The George Cruickshank monthly print for September is a lively image of the Bartholomew fair, held at Smithfield from 1133 until Victorian moral outrage finally suppressed it in 1855.
Its origins were in the cloth fair which provided much of the income for the priory and hospice dedicated to St Bartholomew that eventually became today’s Bartholomew’s Hospital (“Barts”). The fair, one of the largest in the country, was held for three days from the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day (24th August). With the change of calendars in the 18th century the date slipped to 3rd September.
At the same time as the cloth fair the Corporation of London held a cattle fair at the same site and eventually, after many wrangles and the Dissolution of the monasteries, the Corporation took over the whole event.
By the 17th century the fair was more a vast funfair than a cloth or cattle sale and even the Puritans did not try and shut it down. By the time Charles II was on the throne it lasted for three weeks of carnival and downright disorder.
Everyone, rich or poor, went to the Fair, including Samuel Pepys who records numerous visits over the years. On September 2nd 1664 he watched the rope-dancing and bought combs for his wife and her maids.
Entertainments included theatrical performances, jugglers, magicians, stalls selling every kind of trinket, animal shows, food stalls, freaks and vast amounts of drink. The print for a fan dated 1721 shows a rather tidy and sedate fair, but does illustrate some of the activities – rope dancers, Faux the conjuror, rides in a dog cart, an early form of Ferris wheel, a peepshow of the Siege of Gibraltar and a stall selling “toys” – not children’s playthings but adult novelties and trinkets. Dolls known as Bartholomew Babies were one of the most popular souvenirs.
By the later 18th century Richardson’s booth was considered to have the best theatrical entertainments. He charged 6d admission (most others only charged a penny) and the tent was lined with green baize, illuminated by 2,000 lamps and the ushers were dressed as beefeaters. One can be seen to the right of Cruickshank’s print.
A visitor in 1825 records seeing “four lively little crocodiles hatched from eggs at Peckham by steam, Wombwell and his menageries [and] a glass blower in a glass wig blowing tea cups for 3d each.” An account of the money made by stallholders in 1828 gives an idea of the type of sideshows – the Pig-Faced Lady earned £150 (at 1d a time), the Panorama of the Battle of Navarino, £60 and the Chinese Juggler, £50. Wombwell’s Menagere made £1,500.
Cruickshank’s image shows a daytime scene with many children in the crowd – although even then the place is crowded and the bull-baiting appears to have got completely out of control. The coloured image by Pugin and Rowlandson for the Microcosm of London in 1801 shows a much darker, night-time scene, hinting at danger, debauchery and sin.
The Victorians certainly did not approve. In 1840 a committee regulated the booths and increased the rents and forbade “giants and dwarfs”. City notables ceased their support and by 1850 it was so reduced that it was no longer worth having an opening ceremony. In 1855 it ceased to exist, leaving only its name as a bye-word for uncontrolled fun for every class.
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