Matthew Bell’s History of Bartholomew Fair

City Councillor Matthew Bell traces the history of the Fair, Church and Hospital as they celebrate Barts 900 in the Souvenir edition of The City Courant and below. Matthew also tells the story of re-staging the Fair here.

Thomas Rowlandson print after John Nixon. Wikimedia Commons

Bartholomew Fair is back! And if Members of the 1855 City of London Corporation were reading this, they would doubtless be wringing their hands in puzzled concern as to why one of their 2023 colleagues has for several years been pushing to resurrect the Fair after they’d fought for so long to close it down

It’s especially important for its restoration this year as 2023 marks the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Priory of St Bartholomew, which became St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the churches of St Bartholomew the Great and The Less.

In 1133 Henry I granted a Charter to the Priory for the Fair ‘to be kept yearly at Bartholomew-tide for three days,’ as one chronicler records, ‘to wit the eve, the day, and next morrow; to the which the clothiers of all England and drapers of London repaired and had their booths and standings within the churchyard of the priory.’ However, it’s likely that as a trade exchange for cloth the Fair was up and running before this date in order to help fund the Priory’s foundation and to secure continued financial support. It’s therefore reasonable to suppose that 2023 could also be Bartholomew Fair’s 900th anniversary.

Not surprisingly, the Fair’s history over more than eight centuries is a chequered one. It’s also a convenient lens through which to view London’s political, religious and social interests. This was no less true of when it died in 1855, much to the satisfaction of those oh-so-virtuous Victorians, who were not known for their tolerance of anything ‘down and dirty’. To be fair to them, the event had become a problem long before the 19th century.

From the Fair’s debut in the churchyard on St Bartholomew’s Eve, 23 August 1133, it grew steadily in popularity, not just to promote cloth (hence the name of the adjacent tiny street of Cloth Fair) but increasingly as an important venue for other goods. It was, too, an occasion for public spectacle and a space in which to remind anyone with subversive ideas of the penalties of stepping out of line: during the 1305 Fair the Scottish hero and patriot Sir William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered. 

William Wallace memorial in West Smithfield.

By 1377 the event had outgrown the confines of the Priory, which took up most of the land immediately around the church and hospital, and was overflowing beyond Smithfield. By the 1450s, it was moving towards Holborn and Islington.

With the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539 and the disposing of church land, the Fair and Priory grounds were sold to Henry’s toadying lackey Sir Richard Rich, and kept in his family until bought by the City of London Corporation in 1829. 

Following Charles I’s execution in 1649, Oliver Cromwell reduced the Fair’s duration. After Cromwell’s demise, however, it expanded to two weeks and also in size, becoming even more of a jamboree. To accompany booths and stalls selling foods, fancy and otherwise (with roast pork a must) and of course copious alcohol, there were at various times displays of human strength, acrobatics, tightrope walking, boxing, wrestling, fire-eating and waxworks. There was even a type of Ferris wheel, a precursor of today’s London Eye. Shows featuring ‘beasts’ such as crocodiles as well as human ‘freaks’ were presented to the delight of enthusiastic and often drunken crowds. Anyone who has seen the film ‘The Elephant Man’ will have an idea of this sort of ‘entertainment’. Brothels were also common.  

Little seems to have halted the Fair’s success, not even the Black Death and subsequent outbreaks of plague, of which there were many (attempting to contain one such in 1592 Elizabeth I restricted its spread only to within the Priory walls). Further outbreaks in the 17th century and even the Great Fire of 1666 interrupted it only briefly.

From the beginning of the 17th century it was customary for the Lord Mayor to open the Fair. Following a visit to Newgate Prison to accept a ‘cool tankard’ of sack (fortified white wine) from the governor, he processed with the Merchant Taylors Company to Cloth Fair to test the measures for cloth. However, lest the current Lord Mayor get too carried away with enthusiasm he’d be wise to heed the sad story of Sir John Shorter, Lord Mayor in 1688. Having finished his sack he let the lid of his tankard close so noisily that his horse shied, throwing Sir John and causing injuries that led to his death.

By the end of the 17th century, Bartholomew Fair, now synonymous with debauchery and mayhem, was again curtailed to three days. By the mid-18th it had returned to two weeks, and when the City attempted to restrict the time yet again, and to stripping from it the theatrical and entertainment booths, there was a major outcry. In the following years it became four days: entertainments and all. Thwarted, the Corporation concluded that the only way of abolishing it was by an Act of Parliament. But legislation proved unnecessary. After years of gradually relegating the Fair to a purely cloth trade event, it was by the mid 19th century no longer of value to anyone, the heart of the cloth industry having long since moved from the area. As one historian put it: ‘it died a natural death’, and in the words of another, ‘it passed away without much sign of public mourning’.

Although there’s little of the old Fair to pass any modern test for an entertainment licence in 2023 it’s important that this reincarnation retains much of a circus and fun feel. Above all, we trust it will, like its original purpose, support and promote local businesses and places of interest and be the first of a new era for Bartholomew Fair. Hopefully, by the time the merrymaking becomes too riotous it won’t be our problem.

So, enjoy. But remember, if you’re on horseback don’t slam your tankard top down!

Bartholomew Fair reference

Re-staging Bartholomew Fair in the year of Barts 900

Articles about Bartholomew Fair – and others