Fair

Frequency Annual
Seasonal Yes
Fixture Temporary
Physical Scale Large
Experiential Scale Large
Geographical Scale Local

The travelling fair is a compelling event that offers short-term distraction from our everyday surroundings while lingering long in our individual and collective memories. Squeezing into impossibly tight urban spaces, taking up grand boulevards, filling market places, or taking over open fields, the fun fair caters for all-comers, young and old. It is an experience nearly everyone can relate to, a common cultural currency, and the fair itself an overlooked cultural asset. Who has not been to the fair? According to HSE figures, there are 3.6 billion passenger rides at travelling fairs each year.

The travelling fair is a compelling event that offers short-term distraction from our everyday surroundings while lingering long in our individual and collective memories. Squeezing into impossibly tight urban spaces, taking up grand boulevards, filling market places, or taking over open fields, the fun fair caters for all-comers, young and old. It is an experience nearly everyone can relate to, a common cultural currency, and the fair itself an overlooked cultural asset. Who has not been to the fair? According to HSE figures, there are 3.6 billion passenger rides at travelling fairs each year.

The stuff of childhood memories, of songs, stories and films, and often coincident with the establishment of thousands of settlements in the UK and beyond, it is surprising how few studies have been done of the fair. Perhaps it has been overlooked because of its ephemeral nature and lowbrow associations.

The overall identity of the fair is intertwined with its cultural relationships with its host town, their shared traditions and inheritance. Behind the overwhelming lights, noises, smells and general excitement of fairground experience there is a carefully planned temporary environment of rides, attractions and spaces.

The deep history of fairs is uncertain, although it is generally agreed that they are very old, and that they began in Ancient Greece, and spread across Europe during the Roman Empire. It is generally agreed that the timing of fairs frequently coincided with sacred rites and feasts: as Christianity spread, fairs were realigned to Christian high days and holy days.[i] As life in Norman Britain (as across Europe) became more regulated, fairs and markets became closely controlled. Fairs that had been held for as long as anyone could remember accrued rights as ‘Prescriptive Fairs.’ New rights to hold fairs were granted by the Crown through the issue of Charters. Vanessa Toulmin has noted that '[b]y the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the majority of the English fairs had been granted charters and were reorganized to fall into line with their European counterparts. The granting of charters did not necessarily initiate the right to hold a fair; it was in effect a means of controlling the revenues for the Crown. The control and organization of the fair was then granted to the particular town, abbey or village where it occurred.'[ii]

It is estimated that ‘no fewer than 4,860 [fairs] were chartered in the years between 1200 and 1400.’[iii] The rate and geographical distribution of this spread is shown in figure 1. Fairs were economically important for local, national and pan-European trade. To this exchange of goods was added an exchange of labour: following the Black Death and the decimation of the population this wrought, the Statute of Labourers was introduced in 1351 as an attempt to control wages and the supply of labour. Workers effectively had to put themselves up for hire every year, and fairs—‘hiring’, ‘Statute’ or (in the Midlands) ‘Mop fairs’ as they became know—were key events where this took place.[iv]

By the eighteenth century, the focus of fairs had shifted away from hiring and trading and on to pleasure. (Fig.2) Mark Girouard describes how this shift affected towns like Bury St. Edmunds, where ‘the great fair held on Angel Hill became more and more an amusement fair, until by the eighteenth century it was the chief social event of the year, attended by all classes, from dukes downwards, and accompanied by a theatrical season and a series of balls in the Assembly Rooms.’[v]



[i] Good overviews of the history of fairs can be found in R W Muncey, Our Old English Fairs (The Sheldon Press, London, 1936); T F G Dexter, The Pagan Origin of Fairs (New Knowledge Press, Perranporth, 1930); and Cornelius Walford, Fairs, Past and Present (Elliot Stock, London, 1883). Braithwaite’s historical ‘Background’ summarizes a number of these works.

[ii] Vanessa Toulmin, Pleasurelands (Projection Box, Sheffield, 2003), p.5. Charter documents don’t always hold true: many fairs have juggled with their charters to change the date or duration of a fair, or charters may have been sought and given, but the rights they bestowed were never, or only temporarily, taken up. Samantha Letters (Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research) has compiled a comprehensive national survey of markets and fairs in medieval England and Wales in the form of a catalogue, the Online Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England Wales to 1516 (http://www.history.ac.uk/cmh/gaz/ gazweb2.html)

[iii] Graham Downie, Travelling Fairs, Memoranda Submitted to the Environment Sub-Committee of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee (Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence, February 2000) HC: 284-II, TF 29.

[iv] ‘Most Mops were followed within a week or two by a second hiring—the “Runaway Mop.” If a labourer was dissatisfied with his new job he would run away to seek another employer at the second fair.’ ibid., TF 29.

[v] Mark Girouard, The English Town (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1990), p.17.

general daytime view

The spread of fairs in England between 1200 and 1600. (Images taken from a dynamic data visualization built by Matt Southgate & Thomas Cains, with Mark Meagher and Stephen Walker, funded by the RIBA Research Trust, available at http://fairground-visualisation.group.shef.ac.uk/

Data was provided by the Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, from the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs project, with thanks to Olwen Myhill.)