The Rise and Fall of May Fair

“May Fair, upon the authority of a tract that will be named presently ‘was granted by King James II under the great seal, in the fourth year of his reign, to Sir John Coell and his heirs for ever, in trust for the Right Honourable Henry Lord Dover and his heirs for ever; to be held in the field called Brookfield, in the parish of St. Martin’s, Westminster, to commence on the first day of May, and continue fifteen  days after it yearly for ever, for the sale of all manner of goods and merchandise.” Gentleman’s Magazine, 1816.

‘May Fair’ may have started out as a venue for cattle and other live trade in 1688, but soon enough the market diverged into an all out celebration of amusement and vice.  By the dawn of the 18th century, pickpockets and rogues were heading to the fair in droves.  The year 1700 brought such a disorderly crowd that the magistrates present were forced to send for the constables.  Their mission was to subdue the charlatans and thieves who went to prey on the merry and the drunk, but chaos erupted instead.  John Cooper, a peace officer, was accidentally killed when soldiers joined in the throng, and as a result May Fair’s reputation stumbled.

Victoria & Albert Museum 

The people, however, loved their yearly May outing.  By 1707, after attracting the nobility and gentry (including the Lady Mary Finley as the must-see rope dancer) the fair was all the rage.   Everywhere one looked May Fair was bursting with revelry.   Here and there were Indian rope dancers and buffoons, puppet shows and music shows, stage plays and tricksters.  For those loose with their pockets, gaming, raffling, and lotteries served up yet another diversion.

In 1708 the right to hold the fair was openly attacked.  The throng and ongoing unsavory behavior were declared a public nuisance.  Come April of 1709, Queen Anne issued a Royal Proclamation prohibiting the erecting or making of stalls or booths for stage and music plays, along with any activity deemed disorderly.

Still May Fair refused to die and when the beast started breathing again, the atmosphere became more depraved.  Prize fighting, boxing, and bull-baiting flourished.  Its natural sibling–prostitution–arose with it. But alas, the people’s choice outing was not to last.  After almost a hundred years, the fifteen day fair was shut down in 1764.  The wealthy residents who had lamented at the ruckus had finally got their wish as the riffraff, so disdained for their lowbrow antics, were thrown from the property gobbled meadow and Mayfair as a district ascended to its height as N.P. Willis describes in his 19th century Prose Works:

May Fair!  What a name for the core of dissipated and exclusive London!  A name that brings with it only the scent of crushed flowers in a green field, of a pole wreathed in roses, booths crowded with dancing peasant girls, and nature in its holyday.  This—to express the costly, the court-like, the so called ‘heartless’ precinct of fashion and art in their most authentic and envied perfect.  Mais les extremes se touchent; and perhaps there is more nature in May Fair than in Rose Cottage or Honeysuckle lodge.

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2 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of May Fair

  1. I am delighted to have found your blog! I have often felt I am from the 18th century and my hobby of memorizing for recital poetry from that era just hasn’t had the popularity I thought it would 😉 Favourite ‘underrated’ poets of mine include Joyce Kilmer and Bliss Carman (both men, how cool is that?). But this is the post I wanted to send praises on, since your first of May writings here are wonderfully educational and are partly what I was feeling but failed to capture on my May Day Gratitude post. I would like to reinvigorate the sweet ritual of placing cones of flowers on people’s doorknobs on the first of May. What do you think? 🙂 Blessings, Gina

    1. I would be delighted to receive a cone of flowers on my door! You should definitely reintroduce the tradition next May Day and maybe snap pics for your blog 🙂 I’m fascinated by old and (mostly) forgotten traditions and every May Day think of how lovely it would be to experience an authentic celebration.

      There’s a whole group of 18th century enthusiasts around that I’m sure would love to hear your recitals. Although she’s not C18, I was obsessed with Veronica Franco and her witty verse when I was a teenage. Another lost art.

      Thanks for stopping by! I’ll be looking up those poets you mentioned as they are new to me.

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