two best things in Hull, the children will tell you, are Christmas and
the annual fair held in the second week of October. This carnival of merriment
is the largest travelling fair in Europe and one of the oldest, celebrating
its seven hundred anniversary in 1993.
The first charter granting permission for a Fair to be held (March 9th to 23rd) in the locality of Hull was granted in 1278. The centenary recently celebrated by Hull Council dates back to 1293, when Edward I allocated six weeks in May and June for the festivities.
By the 16th Century it had become a sixteen day fair with September 20th as the start of the annual feast following an additional Charter granted by Charles II. In 1751 the opening date for Hull Fair became October 11th and has remained around that time ever since. Local tradition decrees that the changing of the calendar in 1751 led the locals to believe that the loss of eleven days affected their fair. "Give us back our eleven days" was the cry as the enraged mob charged around the streets of Hull calling for the return of their eleven day festivities. The outraged masses got their wish and from that year onwards October 11th, or the Friday nearest to it, became the official date for Hull Fair.
In the 18th century the fair was dominated by jugglers, theatrical booths and puppet shows while from the early 19th century the famous Wombwell Menagerie show appeared, which introduced the people of Hull to their first sights of wild animals. The introduction of mechanisation in the 1870s brought new life to the fair and in a period when many historic fairs were lost with the passing of the Fairs Act in 1871, the people of Hull remained loyal to their annual feast. During the 1800s the fair was held at a variety of locations ranging from the Market Place to Brown Cow Field outside the town; it eventually moved to Park Street in 1865 on the Corporation Field. In 1888 Hull Fair moved to its present home on Walton Street, with the original site doubling in size in 1906 to sixteen acres, making it the largest fair in England at that time.
The 1908 fair saw twenty seven railway excursions bringing over 12,000 people to the fair that year, and the widespread use of electricity by the showmen led the World's Fair, the showmen's newspaper, to describe the annual feast as Light City.
Like most traditional fairs throughout England, the Hull fair was cancelled during the war years and was not revived until hostilities had ended. The 1919 show was bigger and better with over twenty rides. With the cacophony of sound produced by the fairground organs which could be heard throughout the ground, Hull Fair was not only the largest fair in England but probably the loudest.
The last century has seen many changes at Hull Fair
with each year bringing new and wondrous delights for those who attend
the annual carnival. Fashions come and go on the fairground with the showpeople
keeping one step ahead of their competitors and vying with each other
to bring the latest attraction to the October Fair. As Hull Fair opened
for the 701st time, the same thing is true now as it was in 1886: the
people of Hull look forward to the 11th of October long before it arrives.
Let us hope they continue to do so for many years to come.
The National Fairground Archive commenced a major project
documenting the history of Hull Fair from the point of view of the local
people and the showmen who attend. To view the project click here.