Some things never change... How Stevenage got - and kept - its charter fair

The Helter Skelter at the fair in 1907.

The Helter Skelter at the fair in 1907. - Credit: Archant

With an exhibition dwelling on the sights, sounds and smells of Stevenage’s charter fair now in full swing, Martin Elvery has been taking a look back at how it all began.

One of the steam powered merry-go-rounds pictured in 1907

One of the steam powered merry-go-rounds pictured in 1907 - Credit: Archant

The charter fair was founded all the way back in 1281 when the local lord of the manor, Richard de Ware, asked King Edward I to grant a charter for Stevenage.

He seems to have had high hopes that the small community of Stevenage could develop into a thriving market town.

On June 5, 1281, King Edward signed the charter – which is still visible in the Public Records Office.

granting permission for a three-day fair beginning on midsummer’s eve – thw feast of St John the Baptist on June 24.

The Stevenage charter fair in 1907

The Stevenage charter fair in 1907 - Credit: Archant

The main purpose of the early fairs was trade, with cloth, wool and wine merchants stopping off to sell their wares.

By 1625 the fair was losing popularity and the locals asked King James I for a new charter for a fair on July 17.

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Sometime over the next 200 years, the festivities were moved to the autumn and by Victorian times the fair was being held on September 22 and 23.

During the First World War, the fair seems to have been scaled down with the Luton Times and Advertiser reporting in 1915: “The fair at Stevenage this year lacked some of its more pronounced features and was carried out on a much soberer scale than some previous anniversaries.”

During the Second World War, just one stall remained open to make sure the town didn’t lose its charter.

One Mrs Annie Smith set up her sweet and rock booth opposite the Cromwell Hotel. She was a particular favourite with the children who queued for ages to spend their pennies on her ‘spit toffee’ – a concoction made from heated sugar stretched over a hook.

In 1995, a special limited edition beer was brewed to mark the 700th anniversary of the fair.

Today the fair is thriving once again with an array of stalls and rides occupying the High Street. The rides may be electric rather than steam powered and the animals may have been replaced by thrill seeking rides, but the fun of the fair is still very much in evidence.

In recent years the fair has usually attracted a mixed opinion from Stevenage traders.

Some usually express concern to the Comet about the impact on parking and congestion in the Old Town and suggest that their trade is being affected by noise and obstructions from trucks and fair vehicles. Others enter into the spirit of it and welcome the fair as a boost to their trade.

The same debate was happening as far back as 1959.

The Stevenage Gazette reported in that year: “Of eight traders interviewed, four were in favour of the fair, four were against. Those against principally complained about the constant noise, the influx of Teddy boys making a noise until after midnight and the inconvenience of being unable to have deliveries to their premises during the traffic diversion periods.

“Those in favour of the fair said that besides bringing trade to the town, they took part in the festivities themselves and had a thoroughly good time.”

It’s good to see that after all, some things never change.