This edited article about Bartholomew Fair originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 724 published on 29 November 1975.
Of course, they were not so entertaining as hangings, but they drew just as many spectators and they lasted far longer. They were the fairs of 18th century Britain, and the best of them all was Bartholomew Fair in London which, until the city authorities ordered that it should last for only three days in late August, erupted for a full fortnight.
It was a fourteen-day carnival, with a strong chance of a mob outbreak to liven up the proceedings if they showed any signs of flagging.
This series begins when more and more people were starting to have a reasonable amount of “time off”, especially the powerful and expanding middle classes. And in the early 18th century, Britain was not yet cursed and blessed with the world’s first Industrial Revolution which, though it helped make the country and her empire the mightiest ever, imprisoned vast sections of the population in grim factories and even grimmer mills.
Bartholomew Fair was bigger and better than the May Fair held every year to the north of London’s Piccadilly in the area now called Mayfair. And it was bigger than the fair at Southwark, having made not only its showmen rich, but also the great hospital familiarly known as “Bart’s”, along with the City of London.
Many fairs up and down the country were still trade fairs, but Bartholomew Fair, dating back to the 13th century, was like a modern fun fair, and had been so since at least Elizabeth I’s reign. It began officially on each August 24th with the Lord Mayor drinking a “cool tankard of wine, nutmeg and sugar” at Newgate.
The good citizens of London and their wives, children and apprentices, along with what used to be called in earlier times “the lower orders of the town”, flocked in their thousands to sample the annual joys of the fair.
Naturally, some who had only really been happy being miserable in the days of Cromwell and his Puritan followers, looked on the proceedings in horror, wanting to turn back the clock and substitute merchandise for merriment.
Many of the shows were Bible-inspired or sensational or both. One scene in The Cruelty of Atreus sounds particularly interesting: “the scene wherein Thyestes eats his own children is to be performed by the famous Mr. Psalmanazar, lately arrived from Formosa, the whole supper being set to kettle drums.”
Meanwhile, there was the eight-foot man to gawp at in an age when the British were shorter than they are now, and the extraordinarily talented lady who danced with 14 glasses on the backs and palms of her hands, all the while turning “round with them above an Hundred Times, as fast as a windmill turns.”
And there were assorted dwarfs, and waxworks for those who felt like a quiet moment, also gambling and drinking dens. Then, suitably fortified, and assuming no one had picked your pocket, highly probable if your wits had become too befuddled by wine, you could see the “little black monster, bred in the Deserts of Arabia”.
A real thrill for visitors was the sight of wild animals.
The favourite tight-rope artist was “Lady Mary”, a great beauty whose career ended tragically when she fell to the boards in 1703 and died two days later. And there was an early example of the ventriloquist, the exponent being “the wonderful man who talks in his belly and can fling his voice into any part of the room.”
There was even a man who could shatter glasses and window panes by “the loudness of his vociferation”, though it is impossible to know if he was “assisted” in any way.
These fairs were very democratic affairs, where humble citizens could hope to rub shoulders with aristocracy and gentry and even royalty. And every now and then, there was a riot.
A semi-official one opened Bartholomew Fair every year, when a gang of ruffians, called, for no known reason “Lady Holland’s Mob”, rushed through the streets around Smithfield, where the fair was housed, ringing bells, jostling wayfarers and breaking lamps on the night before the Lord Mayor drank his traditional drink. Only when the gang turned to highway robbery every few years, did the authorities step in. But during the actual fairs, turbulence was never far below the surface.
Some of the disorders were mere horseplay, but real riots broke out, often because the authorities attempted to close down the showmen’s booths. Killings sometimes occurred, the City Marshal, Mr. Booth, being set upon in 1751 when he and his men ordered the booths closed. And sometimes mobs erupted when the owners of drinking stalls resented the high tolls levied on them. If too much liquid had flowed down the thoats of the spectators, the mob could turn to arson, even the benches and tables of humble sausage-sellers being thrown into the flames.
There were plenty of innocent diversions, including peepshows. One very popular attraction early in the century was “The Siege of Gibraltar”, a “must” for children and adults alike, though the former probably liked the gingerbread stalls even more. And there was the “up-and-down”, a simple but direct ancestor of the big wheel, simple, because without electrical or steam power, fairground apparatus could only be worked by hand. So it was hand power which worked the “merry-go-rounds” as they were already called.
Fairs gave our ancestors an ideal chance to let off steam in an age when the national character was more boisterous than it is today. The showmen often made huge fortunes against a background of official harassment by the men who would have liked every fair to be a trade one, or abolished altogether. They had their triumph when this greatest fair of all was reduced to three days. Perhaps Bartholomew Fair had been too long, perhaps it had caused too much of an upheaval to a key area of the capital, but happily, they could not kill it.
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