The annual easter bank holiday funfairs on hampton court green have run for 150 years, unbroken even by two world wars. They are a fundamental part of the history of the area, and of london itself. However the origin of this festival is shrouded in myth and mystery, adding to the excitement and fun found at this family fair.
In 1838, queen victoria, having decided to no longer use hampton court palace as a royal residence, opened the palace state apartments to the public. The decision was popular with londoners who flocked to the area in vast numbers, but controversial as the palace was one of the few places open to the public on sundays leading to opposition from traditionalists and some religious groups. Then, with the crowds came a group of enterprising showmen who set up games stalls such as coconut shies, tests of strength and fortune tellers along the river side near to the palace, plying their trade with visitors.
At some time between 1838 and 1854 this ad hoc collection of stalls was changed into a formal and large bank holiday funfair, and according to the oral history of the showmen’s guild this followed the brave actions of a showman named stephens who rescued a small boy from drowning in the river by hampton court bridge. According to this story, billy stephens was crossing the bridge when he saw a young boy struggling in the thames. He dived in and saved his life, then discovered that the child was the son of a senior lieutenant from the palace. He was asked what reward he would like for his bravery, and he replied that he would like to be granted the right to stage a large funfair on the green every bank holiday weekend, and this was agreed. There are slight amendments to this story in that one version states that he had paid the child sixpence to jump in the water, and another that he actually pushed the boy in!
However, for whatever reason the rights were granted there is no doubt that large funfairs were agreed from the mid 1850s and became a major london event. Certainly the first recorded operation of the funfair on the green dates back to 1854 when the fair was planned to accommodate grazing for the horses of the cavalry, preparing for the crimea war. By the end of the 1850s and through the 1860s the bank holiday fairs were an established part of london life, even recorded by anthony trollope in his writing. Perhaps the largest fair staged on the green took place in 1876, when the fair and a fireworks display celebrated the abolition of tolls on hampton court bridge.
At the turn of the century, hampton court green became a major tram terminus and this plus the improvements to the railway system meant that all londoners could, and did, visit the green for their fairs. Even the use of part of the green during the first world war did not prevent the fair from being held, and the government recognised the importance of this for maintaining morale. They even used the fair as a recruiting point for the services, and we can only imagine the thousands of young men who attended hampton court fair, joined the army and never returned to their loved ones.
The period between the wars was a thriving time for the fairs, and even the depression did not reduce the numbers attending. Hampton court was renowned as a quality festival for local people, and each year saw innovations and improvements. It is always difficult to separate myth from fact in funfair history, but it is claimed that the first ever set of dodgem cars were shown at hampton court, and also that world champion boxers would visit and take part in boxing displays for the entertainment of visitors.
During the second world war, the government worked with the showmen’s guild to ensure that there was quality entertainment for londoners during the blitz, to raise morale and to reduce the pressure on transport to the seaside. These “stay at home holiday” fairs took place in many areas of london, and hampton court fair was maintained to be part of this programme. Large areas of the green were ploughed up to ensure that enemy paratroopers and light planes could not land there, but the area that is now the tarmaced car park was kept flat just for funfair use.
Despite the increase of leisure opportunities in recent years, hampton court funfair has maintained its popularity and importance. The irvin organisation took over management of the fair in the mid 1990s and have worked with hampton court palace management and local residents to improve the management of the event and minimise disruptions. The first thing that irvin’s did was to change the layout of the fair to improve its appearance and reduce any potential for noise nuisance. They then agreed with hampton court palace to experiment by reducing the size of the fair and add car parking on the green to reduce local parking problems. Then palace management along with local residents worked with irvin’s to look at the type and style of rides using the green to ensure that the important tradition of the fair could function with minimum disruption to local people. All residents are aware of the irvin’s hot line if there are questions and queries. Irvin’s have also contributed to improvements on the green, which assist the palace in many of their other events.
Funfairs in the early 21st century are carefully managed. No alcohol is allowed, first aiders are on site, and the historic royal palaces agency work with irvin’s to ensure the safety of all rides and games for public protection. The car park has been significant in reducing pressure on the local streets. Regular meetings are held between the royal palaces agency and irvin’s to learn lessons from each year and make improvements for the future. The residents also know that they can express their views to the royal palaces agency and that these will be acted upon.
Hampton court funfair has provided 150 years of recorded history on the green, and still provides superb family entertainment at the ever popular easter weekend. There are always the traditional carousel and big wheel plus games stalls, plus family favourites such as the dodgem cars and twister rides, and modern virtual reality opportunities. The families who used to flock to the green in the 19th century enjoyed more boisterous and outrageous games and shows, such as bare knuckle fighting, but they would still enjoy this superb family function. We all look forward to the next 150 years.
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