The Fair in the onetime Middlesex town (now Northwest London suburb) of was at one time the biggest popular fair in the London area. Originating in a charter granted to the town before 1336, the fair was at first held between the 23-25 June, & on 29-30 August. Later it was confined to Whit Wednesday (possibly an attempt to restrain the traditional weekend rowdiness by having it on a weekday when people had to get up the next day for work).
A pleasure fair developed out of Pinner’s medieval fair. By the early 19th century it featured wrestling, racing, ‘gingling’, climbing a greasy pole, and ‘other manly and old English sports’, beyond its surviving economic functions – the sale of cattle and hay. More recently of course you get a pre-ponderance of rides, games, etc.
“We used to go across the fields about four miles to Pinner. There were booths and stalls… the chief attractions were roundabouts, swinging-boats, single-sticks and boxing matches; among the labourers, jumping in sacks, climbing a greased pole for a leg of mutton or a hat on the top, and last but not lest in importance a dance at a public house… The dancing was in a small room, and the atmosphere, impregnated with the smell of beer and tobacco, and the noise of dancing in chaw-boots, etc, to a merry fiddle were something indescribable. Dancing continued till about midnight, when we walked back to Harrow…” (Reverend Henry Torre. Betcha some folks stayed up dancing beyond midnight, rev…)
Everyone would gather on the Tuesday evening before the fair to witness the ‘rush-in’. At six o’clock, the police sergeant would blow his whistle and all the fair people would rush in to the High Street from the side roads and try to claim the best spots by putting a pole down in the gutter.”
As usual with the London Fairs, Pinner Fair was always a rowdy occasion.
As the old country fairs lost their main economic functions – hiring of labour, sale of livestock and produce – through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their importance as pleasure-grounds grew more and more significant. Fairs became infamous for drink, music, dancing, gambling, theatre, extra-mural sex, and too, for robbery and the occasional spot of individual and collective violence.The violence and crime worried authorities, but the immorality, disorderly pleasure and vice was worse. As part of a wave of repression and social cleansing that gradually swept Europe through these centuries, Fairs, as with other pleasures and pastimes, were subjected to hostile propaganda, closed down, banned. This wide-ranging suppression was part of the process of disciplining working people into a more productive way of life, a vital element of the transition towards capitalism.
Of course, strait-laced folk also despised the unruly pastimes of the lower orders. Part of this contempt arises from an urge to demarcate themselves from those they considered beneath, them by developing a ‘higher culture’; but the potential for disorder, riot and uprising that any gathering of large crowds also raised a spectre of revolution for ruling classes beset by fears of the great unwashed. Mostly this was paranoia, although carnivals and feast days were always associated with protest and a number of rebellions in Europe had begun with feast day riots…
As the industrial revolution took hold in Britain this process intensified. Forcing millions into factory work and packing them into cities, the ruling elites realised they needed to not only control and order people’s desires, but get them to internalise this control, to repress themselves… Religion, temperance, hard work, hierarchical families and respect for authority. The teeming roaring popular culture of the fairs had to go.
Most London Fairs, from the huge and famous May Fair and Bartholomew Fair, to the outlying but equally notorious Camberwell and Greenwich shindigs, were suppressed between the 1760s and 1850s.
In 1829-30, Edgware magistrates tried to ban Pinner Fair, as many authorities were doing at this time to fairs and working class gatherings/entertainments… The specific reasons for their hostility have been lost, but if contemporary action against other fairs can be used as a yardstick, the annual cost of policing the event, keeping down disorder and a stern watch for immorality, together with the disruption and damage, may all have been factors. Local respectable types might well have objected to the inconvenience of the high street being blocked, and to the incursion of ‘roughs’ lowering the tone. However, local farmers certainly banded together in 1829 to petition the lord of the manor – whose decision it was – to allow the fair to continue. Many if the stalls may have been set up by showmen but farmers also probably sold produce too – as well as enjoying the knees-up. The Fair continued.
Further attempts to ban it were made in 1893. In December that year, local bigwig Mr Loveland-Loveland (really), Deputy Chairman of the Middlesex Quarter Sessions, in association with Thomas Blackwell and Mr Hill, submitted a petition to Lady Northwick, Lady of the Manor, and to the Edgware magistrates, to ban it. Lady Northwick agreed to abolish the Fair, noting that “many undesirable people came from Whitechapel” and that the fair brought disease into the district (for which there is no evidence at all.)
Mr Hill presented the petition to the magistrates, complaining that the Fair had become a nuisance, no cattle being offered for sale, and the event was just an excuse for rioting and drunkenness (yes, and what’s wrong with that?). The magistrates agreed (unsurprisingly, as at least one of them had previously been a petitioner to ban nearby Harrow Fair), but local publicans, shopkeepers and residents organised a counter-petition of 200 names refuting the charges and defending the Fair. On consideration the Home Office decided there was no public order case for closing the Fair down. Attendances increased every year after this attempt to ban it, although they had been declining beforehand, so maybe people made a conscious effort to keep the Fair alive by coming down, in the spirit of “if they want to prevent us having a good time we will enjoy ourselves even more.”
In 1903 Hendon District Council tried to ban the Fair on the grounds that it had no charter, but supporters proved that it did.
The fair was said to have been ‘unusually disorderly’ in 1901 and 1906. Commentators noted that “every year the village of Pinner has a tussle with progressives who think such frivolity unbecoming to the dignity of a rising town…” So there was also clearly a feeling that such events were a thing of the past, “low, vulgar and noisy”, and that it made the place look backward to urban sophisticates…? Most letters to or editorials in local papers identified the objectors to the Fair as being ‘newcomers’, and that a similar demographic had been responsible for the banning of Harrow Fair. Whereas opponents often claimed it was outsiders who benefitted from it and attended it. The varied and interesting career of the outside agitator…
A hilarious intervention from 1965 is worth recording. A Mr Jennery wrote to the Harrow Observer, claiming “Pinner was beset by gypsies, who lived in luxury caravans, with “spotless nylon curtains”. Healthy manly sports had been replaced by Bingo; there was “a cacophany of noise and an unwarrantable intrusion of privacy”. Mr Jennery seems to have had some proper issues – though what problem he had with spotless nylon curtains it’s hard to fathom. Travelling people should have dirty fishnets? It was however enough for him to advocate violence: he called for local residents to repel the invaders using “staves, pickstaffs, cutlasses and muskets.”
Not sure if he was for attacking all fairgoers or just travellers, but it seems unlikely that he or his would-be army of bourgeois liberation would have been able to purchase the archaic weapons he talks about using (except maybe at one of the Fair stalls, perhaps?)
Almost uniquely for medieval fairs, despite repeated complaints in the 20th century, Pinner Fair survives today, still held in the town streets: “the last surviving street fair in Middlesex.”
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online