Bartholomew Fair and Destination City
Discussion paper by David Wilcox July 7 2022

The June/July 2022 edition of the EC1 Echo carried two articles about the idea of relaunching Bartholomew Fair. These have sparked interest, and some questions. Here’s further development of the ideas for combining an on-the-ground and virtual Fair. I’ve drafted this as a note for discussion with the various interests that I’ve mentioned.
Update: see these ideas for a Museum of the Streets, and more on Destination City.
In summary: Barts900 celebrations in 2023 provide an opportunity to appreciate and support not only the hospital and church, but also the wider range of cultural activities in the area, and it's history. Re-launching a new version of Bartholomew Fair could both support  the City’s Destination City programme and help develop a wider Creative Cultural Commons. The Fair could be both activity on a specific date and also serve to promote the host of cultural activities in Culture Mile.

The Fair began on St Bartholomew’s Day in 1133 as a cloth market to help finance the Priory of St Bartholomew, and hospital. Both celebrate their 900th anniversary next year with Barts 900. Over the centuries the market expanded beyond Cloth Fair and Smithfield to cover four parishes, offering raucous festivities for a fortnight at its height in the 17th century. It was suppressed by the City authorities in 1855 for encouraging debauchery and public disorder.  More in Wikipedia.

In the 21st century both Barts Hospital, and St Bartholomew the Great, need funding to restore their historic fabric, and support new projects for the community. 

Should a new Bartholomew Fair be re-staged for the 900th celebrations and beyond, to combine fun with fundraising? 

The idea has caught people’s imagination - but has also raised some questions. What would it be like? Would residents welcome stalls, side-shows, puppets and jugglers? How long should a Fair last and what might it cost to organise? Does it require professional production, or could it be more like a village fete? Is it worth investing the effort when there are so many other challenges?
We can start to answer these questions positively if we re-frame the idea of what a fairground is like in the 21st century.

We already have the elements of a Fair running most days of the year in the theatres, studios, concert halls, museums, galleries, cinemas, pubs and nightclubs around the original fairground, now at the heart of the area the City of London’s Cultural Quarter - Culture Mile.  As The Times highlights, London is in competition with Paris and other capital cities over cultural attractions that are increasingly important for visitor and business location decisions.

The City Corporation has launched an ambitious Destination City programme, strongly backed by Policy chairman Chris Hayward to meet this challenge. He said:

“The Square Mile should be a vibrant destination of choice for everyone.

“We must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine the City of London and enhance its leisure offer. This will boost our attractiveness to existing audiences while also opening it up to new ones, just as the Elizabeth line is set to connect more people to the City directly than ever before.

“Destination City will be the latest reinvention in the Square Mile’s long history. It will drive our recovery from the pandemic and boost our attractiveness to talent by growing the City’s cultural offer, in turn revitalising our streets and reinvigorating our businesses.

“This ambitious vision will help to ensure that the City is the world’s most innovative, inclusive and sustainable business ecosystem as well as an attractive place to invest, work, live, learn and visit.”

The newly opened Elizabeth Line, together with Thameslink, makes it physically the most accessible place in London. 

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.

The good news is that during the pandemic we have become more skilled at both producing and enjoying shows online. We can both see great shows in our home, and also host our own online gatherings for friends and family.

The Culture Mile team and other major organisations are already collaborating in promoting events and programmes, and support for community projects. More could be done - and the planned Business Improvement District will be one vehicle for achieving that. By focusing on the challenge of creating an integrated platform for the Barts Fair of today we could help everyone develop a wider shared vision for what’s needed, join up what we have, and add to Barts 900. It might also help sell the BID to local firms.

There would, of course, also be great advantages in a real-world Barts Fair event - or series of events that bring together organisations, businesses, freelance creatives, artists and community groups.

This fits with Destination City, which promises:

  • A £2.5 million annual investment to boost the City’s leisure offer, building on recent cross-London campaigns and creating a leading destination for workers, residents and UK and international visitors to enjoy.
  • An exciting events programme including outdoor festivals, music, art, education, sport and wellness. A first major event will take place this autumn.
These events might be open days at historic venues, walks and talks, and other jointly organised activities - with highlights on or near St Bartholomew’s Day, August 24th.  Barts Hospital hosted a Fair in the Square as part of its 800th celebrations in 1923. Could the hospital host or contribute to an event in 2023, allied to the Barts 900 celebration?