This Easter sees the Hampton Court Fair back on the Green, with the enticing aroma of popcorn and candyfloss filling the air and the palace making a striking backdrop. But the fair’s history is almost as fascinating as its majestic location. The fair’s organisers, Irvin Leisure, take us back in time…
It all started in the 1850s, when – to boost government funds – Queen Victoria decided to open Hampton Court Palace to the public on three bank holidays a year.
The fairs were staged on the Green opposite the palace as extra entertainment for the crowds, who broke away from their labours and flocked to see how the monarchy lived.
The first of these magical events included the surprise attraction of cavalry horses feeding on the Green’s fresh grass as they prepared to go to war in the Crimea.
Over the next couple of decades, the fairs became such an established part of London life that they even featured in the work of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope.
And, in 1876, when the Hampton Court bridge tolls were abolished, an extra-special supersize fair, complete with firework display, was staged to help locals celebrate that they’d no longer have to pay to cross from one side of the river to the other.
As rail links improved – and Hampton Court Green also became a major tram terminus around the turn of the century – more and more Londoners could head out this way for the Green’s famous fairs.
With something for all the family – from courting couples squealing their way round the Big Wheel, to parents and grandparents indulging children on a special night out – an outing to the fair has always been a memory-making event.
In fact, by the early 20th century, the Hampton Court Green fairs were known to be such a morale booster that the government even sent military recruiters out this way. Their mission was to sign up high-spirited young men to fight in the First World War…
When war struck again, 21 years later, large areas of the Green were ploughed up to prevent enemy paratroopers and light planes from landing. Nothing should be allowed to stop the fair from going ahead! Not only did the government see it as a way of raising public morale through the Blitz, but they also knew it was enough of an attraction to encourage people to holiday at home – easing pressure on the trains struggling to carry Londoners down to
The Hampton Court Green fairs – now hosted by the 10th generation of the same family, still working closely with the palace itself – are the longest enduring funfairs in London. Not only have they lifted the spirits of millions of people over the years, but it’s said this is where the first-ever dodgems crashed into existence.
Hurtling towards 200 years of uninterrupted history, the fairs now raise thousands of pounds for local charities like the Princess Alice Hospice as well as Hampton Court Palace itself.
Last year £10,000 was raised for the palace as record numbers of families attended – everyone thrilled at the chance to enjoy a fun and Covid-safe outdoor experience, and optimistically embracing what we all hoped was the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
These days the fair lights up the sky above the Thames with its high-rise rides. But, while the giddying Booster and white-knuckled Tornado may scare the life out of those with the guts to try them, for those who prefer to keep their feet a bit closer to the ground, you’ll still find vintage family favourites like bumper cars and the civilised carousel.
So, climb aboard that beautiful white horse, feel the fun as it gently rises and falls, and start making happy new memories. We all need as many of those as we can get right now…