diamond geezer

 Monday, May 01, 2006

May Fair - Rowdyism & Vice

Across the UK the first of May has long been a day for celebrations and festivities, often with a bit of ribboned pole-dancing thrown in for good measure. London itself has a long history of springtime frolics and debauchery, often spread over several days, although the focus of these mass celebrations has shifted somewhat over the years. Up until the 17th century the capital's main spring gathering was held in the Haymarket, just up the road from Charing Cross. But as the city expanded a less central location was sought, somewhere far more suitable for lewd drunken activity, and in 1686 the May Fair moved on. You can probably guess where.

in 1686 most of the area northwest of St James's Park was green pasture alongside the babbling Tyburn brook [map]. There were no local people to complain about London's annual May Fair moving in, save the residents of a few grand houses backing onto what is now Piccadilly. The sprawling fair began each year on May Day and lasted for a full fortnight. It attracted wild revellers from all over London and the home counties, as well as countless thieves, charlatans and lewd women. Over the course of two weeks much ale was quaffed, much money was wagered, much flesh was feasted upon and much seed was sown. It's a far cry from the sanitised celebrations Mayor Ken permits in Trafalgar Square these days, with the emphasis very firmly on raucous excess rather than social responsibility.
"In the areas encompassing the market building were booths for jugglers, prize-fighters, both at cudgels and back-sword, boxing-matches, and wild beasts. The sports not under cover were mountebanks, fire-eaters, ass-racing, sausage-tables, dice-tables, up-and- downs, merry-go-rounds, bull-baiting, grinning for a hat, running for a shift, hasty-pudding eaters, eel-divers, and an infinite variety of other - similar pastimes."
As London continued to spread westward, the new inhabitants of north Piccadilly became resentful of the fair on their doorstep. They feared for the morals of their wives, servants and children, threatened by corruption in this iniquitous "nursery of vice". Rich residents petitioned the courts for the fair's removal, initially without success. Then, as the suburbanisation of the area continued, landowners moved in to erect new houses on these riverside fields. Shepherd Market (pictured) was laid out at the heart of the old fairground site in 1735, but it was not until 1764 that the Earl of Coventry successfully used legal means to force the entire revels to move elsewhere. With the May Fair's departure the area headed rapidly upmarket to become the exclusive aristocratic neighbourhood of Mayfair we know today. And Shepherd Market still survives as a charming backstreet enclave of restaurants, antiques shops and pubs, although it's never quite shaken off its reputation as a haunt for shady backhand deals and prostitutes.

The May Fair moved on, five miles eastward, re-establishing itself in a field just outside the small village of Bow [map]. Here it amalgamated with the existing Bow Fair, a long-standing bacchanalia held a few days after Whitsun.
"At Bow, the Thursday after Pentecost,
There is a fair of green geese ready rost,
Where, as a goose is ever dog cheap there
The sauce is over somewhat sharp and deare.
The crowd's behaviour here was just as atrocious, with Londoners arriving in their droves by road and river to take out their frustrations on this tiny rural backwater. But as Bow's population grew so too did the number of complaints from local residents, as before, until in 1823 the fair was banned altogether "due to rowdyism and vice".

Here's the site of Bow's 'Fair Field' today, on the corner of (where else) Fairfield Road. The striped building is Poplar Town Hall, an example of early modernist civic architecture, officially opened in 1938 by former mayor and Labour leader George Lansbury. It's no longer a town hall, having been downgraded to mere offices in the mid 60s, but it still provides an impressive (if slightly shabby) presence on Bow Road. In 1957 Fair Field's reputation for vice and criminal activity was rekindled briefly when the Kray Brothers opened their very first club, the Double R, here nextdoor to the old town hall. Nowadays only a school playground and a car hire portakabin are left to mark this doubly notorious location.

As a resident of Bow Road I'm both saddened and relieved that London's premier spring revels no longer take place so close to home. Whilst it would be really convenient to have a major fairground just a couple of hundred yards up the street, I really wouldn't want drunken merrymakers urinating on my doorstep and singing bawdy songs throughout the night. Neither would I enjoy the smell of congealed roasting meat permeating my flat, nor countless prostitutes hanging around outside the kebab shop and launderette. Not for a fortnight. Not in my backyard. Not until the Olympic circus arrives, anyway. Mayday, mayday.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19  Jun19  Jul19  Aug19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream