Travelling Fairs - a very British tradition

Living History

Travelling Fairs - a very British tradition

Travelling fairs are a British tradition, the majority tracing their ancestry back to charters and privileges granted in the Medieval period. They have provided a focus for local leisure activity on places like village greens for hundreds of years.

In the 13th century, the creation of such fairs by royal charter was widespread, with the Crown authorising new fairs, and bringing existing ones under its jurisdiction. The tradition of travelling fairs is still alive today.

By the 13th century, the majority of English fairs had been granted charters. This was, in effect, the control of revenues by the Crown, in return for the organisation to be able to visit a particular town, abbey or village. Between 1199 and 1350 over fifteen hundred charters were issued, granting the rights to hold markets or fairs.

There are three main types of fairs: ‘Prescriptive Fairs’ which were based on the principle of trading and were established by custom; ‘Charter Fairs’, which were granted and protected by Royal Charter; and ‘Mop Fairs’, which developed mainly in agricultural regions for the hiring of labourers.

By the 14th century a network of chartered and prescriptive fairs had been established throughout England. By the beginning of the 19th century, attractions such as theatrical booths, waxworks, and freak shows began to rise in popularity in the fairground industry. By the 1850s the trading element in fairs throughout the country were effectively replaced by entertainment. The notorious Bartholomew Fair had its charter proclaimed for the last time in 1855.

Changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution meant that travelling fairs faced competition from music halls, theatres and other travelling exhibitions like lantern shows, which presented in venues in town centres.

However, fairs continued to enjoy popularity, especially amongst the working classes. The Wakes fairs, for example, were associated with workers’ holidays. Then, the introduction of steam-powered roundabouts, and Frederick Savage's production of mechanised roundabouts, revolutionised the rides and designs on offer at fairs. Savage produced the classic 'Gallopers' in 1891.

By the end of the Victorian era, the landscape of the fairground was populated by rides of all kinds: steam yachts, switchbacks and galloping horses. Mechanisation made the fairground appear modern and futuristic, the latest attractions of the age such as ghost shows, cinematograph and x-ray photography were exploited by fairground showmen who advertised their attractions as being enjoyed by all classes of people.

Mechanisation reversed the declining fortune of travelling fairs from the end of the 19th century, and they became a feature of the holiday calendar. In the 20th century, new inventions like the Whip, the Caterpillar, the Waltzer and the Dodgems, added further enjoyment to the fairground.

Further reading

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