Mayfair is a pretty classy district. I mean, it’s worth £400 on the Monopoly board, which is just amazing. Some of the notable locations therein include Savile Row, Bond Street and Grosvenor Square. It’s illegal to be poor around there, according to sources. Looking at its current prosperity, it’s hard to believe that it was, for a long time, exactly the opposite.
Indeed, the very name alludes to this fact. Mayfair was once the place where the May Fair was held. The Fair dates back to 1290, when it was authorised by King Edward I as a moneyspinner for the upkeep of the hospital located on what would eventually be the site of St James’s Palace. The hospital was built at an unknown date, though was already fairly venerable by that stage. It had been built when the area was largely rural, some way from the city walls, for female lepers. The name St James comes from the fact that the hospital was dedicated to St James the Less.
The May Fair was held during the first two weeks of the month, and outlasted the hospital itself. Henry VIII turned the hospital into the Palace, there being at the time only three lepers in residence. Unfortunately, the riff-raff took a while to catch on, and it wasn’t until 1665 (during the reign of Charles II) that they eventually moved the Fair to a cramped street just off the Haymarket. This being insufficient in terms of space, the Fair was moved again in 1688 to a piece of waste ground near Piccadilly.
The Fair was, it’s fair (har har) to say, not exactly popular with the Moral Guardians of the Nation. Queen Anne, when she wasn’t making furniture (my knowledge of this period of history is admittedly shaky), would rail against it. It was regarded as something of an embarrassment to respectable folk. It attracted the rougher elements of society. One visitor, writing anonymously in a pamphlet preserved in the Westminster Library, noted that he “could not, among the many thousands, find one man that looked above the degree of Gentleman’s Valet, nor one whore that could have the Impudence to ask above sixpence for an hour of her cursed company.”
So I would imagine he left right away. Of course.
There was plenty to do at the May Fair. As well as the standards like puppet shows, boxing matches and juggling, there were some rather more unusual forms of entertainment on offer. For instance, there were the hasty pudding-eaters. These men participated in an early form of eating contest in which they would compete to see who could down the most semolina pudding in a given space of time (whether with jam or without is not stated). There were displays of unusual creatures from around the world, including a civet cat, a golden marmoset, a “wood monster” and “a little black man.” There were shows in which one could watch puppets being executed for some reason.
And then there were blood sports. A fairly common pub name is “the Dog and Duck.” Many people know that this has something to do with duck hunting, but most are unfamiliar with what the term “duck hunting” actually meant. Duck hunting was a most unpleasant form of blood sport (as opposed to all those really pleasant forms of blood sport). It basically consisted of sending a spaniel into a pond to savage ducks to death – apparently the entertainment consisted of watching the duck dive under the water. A more surreal activity consisted of tying a duck and an owl together. The duck, distressed at this, would dive under the water. On re-emerging, the owl would flap, distressing the duck again, and so on. The account of this activity, Joseph Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, does not explain the aim or point of this exercise.
Then there was the distinctly odd spectacle on Sun Court around 1750 in which one could see the wife of a local blacksmith, who was apparently something of a hottie, lifting an anvil with her hair. Then she would lie on the bed, uncover her bosom and place the anvil thereon while two men forged horseshoes. She would continue to chat to spectators with apparent indifference until the forging was completed, at which she would sit up, casting the anvil off her. It wouldn’t surprise me if you could find a fetish website devoted to this sort of thing, but frankly I’m not Googling it.
There were several attempts to outlaw the Fair, but tradition and popularity ensured that none of these really came to anything. What eventually finished it off is what’s currently doing for Portobello Road Market – namely, property developers. By the middle of the 18th century, the stately development that now characterises the area was well established, and surrounded the May Fair grounds. The wealthy and influential residents, led by the Earl of Coventry, demanded and, at last, got the fair banned. Further residential development ensured that it would never return.
These days, only the name serves as an indicator of the genteel area’s history. You might say that in five hundred years it went from lepers to deve-lepers. Har har that was a funny joke I made.