History of the Fairground

Oxford St Giles 1900Travelling fairs are 'the unwritten portion of the story of the people, bound to the life of a nation by the ties of religion, trade and pleasure'. The tradition is living and dynamic and reflects the influence of the popular culture in which it operates and in many cases it predates the history of the town or settlement in which it appears.

There are three main types of fairs, ‘Prescriptive Fairs’ which were based on the principle of trading and were stablished by custom, ‘Charter Fairs’, which were granted and protected by Royal Charter and ‘Mop Fairs’ which developed mainly in agricultural regions for the hiring of labourers, followed a week later by the ‘Runaway Mops’ which gave employers a chance to reconsider their decision and re-hire if necessary. New categories of fairs still continue developing, for instance in recent years there has been a revival of ‘City Centre Fairs’ which bring the fairground back to the people and the heart of their cities.

The majority of fairs held in the United Kingdom trace their ancestry back to charters and privileges granted in the Medieval period. In the thirteenth century, the creation of fairs by royal charter was widespread, with the Crown making every attempt to create new fairs and to bring existing ones under their jurisdiction. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the majority of English fairs had been granted charters and were reorganised to fall in line with their European counterparts. The granting of charters however did not necessarily grant the right to hold a fair: it was in effect the control of revenues for the Crown in return for the control and organisation to stay with a particular town, abbey or village. Between 1199 and 1350 over fifteen hundred charters were issued granting the rights to hold markets or fairs.

Fairs could also be claimed by prescriptive right in that they were never granted a charter but were allowed to take place by the King or his representative in the borough, due to their long term establishment.

The start of hiring fairs or mops can be traced to the fourteenth century with the passing of the Statute of Labourers in 1351 by Edward III. These Statute fairs or Mops, as they are known in the Midlands, still continued in their original purpose until the end of the nineteenth century. The description of wife-selling in The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy has as its origin an incident of wife-selling at the nearby village of Andover in 1817. However, even with these hiring fairs the original purpose of the event was soon superseded by the amusement side, with over three quarters of the East Riding Hiring fairs in Yorkshire failing to survive into the twentieth century. Despite the failure of these fairs to continue in strength in the twentieth century, the Mop Fairs held in Studley, Stratford, Warwick, Burton, and Loughborough, for example, all owe their existence and continuation as fairs to the original hiring fairs of many years ago.

By the fourteenth century a network of chartered and prescriptive fairs had been established throughout England. During the eighteenth century these great fairs prospered with Bartholomew Fair, Stourbridge, St Ives, Weyhill and many others renowned throughout the country as centres of trade, commerce and entertainment.

Currently, over two hundred fairs take place every weekend in the United Kingdom, with the Goose Fair at Nottingham and Hull Fair growing in size and popularity every year.

Many of the technological advancements of the past 150 years were first exploited by travelling showmen for commercial gain. Showmen were responsible for innovations in popular entertainment such as the cinema, and the widespread use of electricity. Visitors to a fairground in Yorkshire in the 1900s would have had their first sight of a motorcar when they took a ride on Mrs Hannah Waddington's Motorcar Switchback. The wonders of electricity were exhibited to great effect in Scotland in the 1890s by the magician Dr. Walford Bodie, the self-styled British Edison with his act featuring Madame Electra.

The Victorian fair was one of fluctuating fortunes and the golden age of travelling entertainment did not occur until the latter half of the century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century attractions such as theatrical booths, waxworks, and freak shows began to dominate the fairground landscape. The middle of the century saw the emergence of the wild beast shows known as menageries, which began to assume a primacy over their rival shows on the fair.

Hull Fair 1906The shows of the early to mid-nineteenth century are perhaps the best documented of all the amusements that appeared on the fairground until the introduction of steam powered roundabouts. Their heyday was in the first fifty years of the nineteenth century with the menageries, circuses, exhibitions and waxworks all dominating the showground landscape. The people who exhibited such shows became well known personalities and adopted extravagant titles, for example, George Sanger adopting the title "Lord". Some of the showmen who exhibited in this period became rich and left the fairground altogether. Among those who stayed in the fairground were the families who laid the foundations of the great showland successes of the late nineteenth century.

By the 1850s the trading element in fairs throughout the country seemed to have been replaced by entertainment and the shows appeared to be in decline. The notorious Bartholomew Fair had its charter proclaimed for the last time in 1855, and this was quickly followed by the demise of the events in Camberwell in 1855, Greenwich by 1857, and Stepney in 1860. Even the array of shows found at the remaining festivities seemed no longer to attract the attention of an ever more sophisticated audience. During that period many of the famous names of the first part of the nineteenth century also seemed to desert the travelling fairs. Lord George Sanger bought the permanent site of Astley’s in 1871 as a circus exhibition and stopped travelling. Although Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie would continue to be connected with the fairground industry for another fifty years, the death of the founder in 1850 and the disposal of his show in 1872 would seem to indicate that the nation had outgrown its need for such entertainment.

Fairs throughout the country seemed in danger in the 1860s and 1870s, not only as a result of The Fairs Acts of 1868, 1871, and 1873, but also because of the loss of traditional sites in town centres. The Fairs Act of 1871, had allowed local authorities or ‘owners’ of fairs the right to petition for their abolition, and the further amendments introduced in The Fairs Act of 1873, created the possibility of changing the days when the event could be held. Historians of the time warned against the loss of such events.

However, fairs could only face abolition if no public pressure was applied to prevent such an order being carried out. If the notice of abolition was greeted with public outrage and pressure, the Secretary of State had the power to rescind the request from the local authorities. In order to prevent such notices taking effect, travelling fairs had to prove their necessity to the recreational needs of the populace. The changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution had not yet made an impact on the types of entertainment offered on the fairground, which faced competition from music halls, theatres and travelling exhibitions such as panoramas and lantern shows that presented their attractions in venues in the town centres. Thomas Frost writing in 1874 believed that fairs had become unnecessary and stated:

What need then, of fairs, and shows? The nation has outgrown them, and fairs are as dead as the generations which they have delighted, and the last showman will soon be as great a curiosity as the dodo.

Despite this prophecy fairs continued to survive and flourish. The Wakes fairs associated with workers’ holidays became affirmations of community identity in which people expressed themselves through uninhibited pleasure seeking. The fairs themselves began to adapt to new conditions and embrace the new and the different. Although audience had changed and events had become increasingly unpopular with the urban bourgeoisie, the appeal of such fairs was on the increase among the working class.

Goose Fair 1909In the 1860s an event occurred that revolutionised the Victorian fair and laid the foundations for the modern travelling amusement business: the introduction of steam-powered roundabouts at both Bolton New Year Fair and Midsummer Fair at Halifax. This was soon followed by Frederick Savage, founding the firm of Savage's based in King's Lynn in Norfolk for the construction of mechanised roundabouts. A range of rides and designs emerged culminating in 1891 when Savage’s produced the classic style for the English "Gallopers" or as it became known in Europe and America, the Carousel. Mechanisation shifted the emphasis from the shows, which were rooted in the past, to the rides which gave the showmen complete freedom to keep in step with the technological advancements of an ever revolutionary age. The golden age of the fairground roundabouts was yet to come, but the seeds planted had grown strongly.

By the end of the Victorian era the landscape of the fairground was populated by rides of all kinds: steam yachts, switchbacks and of course the galloping horses. Mechanisation made the fairground appear modern and futuristic, the latest attractions of the age such as ghost shows, cinematograph and x-ray photography were fully exploited by fairground showmen who advertised their attractions as being patronised by all classes of people. The showmen achieved prestige and prosperity through investing in the rides when they were displayed at King's Lynn Valentine's Day Fair. The golden age of the fairground had arrived and by the end of the nineteenth century fairs were no longer in decline and 200 events were taking place in the United Kingdom every weekend, from Easter through to November.

Mechanisation on the fairground came at a most opportune time in its history; it revitalised the once glorious fairs and created a hierarchy of businessmen on the fairgrounds. Fairs became a feature of the holiday calendar in both town and country. This increase in prosperity and respectability resulted in the Government becoming increasingly tolerant towards the holding of fairs, showing little interest in enforcing the legislation introduced in the previous decade.

The modern travelling fairground owes its existence to both the network of chartered and prescriptive fairs and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which transformed the landscape to one of modernity and motion. In the twentieth century the clamour for new and modern sensations saw the advent of exciting rides and many of the old attractions were superseded by the Whip, the Caterpillar and those modern classics the Waltzer and the dodgems all of which transformed the scenery of the fairground.

Loughborough Fair 2014Today’s showmen use both history and modernity to market the fair. As well as reflecting youth culture, fairs have also become part of larger events reflecting the multi-cultural nature of society. The showmen have learned to adapt and to provide a fair for different and varied audiences and if necessary to take the rides to the people as opposed to expect the people to come to the once traditional yearly fair held in their town or locality.

The fair was and continues to be a venue in which all forms of live and mechanical entertainments are patronized by all classes of people. The ingredients of spectacle, experience, illusion and reality are part of a great melting pot.

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