Bury St Edmunds woman delves into the history of one of Suffolk's most popular fairs
Bury St Edmunds-based historian Pat Murrell is all too familiar with the late Stuart and Georgian history of the town.
She has professionally studied it for more than 50 years and gave a series of talks on the period last year, raising £2,500 for St Nicholas Hospice Care.
With a number of further talks on hold, she has given the Bury Free Press access to one of her most popular lectures – The Pursuit of Pleasure: Bury Fair in its Georgian Heyday – in a year which has seen the annual Christmas Fayre cancelled due to coronavirus.
While the Bury Fair hit its peak during the Georgian period, its origins go back as far as 1272 – the latter part of Henry III’s reign.
It came to be known as Bury’s St Matthew Fair after the king passed through the town, paying his devotions to the Shrine of St Edmund and granting the Abbot and Lord of Bury a charter for a fair to be kept annually, three days before and three days after the Feast of St Matthew.
The Fair’s real nationwide fame and notoriety however came during the Georgian era – from the early 1700s to the 1830s.
The British empire at that time was expanding rapidly with international trade flourishing, in turn transforming Britain into a world power.
The Bury Fair, which had everything from exotic animals to bizarre side shows and luxury products on offer, came to act as a microcosm for the British empire during that period, a time when those external influences manifested themselves domestically.
The Fair, held on Angel Hill, drew in large crowds of nobility and gentry – who came for the theatre performances, luxurious products and more – but also those from the lower echelons of society who, more often than not, were not able to afford the same experience.
The Fair became renowned particularly for its side shows and attractions, including some of the latest ‘must-see’ fashionable exhibitions from London.
One of those included the spectacle of the ‘Learned’ pig which came to the fair in 1785.
An excerpt from a Parson James Woodforde at the time tells of what the experience would have been like.
“After dinner the captain and myself, went and saw the learned pig at the Rampart Horse in St Stephens – there was but a small company there but soon got larger.
“We stayed there about an hour. It was wonderful to see the sagacity of the animal – it was a boar pig, very thin, quite black with a magic collar on his neck. He would spell any word or number from letters and figures that were placed before him.”
Bizarre and circus-like side shows like this were commonplace during the fair’s heyday, and among the exotic animals there were lions, tigers and monkeys, all brought in from far flung destinations.
The shows were not limited to just animals though, and humans too exhibited themselves.
One of those was Miss Baffin, who was born without arms and legs and who came to the fair in 1810, using her mouth to write, draw landscapes and paint miniatures.
And there was Miss Hawtin, another limbless female who used her toes to draw and to cut watch papers – she came to the fair in 1784.
All these attractions and the other stalls, theatre performances, balls and the such had an ‘all-pervading’ effect, with everyone in the town and from far away coming to the Fair.
However, the attractions while making the fair so appealing, did come at a cost - the usual price for the attractions was one shilling for an adult which was the same amount as the daily wage of a labouring man at the time, if he was in work.
Therefore, the side shows on offer were extravagant, appealing, and at times outright bizarre, but they served as a reminder of the growing class divides that were around this time.
This was a theme picked up by Italian author Caraccioli, who observed in 1773 that the Fair had ‘considerably declined for 40 years’ and had become ‘rather a place of amusement than a temporary mart’.
Rumours of the Fair’s reputation as more of a playground for the rich than anything else were corroborated by writer John Macky.
In his Journey through England in Familiar Letters, he notes of the plays and theatrical performances that were put on to keep attendees to the fair occupied, but also the ‘assembly’ of women who came to the fair.
He said: “I must own, I never saw a fairer assembly of Beauties in any part of the world, than at this Fair. And indeed, it is more a market for ladies than merchandizes.”
Rumours of the fair as almost a networking opportunity for the wealthy were disputed however.
Another example of how the Fair was representative of the wider context of the British empire at the time was how recruiting officers roamed the town when it was on, snapping up prospective soldiers to be sent abroad.
Britain was at war for much of the Georgian period and the Fair was a perfect setting to find new recruits.
Despite the possible negatives that can be taken from what the Fair offered, including incidences of pick-pocketing and other petty crimes, its popularity was unmatched in Suffolk throughout the Georgian era, with it even gaining a notoriety nationally.
During the period the New Assembly Rooms on Angel Hill – today known as the Athenaeum were also established, after the Eastland family of Norwich ‘saw potential for such a building’ at the start of the 1700s.
The building serves as a reminder of the economic benefit the Fair brought to the town at that time which can still be seen today.
It cannot be denied that the Bury Fair was of economic importance to the town throughout its Georgian heyday, drawing in large crowds and also gaining nationwide notoriety. Look closer though and it served as a reminder of Britain’s growing international influence, but domestic division.