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.

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