The history of Cambridge Fairs


According to Starsmore[1], "fairs originate in the desire to entertain and to travel". He quotes others who have suggested that "the real beginnings are to be found in pre-history in the ceremonial games held near barrows, stone circles and boundaries". He goes on to say that "historically speaking both economic and religious significance attaches to the fairs". The Romans may have initiated many trade fairs in Britain and the Saxons and Normans often instituted fairs in the interests of the Church. He recognies that economic and religious aspects "grew increasingly divorced from one another, resulting in the emergence of the fairs we now know". The story of fairs has a much richer history that deserves our attention.

The majority of fairs held in England trace their ancestry back to charters and privileges granted in the Medieval period. In the thirteenth century the creation of fairs by royal charter was widespread with the Crown making every attempt to create new fairs and to bring existing ones under their jurisdiction. Fines and stall holders' fees made a charter a valuable possession. Potentially, this remains the case today - the Cambridge City Council Act 1985 states[2] that:

"The Council may specify the stallages, rents and tolls in respect of all fairs within the city ... and may alter or add to such stallages, rents and tolls."

Over 1,500 charters were issued in the Medieval period[3]. Their history can be found in the National Fairground Archive[4].

Nobody knows when fairs first started in the Cambridge area. There were four annual fairs of significance that date from the Middle Ages: Garlic Fair, Reach Fair, Stourbridge Fair and Midsummer Fair[5]. They all started as places of revelry. Then trade became a dominant factor - Cambridge held a strategic location at the head of the fenland river system with good land routes to East Anglia, the East Midlands and the London area. Trade then declined as communications improved elsewhere and other towns developed their own commercial facilities. Those fairs that remain today have reverted mainly to places of entertainment.

Garlic Fair

The Cambridge Nunnery of St Mary and St Radegund was founded in 1133[6]. According to Cam[7] and Cooper[8], Garlic Fair was granted to the Benedictine nuns there by King Stephen in the mid 12th century. Willis and Clark[9] disagree saying that it was granted to St Radegund by Henry VI in 1438. However, it is generally agreed that the Fair was held in mid August (the Christian festival of the Assumption or the pagan Lammas). It was always low-key and few details remain in written records[10]. Nevertheless, its longevity must mean that it had some economic and social significance in the Cambridge area[11].

The Fair was initially held within the walls of the nunnery in what was the Nuns' Close and is now the Jesus College Master's garden[12]. In 1496 the nunnery was dissolved and its buildings and grounds were taken over by the newly-founded Jesus College[13]. Garlic Fair continued regardless and the College accounts show a sum of £1 being received annually as profits[10]. The Fair then moved along Jesus Lane to the corner of what became known as Garlic Fair Lane and is now Park Street[10]. It continued there until its eventual demise at the beginning of the 19th century[10].

Jesus College Chapel which was the church of St Radegund[14]

Reach Fair

Reach Lode[18]

The hamlet of Reach is 9 miles outside Cambridge[15] and stands on a Green where the Devil's Dyke (the great Anglo-Saxon defensive earthwork) meets the end of Reach Lode (part of the fen waterway). It derives its name, and its existence as a settlement, from the strip (rece) of land it occupies. Its history is well documented[16]. Reach was one of Cambridgeshire's inland ports dating from Roman times[17]. In the 12th century there was much loading and unloading of merchandise. Imports of timber and iron from the Baltic countries were matched by exports of corn and clunch (dug from local quarries)[11]. Imports of coal, wine and bricks were recorded in the 18th century[11].

Reach Green[18]

In 1200, a Royal Charter from King John gave the burgesses of Cambridge specific privileges. One of these was to have a fair in Rogation week (which replaced the pagan festival of May Day)[19]. The charter does not name Reach as the actual location of this fair but this connection has been made[20]. No charter would have been sought or granted had there not already been a considerable trade at Reach. The fines and stall holders' fees made the charter a valuable possession. In the 14th century the borough took two thirds of the tolls levied and the prior of Ely the remaining third[21]. In 1511, the first recorded financial statement for the Fair reported profits of only 6s 2d[11]. After the Reformation all the profits of the Fair were appropriated by the borough, despite objections from the dean and chapter of Ely[22].

Trade was a dominant feature of the Fair. In the early 14th century, Ramsey Abbey's bailiff at Burwell was buying iron to make ploughshares and nails for cartwheels; the Ely sacrist and his servants bought mainly timber, pegs, and nails[23]. In the 14th and 15th centuries several alewives, six to ten in some years, had brewed beer specially for sale at the Fair[24]. The Fair became known as the Horse Fair by 1432[25]. The lines of beasts, then often fen-raised half-breeds, were secured to stakes each side of the green and sometimes stretched for half a mile down the Burwell road[26]. Sales were partly of riding nags, but chiefly of carthorses. The Fair remained important for the sale of horses into the 20th century, when the main stock was Welsh ponies[27].

By the late 16th century the Mayor of Cambridge was proclaiming the Fair open[28]. He and others of the corporation in their robes arrived by carriage at the market place[29]; there was feasting and parades on a grand scale. Taylor suggests[11] that by the 19th century the Fair had become a mere excuse for an outing of the Corporation. No surprise, therefore, that in 1837 a corporate dinner to be held after the proclamation was abandoned as being too extravagant[30]. A local newspaper[31] reported on the Fair in 1914 saying that:

"It was a triumph of private enterprise. The total cost to the rates of the Borough amounted to £2.9s and the revenue from the tolls came to £1.14s.2d, a difference from last year when the ratepayers were over £20 out of pocket. Muncipal dignity was sadly shorn of its trappings in the noble cause of economy."
The Mayor arrives at Reach Fair[32]

The Cambridge Corporation Act 1850[33] reinforced the Fair's existence and located it within " half a mile of the site of the ancient chapel in Reach"[34]. After 1900 Reach Fair became chiefly a pleasure fair with showmen, dancing, games, rides, entertainment, and arts and crafts. A local newspaper[35] reported that the greatest attraction in 1904 was "the loquacity of a quack who, after paying one or two people a shilling each for the privilege of extracting their unsound teeth, did a brisk trade among the crowd he thus collected selling patent medicine for most of the ills of mankind". The Fair still runs today but is now timed to coincide with the Spring Bank Holiday[36]. The Mayor of Cambridge still attends and proclaims the Fair open.

Reach Fair in old times[32]
Morris dancing at Reach Fair[37]
Song about Reach Fair[38]

Stourbridge Fair

Stourbridge Fair is of great antiquity. It seems probable that it was to this mart at Cambridge that the Irish merchants brought cloth and other goods in the 10th century reign of King Athelstan[39]. Another story is told about its originator being a clothier from Kendal who wetted his cloth, sold it as a bargain and returned the next year to many waiting townsfolks[40]. This early history has been disputed[41]. It is known that in the early 12th century a Leper Chapel (also known as the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene) was established close to Stourbridge Common and in 1199 it was given royal dispensation to hold a three day fair in order to raise money to support the lepers[42]. The Fair took place around the Vigil and Feast of the Holy Cross (12 and 14 September) on the Common[43].

King John formally granted the Fair to the brethren of the hospital of St. Mary Magdalen at Sterebridgen in 1211[44]. The Fair then grew to become the largest Medieval fair in Europe and raised so much money that the priest at the Leper Chapel became one of the most lucrative jobs in the Church of England[45]. The job was also a sinecure since, in 1279, the leper hospital ceased to admit new lepers and what few lepers remained were moved to a new colony near Ely[42]. The Chapel itself had no parish so there was no need to maintain any religious services there[42].

Under legislation passed in 1546, the Chapel was closed and its property was handed over to the Crown[42]. It has since been conserved and remains as one of the oldest building in Cambridge and is maintained by the Cambridge Preservation Society for visiting and worship[45].

Old engraving of the Leper Chapel
The Leper Chapel as it is today
Privy Council Order

In 1539 King Henry VIII granted the rights and profits of the Fair to the magistrates and corporation of Cambridge[39]. The rights proved to be very profitable for centuries to come. Tensions developed between the University, which wanted to exert more control on behaviour at the Fair, and the Burgesses who were in favour of expansion for financial gain. By an order of the Privy Council in 1547, the Mayor and Undersheriff of the county were required not only to acknowledge before the Vice-Chancellor, heads of colleges and proctors that they had interfered with the privileges of the University in Stourbridge Fair, but also "that the Mayor, in the common hall, shall openly, among his brethren, acknowledge his wilfull proceeding"[46]. The breach consisted in John Fletcher, the Mayor, having refused to receive into the tolbooth certain persons of "naughty and corrupt behaviour" who were "prisoners, taken by the proctors of the University, in the last Sturbridge Fair" wherefore he was called before the lords and others of the Council, and his fault therein "so plainly and justly opened" that he could not deny it, but did "sincerely and willingly confess his said fault"[46].

In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I issued Letters Patent which stated that the Fair "far surpassed the greatest of and most celebrated fairs of all England"[47] and gave control over the Fair's merchandise to the University but the Town retained the profits. The Town was supposed to use all its profits for taxes to the Crown and to cover costs for "ways, streets, ditches and other burthens"[47]. Descriptions from later years suggest that a lot of the profits must have been consumed by corporate feasting and there was probably also a degree of corruption in its administration. The Letters Patent also contained regulations for the layout of the various sections of the Fair which are reflected in the modern street names in the area.


The declaration of the Fair was a matter of University as well as civic ceremonial. From 1533 to 1855 a proclamation was made by both the Town and the University. The University did it first on odd years and the Town on even years[43]. The Senior Proctor provided cakes and wine at the Senate House. The Vice-Chancellor and the other University officers, attended by the noblemen and other notables, then drove to the Fair, which was duly proclaimed by the Registrary of the University. To the University dignitaries and their guests was set apart a certain tiled booth, where they dined[48]. The menu at the Vice-Chancellor's table never varied. It consisted of a large dish of herrings, a neck of pork roasted, a plum pudding, a leg of pork boiled, a pease pudding, a goose, and a huge apple pie, while a round of beef graced the centre of the board. There was a deal of drunken and riotous behaviour not confined to the townsfolk or the peasant classes. It is reported that tipsy Masters of Arts, many Fellows of Colleges, and clergymen were to be seen with linked arms jostling the passers-by.


Where was the Fair held?

The Fair was held on Stourbridge Common, close to where a bridge carrying the road from Cambridge to Newmarket crossed the small river Stere, Sture or Stour, a tributary of the river Cam. Historical records show variations in the place name: Sterebridgen (suggesting a "bridge for oxen"), Sturbridge, and Stirbitch[7].

Stourbridge Common

Barge unloading on the river Cam[49]

An important factor in the Fair's growth was its location next to the river where barges from King's Lynn and the Wash could unload. Also a major road to Newmarket was served by a ferry at that point in the river Cam. The later introduction of the railway and road bridges were to undermine these locators.

Ferry on the river Cam[49]

When was the Fair held?

In its early years in the 13th century, the Fair was held on 3 days in September[42]. The Fair expanded progressively and by 1516 it lasted from 24 August to 29 September[50]. If the corn was not cleared off the field by the 24th of August, the builders were at liberty to tread it down to build their booths. On the other hand, if the booths and materials were not cleared away by Michaelmas-day at noon, the ploughmen might enter the same with their horses, ploughs, and carts, and destroy whatever they found remaining on the ground after that time. The filth, straw, dung, ... left by the fair-keepers, making the farmers amends for their trampling and hardening the ground[51]. The duration of the Fair was confirmed by Queen Elizabeth in 1589 as "from the morrow of of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle and from the said morrow continuously until the fourteenth day next following after the feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross"[47].

Watching the drolls

Holding the Fair in September allowed farmers to sell goods in the quiet period between harvest and ploughing when there were crops to be sold, leisure time, and money. The fact that it was out of term time meant that University tradesmen could also participate[42]. Toward the last few days of the Fair, the social events would dominate the trading. Travel was good at this time of year. The gentry would arrive for the "puppet-shows, drolls, rope-dancers, and such like"[135]. The whole event climaxed with a horse-fair which had to be held separately starting on September 25th[43]. This was always the busiest day during the time of the Fair. Colchester oysters and white herrings were in great request, particularly by those who lived in the inland parts of the kingdom[52].

Watching the puppets

Trade at the Fair

Stourbridge Fair grew to be the largest fair in Europe. The 1589 charter stated that it "far surpassed the greatest of and most celebrated fairs of all England; whence great benefits had resulted to the merchants of the whole kingdom, who resorted thereto, and there quickly sold their wares and merchandises to purchasers coming from all parts of the Realm"[135]. According to Caraccioli, it was "the greatest temporary mart in the world"[53]. Every trade was represented, and here many of the good folk of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdon, and the Isle of Ely made the principal part of their household purchases for the year. People came from London and elsewhere to be present at the opening festivities. In 1613 the Fair acquired such celebrity that not less than sixty hackney-coaches attended it from London[54].

Livestock was a feature of Stourbridge Fair. Cameron reports on large flocks of geese - as many as 500 - being driven from farms in Norfolk and Suffolk for sale at the Fair[55]. Knight claims that there was sometimes as many as two thousand in a flock[56]. Palmer describes what might be seen when the droves started at the beginning of August[57]. Before starting their journey, the geese would be marched through a bed of tar and sand to harden their feet, the most vulnerable part of their body. To prevent them from flying away, their wings were clipped. A man on horseback rode in front of the flock, scattering corn which the birds unerringly followed all day. A drover might employ from four to six men or boys as drivers. They were equipped with long birch rods to which were attached long leather thongs to poke the birds back into line. Bird driving was slow and tedious, the average speed being 7 to 10 miles a day, depending on the size of the flock and the weather. Some of these flocks were driven all the way to London - over 100 miles! Droving declined during the 19th century through a combination of agricultural change and the introduction of rail transport.

Driving a flock of geese to market
Sir Isaac Newton
in Trinity College

During his time at the University in 1665, Isaac Newton visited the Fair and is known to have bought a copy of Euclid's Elements which he used to teach himself mathematics[58]. He is also believed to have acquired optical instruments including a pair of prisms which he used to demonstrate that white light could be split into the colours of the spectrum.

Daniel Defoe began a tour of East Anglia in 1722 during which he visited and wrote about Stourbridge Fair[51]. He summed up its importance: "... this fair, which is not only the greatest in the whole nation, but in the world; nor, if I may believe those who have seen the mall, is the fair at Leipzig in Saxony, the mart at Frankfort-on-the-Main, or the fairs at Nuremberg, or Augsburg, any way to compare to this fair at Stourbridge". He described the huge variety of merchandise, with stalls including "goldsmiths, toyshops, brasiers, turners, milliners, haberdashers, hatters, mercers, drapers, pewterers, china-warehouses, and in a word all trades that can be named in London ". He drew attention to the sale of "wool, and this of several sorts, but principally fleece wool, out of Lincolnshire, where the longest staple is found; the sheep of those countries being of the largest breed. The buyers of this wool are chiefly indeed the manufacturers of Norfolk and Suffolk and Essex, and it is a prodigious quantity they buy". He noted that goods did not necessarily change hands at the Fair, many wholesalers coming to the Fair to take orders for goods that would be delivered at a future date.

Light passing through a prism

Daniel Defoe
National Portrait Gallery

Cameron[59] reports that "wholesalers came to meet their changemen from all parts, make up their accounts, receive money, chiefly in bills, and take orders". He goes on to describe what was brought for sale: "acres of woven cloth from Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax and Leeds, from Rochdale and Bury, and the remote Pennine villages. From the west country arrived druggets and shalloons, cantaloons and further durable kerseys; lead from Derbyshire, iron from forges of Sussex and tin from Cornwall, tools from Sheffield, glass from Nottingham, brass/iron from Birmingham, hosiery from Leicester". Apart from wool, another commodity for which Stourbridge Fair was the national market and price setter each year was hops, mostly brought in from in from Surrey and Kent for sale to northern England[60]. Starsmore reports the selling of wool and hops continuing at the Fair until 1855 when it closed as a trade mart[1]. Practically nothing could not be bought at Stourbridge Fair.

The scene is best described in the following text[61]:

"Crossing the road, at the south end of Garlick-row, on the left hand, was a square formed of the largest booths, called the Duddery, the area of which was from two hundred and forty to three hundred feet, chiefly taken up with woollen drapers, wholesale tailors, sellers of second-hand clothes, ... where the dealers had a room before their booths to take down and open their packs, and bring in waggons to load and unload the same. In the centre of the square there formerly stood a high pole with a vane at the top. On two Sundays, during the principal time of the Fair, morning and afternoon, divine service was performed, and a sermon preached by the minister of Barnwell, from a pulpit placed in this square, who was very well paid for the same, by a contribution made among the fair-keepers."

The entire street layout is shown in the following 1725 plan of the site[62].


Typical booths at Stourbridge Fair (1832)

In the late 18th century, the popularity of the Fair began to decline, partly due to the arrival of canals and improved roads leading to the falling importance of rivers as a means of navigation. Caraccioli wrote[63] about changing patterns in the Fair, which now only lasted a fortnight. Rogers provides a good historical account of the fair[64]. New marketing and banking systems made large fairs outmoded for commodities. The amount of income the Fair generated for the city had fallen. At this time, Cambridge corporation was corruptly dominated by the Mortlock family[65]. Booths became private property, depriving the Town from income. The civic procession at the Fair was abandoned in the 1790s, and the theatre demolished as unsafe in 1803. In 1811 the Stourbridge Fair fields were enclosed, and any land not controlled by the University proved to be very valuable. Some of the ground previously occupied by the Fair was built on, and some quarried for bricks. The Fair still kept people entertained after the harvest, but it ceased to be of major economic importance. Town shops now looked forward to extra custom from the Fair, rather than fearing its competition.

Henry Gunning reminisced about the Fair he used to visit in the late 18th Century as a town official[48]. He commented on the sale of cheese, which was mainly of local origin and being sold to London. The Duddery wool-market was still in existence, but beginning to decline. Hops and pottery still occupied a lot of space at the Fair. There was a row stretching from the river ferry crossing to Newmarket Road that included "silk-mercers, linen drapers, furriers, stationers, an immense variety of toys, and also of musical instruments".

Entertainment at the Fair


Stourbridge Fair was clearly a major national event and worthy of comment, sometimes in very colourful terms, by a number of writers. Bunyan used Stourbridge Fair as the model for Vanity Fair in The Pilgrim's Progress[63], which in turn prompted Thackeray's Vanity Fair[67]. According to Ward[68], the Fair was referred to as "Bawdy-Barnwel" because of the numerous brothel houses it contained for the "health, ease and pleasure of the Learned Vicinity". He describes the crowd as "an abstract of all sorts of mankind" and men from London came to the Fair not to do business but to "drink, smoke and whore".

Visitors would be struck by the large number of London Hackney carriages plying for hire. The "fare behind each carriage's discreetly drawn blinds would be a lady of pleasure entertaining a client to the gentle rocking motion of the cab as it wheeled through the country lanes. The fare rate for such a novel boudoir was 1s 6d, the service, as always, a matter for negotiation".

Bunyan wrote "As Christian and Faithful entered into Vanity Fair, the people wondered at their apparel and at their speech"[69].

Defoe mentions a court of justice for keeping the peace at the Fair: "... the magistrates of the town of Cambridge are judges in this court ... here they determine matters in a summary way, as is practised in those we call Pye Powder Courts in other places ... and they have a final authority without appeal"[51]. Porter describes[70] how "to assist him in the keeping of the peace at the Fair the Mayor had eight sergeants who were known, from their attire, as 'Red Coats'. Should any quarrel or argument break out, a shout of Red Coat! Red Coat! immediately brought one of these officials to the scene".

The Fair accumulated the usual mixture of dwarfs, giants, conjurors and actors. This in spite of a royal charter granted by James I that gave the University Vice-Chancellr the power to "prohibit idle games and diversions" and to "expel jugglers and actors"[71]. Entertainment and food and drink were clearly important, and after 1740, following persistent opposition from the University, a theatre was permitted with "many respectable, and frequently excellent performers"[72]. However, the University constituted an ad-hoc police force of 64 MAs to enforce discipline and the Vice-Chancellor ordered the theatre booth to be demolished and the actor Dogget to be imprisoned. Nevertheless, Dr. Farmer, Master of Emmanuel College and University Vice-Chancellor, claimed to be never more in his element than when sitting in what was called "the Critics' Row" at the Playhouse[73].

From early times it was the custom for a service to be held on the fairground each Sunday, the preacher being paid a fee raised by the voluntary contributions of the keepers of the trading booths[74]. This was not without its problems. After 1650 the Corporation was responsible for choosing the preacher and the minister of Barnwell was usually appointed. But in 1710 the Rev. Henry Crispe, a Fellow of King's College, was appointed preacher much to the annoyance of the minister of Barnwell. Crispe was accused of infringing the rights and privileges of the minister and patrons of the church and he was censured in the Bishop's Court at Ely.

Final closure of the Fair

By the end of the 18th century the Fair had passed its peak and began to decline[75]. As the Victorian town grew, the Common became surrounded by poor housing, and the rich visitors became disinclined to visit a potentially dangerous area[42]. The Fair continued until it was held for the last time in 1933[76]. On that occasion the Fair was opened by the Mayor of Cambridge, Florence Keynes (the mother of John Maynard Keynes the economist), who wrote[77]:

"It was a curious ceremony which had lost all meaning except as a momento of past glories. The first proclamation was made on Barnwell Bridge to the bewilderment of motorists from Newmarket who were held up by the police. The second proclamation took place on the Common in the presence of a couple of women with babies in their arms, and a puzzled youth in charge of an ice-cream barrow bearing the legend 'Stop me and Buy one '. This was the end."

Stourbridge Fair was formally abolished by an order of the Secretary of State in 1934[78].

Midsummer Fair

MC fair

Midsummer Fair has been running for about 800 years. The story starts at Castle Hill in Cambridge. In 1092 the Norman-born Baron Picot, who had been made the first sheriff of Cambridgeshire by William the Conqueror, dedicated a church near the castle in honour of St Giles and established six canons with Geoffrey of Huntingdon as the first prior. Pain Peverel became the second sheriff and decided to move the canons from St Giles across the river Cam to the village of Beornewelle. He gave them 13 acres of land around the village springs[79]. They moved there in 1112[80], adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, and the household became a Priory.

Barnwell Priory

A magnificent vellum manuscript begun in 1295[81], Liber Memorandorum Ecclesie Bernewelle, describes in great detail the foundation of the Priory and the rules governing it. Clark[79] has translated this manuscript and given a full historical account.

Abbey Church

A church was built in the Priory grounds and consecrated by the Bishop of Ely in 1190[80]. At a slightly later date another small church, known as the Abbey Church but more correctly as St. Andrew-the-Less, was built adjacent to the Priory Church. This building survives alongside the Newmarket Road and is still used for worship. The rest of the monastic buildings were built or rebuilt at intervals up until 1270[82]. Apart from the Abbey Church, all that remains today is the small but nicely vaulted Chequer’s Hall (which was used for the financial business of the Priory). This building, which sits at the corner of Beche and Priory roads, has been conserved[80].

Chequer's Hall

The Priory grew in size and stature and it is perhaps hard for us today to imagine the esteem in which it was held; it was widely acknowledged to be foremost in the country. Records shown that King John stayed there in 1203. Henry III stayed a number of times. Edward I visited in 1293 and 1296; Edward II in 1315 and 1326. Parliament met there with Richard II in 1388 and Henry VI stayed in 1438. The Priory became very important within the diocese of Ely and various diocesan synods were held there.

Hinchingbrooke House

On the dissolution of the monasteries, Barnwell Priory was surrendered to Henry VIII in 1538[83]. It was rapidly dismantled. The library was dispersed (the main books have been traced) and the Cromwells took a gilded ceiling to Hinchingbrooke House (where it can still be seen). There are records of the stones having been used in Corpus Christi College[80]. The sale of the Priory contents and payments made to the canons and others have been well documented[84].

Corpus Christi College

History of the Fair

Addison suggests that Bernewelle may have been the site of an ancient fair that sprang up spontaneously where athletic feats were performed annually at the burial place of a hero[85]. An extract from Liber Memorandorum Ecclesie de Bernewelle[86] sets the scene:

"From the midst of the site there bubble up springs of fresh clear water, called by the English Bernewelle, the children's springs, because that once a year, on the Eve of St. John the Baptist, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion by wrestling matches and other games, and applauded each other in singing and playing on instruments of music. Hence, by reason of the crowd of boys and girls who met and played there, a custom grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in the same place to do business."

This customary meeting of tradesmen became known as Midsummer Fair.

The first formal recognition of the Fair came in 1211 when King John granted the Midsummer Fair to Barnwell Priory[87]. For the next 300 years the Fair belonged to the Priory. At the same time Stourbridge Fair was granted to St Mary Magdalen of Steresbrigg on behalf of the nearby hospital "for the use and subsistence of the lepers dwelling therein"[87].

Ownership of Midsummer Fair enabled the Priory to take advantage, financially and socially, of the midsummer celebrations under a respectable religious veneer. Henry III confirmed the grant by Letters Patent in 1229[88] and allowed the Fair to be held over 4 days from the feast of Saint Etheldred (the day before mid summer):

"... deo et Ecclesiæ beati Egidii de Bernewelle et Priori et canonicis ibidem Deo seruientibus, quod ipsi et successores eorum habeant in perpetuum unam feriam apud Bernewelle singulis annis per quatuor dies duraturam, videlicet, in vigilia et in die Sanctæ Etheldredæ virginis in æstae et per dies duos proximos sequentes ..." [89].

Disputes then arose between the town and the Priory over money. An agreement was reached in 1232: the town would receive compensation (half a mark annually) for an event held on common pasture land from which the Priory drew profit to the possible detriment of the common users[90]. About 1294, the University claimed jurisdiction over the Fair but the Bishop of Ely refuted this claim[91]. However, disputes between the town and Priory persisted. In the same year, the mayor and prior fell out over the ownership of goods left at the fair by a felon[92]. In 1299 the then prior of Barnwell was summoned before the Justices to show by what title he held a fair. He produced the charter granted by Henry III which had been given to the Priory by Pain Peverell and the case was dismissed[93]. In 1394 King Richard II received notice from the prior that commoners and students had caused nuisance at the Fair. As a result, the sheriff was instructed to make a proclamation and arrest delinquents[94]. Richard II also extended the duration of the Fair to 14 days[95].

King John
King Henry III

Control of Midsummer Fair gradually shifted from direct management by the Priory to that of the town. In 1483 Richard III granted a charter to the prior of Barnwell respecting the Fair at that place[96]. In 1496 and 1498 the Priory leased the Fair, which now lasted for 14 days[97], to the town mayor and bailiffs[98]. In 1505, after great disputes between the Corporation and the prior, a composition gave the Corporation a perpetual right to Midsummer Fair, the Corporation paying 4 marks annually[99]. In 1506 there were disputes between the University and the Priory regarding the privileges of the former[100]. One of the privileges the University proctors claimed was the right to search the Fair for beggars, vagabonds and lewd women; the council members hotly disputed these rights. In 1516 an Award was made for the adjustment of various disputes between the prior and the mayor, bailiffs and burgesses[101]. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, disputes between the Priory and town ceased to exist and the town took full control of the Fair.

More recent legislation has reinforced the Council's ownership and focussed on the duration and location of the Fair. The Cambridge Corporation Act 1850[102] reduced the Fair back to 4 days, saying that "The Fair of Barnwell commonly called the Midsummer Fair shall commence on the 22nd June and continue for 3 days (exclusive of Sunday)". The Cambridge City Council Act 1985[103] extended the Fair to 5 days:

"The fair of Barnwell commonly known as the Midsummer Fair shall commence at 2.30 o'clock in the afternoon (or such earlier hour as may be proclaimed by the mayor of the city) on the third Wednesday in June, or, if the third Wednesday falls on 15th, 16th or 17th June, on the fourth Wednesday in June and shall continue for the four days (exclusive of Sunday) next following the day of commencement and no longer."

In the year 2000 the Sunday exclusion was removed and the Fair was extended to 6 days in total. Although the Fair has been going for over 800 years, that is not to say that it has been held every year in that period. For example, the Fair ceased to function during the war years 1939-42 but resumed in 1943[104].

Where was the Fair held?

We know that the Fair was originally held near the "springs of fresh clear water, called by the English Barnewelle "[105]. And it must have been held on town land because the Priory was repeatedly asked to pay for its use. This supports the view that the Fair was held on the town's common pasture of Green Croft west of the Priory.

Clark describes what was seen by somebody walking from the town to Barnwell Priory in the 13th century[106]:

"... he would soon reach the Franciscan House at the corner of S.Radegund's Lane. Turning into this lane, and crossing the bridge over the King's Ditch, he would see on his left the boundary walls of the nunnery of S. Radegund founded 1133. After passing this, as he pursued his way to Barnwell Priory, he would have on his left the Green Croft, an open space of pasture, on part of which, nearest to the Causeway, the fair called Midsummer Fair was held."

This walk has been transcribed onto a map of the time[107] - see Map 1 - together with the Fair's likely location.

map 1
Map 1. A 13th century map of Cambridge.

The Fair probably remained in this location into the 18th century. Records show that goods were still brought to the Fair by river and unloaded on to the "Greencrofte or Midsomer greene" riverbank[108]. Corporation minutes for 29 May 1739 state[109]:

"Agreed and ordered that the Builders of that part of Midsummer Fair usually built on Midsummer Green shall for the time to come hereafter build the Booths on that part of the same Green on this side of the Spring and upon no other part of the said Green that being the most commodious place, upon pain of forfeiting to the mayor, bailiffs and burgesses of the Corporation five shillings per foot for every Booth built contrary to this Order and that Builders do pay the bailiffs of this Corporation for their use four pence per foot in length of such Booths."

By this time the pasture land was known as Midsummer Green rather than Green Croft (or Greencroft). A little later the same land became known as Midsummer Common.

The 1807 Act for the inclosure of land in the parish of St. Andrew the Less[110] and the associated Award[111] of 1811 changed the geography of the area. The Act preserved the rights of both Midsummer and Stourbridge Fairs[112]. The Award Map shows the boundaries of the common quite distinctly. The curves of the river Cam would suggest that the western boundary of the Priory coincided with either Walnut Tree Avenue or today's Elizabeth Way road bridge. The eastern boundary coincided with River Lane. Most of the Priory site was finally levelled between 1810 and 1812 and developed for housing in Victorian times[80]. Map 2 shows a map of this time[113] with parts of Midsummer Common hived off as Butts Green[114] (or Butt Green[115]) and Jesus Green. Other maps of the time show a very similar picture[116].

act act
Pages taken from the Barnwell Inclosure Act 1807.

map 2
Map 2. A 19th century map of Cambridge.

Once the railway came to Cambridge in 1845 it was no longer necessary to land goods from the river and so the Fair moved from the narrow eastern part of the common westwards onto the main body of Midsummer Common shown in Map 3. Nevertheless the Ordnance Survey map of 1889[114] still shows a wharf on the river Cam where goods were previously unloaded.

map 3
Map 3. Present day aerial view of Midsummer Common.

For over 100 years the Fair has been free to move away from Midsummer Common. The Cambridge University and Corporation Act 1894[117] empowered the Council to “specify and define the common or open space within the borough on which the Midsummer and Sturbridge Fairs respectively or some part thereof shall be held”. One such relocation is recorded. Early in 1931 silt was spread over Midsummer Common and grass seed sown. To give it a chance to grow, the Council decided to move Midsummer Fair to Stourbridge Common. The showman refused this location and rented Cambridge United Football Ground instead. However, to preserve the charter, the Fair was proclaimed on Stourbridge Common but with only 1 stall - a nougat vendor. The Fair was back on Midsummer Common again in 1932. The Cambridge City Council Act 1985[118] renewed this flexibility in stating that "The Council may from time to time specify and define the common or open space within the city on which the Midsummer Fair or some part thereof shall be held" (Stourbridge Fair no longer existed).

Trade at the Fair

Midsummer Fair started as a place of revelry. Like other fairs in the country, it then became a centre for trade. As early as 1287 it was reported that wood for the Castle tower was purchased from the Fair and, in 1288, iron and steel was bought at the Fair for building the Castle prison and locks and keys were purchased for 4s 10d[119]. In 1324 it was reported that the carpenters of Ely Cathedral bought timber from the Fair[120]. By the end of the 14th century the Fair had grown to become one of the most important in the country (although not in the same league as the nearby and internationally famous Stourbridge Fair). In addition to serious trade, the Fair became a place for the hiring of labourers and servants. Some of these were absenting themselves from other employment. In 1295 three men were fined 3d a day for having been away from work for 3 days whilst enjoying themselves at the Fair[121].

In the 18th century it was commonly known as the Pot Fair due to the large quantities of china and earthenware which were on sale there to the housewives of Cambridge[121]. Henry William Bunbury (1756-1811), known as the "gentleman draughtsman", was a graduate of Cambridge and one of the most popular caricaturists of his time. He produced gently satirical illustrations of social life showing wit and insight. The Pot Fair caught his fancy in 1777. The Pot Fair is still held today as part of the main Midsummer Fair but it is restricted to a single day on 23 June[122].

By the mid 19th century fairs were in decline because of the changing patterns of commerce - by this time trade took place mainly through shops. Some trade persisted, and still does. The buying and selling of horses remained important till the end of the 19th century[123] - June 24th was the date for horse sales[124]. Midsummer Fair contracted again to 4 days in 1850 but remained an important part of the summer events in the town and gradually the entertainments took over from the trading.

pot fair
© Vanessa Toulmin/National Fairground Archive

pot fair
© Vanessa Toulmin/National Fairground Archive

Entertainment at the Fair

In addition to serious trade, Midsummer Fair has long had an entertainment element. Wrestling, singing and music was always present. In 1714 the Fair included Punch, a giant, a dwarf, wild beasts, dancing dogs, three legged cats and a female rope dancer. The introduction of steam to the Fair in 1870 enabled the rides to become more exciting and adventurous. The steam engines themselves became a notable feature of the Fair as they became grander in design and function.

© National Fairground Archive
Charles Thurston's Burrell 1911
© National Fairground Archive
William Thurston's Burrell 1935
© Jack Leeson/National Fairground Archive
Chamberlain's Scenic Burrell 1961

Freak shows, moving pictures, wrestling and boxing were all part of the amusements according to the reports of the times[124]. A newspaper description in 1901 commented on the level of "the stir, the noise and the mirth making"[125]. Yet the Cambridge Corporation Act 1850[126] had put a 12 o'clock closing time on all rides and amusements with fines for offenders: £5 for the owners and forty shillings for clients. In 1954 the Council went further and decided to prohibit "drinking booths" as it was considered they were the cause of excessive drinking on the fairground.

Charles Thurston's No 1 show first appeared in Cambridge in 1902. It was of the two-wagon front type with a rather small but very sweet toned Gavi organ and was attached to a Burrell engine. Like all shows at this time, there was no cover over the front stage[127]. According to reports it was "England's Greatest Show". Taylor's Show of the same time had a projector, organ and light engine. Reports said that "the lovely Marenghi organ was fitted with hundreds of coloured electric lights which changed with the music of the two figures playing the drum". These shows evolved through time.

© National Fairground Archive
William Taylor's New Bioscope Show

© Jack Leeson/National Fairground Archive
Bowman's Variety Showtime Revue 1961
© Jack Leeson/National Fairground Archive
Mel Reid's Boxing and Wrestling Show 1964
© Jack Leeson/National Fairground Archive
Bowman's Variety Show 1964

It is hard to say when riding machines first came to Midsummer Fair. It is known that such machines existed in this country about 1800, so it can be presumed that some of them found their way to Cambridge[128]. Before 1906 Henry Thurston & Sons brought his 4 abreast Gallopers to Cambridge. Steam-driven switchbacks were brought by John Barker in 1907 and by Charles Abbott in 1911 and 1919[129]. Charles Thurston brought the Golden Dragon Scene to the Fair in 1920[130] - it was claimed[131] to be the most beautiful machine that travelled this country.

© Jack Leeson/National Fairground Archive
Allan Downs' 3 Abreast 1961
© Jack Leeson/National Fairground Archive
Sedgwick's Waltzer 1964
© National Fairground Archive
Downs' Gallopers June 1992

The Merry-go-Round magazine[132] describes the Fair in the war year 1941:

"The firm of Chas. Thurston and Sons have brought to Cambridge nearly every kind of ride that ever existed, including flying pigs, waltzing balloons, bicycles, gallopers, cakewalk, tower slip, joy wheel, steam motors and dragons, chair-o-planes, electric dragons, peacock scenic, swirl, Noah's Ark, dodgems, waltzer and electric speedway."

Two years later they introduced "Bioscope Shows" with moving pictures[133].

The Fair today

Much has changed over the last century. Yet pictures of the Fair in that period display familiar elements. Today the Fair attracts large numbers of people each June to its various rides, stalls and sideshows. The dates of the Fair are now fixed by statute[134]. It shall commence at 2.30 o’clock in the afternoon (or such earlier hour as may be proclaimed by the mayor of the city) on the third Wednesday in June, or, if the third Wednesday falls on 15th, 16th or 17th June, on the fourth Wednesday in June and shall continue for the five days next following the day of commencement and no longer. The mayor and other members of the Council still continue the tradition of parading and proclaiming the Fair open and scattering pennies to the crowd.

© National Fairground Archive
Midsummer Fair 1935
© Ian Trowell/National Fairground Archive
Midsummer Fair 1983
© Jack Leeson/National Fairground Archive
Publicity poster 1961
Midsummer Fair 2006
Midsummer Fair 2006


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  33. Section V, Cambridge Corporation Act 1850, c.xxxvii (13 & 14.Vict).
  34. Section XXXIV, Cambridge Corporation Act 1850.
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  81. Held in the British Museum.
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  89. Nichols, p.30.
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  91. Prickett p.5.
  92. Cooper p.68.
  93. Cooper p.69.
  94. Cooper p.137.
  95. Cooper p.249.
  96. Cooper p.228.
  97. Cooper p.246.
  98. Cooper pp.246 and 249.
  99. Cooper pp.279-280.
  100. Cooper pp.283-285.
  101. Cooper pp.300-301.
  102. Section XXIV, Cambridge Corporation Act 1850.
  103. Section 8, Cambridge City Council Act 1985.
  104. Tobler, British Fairground Society, Autumn 1954.
  105. Conybeare, p.291.
  106. Clark, p.xxvii.
  107. Map dated 1285 taken from the Cambridge Collection.
  108. Cooper, Vol.ii, p.466.
  109. Mitchell E, Notes on the History of Four Cambridge Commons, p.7. Cambridge and St Ives: Cail Printing Group, 1985.
  110. Barnwell Inclosure Act 1807, 47 Geo III c.60.
  111. Barnwell Inclosure Act Award 1811.
  112. Proceedings of the the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, Vol.LIII, p.43, 1959.
  113. Map taken from the Cambridge Collection.
  114. Ordnance Survey 6" to 1 mile 1st Edition map of Cambridge, 1889.
  115. Ordnance Survey 6" to 1 mile 2nd Edition map of Cambridge, 1904.
  116. See 1830 map by Baker, 1840 map by J.Dewhurst and W.Nichols, 1898 map by W R Spalding.
  117. Section 24, Cambridge University and Corporation Act, 1894.
  118. Section 8(2), The Cambridge City Council Act, 1985.
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  120. Proceedings of the the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, Vol.LXXX, p.25, 1991.
  121. Proceedings of the the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, Vol.XXVI, p.73, 1923-4.
  122. See Pot Fair.
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  124. Taylor p.115.
  125. Owen's New Book of Fairs, London: Owen, 1783.
  126. Section XXXIII, Cambridge Corporation Act 1850.
  127. Merry go Round, magazine of the Friendship Circle of Showland Fairs, Vol.IV, No.10, October 1945.
  128. Tobler, British Fairground Society, Summer 1954.
  129. Merry go Round, magazine of the Friendship Circle of Showland Fairs, Vol.V, No.5, May 1946.
  130. Merry go Round, magazine of the Friendship Circle of Showland Fairs, Vol.V, No.4, April 1946.
  131. Tobler, British Fairground Society, Autumn 1954.
  132. Merry go Round, magazine of the Friendship Circle of Showland Fairs, Vol.I, No.4, October 1941.
  133. Merry go Round, magazine of the Friendship Circle of Showland Fairs, Vol.IV, No.10, October 1945.
  134. By an Order made by the Secretary of State on 24 May 2000.
  135. Taylor, p.116
  136. Palmer W M, Cambridge Borough Documents, Vol. 1, Cambridge: Bowes, 1931
  137. Palmer W M and Barnard E A B, Cambridge Corporation Archives, Cambridge, 1929.