May is Local and Community History month across the UK created by The Historical Association, a charity registered by the Royal Charter.
Their mission is to inspire, enable and encourage people to get involved with history. May is the month the Association wants everyone to research and read, share information and raise awareness about the history of their communities and local areas. They are encouraging people to hold events in their local community highlighting customs and historical concerns.
What better way for Hereford to be supporting local history than the May Fair?
The History of the Hereford Fair
The fair has been taking place on an annual basis since 1121 when King Henry 1 granted Bishop Richard rights to hold a nine day fair in Hereford City. It was also known as St Ethelbert’s Fair and its rights were vested in the Lord Bishop of Hereford. An Act of Parliament in 1838 reduced this to three days in 1838 for ‘the improvement of the morals of the inhabitants’. It also transferred the rights to the council at that time.
For the privilege of holding the fair, the 1838 Act states that the council pay 12.5 bushels of the best wheat (60 lbs) or the equivalent in money to the Bishop of Hereford. Although the 1838 Act was revoked by the 1854 Hereford Improvement Act, the right to hold the fair and the Bishop’s right to compensation were preserved. The fair is still opened with the traditional ceremony of the weighing of the wheat.
The Fair Location
Every year, the Fair starts on the Tuesday after the first Monday in May for three days in areas that the council choose, even if that should be an obstruction of the highway as set out in Law.
Letters in support of the fair are submitted from both the Showmen’s Guild, who run the fair, and the Chief Superintendent of the West Mercia Police giving their backing for its continuance. Any requests to alter dates or location of the fair would need to be the subject of consultation with both groups.
Why was a local fair important?
The local fair was an area for trade, celebrating community identity and welcoming outsiders to the town or village. Fairs usually had a dual purpose of business and pleasure and were a key festive celebration in the local calendar. They were often held in autumn, just after the harvest, or in spring, when travel became easier after winter.
A wide variety of goods were available at fairs, from farm tools and cloth, to household necessities and small luxury goods.
Permanent shops were rare outside major towns and cities before the late 1700s and only local merchants were allowed to conduct business in a town. The fair was a rare opportunity to buy products from further afield.
Entertainment was an important part of the fair, with visiting theatre troupes, musicians, exotic animals and other curiosities all on display. Fairs became largely recreational events around the 1830s. This was due to the building of railways which changed how goods were moved around the country and permanent shops became well established.
The May Fair in Pictures
There are some wonderful pictures of the May Fair through time on several websites. These are Herefordshire Life Through a Lens and Herefordshire History – featuring photos from Derek Evans Studio. Derek Evans was a fine and accomplished photographer who was clearly passionate about Hereford and the region.
To see some classic retro May Fair video footage head to Broad Street (opposite Barclays) from 12 noon – 8pm Thursday from Catcher Media
Enjoy the fair and taking part in a little bit of local history.