Friday, June 14, 2013

All the Fun of the Fair

'Everyone loves a fair', and that affection extends back as far and farther than the Regency era. The lives of the middle and lower classes of Britain in those years consisted of hard work, and plenty of it. Their world could be bleak and colourless, and a fair was a marvel of new sights, sounds and tastes.
Lambeth Fair circa 1800 (

Owen's New Book of Fairs (a Google Books down-load) was a long-lasting publication often reprinted and updated. It purports to list every fair held in England and Wales, with their dates and the chief object of their business. It lists fairs by location (county and town) and by date (there is at least one fair for every day of the year).

The majority are market-type fairs for cattle, horses, sheep etc. But it is the ones that are not animal based that are the most interesting. A quick survey reveals Farnham Fair on August 21, for cheese; Blytheborough Fair on April 5 for toys; Kenelworth Fair on April 30 and September 30 for cattle and pedlary; Wigton Fair on March 25 for merchandize and toys; Chapel Row Fair (near Reading), July 30, for pleasure, toys, etc.; Winslow Fair on October 10 for hiring servants. Hiring (or mop) fairs are not so numerous as I expected, fairs listing toys as their prime item are surprisingly plentiful.
Bartholomew Fair from Ackerman's Micrcosm of London 1808

All fairs attracted 'showmen', those enterprising individuals who developed an entertainment for the credulous, and traveled the country displaying it. These shows included puppets, plays, the cruelly deformed--both human and animal, every kind of trained animal, magicians, jugglers, and even the occasional mermaid!  The National Fairground Archive states:
In 1822 an account of Bartholomew Fair depicts the large number and array of these shows: it lists five circus booths, four menageries, a number of theatres, peep shows, freak shows, glass blowing acts and a number of exhibition shows which brought the tally of establishments exhibited in 1822 to twenty-two.
Every fair had the potential to dissolve from boisterous high spirits into vice and crime. Camberwell (London) Fair (read more about it here) has been described as "All in all a great sprawling rowdy bundle." Peckham (London) Fair was plagued by a gang of pickpockets who assaulted folk as they were leaving the fairgrounds. In 1815 forty-five cases of felony, misdemeanour, and assault were committed in only a couple of days at Bartholomew Fair.

Attempts were made to police the great fairs but, even with the advent of organized police forces, they were a law unto themselves. By the 1840's they were being shut down. The market fairs, with their legitimate business, continued but the shows and pedlary that accompanied them were tightly controlled by the 1850's.
Camberwell Fair in the 1840's
Some of the old fairs have been revived in recent years, and North America continues the fair-going tradition with the great state fairs in the U.S. and the Canadian and Pacific National Exhibitions north of the border.

I hope you can take in the sights of a fair this summer; my city has one--I think I'll attend!

'Til next time,


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