A ’whiff of Wisbech’ as recounted by an American journalist in 1889

Historic Wisbech - as seen through the eyes of a visiting American journalist in the 19th century.

Historic Wisbech - as seen through the eyes of a visiting American journalist in the 19th century. - Credit: Archant

This wonderful article appeared in the Wisbech Advertiser for April 19,1889.

Thanks to Mike Petty, local historian and creator of the Fenland History on Facebook for transcribing a large chunk of it  

The article is entitled A Whiff of Wisbech, and was from The New York Herald of April 2, 1889 

We arrived at Wisbech and found a quaint little town with its mixture of hotels, beer shops, and chapels, full of yokels, circuses, shooting gallery, swings and steam organs.  

It is the first night of the Mart.  

Farmers from miles around are here. Some with girls, some without, mostly with. Bars are filled to overflowing, coconuts are tumbling right and left. 

Young men shoot and glass balls break, the whistle shriek as a fresh lot start on a roundabout. Girls and boys, young women and old men scramble for seats.  

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Another whistle, the organ plays ‘Killallo’ and round they go faster and faster, louder and louder, the girls scream, the crowd hurrahs until the noise constitutes a perfect Pandemonium. 

Fresh arrivals are pouring into the town. Young horses unaccustomed to such a sight of civilization, rear and plunge as the drivers carefully wend their way through the crowd.  

Groups of farmers congregate here and there, discussing the price of potatoes and grumbling at hard times. the next moment spending a day's earning in whiskey and bad cigars.  

Wisbech Advertiser of 1889 that re-printed the article by an American journalist.

Wisbech Advertiser of 1889 that re-printed the article by an American journalist. - Credit: Archant

Bets are made, bargains struck and big heads will follow in the morning. 

Sunday morning is spent mournfully meandering from one street corner to another.  

At every corner is a group of rustics dressed in their best, each with a dog. They discuss the merits of the Mart or thrash out the never-failing topics of potatoes. 

The gorgeously-painted roundabouts and swings are enveloped in dirty canvas and crowds of rosy faced chubby children. 

Each child has a clean bib and tucker, chewing an orange, gaze wonderingly at the brightly-coloured and exciting scenes of buffaloes and Red Indians that are painted on the canvases and shows. 

The proprietor of the Travelling Theatre is a short, stout, smooth-faced man with dusky face and tight trousers.  

He loafs outside his tent surrounded by comrades. The men smoke short dirty clay pipes, talk slang and wear were an air of conscious superiority that is peculiar to the profession in all its grades.  

The ladies of the company are decked in gorgeous jewellery and bright-coloured dresses, violet and orange predominating. They all wear feathers that would make a London flower girl envious. 

The quiet streets are suddenly transformed.  

A procession heaves in sight and a delightful aroma of perfumes and pomantum wafts through the air, blending deliciously with the stale orange peel and paraffin that always accompanies circuses and shows. 

The churches, Bethels and meeting-houses of Wisbech are emptying and the bars are filling.  

The wickedness of the week has been atoned for by hymns, prayers and Sunday clothes.  

Envy, hatred and all uncharitableness have been laid aside. Collection plates are brimming over with modest three pennies mingled with greasy coppers that will go towards converting or killing heathens. 

Texts have been read and reread so often that no one recollects them after leaving the church door. 

A girl’s school, or rather the pupils of a young ladies’ seminary, go down the High Street giggling as only country girls can giggle.  

The big girls in front are ogled by the gay young yokels who saunter along on the opposite side, not daring to encounter the stern glance of the rigidly righteous mistresses who bring up the rear. 

At one o'clock the streets are deserted and everyone eats. Huge joints are steaming on every table.  

Wisbech is hungry and sits around with eager and expectant look as each lusty wielder of a carving-knife deals out the beef with a freedom characteristic of the sons of Old England. 

As each dish is uncovered, the steam rushes out in dense clouds permeating the corners of the room, filling the hallways, struggling through the keyholes and crevices. 

It makes its way into the streets until the air of Wisbech is redolent with fumes so savoury that the tramps from miles around flock here on Sundays to dine off the food laden atmosphere. 


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