Today in London’s festive history: traditional day of Charlton Horn Fair, rowdy popular procession & shindig
Charlton Horn Fair was a rowdy bawdy South East London popular procession and fair, said to have originated in a celebration of cuckoldry. 100s of working class men wearing horns, and blowing on the musical horns, would march every 18th of October from Cuckold Point in Bermondsey, through Deptford to Charlton House, then back to Cuckolds Point, Deptford, where the Horn Fair was held for 3 days, outside St Luke’s Church. Like many fairs, the event often became riotous and disorderly, according to contemporary accounts, and descended into heavy drinking, occasional fighting and general debauchery. Respectable folk increasingly saw such occasions – which punctuated the annual calendar, especially between Spring and Autumn – as a threat to public order and morality.
The fair was described by Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, in A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1727) as:
“Charleton, a village famous, or rather infamous for the yearly collected rabble of mad-people, at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz’d well govern’d nation, it may well be said to be unsufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justify’d the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.”
What were the origins of the fair? We know that in 1268 King Henry III granted a three-day fair to the Abbey of Bermondsey to be held around Trinity Sunday, which is the eighth Sunday after Easter, that is, around May or June. Bermondsey Abbey owned the manor of Charlton at the time.
Around the seventeenth century the date of the fair was moved to the 18th of October, which is the feast day of St Luke (patron saint of Charlton’s parish church). In medieval pictures Luke is often seen writing or painting, with a horned ox or cow also somewhere in the picture. It is thought that this inspired the displaying of a large pair of horns on a pole to announce the opening of St Luke’s Fair, which may be the origin of the horn motif of the fair.
An old myth used to be trotted out explain slightly older origins of the Fair:
“King John, wearied with hunting on Shooter’s Hill and Blackheath, entered the house of a miller at Charlton to refresh and rest himself. He found no one at home but the miller’s wife, young, it is said, and beautiful. The miller, it so happened, was earlier in coming home than was usual when he went to Greenwich with his meal; and red and raging at what he saw on his return, he drew his knife. The king being unarmed, thought it prudent to make himself known, and the miller, only too happy to think it was no baser individual, asked a boon of the king. The king consented, and the miller was told to clear his eyes, and claim the long strip of land he could see before him on the Charlton side of the river Thames. The miller cleared his eyes, and saw as far as the point near Rotherhithe. The king then admitted the distance, and the miller was put into possession of the property on one condition – that he should walk annually on that day, the 18th of October, to the farthest bounds of the estate with a pair of buck’s horns upon his head.”
This tale is almost certainly pretty much entirely made up – for a start, there is no record of any landowner having possessed all the land mentioned. Also, it was only in the 17th century that the fair was associated with October rather than being held around mid-summer.
But there could be a kernel of historical truth at the heart of this legend…
When the famous Magna Carta was issued to King John, as part of the subsequent editing process, a lesser known Magna Charta de Foresta, or Forest Charter, also emerged a few years later. This secondary document relaxed a large number of laws which made it almost a capital offence to hunt in the forests, which were solely the preserve of the Monarch. The forests and lands belonging to the Monarch had been greatly expanded, causing considerable anger among the populace, so the law also reduced the size of the land controlled by the Monarch, making it more available for common folk to use.
Could the tale about King John granting land to a commoner derive from folk memory of the actual law that his son signed just a few years later? Could the Charlton Horn Fair owe its origins to popular celebrations of the relaxation of forest laws signed by King Henry III? there was considerable rejoicing There were various other Horn Fairs dotted around the country, and a good many of them all seem to date from charters granted during King Henry III’s reign, and certainly the Charlton Horn Fair can be traced back that far as well, although its exact origins are uncertain.
The Horn aspect has been linked by some commentators to earlier pagan traditions, but another aspect of the Magna Charta de Foresta was to reduce the fines on hunting and encourage the reduction of earlier New Forests. The link between the law and hunting could explain the popularity of wearing horns, to show that the commoner has been allowed to hunt freely.
In 1819 the Fair was moved to Fairfields: “The fair was formerly held upon a green opposite the church, and facing Charlton House; but this piece of ground having some years ago been enclosed so as to form part of the gardens belonging to the mansion, the fair was subsequently held in a private field at the other end of the village, under the auspices of a few speculative publicans.” (Old and New London: Volume 6. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.)
The Charlton fair seemed to reach its zenith in popularity during the Restoration period, and flotillas of boats would fill the Thames as they brought revellers down from London to Charlton.
“During the reign of Charles II. it was a carnival of the most unrestrained kind, and those frequenting it from London used to proceed thither in boats, “disguised as kings, queens, millers, &c., with horns on their heads; and men dressed as females, who formed in procession and marched round the church and fair.”” (Old and New London: Volume 6.)
Nicholas Breton, in a poem published in 1612, “Pasquil’s Nightcap, or Antidote for the Headache,” gave an account of the annual gathering, which shows that they were held in great pomp, and with an immense concourse of people, all of whom
“In comely sort their foreheads did adorne
With goodly coronets of hardy horne;”
Breton ends his poem by hinting that the Fair was already seen as a nuisance by some:
“Long time this solemne custome was observ’d,
And Kentish-men with others met to feast;
But latter times are from old fashions swerv’d,
And grown repugnant to this good behest.
For now ungratefull men these meetings scorn,
And thanklesse prove to Fortune and the horn;
For onely now is kept a poor goose fair,
Where none but meaner people doe repaire.”
Many people attended the Fair in fancy dress, cross-dressing being especially popular. William Fuller wrote in 1703: “I remember being there upon Horn Fair day, I was dressed in my landlady’s best gown and other women’s attire, and to Horn Fair we went, and as we were coming back by water, all the clothes were spoilt by dirty water etc. that was flung on us in an inundation, for which I was obliged to present her with two guineas to make atonement for the damage sustained.”
In 1872 Charlton Horn Fair was officially banned, either because of general drunken behaviour, or specifically due to a fight between dockers & army cadets.
“Legal measures are being taken to extinguish the fairs held at Charlton-next-Woolwich and on Blackheath. Charlton Fair, or “Horn Fair,” as it is called, has been held for centuries past on the 18th of October and two following days, under the authority of a charter said to have been granted by King John. It was formerly opened with great ceremony, including the blowing of horns, and hence, probably, its name. For many years past the character of the gathering has greatly degenerated, and it is the last pleasure fair left existing in the metropolitan district. The bulk of the inhabitants have long urged its extinction, and since the passing of the Fair Act, 1871, have memorialised the lord of the manor, Sir John Maryon Wilson, to that end. Sir John has now given his consent to the abolition of the fair, and on Saturday last the justices of the Blackheath division, sitting in petty sessions, resolved that the fair was a nuisance which ought to be abolished, and directed that the Secretary of State should be requested to take the necessary steps for that purpose. At the same time a representation was made with respect to Blackheath Fair, a sort of market held twice a year for the sale of horses, and pigs, and the consent of the “owner,” who is [Lord Darnley,] lord of the manor, having been given, a similar resolution was unanimously passed. It may be taken for granted that the fairs of Charlton and Blackheath have been held for the last time.”—Daily News, Jan. 15, 1872. They have since (March, 1872) been officially abolished.
Despite the ban, the Fair was apparently unofficially celebrated in the 1920s.
While the fair itself was restored in the 1970s, the parade from Cuckold’s Point in Rotherhithe was not brought back, until the tradition of the parade was revived in 2009 – the IanVisits blog describes the start.