Sex, drugs and music halls: The Glasgow Fair

TGSB00177Cartoon depicting Hogmanay in Glasgow in Northern Looking Glass 9 January 1826

The Glasgow Fair dates back to 1190 as a market to sell cattle, horses and produce alongside some entertainment. By the nineteenth century the market settled in other areas of the city and Glasgow Green was left with the ‘shows’. Many choose to escape the smog of Glasgow and headed ‘doon the watter’ to seaside towns for the Fair but this was an expensive pursuit. For much of the city’s population Glasgow Green was the centre of the festivities.

Attracting a large working class audience the Fair often skirted the boundaries of respectability with a commentator in 1865 claiming that it subjected ‘the youth of the country to corrupting influences, and increased the demoralisation of the country.’ The Fair was the time for workers to put down their tools and pick up a drink, attend shows, dance and gamble – a nefarious force indeed. 

TGSB00133.jpgCartoon of the Fair in Glasgow Looking Glass 23 July 1825

A song by Daniel Norris, an unworldly farmer, tells us that when he arrived in Glasgow the town was ‘in a terrible steer’ with the streets full of (presumably men!) drinking ‘cauld whiskey’. Drinking was an integral part of the imagined figure of Glasgow’s typical working class man – always portrayed as in the shipyards or the pub, rarely at home. However, the heavy drinking of working class women at the Fair was the cause of even more moral anxiety.

The young and financially independent Mill Girls were a corrupting force as they had no  man to anchor her down and into submission. It was bad enough that she existed unapologetically in the ‘man’s world’ of work but she also spent her hard earned wages on ‘frivolous’ purchases like clothes and alcohol – disgraceful!

An account of the Glasgow Fair reported ‘The ground was teeming with street girls…several mill-girls were under the influence of drink…scarcely distinguishable from prostitution in their conduct.’[1]

Being a working class women who was drunk and displaying her sexuality was morally dangerous. It was worried that she might seduce young men into a world that shunned ‘respectability’.

Another man, William Burns of East Kilbride, penned a song about the Fair:

Oh, never gang to the fair

Amang the scolding lassies,

For hundred’s of them’s gathered there,

An’ ‘mang them there’s ‘a’ classes.

Oh, kintra lads tak’ my advice,

And never, yon, gang near them,

Nae decent lads was speir their price,

Nae decent men could bear them.

With that attitude, I’m sure the lassies did not want much to do with Mr. Burns either.

The Glasgow Magdalene Institution petitioned the Lord Provost in 1865 to abolish the ‘moral nuisance’ of the Glasgow Fair. Luckily, their attempts were in vain as today in 2017 we celebrate the last day of another Fair fortnight.


Cited by Linda Mahood, The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the Nineteenth Century (1990), p. 71.


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