Sunday, 17 November 2013

Spotlight on: Loughborough Fair

Loughborough Fair
Jungle fun!


The problem with researching the history of your locality is where do you stop? It’s simply not possible to learn everything, so sometimes it’s great to get something specific to concentrate on! Prompted by another of those remarks on facebook, this time about the fair being hundreds of years old, I set off on a voyage of discovery …

Fairs have always been important to me, especially since I grew up in a village, where we lived on the side of the common [according to wikipedia, this is the last remaining of 9 commons, but according to it is the last of 7], and it was here every May-time that the travelling fair would set up for a week. To a young child the fair seemed huge, and had all the attractions you’d expect of a 1960s fair. We were lucky enough to have the dodgem rides right in front of our house – well, I though we were lucky, but my parents’ bedroom was at the front of the house, so I would imagine they would sometimes find the music and excited voices quite irritating at bedtime!

Sweet stall
Of course, now that I’m grown up, I’ve discovered that the common was only about 3/4s of an acre in size, so compared to the Loughborough fair, the May fair in Caerleon was tiny!! However, when I moved to Loughborough I found it quite exciting to discover that other towns had fairs, and was quite impressed with the size of it! When I first started going there were rides like swingboats, stalls of hook-a-duck and roll-a-penny, penny arcades and shooting galleries, as well as one or two big rides like waltzers and the ferris wheel, and of course, the ubiquitous dodgems and candy floss stalls.

Today, in the interests of research, I took myself off to see what this year’s fair had to offer. Well, none of your hook-a-ducks, or shooting galleries, and I didn’t see any hoop throwing stalls. I think there was only the one set of dodgems, but they were so different – new cars and a new stage, not surrounding by the usual little wooden fence!
I didn’t see any penny arcades either, but there were a few grabber machines, and several large tombola stalls, lots of people selling helium balloons and several stalls selling hats and ears.
The Princess tries to escape!

The pink waltzers!
The pink waltzers were most attractive, as were some of the other rides – jungle rides and ghost rides. A couple of attractions were very odd, especially the big pink pillows filled with people, floating on a pond outside the Echo offices!!
An arm-like thing!
There were a couple of tall arm-like things that threw people up in the air and then rushed them back down again, there were a couple of helter-skelters.
The big wheel
The big wheel from Queen's Park
And, of course, there was the big wheel, a posh-looking version in white with bright white lights and modern-looking pods – not like the old multi-coloured ones!

Some important dates in the history of Loughborough Fair

Of course, I’m so used to the fairgrounds of today, the noise, the music, the crush, the expense, that it’s hard for me to imagine what a fair may have been like all those years ago, when the fair was first granted its charter. But, the origin and history of fairs goes way back, and is considered by some to be associated with pagan customs, when people gathered seasonally, for festivals and fairs. Such fairs were also popular in Roman times, and later became part of the Christian festivals calendar; hence early Charters specify occasions in terms of Saints days, and there was a deal of confusion when the calendar we used changed from the Julian to the Gregorian in 1752.

There appear to be several specific important dates in the history of Loughborough fair, starting with the granting of the Charter in 1221, which was apparently granted by Henry III, whilst still a boy. This allowed for an annual event, held on 31st July and 1st August, which were the vigil and day of St Peter ad Vincula, but because Henry was a boy, the Charter was only temporary, so in 1227 he confirmed the Charter, granting an extra day, on the day following St Peter’s Day. The following year, 1228, another Charter was granted, based around All Souls Day – the day after All Saints’ Day – which falls on 2nd November. I believe there were about 5,000 other fairs that were granted Royal Charters around the same time as Loughborough was given theirs, and the granting of the Charter meant that the organisation and control of the fair stayed with the towns people (or their representatives).

As I mentioned above, changing from one calendar to another meant that about 11 days in the year were lost, so the November fair became 13th November. In 1881, local officials, possibly the Board of Health, obtained an order that stated that the opening day of the fair would always be the second Thursday in November, as it still is today. Also, sometime in the period 1221-1228 a Charter was granted for holding a weekly market.

What's it all about?

The original Medieval fair was quite closely associated with the town market, which had also been granted a Charter in 1221, and was held once a week on a Thursday. Over time, Loughborough developed as a market town, and by 14th century, was quite famous for trading in wool and cloth. By the late 1700s, there were about 5 markets/fairs in the town, one of which was the November 13th fair, which was associated with trading in cows, sheep and horses. This lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century, when cattle became the main focus of the first day of the November fair, and by the end of the century other markets included a retail market, a corn fair, a butter, egg and cheese fair a hiring, or statute fair and the funfair. With developments in engineering and mechanisation, the cattle market eventually moved to another location and amusements became the focus of the November fair.

The Carillon, surrounded
 In the twentieth century, there have been times when there has been no fair, for example, during the period of WW1. There was also a period when the voice of the dissenters was quite loud and there was a risk that the fair would be moved from the town streets. Luckily for us today, the powers that be agreed to keep the location, thus helping to preserve the sense of fun and excitement that accompanies a visit to the fair.

View from the back!
In the 1950s, according to a reporter for the “World’sFair”, the specialist newspaper for the Showmen’s Guild, suggested that for the duration of the fair, the town lost its dignified character and adopted a carnival-like atmosphere! In about 1955 the fair was described as being 5 fairs in various of the town’s streets, linked with entertainment booths, until in about 1965 when the whole of the Market Place was taken over by the fair. More recently, in 1996, fairground rides and attractions were placed on the main A6 trunk road, at its junction with Market Place, and continue to this day.
Pink pillows on the A6 trunk road!

The Loughborough fair is traditionally the last fair of the year and marks the end of the fairground season, although lately, some showmen now take their attractions to the various newly-established town fairs that have been created to boost trade, especially at Christmas-time.    

History of the rides and entertainment

Today, when we think of the fair, we think of fairground rides and entertainment stalls. The very early rides would have been made from wood, and would have been operated (presumably meaning pulled, pushed or turned!) by young boys. This all changed around 1860 following the invention of steam power, when a chap called Frederick Savage mounted a steam engine in the middle of the rides. This meant that rides could be bigger and more decorative, as they were no longer relying on the strength of boys.

It is interesting to note that the annual November fair was a place where the people of Loughborough could experience the latest in entertainment. For example, during the 1880s, the annual visits of Wall’s Phantoscope (one of the first film projection machines and was invented by Charles Francis Jenkins, around the same time as Edison’s kinetoscope, or vitascope, but operating in a slightly different way) were viewed with wonderment, and were followed by the introduction of the bioscope. These machines and techniques were indeed precursors to the more modern cinematography and to the cinema of today.

Grabbing a Minion!

Of course, today’s rides have benefited from advances in electrical engineering and hydraulics, and, no doubt, advances in programme logic controllers also have a part to play – in timings, control of synching music and safety.

All-in-all, a great time can be had at Loughborough fair! The noise, the crowds, the music, the excitement all make for the most wonderful experience - even if, like me, you never venture onto a ride!!

Roll on next year!

Green, George H. Loughborough markets and fairs through 7 1/2 centuries. Loughborough: George Green, 1964.
Anon. (2007) National fairground archive [WWW] The University of Sheffield. Available from: [Accessed 16 November 2013]

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