‘More nuisance than profit’ – the Michaelmas Fair


Michaelmas, or the feast of St. Michael, falls on September 29th. In Birmingham, as in many other places, it was one of two dates used to divide the administrative year. The other being Lady Day on March 25th.  The town’s bye-laws, covering all manner of administration, from lighting and policing, to the opening times of the Market Hall, contained regulations which applied from Lady Day to Michaelmas and from Michaelmas to Lady Day. These were important dates in the nineteenth-century calendar.

Most town’s held an annual Michaelmas Fair, and indeed many still do. Birmingham was granted a royal charter to hold a Michaelmas Fair (and also a Whitsuntide Fair) by Henry III, in 1251.  These could be big events, bringing a great deal of commercial activity to the town. In due course the Michaelmas Fair also became known as the Onion Fair.  In 1872, the Illustrated London News gave the following account of Birmingham’s event, which reveals good grounds for the change of name:

It is held on the last Thursday of September, in the wide open space called The Bull Ring, which is situated in the centre of the town in front of St. Martin’s Church. The growth of this savoury vegetable is the object of much attention by many of the neighbouring market-gardeners and farmers, who find the soil and climate well adapted to its cultivation. Nowhere can such large quantities be seen, or of finer quality than in the special fair at Birmingham…the onions are piled in stacks, heaped in wooden crates or wicker baskets, spread up on wide stalls or  suspended in perpendicular ropes from cross-poles overhead. The air is fully charged with their pungent odour, causing the unaccustomed eye to perhaps shed an involuntary tear.

The Fair would be announced in advance, by notice in the local press. These were very formal and carried only the necessary information. This example from Aris’s Gazette in 1854:

Notice is hereby given that the Michaelmas Fair of this borough will be held on Thursday next, September 19th, for the SALE of HORSES, CATTLE, PIGS AND SHEEP, and on that and the two following days for the SALE of GOODS and all types of  MERCHANDISE

Advertisements for other Michaelmas fairs appeared in the local press at around the same time. Aris’s Gazette ran the following notice of Coventry’s ‘Michaelmas Cheese and Onion Fair’ on September 21st, 1840, which carried at least a small element of fun in its competition:

Will be held, as usual, in Cross Cheaping, tomorrow (Tuesday) when a PRIZE of a handsome SILVER TEA-POT will be given to the largest purchaser of cheese in weight. The Committee will dine together after the Fair, at the King’s Head Inn, at five o’clock, when they will be happy to see any gentleman who will favour them with his company.

The decline of the annual fair was decried in Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham, which stated that ‘the fun of the fair is altogether different now to what it used to be’ and continuing

These fairs were doubtless at one time of great importance, but the introduction of railways did away with seven-tenths of their utility and the remainder was more nuisance than profit. As a note of the trade done at one time, we may just preserve the item that in 1782 there were 56 waggon loads of onions brought to the fair

Eye-watering indeed!

Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham along with copies of various 19th century newspapers, can be found in the Local Studies Department of the Library of Birmingham. 


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