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Back Through the Mists of Time

The first decade of the 21st century has been noteworthy for a public obsession with all things organic, “food miles” and the availability (or not) of local products. The demand by “local” people for local produce has made the Farmers’ Market a common sight in many towns, as the British public re-discover the benefits of what it’s like to be part of a community.

Trendy writers of newspaper columns and the talking heads of radio and television have not been slow to spot this and bang on about it endlessly, as if it’s some new way of thinking. But hang on a minute, wasn’t it always like this once upon a time?

For quite a while now the word “fair” has been used to describe a gathering of amusements (generally mechanical “rides” and sideshows), but even 21st century dictionaries describe it something like this:

“An exhibition, usually competitive, of farm products, livestock, etc., often combined with entertainment and held annually in a county or district.”

Sound familiar? Spooky isn’t it.

Some fairs that fall into the “gathering” category go back to antiquity. The sheep fair at Weyhill (Hampshire), for example, is said to date back to the 1200s. In those days Weyhill was an isolated hilltop that stood at a meeting point of several tracks, including the so-called “Gold Road” from Wales and the “Tin Road” from Cornwall.

Fairs were the main focal point of commerce in the UK for hundreds of years before the industrial revolution, and many can trace their origins back to charters and privileges granted in medieval times.

In the thirteenth century, the creation of fairs by royal charter was widespread, with the crown making every attempt to create new ones and bring existing ones (such as the Nottingham Goose Fair) under their jurisdiction.

By the fourteenth century a huge network of chartered and prescriptive fairs had been established throughout England – the aim being to control trade revenue by the crown. Between 1199 and 1350, for example, over fifteen hundred charters were issued granting the rights to hold markets or fairs.

By the eighteenth century the great fairs such as Bartholomew (London), Stourbridge, St Ives, Weyhill and many others were famous throughout the country as centres of trade and commerce, although the entertainment aspect still took a back seat.

What entertainment there was would have been quite basic by modern standards. There would have been crude games for people to play and primitive riding devices would have been joined by booths offering curiosities of both human and animal variety. “The drama” of strolling players would also have competed for attention with tight-rope walkers, “clowns” and puppets.

Hiring fairs, for casual labour, or Mops, can be traced back to the fourteenth century with the passing of the Statute of Labourers in 1351 by Edward III. These continued until the end of the nineteenth century at which point the commercial aspect of the fair faded away, leaving the amusement side to evolve into the fairs we see today.

The late 18th century and early 19th century was pivotal in this respect and good for historians too, because contemporary accounts of such things became commonplace within newspapers. What can be seen is the fairground itself being denuded of stalls serving a commercial purpose and replaced by amusements like wild beast shows, circuses, portable theatres, swings and roundabouts. All of this seems to have pushed the remnants of trade (like cutlery and china stalls, etc) from the fairground itself and into the surrounding streets.

A rough idea of what fairs were like in the 19th century can be seen in the following reports, although we begin with a feature on one of the most famous fairs of them all, that confirms some of the ideas already set out on this page:

St. Batholomew’s Fair, from The Book of Days.
1834: Knott Mill Fair, from the Manchester Courier
1836: Knott Mill Fair, from the Manchester Courier
1836: Greenwich Fair, a tale by Boz (Charles Dickens)
1841: Knott Mill Fair, from the Manchester Guardian
1846: Knott Mill Fair, from the Manchester Guardian
1849: Knott Mill Fair, stall toll report, from the Manchester Guardian
1850: Knott Mill Fair, from the Manchester Guardian
1852: Knott Mill Fair, from the Manchester Guardian
1862: Nottingham Goose Fair, from The Era

The 19th century fairground was ruled by entertainment based on shows. As the century progressed these got bigger and more spectacular, but it was soon their turn to be pushed to the extremities of the fairground as steam power enabled roundabouts to grow beyond recognition, into the familiar picture-postcard icons of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Although steam eventually gave way to electricity the fairground has remained essentially the same for the past century or so.