On the first Friday of July,
Then people meet together,
Regardless of the summer fly,
And fearless of the weather.
The summer has always been a time for all kinds of outdoor celebrations. While seasonal events like harvest festivals were celebrated by communities all over the country, other festivals had a specifically local character.
One of these is the Fairlop Fair (still celebrated today), a day-long event focused around the once famous Fairlop Oak in Hainault Forest, Essex. Many English festivals have ancient roots, but the Fairlop Fair appears to be a relatively modern invention, a gathering of London workers wishing to escape the city for a rare summer holiday in the countryside.
The Fairlop Fair, which took place on the first Friday in July, was established in the early eighteenth century. Its continuing popularity is reflected in A Curious Account of Fairlop Fair; with an entertaining description of the motley multitude who assemble on that occasion, a book for children published in 1811 by William Darton.
The book’s plentiful illustrations and verse describing the day out capture the character of the ‘motley multitude’ of Londoners travelling to Hainault. From the packing of refreshments to sustain them through the day, to their late night meanderings home, Darton’s vivid portraits of everyone from typical family groups to revellers packed onto carts and coaches conveys the rambunctious nature of Fair’s visitors.
The Fairlop Oak is well documented in paintings and prints, (many examples of which can be seen on the Hainault Forest website) and these images record the tree’s gradual decline over the years, showing its hollow trunk and dying branches. In its heyday the Fairlop Oak’s trunk measured more than thirty feet in circumference, while its canopy was said to cover an acre of ground. Although the tree was all but dead by the time Darton records the Fair, the event still drew in crowds of visitors.
The celebration was started by Mr Thomas Day, a boat-builder from Wapping, and Darton explains to the young reader how Day and his friends would travel to the Fairlop Oak in a horse-drawn boat. The boat, filled with musicians, would be paraded around the old tree. This spectacle gradually attracted more and more people, and so the Fair began. Some fascinating photographs on the Hainault Forest website show that a boat on wheels still travelled by road to the Fair from the East End of London as late as 1901.
There’s a sense in which Fairlop Friday with its music, crowds, and copious alcohol mirrors the supposedly more genteel garden gatherings at venues in central London from this time, at Vauxhall and Ranelagh. The Fair also anticipates the immense popularity of today’s outdoor music festivals like Glastonbury.
Sadly, most of these festivals are unable to go ahead this year due to Covid-19, and judging by the unusually large crowds of people in my local park, enjoying the sun and picnics in the shade of the plane trees, they’re much missed. There are links to the Hainault Forest website and Darton’s book below.