Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Graham Downie (TF 29)


  Fairs in Britain have a long and ancient history. Over the centuries they have played an important role in the economic, social and cultural life of this island and its people.

  The Romans were once credited with their introduction—the word fair itself is derived from the Latin "feria", a holiday—but the tradition is more deeply rooted.

  We can only speculate on their origins, but they probably lie in the pagan customs of the people who brought agriculture to this land and established settled communities. Their seasonal gatherings, held perhaps for the purposes of both festivity and trade, contained within them the essential elements of the fair.

  The link with the cultivation of the land and the rearing of stock is an important thread in the history of fairs. To this day the fluctuating rhythm of the annual cycle of fairs reflects the pattern of the farming year.

  Two ancient fairs which survived into the 20th century illustrate something of the nature of these prehistoric prototypes. Weyhill Fair, in Hampshire, was held on an isolated hilltop at the meeting point of several prehistoric trackways, including two important trade routes; the Gold Road from Wales and the Tin Road from Cornwall. Relics of pagan sacrifice found there and the presence of a Bronze Age Barrow confirm the antiquity of the site.

  The location of Woodbury Hill Fair in Dorset was of similar significance: the broad summit, enclosed by huge ramparts, of an Iron Age fort. Thomas Hardy knew both these events and described them vividly in two of his novels. In The Mayor of Casterbridge Weyhill Fair is the scene of the sale of Henchard's wife, while Woodbury Hill Fair is the model for Greenhill Fair in Far from the Madding Crowd.

  The Romans did much to promote fairs by improving trade and communications. In the centuries following their departure many fairs and pagan festivals were incorporated into the calendar of the emerging Christian Church. Major changes followed the Norman invasion. The existing English fairs, few of which were thought worthy of mention in the Domesday survey, were reconstituted along French lines.

  Charters granted by the sovereign gave the fair legal status and an increasing importance in the economic life of the nation. Merchants from the continent and beyond were drawn to the great chartered fairs of the Middle Ages, bringing with them a wealth of goods. Italian silks, Spanish iron, French wine and furs from the Hanse towns could be found at the major fairs such as Sturbridge Fair, held on the outskirts of Cambridge, and Bartholomew Fair on London's Smithfield. Even the precious stones and spices of the East were brought from the markets of Moscow to these shores for sale at the principal medieval fairs.

  The sheer number of these fairs—no fewer than 4,860 were chartered in the years between 1200 and 1400—drew not only the merchant but itinerant entertainers as well; jugglers, tumblers and musicians—the ancestors of today's travelling showmen.

  The Black Death of 1348-49 brought about a new kind of fair. In order to stem the rise in wages caused by the shortage of agricultural workers, Edward III introduced the Statute of Labourers. This caused all able-bodied men to present themselves annually for hire at a stated wage.

  Like many another "incomes policy" it was of limited effect. Further, similar acts followed in subsequent centuries, the most important of these being the 1563 Statute of Apprentices.

  These hiring fairs were held at relatively quiet times in the agricultural year: the month of May, Michaelmas and Martinmas. In many cases the practice of hiring would have been added to already existing fairs as these would have provided an immediate audience.

  Many of these hiring fairs survive today as pleasure fairs. The practice of hiring had largely disappeared by the end of the 19th century, although it lingered on in some rural areas until as late as the 1930s. Generally described as Statute fairs, they are known in certain parts of the Midlands as "Mop" fairs, a term derived from an old word for tassle, or tuft. Labourers wishing to be hired would wear an emblem of their trade; the shepherd a tuft of wool, the thatcher strands of straw, the carter a piece of whipcord.

  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.

  By the early 18th century the trading aspect of the fair was on the wane, and events such as Bartholomew Fair consisted almost entirely of amusements. Principal among the competing attractions—acrobats, illusionists, puppet plays, beast shows and freaks—were the booths of the theatrical companies. Such was their popularity, they even attracted French fairground players, whose performances in the style of the Italian Commedia del Arte provided the inspiration for British pantomime.

  It was around this time that the first merry-go-rounds appeared. Contemporary prints by such artists as Hogarth show these early roundabouts operating among the booths and sideshows. Small in scale, rudimentary in construction, they were propelled by gangs of boys.

  Steam power came late to the fairground. It was not until 1868, by which time industry and rail transport had long been dependent on the steam engine, that it found its application at fairs. In that year Frederick Savage, a successful agricultural engineer at King's Lynn, devised a satisfactory method of driving roundabouts by steam.

  His invention, a steam engine mounted at the centre of the ride, was to transform the travelling showman's business and with it, the appearance and character of the fair.

  Freed from the limitations of muscle power, roundabouts could be made larger, more diverse in their design and ornamentation and—most importantly—capable of carrying a much greater number of passengers.

  The golden age of the pleasure fair had begun: an era epitomised by the elaborately-carved "Galloping Horses", suspended on twisted brass rods in rows of three or four and leaping round to the strains of a mechanical organ. Fuelled by the expectations of fairgoers the showman's unceasing demand for novelty was matched by the ingenuity of Frederick Savage and his rival engineers. In the wake of the steam revolution an astonishing variety of new rides appeared; the Switchback Railway, the Steam Yachts, Razzle-Dazzle and Cakewalk.

  But rides were not the only innovations. For many country folk, their first sight of electric lighting was at the local fair. Travelling showmen were quick to recognise the entertainment potential of moving pictures. Within months of the Lumie"re brothers pioneering demonstrations of this new invention in 1896, crowds were packing the fairground Bioscope shows to watch "the flicks".

  Despite this new attraction, the shows—once the mainstay of the pleasure fair—were losing ground to the rides. By the time of the first world war, the Scenic Railways with their exotic cars and special waterfall effects were the biggest crowd pullers. In the aftermath of the Great War a new generation of rides appeared, including the Dodgems—still the most popular fairground ride.

  The story of the travelling fair is one of continuing evolution. Novelty—the showman's stock-in-trade is the vital element in maintaining the public's custom. Fairs may have changed over the years in response to change and innovation, but their purpose remains the same: to provide the fairgoer with a form of entertainment that is readily accessible, unpretentious, exciting and uninhibited.

  During the course of the 20th century the fair has had to withstand competition from new forms of mass entertainment—the cinema (which it spawned), television and latterly, the advent of video games.

  The fact that the fair has withstood this competition—and managed to come up with fresh attractions—is the result of more than just an innate capacity for survival. Even today the fair still retains its age-old appeal: an opportunity for a brief escape from the daily toil into a seemingly carefree world of simple pleasure.

  If evidence were required of this essential appeal one need look no further than the start of this year, when the Mall in London was the setting for a travelling fair. Held to launch the nation's millennium celebrations, the fair was a huge success, attracting in excess of one million visitors during its four-day stay.

  As the critic AA Gill, writing in The Sunday Times about the Dome, observed: "This the fair was more in tune with who we really are and what we want to be. The roundabouts, rifle ranges, gaudy lights, slot machines, pop music, candyfloss and course humour were replete with as many metaphors and similes for who the British are at the turn of millennium as you could possibly want. And it was fun".

  But despite this obvious popularity (or perhaps because of it?) the travelling fair is an undervalued aspect of our cultural life. This situation is in distinct contrast to countries such as France and Germany where the fair has a status that commands the respect of the authorities.

  All too often in Britain the travelling showman faces an uphill battle in order to gain a living. All he asks for is a place to operate, somewhere to exercise his right to trade. Time and time again this essential element in his life is threatened by the ambitions of planners and developers, or the indifference of local authorities.

  Those of our historic fairs that still occupy town centre sites do so in the face of constant threats to their survival, whether it be from development schemes or the critics who place their own narrow commercial interests above the needs of the community.

  These fairs are upholding a tradition that is several centuries old. Indeed, the very shape of our ancient market towns was determined by the presence of the annual fair and the weekly market. The fair was then an important function of the town, a role that it can still play.

  If we value the part travelling fairs play in the life of the community, then greater protection must be given to the sites where they are held.

  Most at risk are those in town centres. Where development schemes—such as pedestrianisation or enhancement projects—have an effect on the operation of an established fair then it should be obligatory for the local authority to recognise and safeguard the requirements of that fair. Consultation with the showmen should take place right from the outset rather than, as is usually the case, when plans have been finalised.

  And if the local authority, or any other form of developer, fails to fulfil this duty, then there should be a mechanism through which an appeal can be made to higher authority.

  As a first step, the registration of all established fairgrounds, based on certain criteria, would assist this process. Given an acceptance of this it would, in the same way that greens and commons (in some cases also the sites of fairs) have registered status, provide a measure of protection that is essential to the future well-being of travelling fairs.

  Over the centuries the travelling fair has undergone numerous changes in assuming its present form. As the historian William Addison has commented, it is now, paradoxically, closer in spirit to its origins than those that complain it has lost its original character might think.

  Unlike other institutions that have in recent years been recognised as forming part of our heritage, the travelling fair is no museum piece. It is an aspect of this island's heritage that is still very much alive. It deserves nurture, not neglect.

Graham Downie
The Fairground Association of Great Britain
Associate Director
The National Fairground Archive
The University of Sheffield

February 2000

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