After the Fair is over

Over on the Cloth Fair site I’ve reported on my research into earlier re-staging of Bartholomew Fair, starting with the big one organised by Barts Hospital in 1923. Senior medics yielded to a session in the stocks. I’ve asked for more info from anyone involved in more recent events, including 1973, 2000 and 2010.

Meanwhile, as Bartholomew Fair starts its second week, it isn’t too soon to begin thinking about what will attract visitors for the rest of year, meeting the wider aim “To engage audiences with the City’s unique culture and heritage” (1)

I hope this might be on the agenda for the City Corporation’s Culture, Heritage and Libraries Committee when it meets on September 18.

Although there may not be time, by then, for a formal review, Councillors are likely to have some observations on their experience of the Fair and the complementary Cloth Fair programme developed with St Bartholomew the Great. The opening there by the Lord Mayor, and Great Disputation were certainly a great success, organised mainly by volunteers.

By contrast this year’s official programme – with a budget of £1.3 million – relied mainly on acts bought-in from elsewhere against a very tight timetable. The Destination City team have done an amazing job on a challenging brief from Policy and Resources Committee, and also launched a new visitor website.

The next Fair

However, with a year to plan the next Fair – and other activities to attract visitors during that time – there’s a chance to reflect on how far the City could build on its very substantial and unique cultural and heritage assets.

A year ago – before the City decided to re-stage the Fair – I posted “Revive Bartholomew Fair? Maybe it’s already happening in Culture Mile, writing:

Articles in the EC1Echo (by Matthew Bell and myself) about reviving Bartholomew Fair in 2023 have attracted support. However, in lots of ways we already have an all-year Fair taking place in the many venues along the City of London’s Culture Mile (original vision here – see below for update).

“Here’s a discussion paper on how we might combine a new Fair with promotion of those very varied activities, support the Barts 900 fund-raising plans of Barts Hospital and St Bartholomew the Great, and join with the Destination City campaign. Read the paper here.

“In order to get started, the paper suggests:

  • Discuss with Barts 900 partners, and the Destination City team, how Bartholomew Fair might support their plans.
  • Summarise more fully the history of Bartholomew Fair, with other linked references to support this first idea of Barts Fair Revived. Set up a blog and web pages.
  • List and map the organisations, places and activities along and near Culture Mile, so we know more about the assets that we have. Is a common events calendar possible?
  • Ask organisations what they are planning for 2022/23, and explore with them whether Barts Fair could help them do more and connect with others. Invite those interested to a walk and get together – maybe on or near August 24.
  • Depending on the response, develop some demonstrations of virtual tours and other ideas in my article for the Echo.

My main points was:

The problem isn’t the lack of a Fair – it’s that not enough people know about the Fair that we already have. Nor, perhaps, do they know enough about the fascinating history of Farringdon, Smithfield and nearby Clerkenwell, and what there is to explore in the streets of EC1.


“Each of the organisations in the Culture Mile produces its own marketing material, and manages its own social media channels. There’s so much going on that it is difficult to track and keep up.

“In order to develop a new all-year Barts Fair we need better directions on the ground, one place online with a calendar of events and other information, links to live streaming to enjoy shows at home, and also ways to connect with people with like interests. Fairs are social”.

Building relationships

Of course there is a big difference between events like Fairs and Festivals, and the day-to-day opportunities available in an area. I just wanted to make the point that we risk undervaluing the latter in organising the former. We need both – with the organising of an annual event being one way to develop relationships that can lead to new collaborations throughout the year.

I think these ideas from a year ago hold good – and some have already come to pass. We have a re-staged Bartholomew Fair … but it hasn’t been built on the City’s cultural and heritage assets. It’s difficult to see why visitors would return after the show is over.

Although initial plans for re-staging the Fair included better wayfinding – and a chance to engage a wide range of interests – these haven’t been followed through. As I wrote here Destination Square Mile needs support for wandering about.

The Culture Mile area, from Moorgate to Smithfield, includes not just the Bartholomew Fairground, but the Barbican Centre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and other major cultural attractions. It’s an ideal place to pilot how to “engage audiences with the City’s unique culture and heritage”.

One difficulty may be that since last year the City Corporation has disbanded the Culture Mile team and instead we have a Culture Mile Business Improvement District.

That is a business-led organisation which does not have any direct democratic accountability to the City Corporation and its Culture, Heritage and Libraries Committee. Even if councillors like the ideas that I and others are putting forward, there’s an issue of how they might be implemented in Culture Mile – or indeed anywhere else in City, since all areas are covered by BIDs.

On balance I think that the BIDs are a good idea, but the Destination City programme does present a challenge if it is to benefit residents as well as visitors and the businesses that depend on them.

The City’s policy chief Chris Hayward has said “we want Destination City to be owned by the residents as much as by anybody else”.

The BIDs have supported Bartholomew Fair – as you can see in The City Courant – but they don’t have to follow any future direction that may be developed by the Policy or CHL committees.

Fortunately there’s a chance for residents to engage with the Culture Mile BID on September 14, when Cripplegate have a Ward meeting, and then with the Destination City team in October. I hope Cripplegate members won’t mind if a few interested residents from other wards come along.

Update: I understand that the Destination City meeting will now be on November 7 – awaiting confirmation

In practice I think there’s great potential for collaboration between the various interests, even if formal governance systems need improvement. Starting to plan next year’s Fair together would be a great way to achieve that – if there’s an emphasis on making the most of local assets, and engaging residents as well as businesses. First step – developing a shared knowledge base of cultural and heritage assets. I’ll check if the BID already has anything underway.


(1) Aims from the official Bartholomew Fair business engagement toolkit

  • To engage audiences with the City’s unique culture and heritage.
  • To create a distinctly City of London experience. Nowhere else in the world could stage Bartholomew Fair
  • To shift perceptions of the City as part of a longer-term approach to encourage and welcome new and diverse audiences.
  • To drive footfall and in turn encourage spend.
  • To make Bartholomew Fair an annual event which the City of London is renowned for.

The audiences cited are City Workers, Residents and ‘Experience Seekers’ living in London and the South East.

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