Tag Archive | Smithfield

Amusements of Old London: The Fairs

Amusements of Old London

William B. Boulton, 1901

“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

In a country such as England that drew much more of its income from agriculture than manufacturing in this time period, it is interesting to note that the most popular time for holidays and festivities was late summer and autumn, when farming activities intensified. Just at the time when gentlemen itched to be in the country at their hunting and field sports, the peers were called to London for the rise of Parliament.

And yet it was in those months that this instinct of the English taught them to lay aside their cares and get what enjoyment they could from the means nearest at hand. Before the era of railways and cheap travelling the great mass of the population of London never went twenty miles from St. Paul’s, and the sport they enjoyed took the form of the delights provided by Hockley in the Hole, the Ducking Ponds, and the Cockpits… And yet, as the summer passed away, and the dog-days raised a heat from the cobblestones which drove the dogs themselves into the shade of alley and entry, the common people of London, instead of panting for the water-brooks or the sea-shore, prepared themselves for the great carnivals which were prepared for their delight in one or other of the great fairs of the town.

These annual gatherings followed each other in quick succession in the hot months of the year in the not very promising surroundings of Smithfield, or Southwark, or Westminster. The glory of these entertainments was at its zenith at the beginning of the eighteenth century…

…[T]heir origin was religious, their development commercial, and their apotheosis an unrestrained indulgence in pleasure or license…

The St. Bartholomew Fair

(see more on the origins of the fair on another blog post)

In the late seventeenth century, amidst all the rope dancers, jugglers, and puppet shows, a well-known actor by the name of Penkethman set up a theatrical booth. A plethora of theatrical entertainers followed, including Doggett (a comedian famous from the annual waterman’s race on the Thames), Miller (from Drury Lane), Bullock, Simpson, Colley Cibber (poet laureate and member of White’s), Quin, Macklin, Woodward, Shuter, and many more. “The theatrical movement, in fact, became so pronounced that as time went on most of the favourite actors of the day did not disdain to tread the boards in the temporary booths of the fair.”

Colley Cibber, bust now at the National Portrait Gallery

Colley Cibber, bust now at the National Portrait Gallery

The dramatic entertainments which were in fashion at the fairs… consisted almost invariably of some prodigious long-winded scheme dealing with such portentous subjects as “The Loves of the Heathen Gods,” “The Creation of the World,” “The Siege of Troy,” “Jephthah’s Rash Vow,” “Tamerlane the Great,” lightened up with much comic relief, in which an eccentric English character took a part totally irrelevant to the particular epic comprised in the plot. These productions came to be called “drolls,” and you may trace int hese drolls the germs of many forms of variety entertainment popular to-day, including, perhaps, that of English pantomime… The puppet-shows… followed the dramatic taste set by the actors.

Bartholomew Fair indeed became so great a nursery of dramatic talent that many actors afterwards famous obtained their first chance at Smithfield. The fair became a sort of theatrical exchange, where managers during their annual visits were often able to find the valuable recruits, and where strolling players from the provinces were accustomed to attend in the hope of engagements with regular companies.

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding

…[T]he managers of the great theaters found it profitable to close their houses altogether… and take their companies to Smithfield, where they found they could earn more money from the audiences who flocked to their shows during the whole day than from the single performances of the patent theatres… Mr. Henry Fielding, for instance, fresh from Eton and Leyden, but without a guinea in his pocket… set up a booth, and for ten years provided an entertainment for the people at the fair… Fielding produced “The Beggars’ Opera” at Smithfield, occasionally trod the boards himself, and received the honour of a visit from the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1732, who were much delighted with his historical drama of “The Fall of Essex.”

Unfortunately, the activities of the fair were periodically harassed by “persecution from the puritanical busybodies… [who] frequently succeeded in closing the booths, and left the fair to the gin-stalls, gaming-tables, and jugglers, diversions which were presumably less vicious in their eyes…” Sometimes the “puritanical spirits” would persuade the city government to disallow the booths on the night before the fair. “The ordinary attractions of the fair would then be enlivened by a riot of first-class dimensions, which always resulted in assault and battery, and sometimes in sudden death.”

The end of the theatrical entertainments at Smithfield came about when the powers-that-be limited the fair from fourteen days to three. Three days didn’t pay an actor or manager enough to make it worthwhile. At that point, the attractions changed to such things as menageries of wild beasts, or spectacles such as the “double-cow” or the “mermaid.” As the nineteenth century approached and the audiences became less naïve, the entertainments became slightly more sophisticated, with lion tamers putting their heads in the lion’s mouth, rope-dancing, magicians, peep-shows, etc. Just the chance of rubbing shoulders with nobles and even royalty was enough to draw people to St. Bartholomew’s.

It was no uncommon sight at St. Bartholomew’s, to see an exquisite like Chesterfield, or a great minister like Sir Robert Walpole, with his star on his breast, tasting the diversions of the fair alone and on foot. Parties of bloods from White’s and Almack’s were not above exchanging humorous badinage with the fruit-sellers, or the prettier of the strollers or acrobats, or even chucking them under the chin.

Southwark Fair

The Southwark Fair, on St. Margaret’s Hill near Southwark Town Hall, originated in the year 1550 and continued for more than two hundred years.

As the 7th of September came around in each year, the same gin stalls, gaming-tables, gingerbread stalls, and theatrical booths which had delighted Smithfield were packed up, taken across the river, and displayed in all their attractiveness to new audiences of South Londoners at Southwark.

Although smaller in scale than the fair in Smithfield, the acrobat and rope-dancing acts excelled at Southwark, primarily because of the more laissez-faire attitude of the local government. Mr. Cadman, who used to swing his way on a rope across the street from St. George’s Church tower to the mint, eventually “came to a sad end in attempting a bold flight across the Severn at Shrewsbury.”


The humours of Southwark Fair inspired Mr. Hogarth in one of his finest efforts, wherein are reflected so admirably the life of his times, and that excellent plate of Southwark Fair is as good an illustration as need be of the importance of the festival among the popular diversions of the middle of the eighteenth century. The greatly daring acrobat on the rope stretching from the church tower to the Mint, which is out of the picture, is the great Mr. Cadman himself; the artist on the slack rope on the other side of the picture is a back view of the Violante. Mr. Figg, the famous “Master of the Noble Science of Self-defence,” displays his honourable wounds on the right. His booth is round the corner and he is riding through  the fair with very martial aspect to gather clients to witness a set-to between himself and some other bald-pated hero of the sword or quarter-staff. On the right of the pretty girl with the drum and the black page, who is effectively advertising the show which she represents, is Tamerlane the Great in full armour, being arrested by a bailiff. The enormous posters of the background, which almost blot out the church, and display the attractions of the Fall of Troy, the Royal Waxworks, and the wonderful performance of Mr. Banks and his horse, are all quite typical of the London fair, and Mr. Hogarth’s grim humour appears to perfection in the title of the show which he represents as tumbling into the street on the right, with its actors and orchestra and monkey on the pole, the “Fall Bagdad.” Note too the peep-show and the hag presiding over the gaming-table, and the pleasant glimpse of open country between the houses.

May Fair

See more about the May Fair here:

The End of the Great Fairs

These fairs mostly came to an end around the mid-eighteenth century, when the crowd became wilder, the entertainments more tawdry, and the patrons (such as the “great people of St. James’s”) harder to find. The days of when people could be entertained by simple things like tea gardens and fairs disappeared into the annals of history.

Amusements of Old London series

Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

This particular book is available at googlebooks for free in ebook form. Or you can pay for a print version.

The vow of a jester


Rahere, jester to King Henry I

This famous Fair, formerly held every year in Smithfield, at Bartholomewtide [August 24], and within the precinct of the Priory of St. Bartholomew, originated in a grant of land from Henry I., to his jester Rahere, who, disgusted by his manner of living, repented him of his sins, and undertook a pilgrimage to Rome. Here, attacked by sickness, he made a vow, that if he recovered his health, he would found a hospital for poor men. Being reinstated, and on his return to England to fulfill his promise, St. Bartholomew is said to have appeared to him in a vision, and commanded him to found a Church in Smithfield, in his name… The site, which had been previously pointed out in a singular manner to Edward the Confessor, as proper for a house of prayer, was a mere marsh, for the most part covered with water; while on that portion which was not so, stood the common gallows—”the Elms,” in Smithfield, which for centuries after continued to be the place of execution.

The Bartholomew Fair

St. Bartholomew's Church

St. Bartholomew’s Church

The Priory, however, looked to temporal as well as spiritual aid, for his foundation; and therefore, obtained a royal charter to hold a Fair annually at Bartholomewtide, for three days—on the eve, the fête-day of the saint, and the day after; “firm peace,” being granted to all persons frequenting the Fair of St. Bartholomew. This brought traders from all parts, to Smithfield: thither resorted clothiers and drapers, not merely of England, but all countries, who there exposed their goods for sale. The stalls or booths were erected within the walls of the priory churchyard, the gates of which were locked each night, and a watch was set in order to protect the various wares…


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, who died in 1560, and was 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 woolens; 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, rolls, and rarities were the new attractions to be seen; and the Fair was converted into a kind of London carnival for persons of every condition and degree of life. The Fair was proclaimed by the Lord Mayor, beneath the entrance arch of the priory; and its original connexion with the cloth trade was commemorated in a mock proclamation on the evening before, made by a company of drapers and tailors, who met at the Hand and Shears, a house of call for their fraternity in Cloth Fair, whence they marched and announced the Fair opened and concluded with shouting and the “snapping of shears.”

With respect to the tolls, Strype tells us that “Each person having a booth, paid so much per foot for the first three days. The Earl of Warwick and Holland is concerned in the toll gathered the first three days in the fair, being a penny for each burthen of good brought in or carried out; and to that end there are persons that stand at all the entrances into the Fair…


The Fair lengthens to fourteen days

“In the reign of Charles II., as might be expected, the Fair was extended from three to fourteen days, when all classes, high and low, visited the carnival.” Pepys mentioned walking up and down the fair grounds on August 30, 1667, and discovering Lady Castlemaine at a puppet-play, “and the street full of people, expecting her coming out.” In 1668, Pepys went to the fair “to see the mare that tells money, and many things to admiration, and then the dancing of the ropes, and also the Irish stage play, which is very ridiculous.”

(c) Dover Collections; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Dover Collections; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Theatrical booths were very popular. “Ben Jonson, the actor (says Dr. Rimbault), was connected with the booth before 1694, in which year he joined Cibber’s company; he was celebrated as the grave-digger in Hamlet…

Here were motions or puppet-shows of Jerusalem, Nineveh, and Norwich; and the Gunpowder Plot played nine times in an afternoon; wild beasts, dwarfs, and other monstrosities; operas and tight-rope-dancing and sarabands [dances]; dogs dancing the morris; the hare beating the tabor; and rolls of every degree.

Bartholomew Fair 1825

Bartholomew Fair 1825

From a newspaper in 1734:

At Goodwin’s Large Theatrical Booth, opposite the White Hart, in West Smithfield, near Cow Lane, the town will be entertained with a humorous Comedy of three acts, called ‘The Intriguing Footman, or the Spaniard Outwitted;’ with a Pantomime entertainment of Dancing, between a Soldier and a Sailor, and a Tinker and a Tailor, and Buxom Joan of Deptford.

At Hippisley and Chapman’s Great Theatrical Booth, in the George Inn Yard, Smithfield, the town will be humorously diverted with an excellent entertainment; Signor Arthurian, who has a most surprising talent at grimace, and will, on this occasion, introduce upwards of fifty whimsical, sorrowful, comical, and diverting faces.”

The fourteen days were found too long, for the excesses committed were very great; and in the year 1708, the period of the Fair was restricted to its old duration of three days.

Hogarth 1733

Hogarth 1733

Three days of revelry

The influence of the fair in the neighborhood was to make general holiday… We read that in Little Britain, “during the time of the Fair, there was nothing going on but gossiping and gadding about. The still quiet streets of Little Britain were overrun with an irruption of strange figures and faces; every tavern was a scene of rout and revel. The fiddle and the song are heard from the taproom, morning, noon, and night; and at each window might be seen some group of loose companions, with half-shut eyes, hats on one side, pipe in mouth, tankard in hand, fondling, and prosing, and singing maudlin songs over their liquor. Even the sober decorum of private families was no proof against this saturnalia. There was no such thing as keeping maid-servants within doors. Their brains were absolutely set maddening with Punch and the puppet-show; the flying horses; Signior Polito; the Fire-eater, the celebrated Mr. Paap; and the Irish Giant. The children, too, lavished all their holiday-money in toys and gilt gingerbread, and filled the house with the Lilliputian din of drums, trumpets, and penny whistles.”

V0014666 Bartholomew Fair, site of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Bartholomew Fair, site of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, pictured in 1721. Aquatint with etching, c. 1800. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Bartholomew Fan

The end of Bartholomew Fair

The Lord Mayor and Aldermen had, for 300 years, tried by orders, proclamations, juries, and presentments to abolish the Fair, but without effect; when the Court of Common Council took the work in hand. Having obtained entire control over the Fair by the purchase of Lord Kensington’s interest, they refused to let standings for shows and booths; they prevailed upon the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs to give up the practice of going to open the Fair in state, with a herald to proclaim it, and officers to marshal the procession; the posting of the proclamation about the streets, interdicting rioting and debauchery during the days of the Fair and within its precincts, were discontinued… In 1852, not a single show was to be seen on the ground; and in 1855 the Fair expired… and Bartholomew Fair was extinct.

Author’s Note: I’m thinking of having my Regency characters attend the fair, even though it was rather scandalous. What do you think?


Romance of London Series

  1. Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
  2. Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
  3. Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
  4. Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
  5. Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
  6. Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
  7. Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
  8. Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
  9. Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
  10. Romance of London: Lord Stowell’s Love of Sight-seeing
  11. Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax
  12. Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday
  13. Romance of London: Comments on Hogarth’s “Industries and Idle Apprentices”
  14. Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family
  15. Romance of London: St. Margaret’s Painted Window at Westminster
  16. Romance of London: Montague House and the British Museum
  17. Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble
  18. Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel
  19. Romance of London: Sir William Petty and the Lansdowne Family
  20. Romance of London: Marlborough House and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
  21. Romance of London: The Duke of Newcastle’s Eccentricities
  22. Romance of London: Voltaire in London
  23. Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper
  24. Romance of London: Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s Fear of Assassination
  25. Romance of London: Samuel Rogers, the Banker Poet
  26. Romance of London: The Eccentricities of Lord Byron
  27. Romance of London: A London Recluse