fair or The March to Finchley, are striking primarily for their immediate illegibility. It is impossible to get a clear idea at the first perceptive scanning, and force the beholder either to turn back or to come and look closer (Ogée, p.86).

One of the reasons that this work is so important is that it provides a "snapshot" of lower-class British society in the early eighteenth century, reflecting the gradual social changes resulting from the ongoing Agricultural Revolution and the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

Southwark Fair is one of the most valuable of Hogarth's pictures as a vivid representation of a phase in the life of his times, and one in which he must have been unusually interested, as he has filled it with an immense amount of detail (Wheatley, p.426).

The institution of the fair was an important part of British life. At first, fairs were important as they presented one of the few opportunities for trade and commerce in agricultural England, because

...men had no very easy means of procuring those articles which they occasionally wanted. To remove this inconvenience, it was found necessary to establish some general mart, where they might be supplied. Fairs were therefore instituted, as a convenient medium between buyer and seller, and were at first considered as merely places of trade (Ireland, I, p.71).

The early fairs enabled peasants to obtain necessities that were normally hard to find. As the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions progressed and the urban population grew, the fairs' focus shifted, from trading (which was now possible on a more regular basis in the cities), to popular amusement and entertainment.

The Southwark Fair, also known as Our Lady's Fair or as St. Margaret's Fair, was made official in 1462 by Edward IV. This Fair was of considerable antiquity, its activities often continuing for up to fourteen days in September, beyond the three days allowed by Royal Charter. Along with the St. Bartholomew and Sturbridge Fairs, the Southwark Fair, which took place in London near the Church of St. George the Martyr, "was one of the three great fairs of importance described in a Proclamation of Charles I as 'unto which there is extraordinary resort out of all parts of the kingdom'". However, when "Hogarth painted his picture ... the Fair was nearing its end, for in 1762 it was suppressed." (Wheatley, p.424-25)

It is possible that Hogarth did not originally intend for this work to be a true depiction of the Southwark Fair. "The topography is not very clear - in fact, some critics have expressed doubts as to the locality" (Wheatley, p.426). Indeed, this work was originally called The Humours of the Fair, a more general title. Only two features distinguish the scene. First, the bell tower of the Church of St. George the Martyr, which was demolished at approximately the time of the Southwark Fair in 1733, looms in the background. Second, Hogarth included a "time stamp" in the work. One of the stage cloths supposedly advertising the Fall of Bajazet is a copy of The Stage Mutiny, etched by John Laguerre, dealing with a dispute between the managers and some of the actors of Drury Lane Theatre of that year (Stephens/Hawkins, p.794).

The actual geography of the fair is secondary to its description of the urbanization of Britain. The work, in many ways, is a reflection of the migration of the rural population to the cities. This transition was influenced, on the one hand, by the expanding Agricultural Revolution and, on the other hand, by early manifestations of the Industrial Revolution. In the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, innovations in farming techniques greatly increased food production in Britain. Among these were the increased use of fertilizers; the use of 'drill seeders' and 'horse hoe'; the introduction of new crops such as turnips; a more scientific system of crop rotation; and improved breeding of larger sheep and fatter cattle. The consequences of these innovations progressively required fewer people to work on the land. At the same time, these changes significantly increased production and speeded up the process of the consolidation of land ownership (Palmer/Colton, p.428). Consequently, as labor requirements for farms decreased, an increasing number of rural farmers began to work for wages, while others became dependent on primitive cottage production of yarn and woven goods. These changes motivated many of these people to migrate to places where the demand for their labor was greater, and the wages were higher. Soon, as the Industrial Revolution created this need, especially after the Newcomen steam engine was invented in 1712 (Western and Central Europe Chronology, p.1), this mobile rural population flocked to urban areas to fill this new demand for labor, as well as the needs of the growing urban populations.

A major social issue of the time was the effect of the urbanization process on the new Londoners living in the crowded environment of the emerging industrial suburbs like Southwark. Hogarth addresses this issue in his painting of Southwark Fair in several ways. One significant element of the work is the country landscape in the background. Green fields and country scenes had not been a part of Southwark's environment for some time, as Southwark was already an inner industrial area of London. However, they were included by Hogarth to serve, to some extent, as a counterpoint to an urban setting. The fields highlight the separation of the notion of an idyllic countryside from the grime of urban living. While the background fields are distinct from the Fair, they are not too distant. Indeed, they are a strong reminder of the fact that the "countryside" was still a part of the psyche of the new urbanized population of London.

In Hogarth's picture, "rustics," a more immediate sign of the countryside, appear in the crowd. On the left side of the print, a sitting woman runs a dice game at a low table. One of these rustics stands in front of the table gambling, unaware of the hazards of the city and unaware that he is being taken advantage of by the city "sharpie." His son, tugging at his sleave, is trying to get him to stop his losing game. More obvious, however, are the two rustics that gawk at the pretty drummer woman in the center of the print. "One of them, awe-struck by her figure, has pulled off his hat, in reverence of her charms. The other, 'wonders with a foolish face of praise'" (Ireland, I, p.75).

The Fair, and its attractions, also demonstrate cultural tastes of the new urban lower classes. In Southwark Fair, there are essentially two kinds of amusements: the vulgar, applying to the street amusements; and the more cultured, applying to the theater. The street amusements consist of many different acts and attractions. "Southwark Fair presents, in a proliferating contiguity, the thousand pleasures of the fair, and perhaps the primary pleasure of being there" (Ogée, p.89). In the upper right of the engraving, a "flying man" is shown, with the rope connected to the bell tower. A "rope dancer" is on a rope on the left. There is an advertisement for the forthcoming appearance of Maximilian Müller, a German giant, standing eight feet tall (Uglow, p.242). On the right is a wax collection of the entire court of France, with the owner-magician, Isaac Fawkes, performing tricks, and a drumming monkey drawing attention to the exhibition in the window above. A famed prize-fighter, the boxer, quarterstaffing champion, and fencer, James Figg, "Master of the Noble Science of Self-Defense" (Wheatley, p.432), sits astride his horse, wielding his sword and awaiting a challenger. At the bottom left are puppets, opposite a peepshow where two men are enjoying themselves (Ogée, p.87). A juggler, on the right, has produced a small dove from a dice box, while a quack doctor breathes fire in order to draw attention to his "medicine of infallibility" (Ireland, I, p.76; Stephens/Hawkins, p.836). The lower left shows a dancing dog, with a "little fellow with long hair," playing the bagpipes to the left of it (Ireland, I, p.77). Also, opposite the little bagpiper, is a dwarf drummer. A picture of a contortionist shows promise of more excitement (Ogée, p.88).

The dominant entertainment in Southwark Fair, however, is the theater, as above the heads of the crowd are shown various aspects of popular theatrical happenings. For the performance of plays, called "stage-plays" (Ireland, I, p.72), there were many devices used for attracting crowds. First, on the outside of the theater buildings hung "show cloths", with written descriptions of the plays along the bottom. The pictures were for the illiterate, while the writing was an addition for those who could read. Second, large flags were flown from the tops of buildings, as is shown at the center of the work. Third, outside the buildings were little stages, known as scaffolding, where some actors would appear in costume, in what was known as a parade (Rosenfeld, p.153). Last, actors in costume would mingle with the crowd to attract people. One of the most visually prominent figures in Southwark Fair, the drummer girl, is attracting people to her stage production. The left side has the booth of Cibber and Bullock, an acting company which performs The Fall of Bazajet. The center booth has a show cloth representing the play, The Siege of Troy with an inscription saying "The Siege of Troy is here" (Wheatley, p.428).

Although the theater was a more cultured pastime, the playwrights knew their audiences, and tailored their work appropriately to accommodate the tastes of the lower classes:

[Southwark Fair] provides a detailed impression of theatrical and dramatic entertainment that were not exclusively geared to an educated audience. The theatre audience of pantomimes, for instance, came from all social strata; [] Between the main piece and the afterpiece there was an intermission. Some of the audience went home, and others, such as shopkeepers and artisans, were then allowed in at half-price. The playwrights were very much aware of this mixed bag of spectators (Ogée, p.87-88).

Productions of plays ranged from plays based on well known themes drawn from the classics (such as The Siege of Troy, The Fall of Bajazet, Tamerlane, and The Miser), through "an extension of the traditional custom of low comedy interludes in romantic dolls" such as the Merchants Daughter of Bristol and her Constant Lover Antonio (Rosenfeld, p.94-95), to pantomime productions of street-level humor.

The issue that Hogarth deals with, when he focuses on the amusements can be traced back to antiquity. In one of his satires, the Roman writer Juvenal writes about the decline of the Roman people. Where once they had been a noble, warlike people, they had been reduced to a mob kept happy with "panem et circenses," meaning "food and the circus" (Juvenal 10. 81). In a way, fairs, such as the one depicted here by Hogarth, are the equivalent of the Roman circus. They both entertained the people and kept them happy. In fact, along with food, amusement was necessary for the people's contentment.

A final and central issue, as highlighted by Ogée, which has relevance to a complete understanding of Southwark Fair, is a discussion of the difference between a crowd and a mob. "Questions which, in ideological terms, come down to asking when and how the crowd becomes the mob, a crucial distinction which had been in people's minds since at least the seventeenth century" (Ogée, p.89). Therefore, it could be argued that the fairs of England served to keep the people in control and to provide a release of pent-up frustration, thus preventing the crowd from becoming a mob.

As McClelland puts it: 'The mob is not a pretty sight. It contains echoes of a buried, barbarous, animal past which must occasionally be heard, but never allowed to dominate the conversation of mankind; that way lies madness, brutalism, an end to civilized being' (Ogée, p.90; McClelland, p.31).

As a result, fairs helped to keep the affairs of the social stage calm, inhibit unrest, and prevent the mob from "dominating the conversation of mankind" (Ogée, p.90).

In essence, Hogarth's Southwark Fair is an invaluable graphic account of the social and cultural state of the lower urban class in early eighteenth century England. Using a pictorial presentation of the fair, Hogarth has succeeded in capturing the key issues related to his subject, namely, the migration and increasing urbanization of the population, the nature of popular taste, and the role of fairs in satisfying the needs both of the people and society.


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  • http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/18th/history.html

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    Links to Some Other Interesting Sites

  • http://www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/fairs/southwark.html

  • http://www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/fairs/who%27swho.html

  • http://www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/fairs/mayfair.html

  • http://www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/fairs/bartholomew.html

  • http://www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/fairs/beer.html

  • http://www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/fairs/annotatedbib.html

  • http://exhibits.library.northwestern.edu/spec/hogarth/decay1.html

  • http://www.abcgallery.com/H/hogarth/hogarth12.html

  • http://www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org/art/explore-the-collection?id=11298730

  • http://www.alpc.co.uk/pcrawl1.htm

  • http://www.umich.edu/~ece/

  • http://www.alliancemartialarts.com/quarterstaff.htm

  • http://www.ecology.com/archived-links/industrial-revolution/index.html

  • http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/lecture17a.html


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