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“Hey, now the fair’s a filling!
Oh, for a tune to startle
The birds o’ the booths here billing
Yearly with old Saint Barthle!”
Bartholomew Fayre, act II scene ii.
Bartholomew Fair, first chartered under Henry I in 1133, was held at West Smithfield just outside the city walls of northwest London at Aldersgate. Every year it began on August 24, the feast day of St Bartholomew the apostle, and lasted for three days.
From medieval times Smithfield had been a busy site for jousts and trials by combat – in later centuries even duels – and had a gallows for public executions. The fair was held in the precincts of St Bartholomew’s church and became England’s largest cloth exchange. Upon the suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII the site passed into joint private ownership with the corporation of the city in 1539, and the new owners crammed it with buildings, reserving the right to rent them during the fair.
In the Tudor period the original purpose of trade in cloth dwindled as merchants expanded their business beyond the fair through improved transport. The horse trade kept going, but the enterprise of Bartholomew’s was slowly given over to pleasure, until in Elizabeth’s reign it had become a great Saturnalia that attracted many entertainers and shady characters.
In 1598 a German traveller, Paul Hentzner, gave an account of his attendance at the opening ceremony .. and the unfortunate consequence for his companion. The lord mayor and aldermen went in procession outside the city wall, arrayed in gold chains and gowns:
Upon their arrival at a place appointed for that purpose, where a tent is pitched, the mob begins to wrestle before them, two at a time; the conquerors receive rewards from the magistrates. After this is over, a parcel of live rabbits are turned loose among the crowd, which are pursued by a number of boys, who endeavour to catch them, with all the noise they can make. While we were at this show, one of our company, Tobias Salander, doctor of physic, had his pocket picked of his purse, with nine crowns du soleil, which, without doubt, was so cleverly taken from him by an Englishman who always kept very close to him, that the doctor did not in the least perceive it.
The fair had its own pie-powder court (of the dusty foot – a temporary jurisdiction), which dealt mainly with trade disputes, eg. in 1566 a man was committed to prison for using an unlawful yard stick to measure cloth.
From 1604 the fair was controlled by the City of London. History Today (55:9:2005) has this breathless summary of the fair’s events at the end of the Tudor period:
“Puppet-shows, wrestlers, fire-eaters, dwarfs, dancing bears, performing monkeys and caged tigers vied for attention with contortionists and tight-rope walkers. Astrologers cast horoscopes and miraculous medicines were hawked. Proprietors of food and drink, beer and tobacco, bellowed for custom amid a miasma of roast pork. There were plentiful supplies of toys, gingerbread and mousetraps, puppies, purses and singing birds in a general bedlam of shouts, fiddles, drums and rattles. The fair was one of the year’s great opportunities for pickpockets, naturally, and also for prostitutes, who might be found in tents coyly labelled ‘soiled doves’ or in a nearby street appropriately named Cock Lane.”
Traditional foods were Bartholomew babies (gingerbread dolls) and Bartholomew pigs, roasted whole – the latter delicacy is said to have been craved by pregnant women. In Ben Jonson’s comic play Bartholomew Fayre the roasting was done by Ursla the Pig Woman, whose booth also served as a brothel and a centre for stolen goods. Another attraction was the “thinking” pig, which counted out numbers for the entertainment of the crowd (local horses were also capable of this miraculous feat).
Jonson’s play was staged in 1614 and presented a panorama of life in London, satirising puritans and con-artists in particular. In the following year the site of the fair was paved and much improved, and by the middle of the century had spread across four parishes. After the Civil War the fair was lengthened to 14 days and the date was moved to September.
The fair was notorious for violence, and the site was known as Ruffians’ Hall:
“… by reason it was the usual place of frayes and common fighting during the time that sword and bucklers were in use. But the ensuing deadly fight of rapier and dagger suddenly suppressed the fighting with sword and buckler.”
Intermittent attempts at regulation were made, the most effective of which turned out to be the raising of ground rents. After a period of decline the last fair was held in 1855. It seems the Victorians were glad to see the back of it:
“It had long survived its claim to tolerance, and as London increased had become a great public nuisance, with its scenes of riot and obstruction in the very heart of the city.”
“Hey, now the Fairs a filling!
O, for a Tune to startle
The Birds o’ the Booths here billing:
Yearly with old Saint Barthle!
The Drunkards they are wading,
The Punques, and Chapmen trading;
Who’ld see the Fair without his lading? Buy any
Ballads; new Ballads?”
Two good sources for the history of the fair – the first is online:
2. Gamini Salgado The Elizabethan Underworld (1992) pp.60-71.