The history of Stevenage Charter Fair

PUBLISHED: 11:15 17 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:15 17 September 2019

The merry-go-round in Stevenage High Street in 1907 (photo courtesy of Stevenage Museum)

The merry-go-round in Stevenage High Street in 1907 (photo courtesy of Stevenage Museum)

Stevenage Museum

Behind this month’s fun fair in Stevenage is a history spanning 800 years. Julie Lucas looks at how the charter fair made the town and how today it is a source of pride for the showmen and women who transform the High Street each year

A vivid memory is visiting my grandparents' house in Stevenage Old Town before heading to the fair along the High Street. My cousins and I would have a sausage in a bun, drink homemade lemonade and be given change for the rides.

The excitement of the fair with its lights and sounds was, for us kids, palpable.

The fair's origins are ancient, dating back to the end of the 13th century when Edward I granted a permanent charter for a fair (a market in those days) in 1281. The charter was one of more than 2,200, including in Baldock, granted around this time. There's reference to a renewable charter fair in Stevenage even earlier, in 1223. The fair brought prosperity, transforming Stevenage, with its population of around 100, into a market town overnight.

Local history expert Hugh Madgin explains what a medieval visitor would have seen: 'Historically it was just like an enormous market, selling animals, textiles, food and all sorts of stuff that you wouldn't get normally.'

The waltzer, still a firm favourite, was introduced in the 1920s (photo: Julie Lucas)The waltzer, still a firm favourite, was introduced in the 1920s (photo: Julie Lucas)

The fair originally took place in June, later changing to September. It was during the 19th century that it started to become a pleasure fair, beginning with a few hand-operated roundabouts. Soon shooting galleries, coconut shies, performing animals and strongmen were a common sight. Other acts included bearded ladies and nearly nude tattooed women, scandalous in Victorian England, but their popularity meant performers in these 'freak shows' could earn £20 a week.

The first steam powered roundabouts heralded the arrival of the big showman rides in the 1880s. A local newspaper report of the time described one 'of huge proportions, driven by a steam engine which whirled around with such impetuosity, the wonder is the daring riders are not shot off like cannon-balls, and driven half into the middle of next month.'

By the early 20th century the first 'cinematographs' appeared and were an instant hit. A report in 1906 describes three at the fair with their newest attraction of 'singing living pictures'. Rides we still enjoy today, such as the dodgems and waltzers appeared in the late 1920s.

As the fairground took centre stage the market stalls dwindled, leaving eventually just one, selling china, that traded until the turn of the century opposite the Red Lion. 'Half the people in Stevenage have probably bought their crockery from that stall,' says Hugh.

Unlike other fairground sites, Stevenage had no allocated pitches, so showmen would camp on the outskirts of the town, rushing in at 6am to get the best spots. This often led to a mass scramble, with fights breaking out. A well known showman, Swaley Bolesworth, lost an eye in one melee. Pitches are now worked out months in advance. It is a feat of engineering skill and organisation says Scott Gray, a fourth generation showman and committee member of The Showmen's Guild.

Albert Harris, now in his 80s, is part of a long-standing show family. He has run the coconut shy since he was 13 (photo: Julie Lucas)Albert Harris, now in his 80s, is part of a long-standing show family. He has run the coconut shy since he was 13 (photo: Julie Lucas)

'We come over two or three days before with all the allocated measurements and names. We look and there will be maybe a bolt in the floor which someone's grandfather knocked into the pavement, then you go 86ft one way and we will spray a white mark and that's the plot. We work all the way up the street and come all the way down the other side. That's how everything fits.'

The 46-year-old describes growing up in the midst of the fair as like having 'a playground that moves'.

How did he manage schooling? 'You grow up with two educations. Back in my day you had school from late October until February or March. You didn't learn much in all honesty because by the time you went back to school you were put back. There wasn't home schooling like there is today. Now my kids get packs each month so by the time they go back to school they are the same level as everybody else in the class. Technology has made a big difference.

'Then you would learn the fair trade. Being around tools you learn skills without even realising it - it becomes so natural to pick up a spanner.

'We go to scrap yards, tool shops, meet mechanics and engineers and the kids come with you and they listen. The same with maths, kids are using cash from an early age, counting money. Your people skills develop automatically. It's the best education you can have - an education for life.

Harris's Supreme Waltzer in 2012 (photo: Hugh Madgin)Harris's Supreme Waltzer in 2012 (photo: Hugh Madgin)

'A lot of people think we are part of the travelling community but we are showmen. People think you live in caravans so you must be the same. We have old fashioned values. We were brought up to call people Mr and Mrs until told otherwise; to treat elders with respect and hold doors for people, things that people don't always do any more.'

The majority of showmen and women come to the same sites each year with plots remaining in families for generations. Albert Harris is in his 80s and has run the coconut shy from the age of 13. The families do not travel together as a group like a circus, however. Many go on to the charter fair in Baldock that follows the two day fair in Stevenage but others go off to different towns.

For the charter to remain in place it must have a stall or ride each year. During the Second World War, due to the blackouts, the only stall to preserve its continuity was that of Mrs Annie Smith, who set up her sweet and rock booth opposite the Cromwell Hotel. Her 'spit toffee' was made of molten sugar stretched over a hook. Its name came from its makers spitting into their palms to prevent them being burnt when handling the sweet treat. The practice didn't seem to put the children off, it was a firm favourite.

With today's rides built and dismantled in days, is there an issue with safety? Scott maintains the rides are safer than those in theme parks as testing is more stringent and livelihoods are at stake.

Jade Harris manning the hook-a-duck stall (photo: Julie Lucas)Jade Harris manning the hook-a-duck stall (photo: Julie Lucas)

'People look at these things and think how can they be safe when they are put up so quickly? If you wash a cup by hand you will notice every chip and mark that's on it. Put it in a dishwasher and you don't know what's happened to it. It's the same as taking a ride apart, if something goes in the same place week on week and all of a sudden it doesn't fit, you know something's not right.'

The High Street is closed to traffic from 3pm on both days of the fair and although shops, residents and showmen work around each other, there is some inevitable disruption. However, Hugh says the charter fair has the overall right: 'It's not a civil offence to obstruct a royal charter it is a criminal offence.' he says, adding that a new shopkeeper was overheard complaining when a ride was assembled outside. 'He said to the showman, "Who said you could come here?" "King Edward," he replied.'

Scott says that 'People often ask why we block the path. But the path was put in after the fair began.'

This was illustrated when the pub chain Wetherspoon inadvertently obstructed the bumper car plot with a newly built wall. It was the wall that had to be moved, not the ride.

It's itinerant for much of the year, hard graft, and at the mercy of the elements, so what is the attraction of the showman life?

'I stupidly love what I do.' Scott Gray with his Crazy Shake ride (photo: Julie Lucas)'I stupidly love what I do.' Scott Gray with his Crazy Shake ride (photo: Julie Lucas)

'I stupidly love what I do,' Scott grins. 'I run my own business. You're outside in the fresh air. I'm not cooped up in an office like a robot.'

Are there things he dislikes? He jokes that I'll need a lot more paper. 'People moaning because to me nothing is that bad, drunken members of the public and people breaking my ride.' He has just had to repair damage to his fair ride, Crazy Shake.

The chance to buy and sell has been replaced with fast rides and faster food but Stevenage wouldn't be the town it is if the charter fair hadn't been granted.

'It still brings more people together than any other event in the town,' says Hugh. 'The cost of a go on the dodgems is the price of a pint of beer, the same when the ride appeared in the 1920s.'

The 55-year-old admits he still finds it a thrill. 'A few years ago I managed 13 goes on the dodgems. It's a bit of magic.'

Stevenage Charter Fair takes place on September 23-24. Baldock Charter Fair is on October 2-4.

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