Stourbridge Fair


From humble beginnings in 1211, Stourbridge Fair became a vital feature of Cambridge life for the next 700 years. It was the largest medieval fair in England (and, some say, even the whole world!), drawing merchants and crowds from all over Europe to the banks of the River Cam. The River was a vital route and most of the wares and the traders and the visitors all came to Stourbridge Fair by boat, those from London and from overseas via King’s Lynn. The fair was therefore an important trading event, especially for pots and pans, clothes and textiles, baskets and mats, horses and horseshoes, pitch and tar, coal and charcoal, iron and timber, books and musical instruments. Residents and visitors also came just to enjoy themselves and especially to eat and drink huge quantities of fish and bread, wine and ale. Most famous were the oyster sellers and discarded oyster shells can still be found in this area today. There is also a street called “Oyster Row” marking the site for the oyster sellers at the fair. Many entertainments were on offer, including toy stalls and puppet shows, musical and theatrical booths. Stourbridge Fair had something for everyone!

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Nowadays, this leafy, green spot on the banks of the Cam is a favourite with dog walkers and cyclists out for a ride on a sunny Sunday afternoon. But, for over 700 years, the area was transformed each September from farmland into a hive of activity. The shouts of merchants advertising their wares, tradesmen’s hammering, and distant snippets of music would have drifted towards you as you approached this site. The river would have been crowded with barges bearing all sorts of goods, from cloth to timber, and foodstuffs to ironwork: the list was endless. Along the roads came throngs of travelling people, while the well-to-do came by horse-drawn coach from Cambridge. Their excitement would have been palpable as the long rows of booths – not to mention the enticing smells of roast goose and oysters – grew ever closer: this was it, this was Stourbridge Fair!

In 1199, King John had passed a decree that a fair should be held at ‘Steresbrige’, a little way outside Cambridge, in order to raise money for the Leper Chapel that stood nearby on the Newmarket Road. The first Fair was held in September 1211 and lasted for 3 days, with most of the profits being given to the charitable cause. It quickly became an annual event and, at the end of the 13th century, when the Leper Chapel closed, the city of Cambridge took over the rights to hold the Fair. Soon, it had grown dramatically in size and was extended to last for a whole month. Local farmers had to hurry to gather in their harvest, or else they risked having it trampled underfoot by the scores of labourers and eager stallholders who came to set up their ever-growing numbers of booths at the end of August each year!

The Fair became such a success that the University wanted a share of its profits, and they entered a long and bitter dispute with the Town authorities on the subject. Eventually, the matter was settled by the highest power, as Queen Elizabeth I gave the Town the rights to the Fair’s profits in 1589. The University still found a way to make some money, though, as it employed watchmen to patrol the Fair regularly and keep order. These watchmen had the right to fine fairgoers and stallholders for all sorts of misdemeanours, both trivial and serious, and they exercised this right freely!

At its height, the Fair was ‘not only the greatest in the whole nation, but in the world’, according to writer Daniel Defoe: one of its many famous visitors. He was not alone in thinking this, and merchants and visitors alike came from all over Europe to trade and to enjoy themselves. Alongside booths selling cloth, grain, and hops, there were rows of stalls occupied by pottery, timber and furniture merchants, and the heady scents of spices, beer, and brandy mingled with the delicious smells wafting from the many food stands. The booths were arranged in long ‘streets’, which all had their own names, in many cases describing the products sold there.  As the years passed, the booths became increasingly substantial: in the eighteenth century, colonnades were built onto them to shelter fairgoers from the unreliable Cambridge weather as they perused the wares on display.

We know that people in East Anglia looked forward to the fair and used it annually to stock up on supplies, such as clothes and cookware.  And the University students and academics would purchase books and stationary and instruments to support their learning, such as eyeglasses and telescopes.  One of the most famous users of Stourbridge Fair was Isaac Newton, who was from the region, a Lincolnshire lad, who went on to study at Cambridge, visiting the Fair to buy not only books, but it is known he also bought a prism, which helped him to see light in a new way, and contributed to his writings about the Theory of Light.

There was always plenty of entertainment on offer at the Fair. As well as the ‘puppet shows, drolls, rope-dancers and such like’ of which Daniel Defoe wrote, there was also much live music. In 1767, there were three competing music booths, with James Miles, Mr Goodhall and the Sussex Band all drawing audiences! Fairgoers were also able to see a whole variety of theatrical entertainments; this was a particular treat, as the performance of plays within five miles of Cambridge was usually strictly forbidden, as the University authorities feared that it would corrupt the students! The usual rules were lifted during the time of the Fair, though, and in the late eighteenth century a permanent theatre was built on the edge of the fairground. There, fairgoers could see plays by Shakespeare, vaudevilles and melodramas, and even, in September 1797, an opera which had previously been performed at the Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden! The fair also played host to the very latest entertainment technologies: in 1735, Henry Bridges of Waltham Abbey, Essex, brought along a musical automaton, called the ‘Microcosm’.  Fairgoers entered his booth and could watch moving astronomical panels and complex panoramic scenes, all set to music.

Music also played a vital role in many other aspects of the Fair. Charles Caraccioli, a visitor in the eighteenth century, wrote that the Fair was opened by ‘the Mayor, Aldermen, and the rest of the Corporation of Cambridge, who all rode thither in a grand procession, with music playing before them’, while another visitor reminisced that ‘the clamour of trumpets, deep-sounding drums, screaming toy trumpets and din of a thousand discordant voices assailed the ear and confused the thoughts’ of the fairgoers. For those who were new to the Fair, music seems to have played an even more important role. According to one visitor, newcomers to the Fair in the eighteenth century could choose to take part in an initiation ceremony in the ‘the Robin Hood’ tavern, which stood at the back of the fairground. As part of this mysterious ritual, a special song was sung and the novice would be given a nickname, to be used every year they returned to the Fair.

But, by the end of the eighteenth century, the Fair was in decline: with improved rail transport and new canal systems, the importance of the River Cam for trade decreased, leaving the Fair as a destination for pleasure rather than business. And by the early twentieth century, Cambridge had grown and developed enough of its own permanent entertainments that the Fair finally lost its appeal. At the opening of the final Fair in 1933, the only people present were two women with prams and a disappointed ice cream salesman. The event was abolished the following year. The legacy of the Fair lives on, however, in a number of the road names near to Stourbridge Common:  Oyster Row, Garlic Row and Mercers Row are all inspired by the names of ‘streets’ at the Fair at the height of its popularity and importance.

Discover More


Stourbridge Fair- Honor Ridout


Stourbridge Common- where the fair was held (off Garlic Row, Cambridge, CB5 8HW)

Local streets by Stourbridge Fair (named after wares sold at the fair): Garlic Row, Oyster Row, Mercers Row


Research on Stourbridge Fair:

 History of Cambridge Fairs:

Stourbridge Fair


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