Neath Great Fair takes place on the second Thursday of September and can trace its origin back to the original Charter granted in 1280. The oldest and perhaps most prestigious fair in Wales owes its origin to the granting of the Charter by Gilbert de Clare, the Lord Paramount of Gloucester and a Marcher Lord for whom Neath was a garrison town. The granting of a fair to the burgesses of the town to hold a fair was primarily for economic reasons, despite the fact that the period when the Charter was granted was one of great turmoil with Neath being periodically attacked by the Welsh.
The original Charter for the fair had since been lost but the date for the 1280 fair can be found in the surviving fragments of a medieval Charter dating back to 1397. In this document Thomas le Depenser confirms the earlier 1359 Charter granted by his father, which was in term is a confirmation of three earlier fair dates including the one from 1280.
The borough of Neath has a number of fair dates but over the centuries the most prosperous and best celebrated was the September one, which simply became known as the Great Fair. In line with other medieval fairs, its function was chiefly as a market of trade and the selling of goods, with the festivities very much a secondary by-product. Over the centuries warfare and conflict have affected it, in particular due to its positioning between the border of Wales and England especially during the Owen Glyndwr rebellion in the fifteenth century. The 1783 edition of Owen's New Book of Fairs, lists two dates for feasts in Neath, one commencing, Trinity Thursday, July 13 and September 12, for cattle, sheep and hogs. By the middle of the nineteenth century, other fairs were added to these events, and later additions of Owen's Book of Fairs contain further details of these fairs.
The date of the September fair was changed in 1879, when an application was made under the 1873 Fairs Act to move the date of the event. In this document it is stated that the September fair was held on the 12th of the month and representation was made to move this date to the second Thursday in September for the convenience and advantage of the public. As no objections were raised, six hundred years after the granting of the Charter, the 1880 fair was held on the second Thursday in September, a date it adheres to today.
A notice published in 1893 lists the nine fairs held in Neath including the Great Fair. All of these fairs were held on Wednesdays except for the Great Fair, which by this time was fixed on the second Thursday of the month. The first fair in the year was held in March and was associated with the sale of flannel, the fair held on the first Wednesday after the 12th of May was a primarily for livestock but also included horses, flannel and interestingly functioned as a hiring fair. An additional fair was held a week later in May and also functioned as a hiring fair and perhaps played the same role as the runaway Mop fairs in the Midlands and enabled disgruntled servants and labourers to find new masters or improved working conditions. The mid nineteenth century fair was populated by shows including Ghost Shows, travelling Menageries and Theatre booths. By the start of the 1880s steam powered roundabouts appeared on the fair but Theatre booths presented by William Haggar continued to be a main staple of the event. Despite the continuation of the trading element of the fair, the pleasure fair in fact would have been the most important aspect at that time and showmen from throughout the United Kingdom would have attended the festivities with a range of amusement devises and shows from the nineteenth century onwards. In 1897 local people would have flocked to see moving pictures in the cinematograph shows which by 1900 would become a staple ingredient of the Edwardian fair.
By the start of the twentieth century, these nine fairs remained in existence. However, the September fair continued to function as both a trading and pleasure event. The site of the fairground moved around the turn of the century from its previous locations in Jubilee Gardens and it became situated on the Bird in the Hand field, which proved to be its home until 1962. The Edwardian fairground is often described as the golden age of the fair and the accounts from Neath during this time seem to reflect this. Prominent showmen such as Jacob Studt from Gloucester, John Studt of Cardiff, Edward Danter and Jack Scarrot would bring the latest up to date riding devices and novelty shows to the Great Fair. A trade directory from 1906 lists the commodities sold at the fair as including sheep, horses, cattle and poultry, with an extended pleasure fair including roundabouts and shows. Among the many fine rides to visit the fair at this time were those presented by Henry Studt, these were the Zoological Roundabout, the Venetian Gondolas and the Motor Switchback. Showmen such as Sidney White brought his Tunnel Railway, Tower Slip and Racing Porkers and John Studt was another regular at the fair with his Motor Switchback and Four-abreast.
Boxing Shows were outlawed at Neath during this time by order of the Town Council, but other well known showmen presented Gallopers, Gondolas, Motor Car Switchbacks, Tunnel Railways, Bioscope Shows and the full range of Emmas, Sheets and Panams. The year 1911 saw the start of the South Wales football team and the players were selected by arranging a match between the showmen of South Wales and the showmen of Monmouthshire. The match ended in a victory for South Wales; much to the disappointment of Jack Scarrot who was described by the World's Fair as the most prominent and voluble supporter of the Monmouthshire boys. That year the fair also displayed a glut of Bioscope Shows all with elaborate names. The punters were greeted by Dooner's New Empire Show with power provided by the Burrell engines Mabon and Prince of Wales. There then followed Wadbrook's Palace of Light, Crecraft's Electric Bioscope, Walter Haggar's Regal Bioscope, Sidney White's Coliseum and John Studt's Electric Pavilion. 1911 also saw the appearance of the first Scenic Railway, which was introduced by Jacob Studt of Gloucester. Despite the outbreak of the First World War, Neath's September Fair continued and in 1915 Henry Studt's living vans were used as a recruiting office for the war effort. The showmen also gave free rides and entrances into the shows to the children and inmates of the Union and Cottage Homes and raised £44 for the Volunteer Training Corps. Despite the war, a full fair was presented and included a Rolin's Wild West, Joe Danter's amusements, and Charlie Birch's midget show and swimming saloon. The roundabouts included those of Henry Studt and sons, Edward Danter and others. The start of the First World War saw the demise of the bioscope on the British fairgrounds.
During the 1930s, new attractions were seen at the fair but also saw the return of some of the prewar chair-o-planes and galloping horses, in particular the famous Zoological four-abreast which for many years had been associated with Henry Studt and was now in the ownership of the White Bros. A second set of Gallopers was seen in 1935 when John Studt reintroduced the set, which used to be travelled by Henry Studt.
A family who would become increasingly prominent in Wales from the 1930s onwards was the Deakins. Under the management of Mrs Margaret Deakin, the widow of Alf Deakin they would become of the most successful roundabout proprietors in Wales. The Deakin family attended the 1935 event with a trio of rides consisting of a Lightning Swirl, Dodgems and Noah's Ark and juvenile roundabouts and houplas. These three rides continued to be a feature of the fair for the next 30 years and the 1960 report in the World's Fair reveals that they were also travelling a set of hurricane jets. In 1937, the ride that attracted the most interest was the speedway presented by Messrs.White's.
In 1945, the fair was declared "Out of Order" by the South Wales Section of the Showmen's Guild due to a dispute in rent and Guild members were advised to boycott the fair.
This was not the first fair to be called out of order by the South Wales members of the Showmen's Guild. In 1935, the fair at Aberavon was also cancelled due to a dispute over rent and in the weeks prior to the Neath fair, the Guild had also ruled that St Margaret's Fair in Tenby was also "Out of Order." Neath was also the setting for the founding of the South Wales Stalls Holders and Showmen Protection Association, which was set up in the 1930s to counteract the large rental charged by roundabout proprietors in the Section. This was part of the a trend which was also reflected in Lancashire and Yorkshire who also had Stall Holders Associations which had been set up to counter balance the power of the machine men. The Showmen's Guild and the Council resolved their dispute and the fair continued throughout the 1940s. By 1953, the Coronation Fair was declared to be the best ever seen in the ancient market town by the World's Fair. The civic opening was patronised by all the members of the South Wales Committee, including Margaret Deakin Studt who was still the secretary at this time and Alderman J. Walter Jones, the Mayor of Neath, opened the fair. In 1962, the Easter Fair, which was also, a fixture in Neath was cancelled due to an outbreak of smallpox in the locality. This was especially poignant for the showmen, as it would have been the last fair held on the famous Bird-in-Hand site. Despite a deputation by Mrs Deakin Studt and William Stevens on behalf of the tenants of the fair, they were overruled. In 1962 the September fair was moved to a new location, in the city centre to a carpark nearby Neath Castle, ironically the original site of the medieval fair. The fair retained its popularity throughout the decade and many new and original rides newly travelled in Wales were opened at the fair. The Studt's, Danters', White's and Deakin families continued to attend the fair as they had done for many generations and they were joined by a new generation of showmen who brought over many of the new continental novelty rides to the fair. The fair was moved to the railway station carpark in the 1980s where it still remains today.