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The people of Truro

The people of Truro enjoyed a number of annual events to escape the hum-drum of everyday life in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries.

Four fairs were held each year; the Mid-Lent Fair in March; the November Fair, staged at High Cross since medieval times (also known as “Five Weeks Fair”, “”Glove Fair or “Bullock and Beast Fair”); and Fortnights Fair, which was was held on the 8th of December. The most anticipated of all was Whitsun Fair, held every June.

The main purpose of these fairs was the buying and selling of cattle and sheep, but the novelties and entertainments also on offer drew crowds from across Cornwall and beyond.

Travelling circuses arrived parading elephants, lions, tigers and dancing bears through the streets. Showmen entertained the crowds who had travelled from all over the county dressed in their Sunday best.

The images to the right depict the Bonny  Baby Competion and Hancocks Living Pictures

Click below to listen to Noel & Ingrid Drew recalling the circus boxing booths.

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Bonny Baby Competion
Hancocks living pictures

Whitsun Fair

During Whitsun Fair, Anderton and Rowland’s Gondolas would stand on the green, powered by a magnificent traction engine. There were galloping horses and a number of small side-shows, shooting galleries and other stalls.

Two travelling shows, Hancock’s and Alderton’s, would pitch on the quay. The artists who were to appear inside would come out on to a stage in front of each show and perform a little dancing and singing to lure the audience. A boxing-booth and various other shows ensured that the Green would be packed with people, young and old, each evening from Wednesday to Saturday.

In 1838 Wombwells Circus and Fair visited with “caravans of wild beasts, fourteen in number, containing many noble and beautiful animals, including two magnificent elephants and a whole den of lions.”
In 1824 it was reported that the usual amusements "greatly marred by the heavy rain that fell in the after part of the day. The exhibitors were limited to dwarfs and gigantic children, dancing bears and monkeys.”
At Whitsun Fair held in 1820 a line of stalls offering an abundance of tempting food and sweets assembled on Boscawen Street. In front of Coinage Hall there was a menagerie in which an elephant fired a shotgun and passed the hat around for money.

In 1861 the West Briton reported that “every description of vehicle brought in their crowded freights of passengers......The pleasure fair offered more attractions and novelties than had been seen at Truro from some years past."

The image to the right depicts a fairground ride at the Whitsun Fair held on The Green – which is now the bus station.
fairground ride

Over the years

Over the years, the visiting fairs brought weird and wonderful sights which the residents of Truro did not often see.

These included giants, glass-blowers, and peep-shows; whirligigs and swingboats; cricket-playing elephants; Cossacks from Caracas, Bedouins from the Sahara, Gauchos from Argentina, and Cowboys and Indians from America - to name just a few!

The image to the right depicts a circus elephant taking a bath in Truro's millpond.

Click below to listen to Susan Clift talking about the strange sight of Elephants in Truro

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Circus Elephant

More regular pursuits

More regular pursuits were also enjoyed annually, including Parish Feast, May Day and Saints Days such as St Piran’s Day on the 5th of March.

Activities on offer included swimming galas in the river, hunting and hawking; hurling matches, wrestling tournaments, and cock-fighting.The celebrations were sometimes seen as a public nuisance, because of the violence, quarrels and betting involved; and the disregard amongst some for the religious and pagan origins of the festivals.

There was a cock-pit on the quay where an inn called “The Fighting Cocks” served to remind residents of its one time existence, until 1810 when its name changed to “The Dolphin”.

This established combat drew many men from all quarters; and much expense was wasted in preparations and wagers. Battles which often began with the cocks very often led to fights between men, sometimes resulting in men losing their lives.

The image to the right depict the Cock Pit at the east end of the Leats prior to its demolition c1880s. Before demolition it was also used as a Chapel.
The Cock Pit

The manly exercises of wrestling and hurling

The manly exercises of wrestling and hurling matches were enjoyed mostly by the inferior classes.

In July 1850 a big wrestling match was staged in Truro with prize money of £25. Eight thousand people turned up to see Thomas Gundry, the champion of Cornwall. For some years a wrestling match in July or August became an annual event until prize money and attendance declined.

Hurling with a silver ball has been played in Cornwall for at least 500 years. Matches took place between parishes, and as early as 1654 one hundred Cornishmen were invited to London to give a demonstration of hurling in Hyde Park.

A description of a match in Truro appeared in the West Briton in 1857:
“.....From three to four hundred persons were assembled, and sometimes skirmishes were very sharp.....and the country being wet and slippery, many of the hurlers were covered with mud.”

The images to the right depicts a poster advertising Fairs to let.
Fairs and Markets to be let

In February every year

In February every year the residents of Truro and Kenwyn and Kea came to blows over a hurling match with a silver ball. Truro generally lost which gave rise to the saying “Fight on Kenwyn and Kea, Truro men are run away”.

Bull-baiting, bear and badger-baiting, and dog coursing also took place in Truro in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. A bull used to be kept near Castle Hill for the purpose of baiting at the bull-ring (High Cross) every Saturday afternoon. People used to ride down to the town on its back where it was tethered to the base of the cross before dogs brought by the tanners and the fellmongers were set upon it. This pursuit also led to gambling and fighting.

Bull-baiting had ceased by about 1730, and the other sports soon took their place in history to be replaced by events such as swimming galas, music festivals, dances, concert and theatrical performances, which began to occur on an annual basis. For example, over 2000 people attended the 1938 swimming gala at Lemon Quay where there was diving, water polo and walking the greasy pole.