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Crowds throng the streets filled with rides and lined with gaily lit buildings.
Bartholomew Fair as illustrated in 1808

The Bartholomew Fair was one of London's pre-eminent summer charter fairs. A charter for the fair was granted by King Henry I to fund the Priory of St Bartholomew in 1133. It took place each year on 24 August within the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, London until 1855 when it was banned due to causing public disturbances.


Advertisement for a puppetry booth at Bartholomew Fair, circa 1700

Granted by charter from King Henry I to Rahere to fund the Priory of St Bartholomew in 1133, the fair became London's most important fair, it took place each year on 24 August within the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside Aldersgate of the City of London.[1] The site of Bartholomew Fair was the south-east side of Smithfield roundabout and was originally a cloth fair. Originally chartered as a three-day event, it would last a full two weeks in the 17th century; but in 1691, it was shortened to only four days.[2] With a change in the calendar, the fair commenced on 3 September from 1753.[3] A trading event for cloth and other goods as well as a pleasure fair, the event drew crowds from all classes of English society.[4][5]

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.[2][3] 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.[3]

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 wild animals.[3]

The fair was suppressed in 1855 by the City authorities for encouraging debauchery and public disorder.[3][6] 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."[7]

In literature and art

Print of the Bartholomew Fair meant to be shaped into a hand fan, 1721.

The Bartholomew Fair is the setting for Bartholomew Fair, a play by Ben Jonson. Samuel Pepys wrote about the fair in his diary. John Evelyn also refers in his diary to having visited "the celebrated follies of Bartholomew Fair" on 16 August 1648 . In Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) the heroine meets a well-dressed gentleman at the fair. In Wordsworth's The Prelude (1805) mention is made of the din and the Indians and dwarfs at the fair.[8] The Bartholomew Fair of 1845 features as the primary location of The Wireless Theatre Company's "The Carnival Of Horrors", the second episode of "The Springheel Saga, Series Two: The Legend of Springheel'd Jack".[9]

See also


  1. ^ Mount, Toni (15 March 2014). Everyday Life in Medieval London: From the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors. Amberley Publishing Limited. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-1-4456-1564-6.
  2. ^ a b Chisholm 1911.
  3. ^ a b c d e City of London. "Smithfield Market" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 March 2009. Retrieved 23 March 2009.
  4. ^ Morley, Henry (1859). Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair. London. ISBN 1-4437-4944-3.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  5. ^ Walford, Cornelius (1883). Fairs, Past and Present. B. Franklin. pp. 164–244. ISBN 0-8337-3668-X.
  6. ^ Cavendish, Richard (2005). "London's Last Bartholomew Fair: September 3rd, 1855". History Today. 55 (9): 52.
  7. ^ Knapp, Andrew; Baldwin, William (1825). The Newgate Calendar. Vol. 2. London: J. Robins & Co. p. 15. Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  8. ^ Glinert, E., Literary London: A Street by Street Exploration of the Capital's Literary Heritage, Penguin, 2007
  9. ^ "THE LEGEND OF SPRINGHEEL'D JACK, Series Two, Episode Two". Yes. Retrieved 11 March 2014.

External links

51°31.1′N 0°6′W / 51.5183°N 0.100°W / 51.5183; -0.100

11 Annotations

First Reading

Paul Brewster  •  Link

L&M say that fair "ran at this time [1660] from 23 August to 6 September."

Paul Brewster  •  Link

"BARTHOLOMEW FAIR, a fair held in West Smithfield, London, on 'St Bartholomew's Day (24th of August, O.S.) from 1133 to 1855. The charter authorizing its holding was granted by Henry I. to his former minstrel, Rahere, who had taken orders and had founded the priory of St Bartholomew close by. For many centuries the fair lasted a fortnight, but in 1691 it was shortened to four days only. In 1641 it had become so large that it involved no less than four parishes: Christ Church, Great and Little St Bartholomew's and St Sepulchre's. It was customary for the lord mayor of London to open the fair formally on St Bartholomew's Eve, and on his way to stop at Newgate where he received from the governor a cup of sack. In 1753, owing to the change in the calendar, the fair was proclaimed on the 3rd of September. During its earlier history the fair grew to be a vast national market and the chief cloth sale in the kingdom. Down to 1854 it was usual for the representative of the Merchant Taylors' Gild to proceed to the cloth fair which formed part of Bartholomew fair, and test the measures used for selling cloth there by the company's silver yard. The fair was finally closed in 1855.” From the 1911 Encyclopedia

Albert Sanchez Moreno  •  Link

"Bartholomew Faire" is also the name of a play by Ben Jonson, and that is probably what Pepys means when he says he saw it in the theatre and that it was well-acted.

mr m  •  Link

this is obviously the right area centered around the Cloth industry...makes sense ...just need to know who he was working for perhaps the Merchant Taylors guild....Census says Liberty Glass House Silver Yard Charterhouse Sq

Rex Gordon  •  Link

From Peter Ackroyd's "London: The Biography," Chapter 13:

Show! Show! Show! Show! Show! This was the cry of a 17th-century city crowd, as recorded in Ned Ward's "London Spy." There were indeed many shows to be seen on the London streets, but the greatest fair of all was held at Smithfield. It was known as Bartholomew's Fair.

Smithfield itself began as a simple trading area, for cloth in one place and cattle in another, but its history has always been one of turbulence and spectacle. Great jousts and tournaments were held there in the 14th century; it was the ritual place for duels and ordeal by battle; it was the home of the gallows and the stake. That festive nature was also evident in less forbidding ways. Football matches and wrestling contests were commonly staged and the appropriately named Cock Lane, just beyond the open ground, was the haunt of prostitutes. Miracle plays were also part of its entertainment.

The trading market for cloth had become outmoded by the middle of the 16th century but "the privileges of the fair" were still retained by the city corporation. So, instead of a three-day market, it was transformed into a fourteen-day festival which resounds through the plays and novels of succeeding centuries with the cry of "What do you lack? What is it you buy?" From the beginning of its fame there were puppet shows and street performers, human freaks and games of dice and thimble, canvas tents for dancing or for drinking, eating-houses which specialised in roast pork.

This was the fair which Jonson celebrated in his play of the same name. He notes the sound of rattles, drums and fiddles. Here on the wooden stalls were laid out mousetraps and gingerbread, purses and pouches. There were booths and toyshops. Displayed "at the sign of the Shoe and Slap" was "THE WONDER OF NATURE, a girl about sixteen years of age, born in Cheshire, and not above eighteen inches long ... Reads very well, whistles, and all very pleasant to hear." Close by was exhibited "a Man with one Head and two distinct Bodies," as well as a "Giant Man" and "Little Fairy Woman" performing among other freak shows and theatrical booths. There were puppies, whistling birds and horses for sale; there were ballads cried out, with bottled ale and tobacco being constantly consumed. Cunning men cast nativities, and prostitutes plied their trade. Jonson himself noted small details, too, and watched as the cores of apples were gathered up for the bears. As one of his characters puts it, "Bless me! deliver me, help, hold me! the Fair!"

It continued, curiously enough, during the Puritan Commonwealth, no doubt with the primary motive of venting the steam of the more unruly citizens, but flourished after the Restoration of 1660 when liberty and licence came back into fashion. One versifier of the period notes masquerades dramatising "The Woman of Babylon, The Devil and The Pope," as well as shows of dancing bears and acrobats. Some acts came year after year: there was the "Tall Dutchwoman" who made annual appearances for at least seventeen years, together with the "Horse and no Horse, whose tail stands where his head should do." And there were always rope-walkers, among them the famous Scaramouch "dancing on the rope, with a wheelbarrow before him with two children and a dog in it, with a duck on his head," and the notable rope-dancer Jacob Hall "that can jump it, jump it." Perhaps the most celebrated of all the acts, however, was that of Joseph Clark, "the English Posture Master" or "Posture Clark" as he was known. It seems that he could "put out of joynt almost any Bone or Vertebra of his Body, and to re-place it again"; he could so contort himself that he became unrecognisable even to his closest friends.

And so the fair went on, as all fairs do. There was even a Ferris wheel, known then as a "Whirligig" (later an "up and Down") where, according to Ned Ward in "The London Spy" (1709), "Children lock'd up in Flying Coaches who insensibly climb'd upwards ... being once Elevated to a certain height come down again according the the Circular Motion of the Sphere they move in."

The general noise and clamour, together with the inevitable crowd of pickpockets, finally proved too much for the city authorities. In 1708 the fortnight of the fair was reduced to three days at the end of August. But if it became less riotous, it was no less festive. Contemporary accounts dwell upon the drollery of "merry Andrews," otherwise known as Jack Puddings or Pickled Herrings; they wore a costume with donkey's ears, and accompanied other performers with their fiddles. One of the more famous fools was a seller of gingerbread nuts in Covent Garden; since he was paid one guinea a day for his work at Bartholomew Fair, "he was at pains never to cheapen himself by laughing, or by noticing a joke, during the other 362 days of the year."

Alonside the merry Andrews leapt the mountebanks who sold miracle cures and patent medicines to those credulous enough to purchase them. In an illustration by Marcellus Laroon one such is dressed as a harlequin from commedia dell'arte with a monkey tied to a rope beside him. His voice, too, might be heard among the general noise and tumult - "a rare cordial to strengthen and cheer the Heart under any Misfortune ... a most rare dentifrice ... good to fortifie the stomach against all Infections, Unwholesome damps, malignant effluvias." And so the fair rolled on. It is perhaps appropriate, amid the noise and excitement, that in 1688 John Bunyan collapsed and died at the corner of Snow Hill and Cock Lane.

If there was one central character, however, it was that of Punch, the uncrowned monarch of "puppet-plays, hobby-horses, tabors, crowds, and bagpipes." He had emerged upon the little stage by the end of the 17th century, announced by a jester and accompanied by fiddle, trumpet or drum. He is not a uniquely London phenomenon, but he became a permanent entertainer at the fairs and streets of the city; with his violence, his vulgarity and his sexual innuendo he was a recognisable urban character. "Often turning towards a tightly packed bend of girls, he sits himself down near to them: My beautiful ones, he says, winking roguishly, here's a girl friend come to join you!" With his great belly, big nose and long stick he is the very essence of a gross sexual joke which, unfortunately, in later centuries became smaller, squeakier, and somehow transformed into entertainment for children. There is a watercolour by Rowlandson, dated 1785, which shows a puppet-play with Punch in action. George III and Queen Charlotte are driving to Deptford, but the attention of the citizens is drawn more towards the wooden booth where Punch is beating the bare buttocks of his wife. He was often conceived as a "hen-pecked" husband but, here, the worm has turned. Rowlandson's work is of course partly conceived as a satire against the royal family, but it is filled with a greater and all-encompassing urban energy.

Within Bartholomew Fair itself there was a complete erasure of ordinary social distinctions. One of the complaints against it lay in the fact that apprentice and lord might be enjoying the same entertainments, or betting at the same gaming tables. This is entirely characteristic of London itself, heterogeneous and instinctively egalitarian. It is no coincidence, for example, that at the time of the Fair an annual supper was held in Smithfield for young chimney-sweeps. Charles Lamb has immortalised the occasion in one of his essays, "The Praise of Chimney Sweepers," where he reports that "hundreds of grinning teeth startled the night with their brightness" while in the background could be heard the "agreeable hubbub" of the Fair itself. It might be argued that there is no true egalitarianism in the gesture, and that such solemn festivities merely accustom the little "'weeps" to their dismal fate. This might then be considered one of the paradoxes of London, which consoles those whom it is about to consume.

Terry Foreman  •  Link

Bartholomew Fair

The Bartholomew Fair was one of London's pre-eminent summer Charter fairs. A charter for the fair was granted to Rahere by Henry I to fund the Priory of St Bartholomew; and from 1133 to 1855 it took place each year on 24 August within the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside Aldersgate of the City of London. The fair continued, after the Dissolution within the Liberty of the parish of St Bartholomew-the-Great.

Whereas the fair was charted to be a three day event, it would last a full two weeks in the 17th century; but in 1691, it was shortened to only four days.
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 wild animals.…

Ruben  •  Link

"Memoirs of Bartholomew fair: with facsimile drawings, engraved upon wood, by Henry Morley, published in London. Chapman and Hall, 193, Piccadilly, 1859.
All about the fair, cited in Peter Ackroid's London (cited by Rex Gordon sometime ago), the original book scanned for you by Google can be seen at:…

page 244 is where you will find the incident with the "sixteen years of age wonder of nature".
The book continues with the "ridiculous obscene little stage-play, called "Marry Audrey", and then with "Jacob Hall, the rope dancer". And circus animals. And Lady Castlemaine's relation to the rope dancer.
All to be read and portrait of this rope dancer to be seen in page 246. They are a lot of interesting reading in the book. See also page 251 for more on Pepys (other pages are interesting but not directly related to Pepys).

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

Bartholomew Fair, a once famous fair, held every year in Smithfield, and so called because it was kept at Bartholomew Tide, and held within the precinct of the Priory of St . Bartholomew in Smithfield. The duration of the Fair was limited by Henry II. to three days (the Eve of St. Bartholomew, the day, and the morrow), and the privilege of holding it assigned by the same sovereign to the Prior of St. Bartholomew. This was for several centuries the great Cloth Fair of England. Clothiers repaired to it from the most distant parts, and had booths and standings erected for their use within the precinct of the Priory, on the site of what is now called Cloth Fair. The gates of the precinct were closed at night for the protection of property, and a Court of Pie Poudre erected within its verge for the necessary enforcement of the laws of the Fair, of debts and legal obligations. In this court,— according to Blackstone, "the most expeditious court of justice known to the law of England,"—offences were tried the same day, and the parties punished, in the stocks or at the whipping-post, directly after condemnation.
At the dissolution of religious houses the privilege of the Fair was in part transferred to the Mayor and Corporation, and in part to Richard Rich, Lord Rich (d.1560), ancestor of the Earls of Warwick and Holland. It ceased, however, to be a "Cloth Fair" of any great importance in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The drapers of London found another and more extensive market for their woollens; and the clothiers, in the increase of communication between distant places, a wider field for the sale of their manufactures. It subsequently became a Fair of a very diversified character. Monsters, motions, i.e. puppetshows, drolls, and rarities, were the new commodities to be seen. The three days were extended to fourteen, the Fair commencing on August 22 instead of September 2; and Bartholomew Fair was converted into a kind of London Carnival for persons of every condition and degree in life. The serious-minded Evelyn records his having seen "the celebrated follies," as he calls them, of the place.
---London, Past and Present. H.B. Wheatley, 1891.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.