Corporation plans a spectacular City-wide Bartholomew Fair throughout September

Update: the Evening Standard has picked up on the plans saying “The city is increasingly trying to throw off its “nine to five” image and become a leisure destination for Londoners and others”

When Matthew Bell and I floated the idea of re-staging Bartholomew Fair (1123-1855) in the EC1 Echo last year little did we realise that the City Corporation would pick up the idea with such enthusiasm.

The agenda for next week’s Policy and Resources committee offers plans for a contemporary version of the Fair that includes a bespoke aerial performance on the exterior of St Paul’s Cathedral, and “a magical and engaging narrative projection trail through the City of London on building facades at six points across The City.”

As well as indoor and outdoor activities throughout the City there will be “’Let’s Get Involved’ performances and workshops open to everyone, with a focus on engaging City resident, workers and local Londoners.”

There will be links to partner events, including the following possibilities:

  • London Fashion Week (Sept 9-18)
  • London Design Festival (Sept 16 – 24)
  • Livery Fair (Sept 24)
  • Goldsmiths Fair (Sept 24 – Oct 18)
  • St Bartholomew The Great Music Festival (20-29 September)
  • Guildhall Art Gallery exhibition of Gold & Silver Wyre (From 23 Sept)
  • Barbican Autumn Festival (details tbc)

You can view the presentation of the plan here.

It sounds as if Bartholomew Fair is going to be the high point of the Destination City programme aimed at getting more tourists into the Square Mile. Last October the City staged the Golden Key event over a weekend at a cost of about £1 million. I should think Bartholomew Fair will at least match that.

The Fair was originally started in 1133 with a charter from King Henry I to fund the Priory of St Bartholomew, which would found Barts Hospital. This year both St Bartholomew the Great and the hospital are mounting Barts 900 fund-raising celebrations. This City plans say:

“Bartholomew Fair was originally a cloth fair. Originally chartered as a three-day event, it would last a full two weeks in the 17th century. With a change in the calendar, the fair commenced on 3 September from 1753. A trading event for cloth and other goods as well as a pleasure fair, the event drew crowds from all classes of English society.
“It was customary for the Lord Mayor of London to open the fair on St Bartholomew’s Eve. The Mayor would stop at Newgate Prison to accept a cup of sack (fortified white wine) from the governor. The Merchant Taylors Guild processed to Cloth Fair to test the measures for cloth, using their standard silver yard, until 1854. The annual fair grew to become the chief cloth sale in the kingdom. By 1641, the fair had achieved international importance. It had outgrown the former location along Cloth Fair, and around the Priory graveyard to now cover four parishes: Christ Church, Great and Little St Bartholomew’s and St Sepulchre’s. The fair featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, freaks and feasts”.

The Fair in West Smithfield

Matthew lives in Cloth Fair, the original site of Bartholomew Fair. I live nearby, and in the Echo added ideas for a virtual Fair that would enable people to use smartphones or computers to aid on-the-ground exploration, or visit online. I’ve followed up on this blog with more about the Fair and ideas for a Museum of the Streets.

I checked in with Matthew for his view of the plans, and he said:

“When I first read up about the Fair some years ago and discovered that it ended in 1855, I was excited about the idea of to getting it started again.

“The City of London Corporation were very happy with the idea as it fed nicely into the ‘Destination City’ vision and it now seems as if 2023 is to be the re-boot year.

“I hope that residents and small businesses will be as excited about this as we are. Let’s hope that it becomes the exciting annual event that it always was and that it will support St Bart’s Hospital and church of St Bart’s the Great as was its original purpose”.

The brochure says the aims of the new Fair are:

  • Celebrating the City’s unrivalled history and heritage as a major selling point, we will reimagine Bartholomew Fair with a contemporary spin.
  • Inspired by the cloth trade origins, Bartholomew Fair 2023 will integrate innovation, arts, fashion and design as the key themes across the programming…
  • Working with cultural attractions, event suppliers and industry partners to present an event schedule that showcases world class art installations, circus stunts, immersive theatre, sideshows, epic feasts and participatory dance workshops.
  • Working with tourism and travel partners, media outlets and social influencers to reach and engage with target audiences. The new Destination website will act as an information hub to promote the schedule of events with inspirational content to inspire visitation.

What the new plans don’t mention are that the original Fair got out of hand, and was suppressed by the Corporation for encouraging debauchery and public disorder. Wikipedia records that The Newgate Calendar had denounced the fair as a “school of vice which has initiated more youth into the habits of villainy than Newgate itself.”

I’m sure things will be much better ordered this time around.

Earlier posts

Originally published on the Connections blog

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