Neath Great Fair takes place on the second Thursday
of September and can trace its origin back to the original Charter
granted in 1280. The oldest and perhaps most prestigious fair in
Wales owes its origin to the granting of the Charter by Gilbert
de Clare, the Lord Paramount of Gloucester and a Marcher Lord for
whom Neath was a garrison town. The granting of a fair to the burgesses
of the town to hold a fair was primarily for economic reasons, despite
the fact that the period when the Charter was granted was one of
great turmoil with Neath being periodically attacked by the Welsh.
George Eaton writing in The Story of Neath's Fair published
to commemorate the 700th anniversary, believes that the fair was
granted at this time in order to encourage the demoralised burgesses
of the town to recover from the traumatic experiences of warfare
and siege. He writes:
There can be no other answer but that de
Clare had faith in the commercial potential of the borough and that
the burgesses needed encouragement to recover from the traumatic
experiences they had undergone.
The original Charter for the fair had since been
lost but the date for the 1280 fair can be found in the surviving
fragments of a medieval Charter dating back to 1397. In this document
Thomas le Depenser confirms the earlier 1359 Charter granted by
his father, which was in term is a confirmation of three earlier
fair dates including the one from 1280.
The borough of Neath has a number of fair dates
but over the centuries the most prosperous and best celebrated was
the September one, which simply became known as the Great Fair.
In line with other medieval fairs, its function was chiefly as a
market of trade and the selling of goods, with the festivities very
much a secondary by-product. Over the centuries warfare and conflict
have affected it, in particular due to its positioning between the
border of Wales and England especially during the Owen Glyndwr rebellion
in the fifteenth century. The 1783 edition of Owen's New Book
of Fairs, lists two dates for feasts in Neath, one commencing,
Trinity Thursday, July 13 and September 12, for cattle, sheep and
hogs. By the middle of the nineteenth century, other fairs were
added to these events, and later additions of Owen's Book of
Fairs contain further details of these fairs.
The date of the September fair was changed in
1879, when an application was made under the 1873 Fairs Act to move
the date of the event. In this document it is stated that the September
fair was held on the 12th of the month and representation was made
to move this date to the second Thursday in September for the convenience
and advantage of the public. As no objections were raised, six hundred
years after the granting of the Charter, the 1880 fair was held
on the second Thursday in September, a date it adheres to today.
A notice published in 1893 lists the nine fairs
held in Neath including the Great Fair. All of these fairs were
held on Wednesdays except for the Great Fair, which by this time
was fixed on the second Thursday of the month. The first fair in
the year was held in March and was associated with the sale of flannel,
the fair held on the first Wednesday after the 12th of May was a
primarily for livestock but also included horses, flannel and interestingly
functioned as a hiring fair. An additional fair was held a week
later in May and also functioned as a hiring fair and perhaps played
the same role as the runaway Mop fairs in the Midlands and enabled
disgruntled servants and labourers to find new masters or improved
working conditions. The mid nineteenth century fair was populated
by shows including Ghost Shows, travelling Menageries and Theatre
booths. By the start of the 1880s steam powered roundabouts appeared
on the fair but Theatre booths presented by William Haggar continued
to be a main staple of the event. Despite the continuation of the
trading element of the fair, the pleasure fair in fact would have
been the most important aspect at that time and showmen from throughout
the United Kingdom would have attended the festivities with a range
of amusement devises and shows from the nineteenth century onwards.
In 1897 local people would have flocked to see moving pictures in
the cinematograph shows which by 1900 would become a staple ingredient
of the Edwardian fair.
By the start of the twentieth century, these nine
fairs remained in existence. However, the September fair continued
to function as both a trading and pleasure event. The site of the
fairground moved around the turn of the century from its previous
locations in Jubilee Gardens and it became situated on the Bird
in the Hand field, which proved to be its home until 1962. The Edwardian
fairground is often described as the golden age of the fair and
the accounts from Neath during this time seem to reflect this. Prominent
showmen such as Jacob Studt from Gloucester, John Studt of Cardiff,
Edward Danter and Jack Scarrot would bring the latest up to date
riding devices and novelty shows to the Great Fair. A trade directory
from 1906 lists the commodities sold at the fair as including sheep,
horses, cattle and poultry, with an extended pleasure fair including
roundabouts and shows. Among the many fine rides to visit the fair
at this time were those presented by Henry Studt, these were the
Zoological Roundabout, the Venetian Gondolas and the Motor Switchback.
Showmen such as Sidney White brought his Tunnel Railway, Tower Slip
and Racing Porkers and John Studt was another regular at the fair
with his Motor Switchback and Four-abreast. In 1911 the fair was
threatened not by warfare or plague but instead by the scarcity
of water and the World's Fair reporter writes:
The great pleasure fair at Neath commenced
on Thursday. It has been thought that the fair would have to be
abandoned owing to the scarcity of water. However the difficulty
has been overcome and the famous fair held as usual.
Boxing Shows were outlawed at Neath during this
time by order of the Town Council, but other well known showmen
presented Gallopers, Gondolas, Motor Car Switchbacks, Tunnel Railways,
Bioscope Shows and the full range of Emmas, Sheets and Panams. The
year 1911 saw the start of the South Wales football team and the
players were selected by arranging a match between the showmen of
South Wales and the showmen of Monmouthshire. The match ended in
a victory for South Wales; much to the disappointment of Jack Scarrot
who was described by the World's Fair as the most prominent and
voluble supporter of the Monmouthshire boys. That year the fair
also displayed a glut of Bioscope Shows all with elaborate names.
The punters were greeted by Dooner's New Empire Show with power
provided by the Burrell engines Mabon and Prince of Wales. There
then followed Wadbrook's Palace of Light, Crecraft's Electric Bioscope,
Walter Haggar's Regal Bioscope, Sidney White's Coliseum and John
Studt's Electric Pavilion. 1911 also saw the appearance of the first
Scenic Railway, which was introduced by Jacob Studt of Gloucester.
Despite the outbreak of the First World War, Neath's September Fair
continued and in 1915 Henry Studt's living vans were used as a recruiting
office for the war effort. The showmen also gave free rides and
entrances into the shows to the children and inmates of the Union
and Cottage Homes and raised £44 for the Volunteer Training Corps.
Despite the war, a full fair was presented and included a Rolin's
Wild West, Joe Danter's amusements, and Charlie Birch's midget show
and swimming saloon. The roundabouts included those of Henry Studt
and sons, Edward Danter and others. The start of the First World
War saw the demise of the bioscope on the British fairgrounds and
Father Greville writing in the Merry-Go-Round in 1943 states:
Neath Fair was never the same after these
wonderful shows disappeared. True the cream of the Welsh riding
machines and organs were to be seen here, but the absence of the
shows with their magnificent parades made a great blank.
During the 1930s, new attractions were seen at
the fair but also saw the return of some of the prewar chair-o-planes
and galloping horses, in particular the famous Zoological four-abreast
which for many years had been associated with Henry Studt and was
now in the ownership of the White Bros. A second set of Gallopers
was seen in 1935 when John Studt reintroduced the set, which used
to be travelled by Henry Studt. The World's Fair reporter
provides us with a description of the machine, which he believed
was the foundation for the success enjoyed by Henry Studt:
The second set of gallopers is that controlled
by Mr. John Studt. This machine was one of the first big rides owned
by the late Henry Studt and it can be truthfully said to have laid
the foundations of success for the famous pioneer of Welsh Showland.
… Perhaps the most interesting feature of these gallopers are the
brilliantly executed shields hanging down from the tilt. Painted
some sixty years ago by W.Silsbury of Bristol, the designs, which
include portraits of the then heads of the Royal Family, are worth
a small fortune. The 22-carat gold leaf on the decorative side of
the ride is also very valuable for the artist used only the best
gold leaf obtainable. As for "Cymro", the engine which causes the
gay steeds to travel around, he is very proud to be in harness again.
Indeed rides may come - and go, but the gallopers carry on for ever.
A family who would become increasingly prominent
in Wales from the 1930s onwards was the Deakins. Under the management
of Mrs Margaret Deakin, the widow of Alf Deakin they would become
of the most successful roundabout proprietors in Wales. The Deakin
family attended the 1935 event with a trio of rides consisting of
a Lightning Swirl, Dodgems and Noah's Ark and juvenile roundabouts
and houplas. These three rides continued to be a feature of the
fair for the next 30 years and the 1960 report in the World's Fair
reveals that they were also travelling a set of hurricane jets.
In 1937, the ride that attracted the most interest was the speedway
presented by Messrs.White's. The reporter for the World's Fair
Finest of all rides on the ground is Messrs
White's Coronation motor cycle speedway. It is indeed a magnificent
outfit and included in the decorative effects is a huge Roman arena
flash, which took the artist four weeks to design. There are four
entrances to the ride and on the supporting pillars are gold and
red crowns. Over £100 has been spent for electric lights to illuminate
the ride, which is already the talk of the town.
In 1945, the fair was declared "Out of Order"
by the South Wales Section of the Showmen's Guild due to a dispute
in rent and Guild members were advised to boycott the fair. The
World's Fair reported it as a sensation and stated:
Quite a sensation has been caused in South
Wales by the news that members of the Showmen's Guild will not attend
Neath Great September Fair which is due to commence on Monday next.
The decision of the showmen was reached at a general meeting of
the South Wales Section at the Carlton Hotel, Cardiff on Monday.
The dispute arose over the Neath's Council's resolution to increase
the rentals by 25 percent … For a long time past the South Wales
Section has been fighting against high rentals imposed by Town Councils
who knew little or nothing about the many responsibilities attached
to fair ground work.
This was not the first fair to be called out of
order by the South Wales members of the Showmen's Guild. In 1935,
the fair at Aberavon was also cancelled due to a dispute over rent
and in the weeks prior to the Neath fair, the Guild had also ruled
that St Margaret's Fair in Tenby was also "Out of Order." Neath
was also the setting for the founding of the South Wales Stalls
Holders and Showmen Protection Association, which was set up in
the 1930s to counteract the large rental charged by roundabout proprietors
in the Section. This was part of the a trend which was also reflected
in Lancashire and Yorkshire who also had Stall Holders Associations
which had been set up to counter balance the power of the machine
men. The Showmen's Guild and the Council resolved their dispute
and the fair continued throughout the 1940s. By 1953, the Coronation
Fair was declared to be the best ever seen in the ancient market
town by the World's Fair. The civic opening was patronised
by all the members of the South Wales Committee, including Margaret
Deakin Studt who was still the secretary at this time and Alderman
J. Walter Jones, the Mayor of Neath, opened the fair. In 1962, the
Easter Fair, which was also, a fixture in Neath was cancelled due
to an outbreak of smallpox in the locality. This was especially
poignant for the showmen, as it would have been the last fair held
on the famous Bird-in-Hand site. Despite a deputation by Mrs Deakin
Studt and William Stevens on behalf of the tenants of the fair,
they were overruled. In 1962 the September fair was moved to a new
location, in the city centre to a carpark nearby Neath Castle, ironically
the original site of the medieval fair. The fair retained its popularity
throughout the decade and many new and original rides newly travelled
in Wales were opened at the fair. The Studt's, Danters', White's
and Deakin families continued to attend the fair as they had done
for many generations and they were joined by a new generation of
showmen who brought over many of the new continental novelty rides
to the fair. The fair was moved to the railway station carpark in
the 1980s where it still remains today. As Terry Agland writes in
this feature, it is not an ideal setting or location for a fair
of the statue and history of Neath. However, this brief overview
of the history of fair at Neath has shown that be it flood, famine,
fire, warfare or plague, the Great September Fair has continued
for over seven centuries, let us hope it continues for many more
centuries to come.
Linsey's fine Autodrome ride in 1960.
Haggar's Royal Electric Bioscope at Neath in 1903.
Sutton's Lakin Ark, 1935.
Modern Maxwell design with Danter's Ark and Waltzer, 1985.
A.L. Studt's Waltzer in 1960.
J. Studt's Waltzer, 1981.
A busy view from 1903.