Bartholomew Fair



Bartholomew Fair was indisputably the most highly appreciated fair of the London public during the 17th and 18th centuries. It owed its creation to the King of England, Henri 1st Beauclerc (1068-1135), who granted by charter to Rahere, his former court jester turned monk, the right to organise an annual fair at Smithfield from the 23rd of August (the eve of Saint Bartholomew’s day) to the 25th included.

Under the reign of Charles II (1660 - 1685) the fair was prolonged to 15 days, despite protests from inhabitants of Smithfield who, from 1676, petitioned the local authorities to limit the duration to three days. A town council proclamation, printed in the Postman of 25th June 1700, prohibited “[to] Let, Set, Hire, or Use any Booth, Shed, Stall or other Erection whatsoever, to be used or employed for Interludes, Stage -Plays, Comedies, Gaming places, lotteries, disorderly Musik-meetings.”

In 1717, the local authorities renewed their ban and reduced the existence of the fair to three days “[owing to] the Great Vice and Prophaneness, occasion’d there by Stage -Plays.” (Repertories of the Court of Aldermen. Miscellaneous Papers Relating to Bartholomew and Southwark Fairs. Repertory 139: 233). This ban, constantly violated by the stall holders, was repeated in 1735, 1744, 1762 and 1776. In 1762, the crowd reacted very badly to the announcement that the theatre performances were cancelled and took out its anger on the inhabitants of the neighbourhood : “the populace enraged at this circumstance, broke the windows of almost every inhabitant of Smithfield.” (Annual Register, September 1762: 90). There were even several fruitless attempts to put an end to this fair completely, which according to the Gentleman’s Magazine“gave the profligate and abandon’d of both sexes, opportunity to debauch the innocent, defraud the unwary, and endanger the public pence.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1750 : 329).

In the course of the 19th century, the popularity of Bartholomew Fair declined and it was attended by fewer and fewer people, to the general satisfaction of the inhabitants of Smithfield.

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Success and Decline

During the 17th century, the main attractions at Bartholomew Fair were puppet shows, mime shows, tightrope walkers, jugglers and rope dancers. Added to this were comedy acts with performing dogs and monkeys, animal exhibitions and freak shows to attract the masses.

From 1698, the fair nevertheless took on another aspect. London actors saw Bartholomew as an easy way to earn money during the annual closure of their theatres and decided to put on plays in the fair itself. William Penkethman of Drury Lane Theatre was the first actor to appear on the stage of a ‘theatrical booth’ in 1698. Most of the plays at Bartholomew Fair were light-hearted comedies, fast-moving farces and pastiches obviously intended as parodies. Song or dance interludes enlivened the performances.

1715 - 1734 were peak years for Bartholomew Fair. The variety of fair attractions and stage shows (comic sketches, theatre plays, operettes and various recitals) satisfied all tastes. All classes of society flocked to Bartholomew Fair. In August 1732, the Prince of Wales and the royal Princesses attended incognito a performance of the Humours of the Forced Physician, adapted from Molière’s Le Médecin malgré lui. Other adaptations of Molière plays were also very much appreciated by the public, such as The Cheats of Scapin and The Miser. The Beggar’s Opera, which had been very successful at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in January 1728 was performed in a shortened version and fervently applauded.

The years 1735 - 1780, punctuated by a series of bans (see the history of Bartholomew Fair ), saw the slow but inevitable decline of the fair. An unfortunate accident also cast a shadow over the situation. On the 23rd August 1749, the gallery of a fair booth crammed with too many spectators collapsed, killing two and wounding several others. The theatre companies became all the more rare as the opening date of the fair, fixed in 1753 as the 3rd of September by the authorities, coincided too closely with the start of the theatre season in London. The actors’ departure was closely followed by that of the high society and the Great of the court (the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester made a last coach appearance there in 1778). From the 80s, Bartholomew Fair consisted only of simple popular entertainment and attractions for children. Calm and decency returned to Smithfield, as Thomas Pennant observed in his book Some Account of London (1793) 194: “Theatrical performances by the better actors were exhibited here, but, becoming the resort of the debauched of all nominations, certain regulations took place, which in later days have spoiled the mirth, but produced the desired decency.”

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A poster for Bartholomew Fair (n.d.)

By His Majesty’s Permission

At the King’s Head on the Paved Stones in West-Smithfield, during the time of Bartholomew-Fair is to be seen.

` The Eighth great Wonder of the World, viz. a young-Man about the 24th Year of his Age, who (tho he was born without Arms) performs all manner of Martial Exercises with his Feet: In the first place he beats the Drum and sounds the Trumpet, at one and the same time; he flourishes his Colours, plays at Back-Sword, Charges and Fires a Pistol with great Expedition and Dexterity: He also plays at Cards or Dice,and can also Comb his Head, and Shave his Beard: and does readily pull off his Hat and courteously salutes the Company, he uses a Fork at Meat; and will take a Glass in one Foot and a Bottle in the other and so fill the Glass and genteely drink a Health to the Company; Moreover he can thread a Needle, Embroider, and play upon several sorts of Musick; and what is yet more wonderful, writes Six sorts of very fair Hands. He has been but few days in England, but has had the Honour to show himself before most of the Princes and Princesses of Europe, and may be seen at any time of the Day, without Loss of Time. Vivat Rex.

The London Stage 1660-1800, ed. William Van Lennep (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1965) l:xlv.

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Bartholomew Fair about 1730
Anonymous fan, formerly attributed to Thomas Loggon (1706 - after 1754)
[click on the picture to enlarge it]


The type of shows and plays offered to the public in this picture point to a date slightly earlier than Hogarth’s Southwark Fair. It gives a more sympathetic and picturesque view of the other great London fair than Hogarth’s engraving.

Some fans represented theatres; they were also widely used in Bath