Times past: ‘Work of Satan’ shocker for Barnstaple Fair

Barnstaple Fair, once held in the Square, was visited by 'the work of Satan' in 1855.

Barnstaple Fair, once held in the Square, was visited by 'the work of Satan' in 1855. - Credit: Archant

Barnstaple Fair has a long and colourful history and no more so than in September 1855.

At that year’s fair, James Smith who lived in Green Lane, Barnstaple and was described as ‘an itinerant vendor of nuts’ as well as being the landlord of the Beehive public house, was charged by the police with exhibiting a disgusting figure in the Square.

The figure, which had been made by Smith, was produced in court where it was described as being in the shape of a human body with two horns on its head while ‘over the lower part of the abdomen was a tin covering’.

Smith had taken it to the Square where he set it up a target in a shooting gallery he owned.

For two days there were no complaints but when someone reported it to the police they immediately seized it.

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The reason was simple – anyone shooting at it who hit the head triggered a spring which ‘suddenly removed the tin covering and exposed the lower parts of the body in a manner most outrageously indecent’.

The police took the view that ‘it must have had a tendency to familiarise youthful minds with all that is disgusting and obscene’.

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The mayor (who at this date acted as chief magistrate during his year in office) thundered ‘No language... could express the disgust felt by the bench; if they allowed such conduct to pass unpunished they would be reprobated by every moral and decent person’.

He went on to attack Smith personally for ‘doing his best to deprave the whole community... to pollute youthful minds – to do the work of Satan by tempting them from the ways of virtue’.

After this he sentenced Smith to a month’s gaol in the town prison.

The police superintendent in the case added that ‘in the course of his experience he had seen many such figures, but this was the worst he had ever seen’.

A statement that might make us seriously question our ideas of so-called Victorian values.

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