A Short Spin Through The History of the Funfair
Buckle up for a rollercoaster ride through the centuries
In they came, a caravan of lorries, blocking the roads of the little Staffordshire village of Endon. People came from their houses on that July bank holiday to witness this brightly coloured parade make its stately progress through the lanes.
Onto the field they went and within hours, like butterflies from chrysalises, sprung forth ferris wheels and helter skelters, and candy floss machines and whack-a-mole.
The residents were used to that procession, it was a yearly event, but still they liked to see it. For that weekend, a field that usually contains sheep would instead a centre of illusion, spectacle and laughter. These are the essential components of a funfair – and ever has it been so. The funfair was a medieval innovation and any yeoman of the 12th or 13th century would recognise the essentials of the ye olde funfair were not much different from the modern version.
There were many great fairs back then, but perhaps the greatest was Bartholomew which took place at West Smithfield in London. King Henry I – not usually known for jolliness – granted it a charter in 1133 in order that he might raise funds for the Priory of St Bartholomew. It grew to be an enormous event – half trade show and half entertainment, with food stalls and jesters and mime artists all plying their trade.
It thrived for 7 centuries until the City of London decided – surprise, surprise – it was a bit too raucous, not quite the thing. So, in 1855 it was suppressed. The Newgate Calendar denounced the shindig as “school of vice which has initiated more youth into the habits of villainy than Newgate Prison itself”, which seems slight exaggerated.
By the turn of the 20th century, the funfair had grown to be solely about entertainment, a great miasma of sounds and sights. Helter skelters were joined by ferris wheels, though often these were drawn by hand by gangs of youths. A broader access to electricity and the advent of the motor would revolutionise them – suddenly things became so much bigger, so much brighter.
In a sense, the travelling fair became a great showcase of modernity – many people, for instance, saw their first film while in the warming embrace of a big top tent. The rides grew more elaborate too, until there was ghost trains as well as the hall of mirror; rollercoasters as well as the waltzers. They provided people of all backgrounds a moment of release from the cares of life. They were escapism of the purest time.
A fly landed in the ointment in the 1960s. The advent of the package holiday would have unhappy consequences for the funfair. They were no longer the most immediate and the most accessible form of escapism. Why spend a long weekend at the fair, when you might spend a long weekend in Malaga? And so they began to whither on the vine. The funfair was no longer king.
Still, though, as the villagers of Endon will tell you. They are not dead yet. It is estimated that 100 fairs a weekend take place in the UK in the summer. And we couldn’t be happier about it
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