- History of the original Fair by Matthew Bell
- The story of Bartholomew Fair restaged in 2023
- Earlier occasions
I saw the tweet below from Peter Murray, Co-Founder of New London Architecture, and asked if he could provide more information. Peter offered some fine photos and the fascinating account below. David Wilcox
The London Festival of Architecture held the last Bartholomew Fair in 2010 in Smithfield – next to your new Museum – and it probably still is the licensee! @LFArchitecture @cityoflondon It also showed how Long Lane and West Smithfield would work as a pedestrianised space. https://t.co/mgDlaKY7Jz pic.twitter.com/nGJMvmnThh— Peter Murray OBE (@PGSMurray) August 30, 2023
The first Festival of Architecture (then called the Clerkenwell Architecture Biennale) was focused on St John Street, with a small herd of English Long Horns being driven down to Smithfield. I was inspired at the time by Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography and sought to link the shaping of the area to its history.
So the idea of recreating Bartholomew Fair in the second Biennale in 2006 seemed a natural development. We drove a flock of sheep across the Millennium Bridge – in part to mark the right of Freemen of the City to do just that and in part to celebrate the new infrastructure connecting the north and south banks. The Bishops of Southwark blessed the animals at the cathedral, and they made their way along Bankside. They were shepherded across the bridge by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano.
The event attracted the attention of animal rights activists, who thought the whole event was cruel, but the protestors were kept in check by the City Police.
The sheep were hardy Herdwicks from Northumbria. It was a fine day, and to our surprise, they were exhausted by the time we reached Paternoster Square, where they shaded behind the plinth of Liz Frink’s Shepherd and his flock. At that stage, I thought the protestors might have been right. However, after a short rest, they made it to Smithfield, where the Barts Fair was in full swing. I sometimes wonder whether, in an Ackroydian way, the sheep sensed that the market was not a safe place to be.
For the Fair, there were some 40 stalls along west Smithfield, lunch in Grand Avenue, the Danish Embassy giving cycling lessons to young children on Charterhouse Street and bands playing in Transport for London’s abandoned offices on Lindsey Street, which were soon to be knocked down to make way for the Farringdon Elizabeth Line station. The traditional cutting of the ribbon to open the Fair was carried out by Non-Aldermanic Sheriff Kevin Kearney.
The street closure inspired Grant Young, MD of Condor Cycles in Grays Inn Road, to organise the Smithfield Nocturne bike races, which first took place in 2007 and continued annually until the race moved to Cheapside in 2016.
The first licence to hold the Fair was issued by Henry 1 to Rahere in 1133. I therefore consulted the Corporation of London solicitors department to enquire how I might have the licence transferred to the Biennale. It was suggested that the ownership of the licence goes back to ‘time immemorial,’ i.e. “a period of time beyond which legal memory cannot go”, and they were content for us to take the project on.
In 2010, the London Festival of Architecture held a fair in Cheapside to highlight the plans for improving the pedestrian experience on Britain’s oldest high street, complete with food stalls and a conduit running with wine. However, the City fathers are not keen on the sale of food on City streets, and I was again forced to consult the City solicitors department. “As the licence holder for Bartholomew Fair, you shouldn’t have any problems…” and again ‘time immemorial’ was mentioned. So, Livery Companies put up stalls to highlight their trades – the Farriers shoed horses, the Tylers and Bricklayers laid bricks, and the Masons carved blocks of stone. There was a display of poultry in Poultry, honey was for sale in Honey Lane, and Bread Street lived up to its name.
After the Fair, people in the Corporation talked about making the Cheapside Fair a regular event, but nothing happened until now when the need to create a greater mix of uses in the Square Mile to attract people to support the hospitality and retail outlets at a time when City workers are staying at home a couple of days a week, led to the Destination City programme.
I did think of writing to the Corporation and suggesting they should have asked my permission before launching this year’s Bartholomew Fair, but I thought better of it. The fact that the Festival of Architecture had led the way was satisfaction enough.
See also Peter Murray’s address to the City Planning and Transportation Committee in January 2022 on Post-Covid recovery. His remarks included:
“We need to attract more people to enjoy the delights of the Square Mile and support the hospitality and retail offer. It’s the 300th anniversary of the death of Sir Christopher Wren in 2023 and for that the Diocese of London is looking to get the City churches more coordinated and accessible. That could be a massive draw to visitors. Why don’t some of the best Livery Halls open their doors to visitors? The queues around the block in the City during Open House are a sign that there is a huge public interest in the buildings here – old and new.
“Why not close off the core of the city to traffic at weekends and fill the streets with pedestrians, cyclists, activity and life? Change your views on street trading. The 2013 Act allowed temporary trading but, and I quote “It remains the view of the Corporation that street trading is generally not suitable within the City.”
“Why not? Street food, farmers markets, cheese markets, flower markets have been some of the great successes in recent years – during a bad period for conventional retail. And you’ve got the historic streets for it: Milk Street, Bread Street, Wood Street, Honey Lane, Poultry – alongside the oldest high street in the country.
“In 2010 I organised the Cheapside Market as part of the London Festival of Architecture. We had farriers shoeing horses, Masons carving Portland stone, Bricklayers and Tilers building walls and roofs, and we had stalls serving food. There was talk that it might become a regular event but nothing happened. I organised a Barts Fair in Smithfield in 2008. It attracted thousands of people. Why not do that every year? Or even every week. There was the Smithfield Nocturne that moved for a couple of years into the heart of the City and showed how sports events so easily could be integrated into the City at weekends.
“Pedestrianise it, put on events, allow activities to take place and people will flock to the City. And the coffee shops and restaurants that remain stubbornly closed at weekends will open up”.