Behind the Scenes at the Dickens Fair: Scum, Sweeps and Peelers

Through a few days in November, Uma Kelkar, Laurie Wigham and I went behind-the-scenes at the Dickens Fair. The fair invited us to attend a day of practice sessions, another day at the build of the fair, and a day of the actual fair. The next few posts are little bits of reportage from the event, going back and forth between the three days.

Being a performer at the fair means meeting some pretty rigorous standards. (See this link for requirements) You need costumes that pass inspection, accents that take training, and workshops to be better educated on the history of the times. One of the workshops I sat in on was called “The Scum Look”. Scum performers asked an expert instructor for tips on creating authentic costumes. scum_workshop
My favorite ‘scum look’ tip? Liquid nails, dribbled down the front of your shirt makes good ‘snot’.

This chimney sweep at the fair was looking for an apprentice, one small enough to shimmy into a little chimney that stood by him. Seeing the jolly, grubby sweeps was a good reminder of a basic tenet at the fair: suspend your indignation at the abject unfairness of the Victorian Age and enjoy this romantic look at it. (In all fairness, workshops that performers attend cover the disparity of the class system in great detail.)

This game at the fair was a little like watching someone play Whac-A-Mole. You got 12 turns at whacking a little wooden device that made a rag doll chimney sweep catapult through the air. If your sweep landed inside a chimney flute, you won a prize.

Patrolling close to where the scum hang out at the fair and keeping an eye on them, were the Peelers, named after Robert Peel, their founder. (incidentally, the more well-known ‘Bobbies’ are also named after him.) A wooden baton, a whistle and a pair of handcuffs is all these police patrolled the streets of London with.

If you enjoyed this little vignette, there’s a few more to come over this week.
The Dickens Fair runs through this weekend. If you’ve never been, you can still visit.

About Suhita Shirodkar

obsessive-sketcher. graphic designer.
This entry was posted in california, Close to home, people, reportage, san franciso and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Behind the Scenes at the Dickens Fair: Scum, Sweeps and Peelers

  1. sankaranarayanan sundaram says:



  2. Your comments about the history of Victorian England and its reproduction that pays homage to the scum of the actual era – yes, you and Dickens did a great job. As does the society that produces this fair every year. Honor to the little chimney sweeps and scullery maids.


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