Why were local fairs important?

Engraving in the collection at Parke Estate, Devon

The local fair was a site for trade, celebrating community identity, and welcoming outsiders to a town or village. There were hundreds of fairs across Britain, often occupying the same site on the same date for centuries. Fairs usually had a dual purpose of business and pleasure, and were a key festive celebration in the local calendar. They were often held in autumn, just after the harvest, or in spring, when travel became easier after winter.

The origins of the fair

It is often difficult to know exactly when a fair began, as many started informally, growing around places of worship and the timing of religious festivals that would draw large crowds.

Many started in the early Middle Ages, but there were probably similar events in Roman Britain and even earlier.

Fairs thrived in Britain for centuries. Bartholomew Fair, in London and Stourbridge Fair, near Cambridge, were two of the largest. Each boasted hundreds of stalls featuring traders and entertainers from all over the country.

It was not just large towns that hosted such events, and even small villages might have a popular annual fair.

An eclectic occasion

A wide variety of goods were available at fairs, from farm tools and cloth, to household necessities and small luxury goods.

Permanent shops were rare outside major cities before the late eighteenth century, and only local merchants were allowed to conduct business in a town in the normal course of the year. The fair was therefore a rare opportunity to buy products from further afield.  

Entertainment was a key part of the fair, with visiting theatre troupes, musicians, exotic animals and other curiosities all on display.

History detective

Fairs largely became recreational events around the 1830s, as the rise of the railways changed how goods were moved around the country and fixed shops became well established.

Many towns and villages still hold an annual fair. Tavistock Goose Fair, in Devon, dates back to the twelfth century, and the Black Cherry Fair in Chertsey is thought to have begun with a royal charter in 1440.

Even when the fair has been discontinued, you can still find clues to their location in the names of streets and squares around Britain. For example the Horsefair, a street in central Bristol, was named after St James’s Fair held in the nearby churchyard. 

Historical sites of local fairs: