Barnstaple fair has the reputation of being one of the oldest in the country with its origins believing to date back as far as 930. Its original purpose was trade and in the eighteenth century it was commonly known as the Pot fair due to the large quantities of china sold there.
Barnstaple is a market town in North Devon which today relies heavily on tourism. In the past however the town thrived on the agricultural industry and at one time was a busy trading port thanks to the River Taw which divides the town. The modern fair is currently a four day event starting on the third Wednesday in September, however, prior to 1970 the fair was held for three days. The fair has not always been associated with September and during its history the festivities were celebrated in July and lasted seven days or more. A Charter does exist from 1556 but Owen's Book of New Fairs for 1785 puts the dates for the fairs as September 19 for cattle, the Friday before April 21 for cattle and second Friday in December and states these were considerable as fairs but are called great markets. In 1852, Barnstaple obtained its Market and Fair Act and from then on the fair became a three day event, although the date of the association with September is unknown.
For a great many years the main aspect of the fair was the trading of wares and the selling of livestock. The fair usually started on the Wednesday with the sheep and cattle fair and drovers would spend days driving their stock into the town from the remote parts of North Devon and beyond. Thursday was given over the horse fair held along the town's Strand and this attracted many Romany traders from all over the country. The horse fair survived until the 1940s but the cattle and sheep trading declined well before that date due to the building of a cattle market which still operates today. Friday was always set aside for the amusements and festivities and thousands would visit to see the entertainment on show.
The opening ceremony which proclaims the state of the fair has nearly always taken place in the Guildhall in the centre of the town. The ceremony is presided over by the Mayor of Barnstaple and includes members of the town council, local dignitaries, representatives of the Showmen's Guild and leading representatives from the business community. The opening starts at 10.30 in the morning and guests are offered samples of Barnstaple sweet fairings and a glass of spiced ale brewed locally by the Chief Beadle from a recipe passed down from his predecessor in the role. At 12.00 the proclamation is read and a stuffed white glove symbolising the hand of friendship is suspended from the upper window of the Guildhall which signals the opening of the fair. The Mayoral party then precedes to various historic landmarks around the town centre where once again the proclamations are read out.
Barnstaple Fair is attended by travelling showpeople from the length and breadth of the country. A record of the attractions on offer over the years can be found from the nineteenth century in the North Devon Journal which was established in 1824.
Early records reveal that the pleasure fair was first located in the town square and among the amusements on offer could be found Mr Samuel's Amphitheatre and equestrian shows presented by showfamilies such as the Bakers, Browns and the Millers. In the early 1830s Batty's Royal Circus was the talk of the town along with a Monsieur Louis, a giant who claimed to be 7 feet and 6 inches in height. In 1832 an outbreak of cholera lead to the banning of the event and thirteen special constables were sworn in to prevent the admission of improper persons coming into the town! However, the festivities were resumed in the following years and Batty's Royal Circus could be found alongside Lawrence's Royal Arena and Wombwell's Menagerie.
By the 1850s the fair appeared to be in decline, and despite the arrival of a huge whirligig consisting of wooden horses saddled for juvenile equestrians, and the appearance of two boxing shows, it was reported that the standard of amusements were in decline and the event was losing its glory. However the fair continued and in the 1860s, Jepson's Sparring Booth, Holbrook's Circus, Blondin the famous tight rope walker, and Hurford's Temple of Amusements entertained the fairgoers.
In 1872, Robert Tipney exhibited himself as the Human Skeleton and one of the most patronised shows in 1874 was the Fat Lady at tuppence a head. In 1875 the fair was held for the last time in the town square and Elijah Lightfoot's Boxing Show and Weight's Portable Theatre were the main attractions. The following year visitors to the fair congregated in Cattle Street and marvelled at the appearance of two steam powered roundabouts plus the customary shows and sidestalls. In 1879 the fair was attended by the firm of W. C. and S. Hancock with their Four-a-breast set of Gallopers.
The 1880s saw the emergence of more roundabouts at Barnstaple including a Velocipede, and a Sea-on-Land. Such was the popularity of the fair that the council brought into use a piece of land on North Walk, known locally as "Monkey Island" and it became a popular venue for the fair. Despite the continuing arrival of the mechanised rides, the shows remained as popular as ever with Baker's Circus, Lawrence's Marionettes and Sanger's Waxworks on show. In 1891 another famous West Country family made their first appearance at the fair when Professor Anderton's attended with his conjuring booth. Professor Anderton was the stage name for Albert Haslam who with his son, who performed under the name of Captain Rowland, started the firm of Anderton and Rowlands. Three years later Anderton and Haslam's No 1 Menagerie and Combined Show was the star attraction at the fair. However, the firm of W. C. and S. Hancock under the control of William, Charles and the famous Sophie had grown from strength to strength as an advert from the North Devon Journal from 1897 demonstrates. According to the advertisement in the local paper the Hancock family attended Barnstaple Fair with two sets of Four-a-breast Gallopers, a Wild Beast show and their latest attraction, a set of Gondolas direct from Venice. However, in 1898 they yet again stole a march on their fellow showmen when they arrived at Barnstaple with the wonder of the age "The Living Picture Show", an attraction which would continue to dominate the landscape of the fair for many years to come.
The nineteenth century had seen the gradual decline in fairs as marts of trade and the emergence of the amusements side of the events and this pattern was also evident at Barnstaple Fair. By the 1900s, the Bioscope shows continued to grow in popularity and Hancock's Palace of Varieties was followed by Anderton and Rowland's Grand Empire Show, J. Jones' Electric Theatre and Chipperfield's Electrograph, who all competed for business during the first decade of the twentieth century.
The trend for mechanised rides, started in the previous century also continued in the new one and in 1905 Anderton and Rowland's Venetian Gondolas could be found alongside the attractions presented by the Hancock family.
However, despite the advent of new and wondrous rides the most popular of all attractions were those presented by the colourful Prince Samouda. Prince Samouda was a flamboyant showman who reputedly introduced the Hoop-la stall to Barnstaple. His most famous attraction was the Egyptian Mystery Show and in 1909 a full page advertisement was taken out in the World's Fair for his New Garden Game which he declared above all others. Another favourite visitor to the fair was Alf Wright with his Boxing Pavilion and shooting galleries, coconut shies and other novelties were provided by the Grattons, Cribbs, Jones, Connellys' and other families.
1907 saw the arrival of W. C. and S. Hancock's Helter Skelter and over the next few years both Harry Connelly and Bernard Hill presented Slips at the fair. In the years leading up to the First World War many new rides appeared at Barnstaple, including Hancock's Joy Wheel, Bernard Hill's Scenic Railway, Marshall and Ernest Hill's Cakewalk and the numerous attractions belonging to the firm of Anderton and Rowlands.
Unlike other events throughout the country, Barnstaple Fair continued during the First World War but on much smaller scale. After hostilities ceased the fair returned to its former glory, with one notable exception, the firm of W. C. and S. Hancock had suffered a major catastrophe in 1913 and never again returned to Barnstaple. After the war the firm of Anderton and Rowlands continued to expand and went on to become the major roundabout proprietors in the West Country. One of the most popular rides ever to appear at Barnstaple was the firm's Golden Dragons which first visited the fair in 1921.
In 1923 the new novelty sensation was the Chair-o-planes and by 1925 three sets graced the tober. In that year Billy Butlin, founder of Butlin's Holiday Camps attended the fair with his Spinner, as did Sam and Esther McKeowen with their Boxing booth. Throughout the 1920s many famous families continued their association with the fair with new faces such J. W. Waddington Jnr. attending with his famous Steam Yachts, the only time this type of ride opened at Barnstaple. Although the rides continued to dominate the landscape of the fair, the shows were still in plentiful supply especially Jack Harvey's Freak show, W. Lennard's Indian Fakir and James "Romancing" Styles with his wonder shows.
The 1930s saw a change in the type of rides on offer with Ghost Trains, Dodgems, Autodromes and Anderton and Rowlands Noah's Arc just a sample of the latest technology. However the more traditional shows such as McKeowen's Boxing and Illusion show, Chipperfield's Circus and the Styles family still continued to be a part of the fair. One feature of the fair that retained its popularity with the fairgoers was the run out merchants who pitched their booths by the railway station in Castle Street. Phil Strong, "The Medicine Man", and his health products continued to pull the crowds as did Harry Cohen and "Ludlow the Man of Mystery". Other characters included Chocolate Kid, The Grape King and the tick-offs presented by the Romany families who also attended the fair.
The outbreak of the Second World War saw the fair being cancelled for the duration of the hostilities, however the Town Council still maintained the opening ceremony, presumably to sustain the tradition. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s the fair increased in size and many new novelty rides made their debut. These included Charles Heal who presented his Moonrocket between 1946 and 1952. The fair continued to be patronised by travellers beyond the Western Section and in 1952 Eastern Counties showman Sid Stocks travelled his Octopuss ride to the fair. The firm of Tom Whitelegg and Sons rose to prominence during the 1950s and according to reports in the World's Fair, the Waltzer, Dodgems, Monte Carlo Speedway and Galloping horses were always in first class condition. The Chipperfield family continued their association with the fair when the Weymouth branch brought such attractions as the Caterpillar, Big Wheel and the Dive Bomber. On the show scene the McKeowen family still attended with the boxing booth and Wally Shufflebottom's Wild West show was just as popular. Other types of novelty acts available to the public included John Lock and the Great Omi, Gary Whitehead with his Globe of Death and Continental Striptease, as well as those presented by the Appletons, Reaney's and Jeffries family. A famous character from this period was "Pyjama Johnny" alias Johnny De Costa who become a household name in North Devon in the 1950s.
The swinging 60s saw the coming of more modern rides such Eddie Monte's Meteorite, Chipperfield's Cyclone Twist and Arthur Whiteleggs Trabant. Although there was a decline in the number of novelty shows on offer at the fair, Tommy Mesham made an appearance with his Wall of Death and the Appleton and Shufflebottom families still attended alongside other shows.
In 1966 the fair was moved out of the town centre and situated on the opposite side of the River Taw at Seven Brethern Banks.
In 1970 the Western Section of the Showmen's Guild took over the running of the fair from the Town Council and from that year onwards the fair was granted permission to open on Saturday, which is also when the local carnival is celebrated. Over the past thirty years the fair has changed dramatically and currently over twenty large rides attend the fair. The novelty shows and boxing booths ended in the 1970s and 1980s but many of the families who presented these shows still attend the fair with other attractions.