Today in London’s festive history: the eve of St, Bartholomew, traditional date for the opening of Bartholomew Fair

Bartholomew Fair, was the most prominent and infamous London fair for centuries; and one of the most important in the country. Over the centuries it became a teeming, riotous, outpouring of popular culture, feared and despised like no other regular event by those in power… “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”.In terms of its place in the culture of its time, and how it was viewed by authority and dealt with as a public order and moral ‘problem’, think Notting Hill Carnival, maybe more in the 1980s than today, but today’s Carnival still gets close.The Fair, held in Smithfield, was rooted in the Charter granted to the monastery of St Bartholomew in Clerkenwell, in 1133 (though it may have been held before that): the canons of St Bartholomew’s originally had the right to a portion of all the income generated there, a substantial wodge.Bartholomew Fair was originally held in mid-late August, the traditional time for rowdy fairs, a time which for centuries marked end of the working year, when labourers could leave one employer and hire on with another.At first the Fair opened on the 24 August – the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day, the 25th, a date generally celebrated with carnivalesque riotousness throughout Europe in the middle ages. For three days, ‘within the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside Aldersgate of the City of London’. Later it was gradually extended, both in time and space, until it spanned two weeks; by 1377, the fair had increased so much in size that it overflowed the monastic precincts into neighbouring Smithfield.The fair continued, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, within the Liberty of the parish of St Bartholomew-the-Great. Its main economic function for centuries was for the trading of cloth – it became the leading venue for the cloth trade; however as London drapers found wider markets and transport improved, this gradually declined in importance.Later on leather and pewter were also sold here; and the seventeenth-century name ‘Rugman’s Row’ for what is now the south side of Newbury Street, suggests that rugs also were sold at the fair. As England’s woollen trade was one of the staples of the wealth of the country in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the kings safeguarded the position and privileges of Bartholomew Fair as an important market of the industry. Thus, in the year 1292, when the privileges of the city were forfeited into the king’s hands, the corporation held that one half of the profit of the takings from St Bartholomew’s eve, and the whole of those of the 26th August, belonged to the king; but the king, allowed the prior of the monastery to take the profits as before.Increasingly from the sixteenth century, the Fair was known for pleasure and entertainment. Like the medieval carnivals, ritual became an important element: for instance, it was customary for the Lord Mayor of London to open the fair on St Bartholomew’s Eve, after he had called at Newgate Prison, where the prison governor would supply him with a ritual cup of sack (fortified white wine): “a cool tankard of wine, nutmeg, and sugar;” (the flap of the tankard lid caused the death of the mayor, Sir John Shorter, in 1688, his horse starting, throwing him violently).“Every year it is usual for the Lord Mayor of London to ride into Smithfield, attended by 12 principal aldermen, dressed in their scarlet gowns and robes, and whenever he goes abroad a sceptre, that is to say, a mace and cap, are borne before him. When the yearly fair is proclaimed a tent is pitched, and after the ceremony is over the mob begin to wrestle before them, two at a time, and the conquerors are rewarded by money thrown from the tent. After this a parcel of wild rabbits are turned loose in the crowd, and hunted by boys with great noise, at which the mayor and aldermen do much besport themselves. Before this time there was an old custom for the scholars of London to meet at this festival, at the priory of St. Bartholomew, to dispute in logic and grammar, upon a bank under a tree: the best of them were rewarded with silver bows and arrows.” (Paul Hentzner, Journey to England)

But the Fair’s size and fame made it a public order headache for the authorities; trouble was a regular occurrence.
In 1363 there was “a riot and tumult in the fair’; the following year several merchants and others who used to frequent the fair, fearing violence, had intimated that they would stay away the next year. “The king therefore issued the writ, referred to already, informing the mayor and sheriffs that he had taken the prior and canons, and all merchants desiring to come to the fair, under his special protection, because ‘the non-coming of the said merchants—which God forbid—would bring the fair to nought’, and he further ‘forbade that any goods brought to the fair should be taken for his use’. Similar letters of protection were issued by the king in the years 1373 and 1376, and by Richard II in 1377.

In the year 1549 the Lord Mayor and aldermen rode as usual to Bartholomew Fair in their scarlet, but the ritual wrestling that year was not allowed by the Court of Aldermen because of the commotions in Norfolk and elsewhere that year over the rate of enclosures in the country. Just two days before the fair the sheriffs had had to witness the hanging, beheading, and quartering of three men in connexion with Kett’s Rebellion. As large gatherings of people and feast days could so easily erupt into rioting or even rebellion, its not surprising the authorities feared that trouble could be set off, at this most turbulent event at a time of great resentment of the wealthy by the poor.

In 1589, 100s of sailors and soldiers came back from Francis Drake’s expedition to Spain without the loot they had been promised: angry hungry and disillusioned.  Large numbers of them headed for Bartholomew Fair, gathering other ‘masterless men’, and threatening to sack the fair & hold their own alternative ‘Durrest Fair’ to sell stolen goods. A frightened government posted 2000 militiamen to protect the Fair.

However, being held on Smithfield, a place of both disorder and punishment, the authorities also used the Fair for their own political purposes at times. It was on one of the great days of the fair, (August 24th) in 1315, that the Sir William Wallace, the Scottish fighter for independence, was executed in sight of the jostling crowd at the Elms in Smithfield, where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered.

By 1641, the fair had overflowed its former location along Cloth Fair, and around the Priory graveyard, and now spread over four parishes: Christ Church, Great and Little St Bartholomew’s and St Sepulchre’s. The fair featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, freaks and wild animals.

During the time of the Commonwealth all plays and interludes at the fair were stopped by the Act of 1647, but only to break out again with greater licence at the Restoration. The centre of the vice and immorality was apparently usually focussed on the Long Walk and cloister of the hospital.

In 1691, to curb the disorder for which it had become famous, Bartholomew Fair was shortened, back to the original three days (petitions against this reduction were denied); and after the change in the calendar from 1753, the fair commenced on the new date of 3rd September.

In the 18th century, the fair was the venue for subversive plays, puppetry, anti-government satire & attacks on the Lord Mayor & all established authorities: in 1697 William Philips was whipped for his anti-government satires at the fair.

In the year 1698, a Frenchman, Monsieur Sorbière, visiting London, says, “I was at Bartholomew Fair. It consists mostly of toy-shops, also finery and pictures, ribbon-shops-no books; many shops of confectioners, where any woman may commodiously be treated. Knavery is here in perfection, dextrous cutpurses and pickpockets. I went to see the dancing on the ropes, which was admirable. Coming out, I met a man that would have took off my hat, but I secured it, and was going to draw my sword, crying, ‘Begar! You rogue! Morbleu!’ &c., when on a sudden I had a hundred people about me crying, ‘Here, monsieur, see Jephthah’s Rash Vow.’ ‘Here, monsieur, see the Tall Dutchwoman.’ ‘See The Tiger,’ says another. ‘See the Horse and no Horse,’ whose tail stands where his head should do.’ ‘See the German Artist, monsieur.’ ‘See The Siege of Namur.’ So that betwixt rudeness and civility I was forced to get into a fiacre, and with an air of haste and a full trot, got home to my lodgings.”

In 1702, the following advertisement appeared relative to the fair:-

“At the Great Booth over against the Hospital Gate, in Bartholomew Fair, will be seen the famous company of ropedancers, they being the greatest performers of men, women, and children that can be found beyond the seas, so that the world cannot parallel them for dancing on the low rope, vaulting on the high rope, and for walking on the slack and sloaping ropes, outdoing all others to that degree, that it has highly recommended them, both in Bartholomew Fair and May Fair last, to all the best persons of quality in England. And by all are owned to be the only amazing wonders of the world in everything they do. It is there you will see the Italian Scaramouch dancing on the rope, with a wheelbarrow before him with two children and a dog in it, and with a duck on his head, who sings to the company, and causes much laughter. The whole entertainment will be so extremely fine and diverting, as never was done by any but this company alone.”

Ned Ward, the “London Spy,” visited the fair, but in a coach, to avoid the dirt and the crowd. In his account of his visit he relates how he was “saluted with Belphegor’s concert, the rumbling of drums, mixed with the intolerable squeaking of catcalls and penny trumpets, made still more terrible with the shrill belches of lottery pickpockets through instruments of the same metal with their faces.”

In the eighteenth century the City of London Corporation made a great effort to put an end to the scandals of the two fairs which fell under its jurisdiction – Bartholomew Fair and the Lady Fair of Southwark. In 1735 the Court of Common Council decided that the fair should be restricted to the eve, the day, and the day after (which suggests that a similar decision made in 1691 had been largely unsuccessful). and to the sale of goods; also that no acting at all should be permitted. “Great resistance was offered to the enforcement of these regulations, so much so that in 1736 theatrical booths were again allowed,” – later on the fair was extended again to four days.

The Fair was long a nightmare for the authorities in whose lap policing and licensing it fell. The crowds, spilling out into surrounding streets; the drunkenness, rowdiness, crime (from anti-social – attacks, rapes, murders – through collectively social – eg riots – or individually ‘immoral’ – the selling of sex – to economic – eg fencing of stolen goods…); the potential for protest and propaganda, which usually targeted religious or political hierarchies… For nearly two centuries from the late 17th century complaints about the Fair and demands to reduce or ban it outright grew gradually more strident. The local Justices deplored the London fairs’ “corruption of good Manners and Detriment of Trade and Lawful Business’. However, they generally lacked the manpower and finances needed to police the events – both in terms or public order or morals – even where their regulations gave them the power to do so.

It wasn’t just Bartholomew Fair. In the county of Middlesex (which covered almost all of modern London north of the river Thames, from Bow to Chertsey), there were also the May Fair (in Mayfair!), Paddington Fair, Hampstead Fair, Highgate Fair, Tottenham Court Fair, Bow Fair, Mile End Fair, Pinner Fair and Welsh Fair and many smaller ones… between late Spring and early Autumn there was always a fair going on, attracting thousands, with all the attendant disruption and troubles. All this, clear-sighted moralists, churchmen and businessmen noted, was getting in the way of disciplining the poor to accept hard work. They held out temptation to apprentices and contributed to the impoverishment of poor families… (which led to an increased burden on the rates).

The City of London Council investigated ways of completely suppressing the fair in 1760-1. In December 1760, the committee responsible for letting the city lands were ordered to inquire by what grants and authority Bartholomew and Southwark Fairs were held, who were interested in the fairs, and what “perquisites or emoluments’ belonged to any of the city officers on account of those fairs. In the following August (1761) the committee reported, noting that the demands for compensation for those who legally owned ‘the benefits of the fair’, amounted to a very considerable sum; the legal opinion of the Recorder and of the Common Serjeant, was that it would be difficult to suppress the fairs legally without am act of Parliament, but that the magistrates had powers to stop nuisances.  The City Council resolved to use these powers to the limit, and the following year the ‘plays and drolls’ were again prohibited.

Though this attempt to put an end to the Fair came to nothing, it was the opening salvo of a concerted campaign against London fairs & popular gatherings. Such an important part of London’s economic and cultural life was not easily repressed, though it was reduced in size thereafter, it did continue for several decades.

The popular theatre of Bartholomew Fair and the other London fairs was one of the elements of the annual shindig that the authorities wanted most to see the back of. Plays and theatres generally had been the target of moral repression, legislation and bans for two centuries; this was due to a combination of factors, including immoral content, the behaviour of rowdy audiences, riots that seemed to start around theatres and the crime and prostitution that seemed to cluster around playhouses.

In the mid-late eighteenth century the satirical aspects of a number of plays was added to this list – a rise in anti-government satire in many arenas was a constant thorn in the side of the powers that be.

Plays put on at the fairs were equally, if not more, disturbing. The authorities were furious that theatrical entertainments often spilled out of fairgrounds and established themselves in surrounding streets, spreading “vice and immorality and to the debauching and ruining of Servants Apprentices and others as well as to the disturbance of the Publique Peace.’

Temporary playhouses and booths were able to dodge the many regulations that restricted what the more established theatres could put on; on top of this they drew all the ‘lowlife’ that the theatres were accused of attracting.

Many of the plays and entertainments put on at fairs ‘offended and challenged London authorities notions of what entailed a properly ordered commercial city’. They worried mostly about the moral corruption of the largest group of people who attended fairs – young men of the lower orders. City officials worried that the pleasures available at fairs were especially dangerous to them, distracting them from becoming industrious and productive in the context of a regulated social order. The fantastic, immoral or downright politically suspect theatrical shows staged at fairs being the most likely to undermine the development of hardworking, forelock tugging workers… “affecting morals, lessening… industry, and losing the time of those persons employed…”
The 1737 Licensing Act had severely restricted any theatrical performances outside of Drury Lane, Covent Garden and the Kings theatre – with clauses including the threat of arresting players for vagrancy. In response there was a rise in other form of dramatic entertainment, including puppet shows and ‘pantomimes’.

In 1762 the Lord Mayor prohibited plays at the fair – the City Marshal and his officers made several players who were setting up their booths take them down. This led to a riot from enraged theatre-lovers, who ‘broke the windows of almost every inhabitant of Smithfield’ in protest.

According to William Hone’s Every-day Book, in his account of his visit to Bartholomew Fair on Monday, the 5th September, 1825, there were uncovered stalls on both sides of Giltspur Street, as far as Newgate Street. The covered stalls extended from Giltspur Street to Cock Lane, then to Hosier Lane, and from thence all along the west side of Smithfield to the Cow Lane corner. They then extended from the corner leading to John Street, Clerkenwell, to Smithfield Bars, and there ended. On the west side from the Bars these covered stalls went to Long Lane, and thence on the east side of Smithfield to the great gate of Cloth Fair. Crossing Duke Street (now Little Britain) they went to the great front gate of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and so on till they joined the uncovered stalls in Giltspur Street. These covered stalls had their fronts facing the houses with the pavement between; and here were sold gingerbread, oysters, hardwear, trinkets, and such-like. The shows of all kinds had their fronts towards the area of Smithfield, and their backs close against the backs of the covered stalls; thus leaving the area of Smithfield entirely open. They completely surrounded Smithfield, except on the north side, where no stalls were allowed to be erected. The sheep-pens occupied the centre of the area, and yet, although no vehicle of any kind was permitted to pass, this large unobstructed carriage way was so thronged as to be wholly impassable.

In 1816 the Court of Common Council resolved: “That it be referred to the committee for letting the city’s lands to take into consideration the expediency and practicability of immediately abolishing Bartholomew Fair.” The committee reported that it was expedient to abolish the fair, but, as stated in 1761, it could not be abolished without an act of Parliament… The problem of compensation was still an impediment however…

In September 1817, according to Sherwin’s Political Register, on 13th September, the authorities panicked at the rumour that a radical insurrection was planned to coincide with Bartholomew Fair. Four regiments of horse were called out, and the Lord Mayor searched for weapons among the ‘oyster-tubs, sausage-stalls, and gingerbread baskets’.

The annual disorder generated at this carnival, “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”, gradually became intolerable, as its economic functions declined, and pressures for reform of the morals and rebelliousness of London’s poor increased. In 1801 a crowd of thieves rampaged through the Fair, and  “surrounded any respectable woman, and tore her clothes from her back”. In 1802 visitors were robbed, beaten with bludgeons, and persons who came to their windows with lights, alarmed at the disturbance, had their houses stoned. In 1807 the Fair was even more lawless; “a virago of an actress, who was performing Belvidera in Venice Preserved, knocked down the august king’s deputy-trumpeter, who applied for his fees”. In one morning of September, 1815, there were heard at Guildhall forty-five cases of felony, misdemeanour, and assault, committed at Bartholomew Fair.

In 1825, the Council again ordered investigations into what measures could be taken for the removal of any nuisances existing in the same fair or to suppress it entirely; once again though the complexities baffled them, and they just ordered that the fair should be held as usual. But four years later they bought out the last interest apart from themselves whose demands for compensation had stood in the way of abolishing the Fair. The centuries-old charter still stood in their way.

But still the fair went on. The Corporation tried increasing the tolls for stalls, which had the effect of increasing the income from the fair, but not of discontinuing the stalls.

Gradually over the next few years, the magistrates restricted the festivities, which killed the Fair off piece by piece. The shows, which were now forced to close at ten, were moved to the New North Road, Islington. In 1839 theatrical shows were banned. Rents were raised, and in 1840 only wild beast shows were allowed.

In 1839 the committee of the London City Mission petitioned the Corporation for the suppression of the fair, on moral grounds.  “The matter was referred to the Market Committee, who, in turn, referred it to Mr. Solicitor (Charles Pearson). Pearson argued by shortening the Fair’s duration to two clear days, and by refusing to let standings for show booths, they would ensure the fair’s slow and natural death, without causing any protests against its suppression or further rioting.

And so it proved. “The great fair at last sank down to a few gilt gingerbread booths” by 1849.

On July 2nd, 1840, the court adopted Mr. Solicitor’s report on the recommendation of the Market Committee, and at once the opening of the fair in state was discontinued and theatrical representations once more excluded. In 1843 shows of any kind were prohibited, though, as a sop to the public, arrangements were made for their continuance in Britannia Fields, Hoxton.

The ceremony of opening the Fair had been much simplified since 1840, and in 1850 Lord Mayor Musgrove, turned up to read the traditional proclamation at the appointed spot, was faced with a shadow of the former revels. The fair was finally suppressed for good in 1855 by the City authorities.

The slow death by a thousand cuts the Bartholomew Fair suffered was part of a widespread campaign, conducted through the first half of the eighteenth century, to put a stop to debauchery and public disorder, and especially gathering places where working class people could behave badly en masse. Not just because their morals needed totally upgrading, but because they might get together, riot, or overthrow the proper order of society. Open space needed to be controlled and orderly, and events that encouraged immorality, riot and expenses on the ratepayers should be done away with!

Quotes from: The Records of St. Bartholomew’s Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1921.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.