The Free Mart Fair

The charter of 1194

The Free Mart Fair was an annual event in Portsmouth that can be traced back to a Charter granted by Richard I in 1194. From this date onwards, the townsfolk of Portsmouth had the right to hold the Fair each year. Although it had been held in August previously, changes in the calendar in the 1700s led to it taking place from the 10th to the 24th July for most of the last century of its existence. The Fair took place in the High Street of Portsmouth (in what is now known as Old Portsmouth), and could stretch most of the length of this street and even into Grand Parade on a good year. The Fair did take place from the 1stAugust, but calendar changes in the 1700s led to it happening from the 10th to the 24th of July

The Open Hand

The Fair was traditionally opened by the hanging out of a carved hand in the High Street. This 'Open Hand' was then removed at the end of the Fair. The exact significance of the hand was interpreted differently by varying individuals: some visitors to the Fair believed that while it was displayed no person could be arrested for debt! Initially, it probably symbolised the lack of any charge for stalls to be set up in the High Street when the Fair took place. However, by the 19th century, such charges for stalls were firmly in place. The original hand was stolen in the early 1840s, and was rumoured to have made its way to America.

Fifteen days of the Fair

Throughout its fifteen days, the Fair hosted a wide range of stalls and events. As well as stalls selling items of clothing, household goods and bric-a-brac, there were menageries and circuses run by individuals such as Pidcock, Polito, Wombwell, and Saunders. Many of these performances and exhibitions would return year after year, building up expectation as to what they might present at each Fair.

Attractions of the Fair

Menageries, giants and dwarves

The Free Mart Fair was regularly visited by a selection of menageries and other odd characters. The menageries would exhibit animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, and snakes. For most of the visitors, this would be the first time that they saw creatures which would have been unfamiliar and bizarre to them. This was seen as an educative experience by most - the local Poor House even paid for its charges to visit one of the menageries for this reason. The Fair also brought a series of entertainers who advertised themselves as giants, dwarves, and similar. Other performers included a 'Gigantic Fat Girl' and, in 1824, a pig that could sing "God Save The King!"

Circuses, pantomimes and exhibitions

Circuses at the time of the Fair were mainly equestrian, with performers carrying out dazzling stunts on horseback. Circuses such as the 'Royal Tent or Amphitheatre Royal' of Saunders in the early 1800s, and Adams's troupe after them, were regulars at the Fair. Often the circuses would perform pantomimes and melodramas that incorporated displays of horsemanship. Richardson's Theatre, which was one of the most famous of its kind, brought more straightforward drama, as did a series of other theatres, comedians and dancers. Some events, such as the magic tricks of Mr Gyngell, took place in the Town Hall, which was hired for this purpose. Other attractions included waxworks, panoramas and flea circuses.

The stalls

The stalls at the Free Mart Fair sold a range of goods - hats, shoes and other clothes being common. Many stall holders had patches that they returned to year after year, announcing their arrival with advertisements in the Hampshire Telegraph. There was very little or no presence of any kind of livestock or farm produce. There were also a demand for novelty items like everlasting pencils, and, of course a place for stalls selling food. Stall positioning was very important, with some positions better for business than others.

Decline of the Free Mart Fair

Crime and the Fair

Crimes such as theft and pickpocketing had always been common at the Fair, but there were growing concerns through the 1830s and 1840s that the Fair was becoming a magnet for all sorts of undesirable characters - particularly gangs of pickpockets.

The Vauxhall

Vauxhalls became common at the Fair in the 19th century and were another source of concern. Vauxhalls were large tents erected on private ground which would hold performances, fancy dress balls and other dances. They soon gained a bad reputation for encouraging immoral and lewd behaviour, even amongst the general disdain for drinking and dancing booths. Dancing in a Vauxhall would often continue through until dawn, and was fuelled by alcohol purchased from stalls within the tent. Drunkenness and dim light would lead to all sorts of wanton incidents.

"This Portsmouth saturnalia"

Enthusiasm for abolishing the Fair grew steadily through the 1830s. Some local residents saw it as an overlong and unwelcome intrusion into their lives. Others thought of it as obsolete and irrelevant to modern times. The Fair was also seen as representing too great a temptation for the lower orders - servants were not returning to their owners and sailors were late for duty as a result of the allure of the Fair. The Hampshire Telegraph, the prominent local newspaper of the time, reflected these criticisms by taking a more and more critical attitude towards the Fair. By the 1840s it was referring to it as "This Portsmouth Saturnalia" and openly calling for its abolition.

Abolition of the Free Mart Fair

The Council's failure

The Town Council was not unaware of the criticism of the Fair. In the 1820s legal action had been taken unsuccessfully against the Vauxhalls - in 1841 the Council passed a byelaw abolishing the Fair. Posters proclaiming this were distributed widely, but the Fair still went ahead. The Council was not able to override the Charter that granted the Fair its existence - they would need the intervention of Parliament to override this.

Abolition of the Fair

The Fair continued through the 1840s with some efforts to change its site and duration from some individuals in the Council. Southsea Common was suggested as an alternative, with just four days of duration a possibility. It was not until January 1847 that the matter reached Parliament. The proposal to abolish the Fair was passed but did not receive royal assent and become law until 22 July 1847. This meant that the Fair of 1847 took place, but that it was the final one. Some individuals did gather in the High Street and call for the glove to be put out, but police and magistrates swiftly dealt them with. There was even an attempt to revive the Fair in the late 1800s but this was a very different event that did not succeed.

Changing Fair, changing people?

It would seem that the Free Mart Fair underwent a change in its nature over the course of the early 19th century. From being a celebratory event where rich and poor mingled together it became a 'delectable mart' where crime and debauchery held court. There are many possible social and economic reasons for this - and many other fairs at the time were abolished (the Lawrence Fair of London is a good example). Strangely, there had always been a risk of crime at the Fair, and the festive nature of the event led to a certain freedom of attitude. Possibly these elements of the Fair degenerated - particularly in the view of critics of the time. Peoples' opinions and attitudes to criminality and morality were also changing in the 19th century, and it is worth questioning whether it was not just the Fair that was different but also what was thought of as acceptable moral behaviour.


Edwards, F H. 1989. Crime and Law and Order in Mid-Victorian Portsmouth (Portsmouth Papers 55)

Gates, W. 1900. Illustrated History of Portsmouth

Patterson, A.T. 1976. Portsmouth: a history

Webb, J. 1982. Portsmouth Free Mart Fair: The last phase 1800-1847 (Portsmouth Papers 35).

Last amendment date: 02/07/2015

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