The story of Bartholomew Fair re-staged

Matthew Bell explains how the ideas of re-staging the Fair caught the imagination of the City, and how it has been possible to develop a local programme on the original site of the Fair, to complement the City-wide spectacular. Matthew is City Councillor and lives in 41-42 Cloth Fair, the oldest inhabited house in the City.

When Bartholomew Fair re-opens in the City next week, after a gap of 168 years, there will be two opening ceremonies. One will be a spectacular aerial ballet performed high up on St Paul’s Cathedral, while the other will be a traditional ceremony with the Lord Mayor cutting a ribbon.

This new era of Bartholomew Fair is going to be the biggest ever to have been staged by the City of London, so we are witnessing history over the next few weeks.  The Corporation is wanting to get people in to see the rich cultural gems of every age that you trip up over with virtually every step when wandering around the Square Mile.  The City was after all, London for the bulk of its history. 

I remember when I first moved to London in the mid-Eighties, working in the West End, the City area was thought to be rather dull and purely financial with St Paul’s Cathedral stuck somewhere in the middle.  Certainly, there seemed little to tempt people in to discover how wrong that impression was, yet, it is only in the last few years that people have really been discovering it.  When I first lived in / around the City in the late Nineties, it was a ghost town outside office hours, it is now buzzing.

The spectacular festival type Bartholomew Fair is very much from this type of thinking – show the City not to be stuffy, that it can be fun and is most certainly fascinating, forward thinking and inclusive.

In an age of inclusivity, there is much greater thought (let’s face it, ‘thought’!) to being open to all and that is a difficult path for the City as so much can appear at least, to be pretty ‘exclusive’.

What a few of us in the North West part of the Square Mile, which is the original area of the Fair, have been very conscious of is the history and how incredibly important it is.  Thus the ‘other’ opening, though far more ‘down to earth’ than abseiling from St Paul’s, will be The Lord Mayor (who is travelling back early from his holiday especially) to cut the Damien Hirst ribbon and then a Disputation with opposing sides disputing a chosen subject.  We were consciously wanting the subject and indeed the disputers themselves, not to be in any way timid.  ‘Timid’ was never a word that could ever be levelled at anything to do with the Bartholomew Fair of old and I think that it must maintain it’s ‘grittiness’.  Not become too commercial – something else that the City must be mindful of when thinking about how best to publicise its’ cultural gems and ‘fairs’.

The Fair as you probably know by now, closed in 1855 due to it having become far too chaotic and dangerous.  There needs always to be the whiff of that and for it not to be a desperately cleansed and weak copy of something more daring, strong and exciting.  I think of John Huston’s quote from the film Chinatown ‘Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all become respectable if they last long enough’.  Bartholomew Fair is very much a part of that list.

I love the history of this area, particularly the extraordinary Radical tradition that has existed in this most apparently conservative of areas.  In 2013, I spent a couple of years trying to get a memorial to Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt permission to be erected in Smithfield as I was amazed that there was nothing there to recognise the terrible end to that immensely important uprising.  I was able to commission this in 2015.  So, history as well as a few other things, had always been a major reason for being actively involved in this area.

I first mentioned the idea of bringing back Bartholomew Fair as an annual event in 2017/18 when I was a newly elected Councillor in the City for the Ward of Farringdon Within.  It got nothing in the way of traction.  A couple of one off’s had happened before in the mid 1980’s, early 2000’s as well as for the occasional celebration such as the 800th and 850th anniversaries of St Bart’s and the Hospital and I was told that there was no interest and the rest of the time, it was inferred by the lack of interest, that that was very much the case.  There is a fantastic little bit of film of the 800th in 1923 here.

I kept mentioning it though to various people.  I had meetings with people in Bart’s Hospital, Livery Companies, as well as St Bartholomew The Great church and gradually started to meet others who had been involved in the previous one-off Fairs as well as people who were interested in the idea of resurrecting it. 

David Wilcox and I started to meet a couple of years ago and he had some brilliant ideas regarding a digital presentation of the Fair that could be done alongside the physical.  It was the passion and excitement of those talks that did so much to keep the spark alive as far as I was concerned and David is owed a great deal for the Fair happening this year.

Luckily, in 2022, ‘Destination City’ was being set up by a new Chair of Corporation Policy, Chris Hayward, who was keen to make his mark and that seemed to be the ideal time to ensure that Bartholomew Fair was on the table as a potential big deal.  I emailed him and wrote a letter, which I asked those responsible for the Hospital, Church and Museum to sign and delivered it to him and the new Director of Destination City in the summer of last year.  Finally, it was felt that this was exactly what the City needed to bring back attention other than Financial, to the Square Mile.
Timing is everything.