Southwark Fair was for several centuries one of London’s largest and most important annual fairs. Established in the early middle ages, its charter ratified by king Edward IV in 1462, by 1550 it was held on St Margarets Hill (now part of Borough High Street, Southwark), in its later incarnation it moved to the edge of St Georges Fields, next to the Marshalsea Prison. After a riot in 1743, the Fair was held on Borough High St till 1763, when it was abolished.
The Fair had started life slightly further north around St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) and was also known as Our Lady Fair, (for Mary, you know, the mother of God,). It was originally held on 7, 8 and 9 September to coincide with the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary but by the time it reached its heyday in the early 18th Century, it lasted for two weeks. Stalls and booths were erected along St Margaret’s Hill (now a part of Borough High Street) and in the surrounding courts and alleys as far as the church of St George the Martyr and the bowling greens of St George’s Fields.
Originally the Fair was an open-air market with economic functions, such as selling food and the annual hiring of rural labourers. The fair was a vital part of British life, presenting one of the few opportunities for trade and commerce in agricultural England.
The early fairs enabled peasants to obtain necessities, farmers to hire workers, helped the spread of new products… They also widened the gene pool, providing a meeting place for young folk…
As the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions progressed and the urban population grew, the fairs’ focus shifted, from trading (which was now possible on a more regular basis in the cities), to popular amusement and entertainment.
Along with the St. Bartholomew and Sturbridge Fairs, the Southwark Fair “was one of the three great fairs of importance described in a Proclamation of Charles I as ‘unto which there is extraordinary resort out of all parts of the kingdom'”.
By the eighteenth century, as with many urban fairs, Southwark Fair had evolved into a place of attractions, and entertainments. By 1720, Southwark hosted various distractions, including mime shows, farces, song and dance shows, conjuring tricks, puppets, acrobats and rope dancers; theatrical performances, both tragedies and comedies, tightrope walkers, boxing competitions, performing animals, magicians, puppet shows and waxworks. Plays were performed in the courtyards of inns. Some of the stall-holders collected money to help the prisoners in the Marshalsea.
Drink was of course rife and drunkenness widespread. Numberless stalls set up for the provision of refreshments; the many pubs of Southwark teemed.
The diarists John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys both wrote accounts of visits to Southwark Fair:
“I saw in Southwark, at St. Margaret’s Faire, monkies and asses dance and do other feates of activity on ye tight rope; they were gallantly clad à la mode, went upright, saluted the company, bowing and pulling off their hatts; they saluted one another with as good a grace as if instructed by a dancing-master. They turned heels over head with a basket having eggs in it, without breaking any; also with lighted candles ” in their hands and on their heads, without extinguishing them, and with vessells of water, without spilling a drop. I also saw an Italian wench daunce and performe all the tricks on ye tight rope to admiration; all the Court went to see her. Likewise here was a man who tooke up a piece of iron cannon of about 400 lb. weight, with the haire of his head onely.” (John Evelyn, 13 September 1660)
“To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet-show of Whittington, which is pretty to see; and how that idle thing do work upon people that see it, and even myself too! And thence to Jacob Hall’s dancing on the ropes, where I saw such action as I never saw before, and mightily worth seeing; and here took acquaintance with a fellow who carried me to a tavern, whither came the music of this booth, and by-and-by Jacob Hall himself, with whom I had a mind to speak, whether he ever had any mischief by falls in his time. He told me, ‘Yes, many, but never to the breaking of a limb.’ He seems a mighty strong man. So giving them a bottle or two of wine, I away.” (Samuel Pepys, 21 September 1668)
“The Fair attracted people from all walks of life, from the high class to the low, even royalty, and attracted the highest quality actors and other entertainment. Some companies advertised their forthcoming performances at the Fair. In 1731, Lee and Harper advertised their production of Jeptha’s Vow and the Fall of Phaeton which was to take place in their booth on the bowling green behind the Marshalsea. There was to be a variety of singing and dancing in between acts and in addition a pantomime entertainment entitled the Harlot’s Progress. Another advertisement described Jeptha’s Vow and The Fall of Phaeton, “the whole intermix’d with Comic Scenes between Punch, Harlequin, Scaramouch, Pierrot and Columbine”. This latter can clearly be seen in Hogarth’s illustration which also shows a large poster for the “most celebrated entertainment called The Siege of Troy” advertised by Lee’s Great Theatrical Booth in 1734. Another company, Yeates (Senior and Junior) advertised a performance of the “Ballad Opera” The Harlot’s Progress in 1722 “To which will be added Yeates (Junior) Incomparable Dexterity of Hand … and at a Large Room near Booth, 2 Large Ostriches, lately arrived from the Deserts of Arabia being Male and Female”.
Another entertainment was advertised in 1733 by Pinchbeck and Fawkes:
“Divert the Publick with the following surprising Entertainments at their great Theatrical Room at the Queens Arms joining to the Marshalsea Gate … The diverting and incomparable Dexterity of Hand, perform’d by Mr Pinchbeck who causes a Tree to grow out of of a Flower-Pot on the Table, which blossoms and bears ripe Fruit in a Minute … the famous little Posture-Master of nine Years old, who shows several astonishing Postures by Activity of Body …an amazing Musical Clock made by Mr Pinchbeck, 2 beautiful moving pictures and performs on several muscial instruments … a curious Machine being the finest Piece of workmanship in the World for moving Pictures and other curiosities … while the Booth is filling the little Posture-Master will divert the Company with several wonders on the slack rope…”
William Hogarth depicted Southwark Fair in an engraving of 1733, (above).
As London expanded rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fairs increasing lost much of their old rural economic functions, becoming more and more festivals of debauchery, and a public order headache for the local authorities. Increasingly hated by the better off, on moral, disorder and policing expense grounds, there was pressure to restrict and abolish these festivals of wildness and eliminate the waste and common spaces where they were held.
“It is tempting to explain the decline of old sports and festivals simply in terms of the displacement of ‘rural’ by ‘urban’ values. But this is misleading. The more robust entertainments, whether in their ugly form of animal baiting and pugilism, or in more convivial festivities, were as often, or more often, to be found in the eighteenth century in London or the great towns as in the countryside. They continued into the nineteenth century with a vigour which recalls both the unruly traditions. of the London apprentices of Tudor times, and also the very large proportion of nineteenth‑century Londoners who were immigrants from the village. The greatest festival of all was Bartholomew Fair, with its menageries, pickpockets, pantomimes of Harlequin and Faustus, card sharpers, plays, exhibitions of wild men and of horsemanship. In 1825 the Trades Newspaper complained:
For weeks previous it is denounced from the pulpit and the press, and stories are raked up of apprentices led away from the paths of honesty, of ruined maids of all‑work, of broken heads and brawling…
In the previous decade the authorities had feared that the Fair would become ‘the general rendezvous for sedition and the signal for insurrection’.
On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution, which drained the countryside of some of its industries and destroyed the balance between rural and urban life, created also in our own minds an image of rural isolation and ‘idiocy’. The urban culture of eighteenth‑century England was more ‘rural’ (in its customary connotations), while the rural culture was more rich, than we often suppose. ‘It is a great error to suppose,’ Cobbett insisted, ‘that people are rendered stupid by remaining always in the same place.’ And most of the new industrial towns did not so much displace the countryside as grow over.” (EP Thompson)
The attack on fairs went hand in hand with the accelerating enclosure of land; the loss of access to the open space and marginal lands the poor had always used. For the wealthy and powerful, this was knocking off two birds with one stone: more profit, less tumult. Sometimes the disorderly use of greens and commons was a major justification for fencing them off: fairs were a common example of the kind of turbulent practices enclosure and later landscaping/creating laid-out parks could do away with. The ordering of a space could be used to order the people, since the nature of the built/leisure environment was held to have a central moral or immoral effect on those who used it.
Also, by the late eighteenth century, fairs, in fact largescale gatherings were feared by the powers that be, as possible sources of riot, haunts of the ‘Mob’… Not to mention the satirical shows which mocked the government and established mores. Put this together with the concentration of alcoholic debauchery and open-air sex… Repressing the fairs was not only an element of the narrowing of popular culture, a mass movement in European social development, which had been squeezing out carnivals, festivals and rowdy or pagan-tinted traditions for two centuries… By the 1760s, the crusade against rowdy entertainment was also a crucial plank of disciplining the unruly and reluctant lower orders – used to holidays, days off, unruly pleasures – with the aim of forging a more moral workforce, with internalised religious constraints and external forces and ties to keep them sober and more productive.
Southwark Fair was notorious for outbreaks of trouble. A woman had been trampled to death by the crowd in 1733 and a whole farrago of crime was associated with the Fair.
In the course of the 18th century, there were several attempts to restrict the Fair to its original e-day duration – these all proved ineffective. In 1710 several warrants were issued for the arrest of fair stall holders who did not respect the regulated three days. In 1718 it was decreed that fair booths that did not respect the by-law would be taken down and the owners prosecuted. The decree was flyposted on the town walls so that no-one could claim ignorance of the rules. In 1743 the better-off residents of the area, having had enough of the blatant ignoring of the rules by the took the matter to court “in order to preserve the Morals of their Children and Servants from being Corrupted (Daily Post, 23 August 1743). This legal action met with popular hostility – a riot resulted, which deeply alarmed critics of the Fair. This lead to its being moved to nearer to the Mint.
In 1750 a new petition was addressed to the Lord Mayor, which demanded the suppression of this fair “tending only to the Destruction of Youth of both Sexes, and the Encouragement of Thieves and Strollers (Penny London Post, 6 August 1750). The Daily Advertiser of the 18th September warned its readers that the Southwark Fair would, from then on, take place ONLY from the 18th to the 20th September. Any stallholders who would not take account of these new official dates would face arrest. However, the law was once again openly flouted, with as many stalls setting up for longer than three days, as usual. The local authority was forced to re-state the decree the following year, without much more success.
Eventually, the pressure grew too strong. In June 1762, the City of London council decreed that Southwark Fair be closed down. On 19th September 1763, several stall holders who tried to set up their booths in defiance were forcibly expelled by the police. Hundreds of years of fun and frolics were at an end.
If the closing down of Southwark Fair was an early battle in this war, over the next century almost all of London’s street fairs were to vanish, banned by the authorities. Resistance to this process was strong: in some cases attempts to close down fairs on some legal pretext were fought for decades.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.