WALSALL CARPETS. ABC CARPET ADDRESS
Bristol's Great Fairs had a reputation for wild characters, assault, robbery and all kinds of sex for sale.
Bristol’s Great Fairs are little more than a memory now, recalled only in street names like Horsefair and Haymarket. But in their day, they were regarded as the most crime-ridden and dissolute markets in Britain. And they were so famous that, for centuries, the Navy had to patrol the Bristol Channel at fair time to stop visitors being attacked or kidnapped by pirates and slavers.
The annual Sr James’ Fair in September was such a magnet for traders that, in 1636, 12 Turkish warships were spotted off Cornwall, waiting to waylay people heading to Bristol. And every year there were reports of raiders hanging around the sea approaches to Bristol, looking for rich pickings in slaves or trade goods and navy frigates patrolled regularly to frighten them off.
It may have been St James’ Fair, the best known, which brought one of the many outbreaks of plague to Bristol in the seventeenth century. The City Corporation at the time was deeply concerned that the disease would travel to Bristol on goods brought in from London. It banned all leather goods and upholstery, but the London wholesalers appealed to the government, saying they made most of their annual income at Bristol. The government quashed the Bristol ban, and left the city open to infection.
Historian John Latimer left a wonderfully evocative description of the fair at its height. ‘Blankets and woollens from Yorkshire, silks from Macclesfield, linens from Belfast and Lancashire, carpets
from Kidderminster, cutlery from Sheffield, hardware from Walsall and Wolverhampton, china and earthenware from Staffordshire and other counties, cotton stockings from Tewkesbury, lace from Buckinghamshire and Devon, trinkets from Birmingham and London, ribbons from Coventry, buck and hog skins for breeches, hats and caps, millinery, haberdashery, female ornaments, sweetmeats and multitudinous toys from various quarters arrived in heavily laden wagons and were joined by equally large contributions from the chief industries of the district.
‘To these again were added nearly all the travelling exhibitions and entertainments then in the country - menageries, circuses, theatres, puppet shows, waxworks, flying coaches, rope-dancers, acrobats, conjurors, pig-faced ladies, living skeletons, and mummers of all sort who attracted patrons by making a perfect din.
‘It need scarcely be added that the scene attracted a too plentiful supply of pickpockets, thieves, thimble-riggers and swindlers of every genus. The fair attracted everyone, from the Duke of Beaufort’s children to the off spring of the rowdy and dangerous Kingswood colliers. There were stalls everywhere and what Latimer calls ‘standing places’, wooden constructions that took a month to build.
But as the years went by, the business side of the fair gradually decreased and the entertainment side increased, as did the number of bush houses (unlicensed drinking dens). The nine-day fair gradually extended to become a fortnight and, as Latimer puts it, a centre of corruption and demoralisation.’
Everyone piously condemned the fair, but made so much money out of it that nothing was done. In 1813, a St James church member even offered ?3,000 - a huge amount then - to have the fair suppressed. It was contemptuously rejected as much less than the profits made.
St James was one of two great Bristol Fairs; the other was St Paul’s, which took place on March 1st at the end of winter. In the weeks leading up to the fairs, civic business was postponed, and householders made some useful cash letting rooms to visitors from all over the country.
The London fashion trade saw the Bristol fairs as a great showcase, and wholesalers of every kind of goods turned up from around the world to see what Britain had to sell. Poet Laureate Robert Southey, who was born in Bristol, went to one fair as a child where a shaved monkey was exhibited as a genuine fairy, and an equally hairless bear was dressed in checked coat and trousers, sat in a chair and labelled as an Ethiopian savage. The Bristol Great Fairs were abolished in 1838 when the thieving and bawdry became too much, even for cash-hungry Bristolians.
As Latimer puts it primly: ‘The decree put an end to saturnalia of which but a faint conception can be formed in our times.’
At a meeting of the Council on the 16th July, 1838, the fair annually held in St. James's Churchyard in the month of September, as well as the March fair held in Temple Street, was abolished ; and fairs for the sale of live stock exclusively were ordered to be held in the cattle market on the two first days of March and September.
Bristol may have had two of the biggest but there were once fairs everywhere; Somerset alone had 94, including Shepton Mallet, where wives were once sold, but also where butchers from Bristol and Bath bought up to 400 fatted calves a day. Bath once had four fairs (one for the King, o