Cloth Fair, EC1A
Nowadays, Cloth Fair is a short residential street, running parallel to Long Lane and in front of Smithfield market and bordering the church of St Bartholomew-the–Great and then merging into Middle Street. In mediaeval times it was a throbbing area of commerce and, as you might expect, it has a fascinating history.
Originally, the street was within the precincts of the Priory of St Bartholomew and until as late as 1910 was separated from the rest of the City both physically and administratively. It was walled off and a gate into the area was shut at night creating what we would now call a gated community. From an administrative perspective, it was its own liberty which meant that the right of the monarch to assume rights of income from a vacant bishopric or abbacy did not apply. That was all well and good until the 20th century dawned and there was a requirement to install street lighting and sewers. The liberty couldn’t afford such extravagances from its own resources and so, no doubt somewhat reluctantly, rejoined the City of London. One of the prices it had to pay was the dismantling of their walls. A shame, really, as the walls were its saving grace during the fire of 1666 acting as a very effective firebreak..
During the early part of the seventeenth century many residential houses were built for the merchants plying their trade in the area. Because the area avoided the ravages of the Great Fire of London the street boasts in number 41 and 42 the oldest residential dwellings in London. They are administered today by the Landmark Trust. On the site of what is now number 24 stood the Dick Whittington inn, one of many hostelries claiming to be the oldest in the metropolis although records suggest it was only given a licence as recently as 1848. Nevertheless, it was a good example of the type of buildings that were common in mediaeval London consisting of three stories with an attic gable and a slight overhang on the second floor.
The area hosted one of London’s pre-eminent Charter fairs, the Bartholomew Fair which goes back to 1133 when Henry I gave one Rahere a charter to hold a fair to fund the building of the Priory. The fair was held until 1855 Starting on 23rd August and originally chartered to last three days, it ran for a full two weeks in the 17th century. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar meant that it started on September 3rd from 1753.
As well as pleasure fair – advertisements promised prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, puppets, freaks and wild animals – it was a trading event for cloth and other goods. Our particular street takes its name from the fact that it was where the cloth merchants engaged in their trade. The Merchant Taylors’ Guild would troop to the fair in order to test the measures for cloth, using their standard yardstick made of silver and the fair was the pre-eminent cloth sale in the kingdom. However, the fair was suppressed by the authorities in 1855 for encouraging debauchery and public disorder.
Soon after that the area became pretty squalid and most of the ancient houses were demolished soon after the First World War because they were deemed to be too expensive to restore. So whilst the name remains to remind us of its former glory, there is very little of the original architecture remaining. We should be grateful that numbers 41 and 42 escaped the bulldozer.