The Fair Evolves
The original function of the fair was as a mart of trade, with economics and trade being the dominating features of the medieval event. The fair would have been the opportunity for traders to offer exotic goods such as silks and furs as well as more mundane goods such as foodstuffs and livestock. With the development of new forms of commerce and distribution leading up to and during the industrial revolution the role of the annual fairs as centres for trade was disrupted. Entertainment had always been a characteristic of the fair but by the late years of the 1700s merriment and entertainment had become the main focus of the festivities. By the early 1800s jugglers, theatrical booths, puppet shows and menageries dominated fairs all over the country.
The development of the fair as a place of entertainment was not without its consequences. As the trading aspect of the fairs declined and the fun of the fair increased opposition to the fairs grew. The attitudes of those who frequented the fairs are poorly documented however the opinion was frequently voiced that fairs encouraged vice and had no place in a rapidly modernising industrial society in need of a sober workforce. Many fairs across the country were abolished during this period. Opposition to the fairs has been a recurring theme in their history with the 1800s seeing a number of Acts of Parliament designed to facilitate the abolition of fairs.
However the decline of the commercial aspect of the fair had not led to a decrease in its popularity but rather to a change in purpose. The introduction of mechanisation in the 1860s and 1870s brought new life to many historic fairs. In a period when many ancient fairs were lost with the passing of the Fairs Act in 1871, the people of Hull remained loyal to their annual feast as the writer for the Hull and Lincoln Times reported in 1874:
It is frequently remarked that our fairs are not what they used to be — that the grand old institutions is on the wane — and that, like the once popular games of cock fighting and the bull ring, fairs will soon be altogether extinguished. But threatened men live long and the last fair will not be yet... Fair time is regarded by the Hullitos in something the same light as Christmas is by the denizens of more southern counties — a kind of open house period when scattered members of families are reunited and when invitation go forth to country cousins to come and see the town...
The reporter then goes on to make the following observation:
When another year has passed, however, and Hull Fair comes again in the annual round, there will be the same excitement, the same pushing, the same squandering of time and money. It is surprising indeed how many people of every class and age seem to give themselves up to the abandon of this great carnival.
Location, Location, Location
Over the centuries a series of locations throughout the city have been the venue for this annual abandonment. In 1815, local inhabitants attending the event held in Nelson Street, Wellington Street and Queen Street would have gazed in wonder at William Bradley the Yorkshire Giant. Throughout the 1800s, the fair was held at a variety of locations ranging from the Market Place to Brown Cow Field outside the town, with it eventually moving to Park Street in 1865 on the Corporation Field. Although the fair prospered on this site, the local residents never accepted it, an attitude which is reflected in local newspaper report from 1885 which condemned the disgusting amount of fat females exhibited and the peep shows which in their opinion bordered on the obscene. They continued their attack on the fair by remarking that the quantity of catarrh caused by the sloppy condition of the fairground was unlimited. Arguments continued throughout the decade, with Councillor Garsides calling for its removal to "the Humber Dock or something to that effect." The continued debate over the future of Hull Fair was articulated in an article in The Critic in 1888:
This much, however, in spite of the worthy Councillorís opinion, is certain: that a large number of people in Hull regard the fair as an old-time institution which it would be little less than sacrilege to destroy. They look forward to the eleventh of October long before it arrives and in anticipation of its arrival invite their friends from afar and near to come and Eat, Drink and Be Merry.
By October 1888, a compromise of a sort was reached and Hull Fair moved to its present home on Walton Street, with the original eight acre site doubling in size in 1906 when it was increased to 14 acres, making it the largest fair in England.
This move was not originally popular with the showpeople who attended the fair believing that a change in location was tantamount to destroying the fair. The showmen were afraid their business would be affected because the people would not know where the fair was being held. According to the Williams family tradition, Randall Williams a Yorkshire showmen who regularly visited Hull Fair with his Ghost Show, came up with a novel idea to draw the crowds. From the site of the old fairground on Park Street he arranged for a funeral cortege on a lavish scale. This consisted of an elaborate cut glass hearse, pulled by four black Belgium horses and accompanied by mutes and weepers, the public mourners favoured by the Victorians. The parade left Park Street and travelled through the streets of Hull, followed by large crowds of people, curious to know who warranted such a funeral. Finally the procession came to Walton Street and Randall Williams, leapt from the back of the carriage, bowed to the assembled crowd and announced:
Randal Williams
Now you know where Hull Fair is. Little wonder he was known amongst his contemporaries as the King of Showmen.
The following report from the Critic further demonstrates the contribution of the showmen to the success of the fair:
The Fun of the Fair
The Critic October 1890
When Hull Fair was relocated to the dismal wilds of Newington. The goody- goody ones thought the fair would not survive. The Hull fair of 1890 shows the fair to be more robust than ever and the largest October carnival Hull had ever recorded.
Also in this year, Randall Williams, the second most successful showman to Barnum performed his magnificent ghost exhibition. The exhibition accommodated no less than 1000 people. His show front was dazzlingly beautiful and encased with enough gold to exhaust the Royal Mint. Inside he had all new scenery and effects, including his very own traction engine brought purposely for the generation of electricity lighting. Performers were actors and actresses from London and provincial theatres. Those who patronise the great Randall of the Williams ilk, were promised a startling treat.
The growth of the community of showmen and their success in entertaining the public and in protecting the fairs and their way of life was the culmination of a long cycle of changes on the fairground.
By 1890 the new fairground was flourishing and the popular wild beast and ghost shows competed with the increasingly fashionable steam powered roundabouts. The Hull Daily News reported the success of the move commenting:
That old institution — Hull Fair which is from many points of view an unmitigated nuisance seems to die very hard, if we may judge by the appearance of things on Saturday. It will be quite safe to say that there has never been a single day when more people attended the fair than were present on Saturday last ... It was predicted by the opponents of the removal from Park Street to Walton Street that the removal would kill the fair, but much to the regret of those who detest the scenes of debauchery which the fair often leads, the removal seems to have given a new lease of life to the fair. The shows, swings, roundabouts and other attractions are this year so numerous that they could not by any possibility have found accommodation in Corporation Field...
And it continued:
During the whole of the day the sun shone brilliantly the result was that many 100s visited the fair than is usually the case and the complaint of tradesman in the town was that people must be keeping their money for Hull fair!
Punters visiting the fair during this period would have perhaps enjoyed a ride on the latest steam powered roundabouts or those who preferred the then traditional attractions offered by the exhibition booths would have attended the circus or the ghost shows. Whatever the attractions on offer, the talents of the showmen in bringing people onto the fair was part of the overall fun and The Hull Daily News commented:
The best time to visit the fair is undoubtedly in the evening. The voices of the showmen are singularly eloquent then, despite a little apparent hoarseness.
In 1897 a new attraction brought the crowds flocking down to Walton Street when Randall Williams advertised living pictures in his converted Ghost Show. By the turn of the century these elaborate picture shows dominated the landscape of Hull's annual fair, with no fewer than nine of them in attendance. Innovation has always been a feature of any fair and such was the success of the 1900 event that electric trams reputedly carried over 92,000 passengers to the fair on Friday alone. This in additional to the thousands of people who travelled by train from Blackburn, Preston and other localities.