The first recorded event of its kind in Rayleigh dates back to the year 1227 when a Royal Charter was signed for Rayleigh to hold a “Trinity Fair”.
It was held on “Trinity Sunday” – the eighth Sunday after Easter – and would see the landed gentry and villagers from Rayleigh and the surrounding area meeting in the High Street to buy and sell livestock and other animals.
In the early days of the fair, the main focus was to buy and sell horses and sometimes as many as 1,000 could change hands.
On the following day – the Monday – it would be time for merry-making as the community came together for some much-needed fun.
Mike Davies, of the Rayleigh Town Museum, explained: “All the farm machinery, saddles, harnesses, horse blankets could all be bought and sold, and no doubt a transfer of labour would also take place.
“The following day however was taken over by what for many was their one day’s holiday a year. Booths were set up, games of chance took place, and traveller’s caravans formed up in the High Street selling their wares and the public houses were open for all.
“By the late 19th century there was a well-known saying throughout Essex ‘As rowdy as Rayleigh’s Trinity Fair’. It became an excuse for excessive drinking and many would get drunk in the High Street.”
Over time the success of the Trinity Fair began to raise more than a few eyebrows amongst the more pious members of the community.
Records show that in 1797 when the Rev James Pilkington, a baptist minister, arrived in Rayleigh he described the town as a “den of iniquity” with ‘drunken women in the High Street on a Sunday” (no mention of the menfolk in town).
This criticism of the fair was echoed across the county, where many village fairs and fetes had become more of a social event for revelry and entertainment.
Details of the Rayleigh Trinity Fair and various incidents that occurred there, were regularly reported in local newspapers from the 1700’s onwards.
For example in a 1788 edition of the Essex Chronicle it was reported that a blind carthorse sold at the Rayleigh Fair for 28 guinea’s (today £1,600).
In 1793 several newspapers reported that sales of horses were particularly high due to “the war” (the war with France as a result of the French revolution and the restrictions to our trade routes). In 1828 headlines reported how a caravan containing an elephant overturned on its way to the Rayleigh Fair. Then in 1880 newspapers reported how George Hedges – a travelling hawker – was charged with being drunk at the fair. He was fined 13 shillings (£31) with 15 shillings and 6 pence costs (£37) or faced 21 days in prison.
Reports of pickpockets at the fair also frequently made the headlines.
As such, in 1895, Rayleigh ratepayers met to consider abolishing the Trinity Fair. Traders claimed that it did not generate business, although publicans were keen for it to continue for obvious reasons. One suggestion was to move the fair to a local field.
Records show, however a ‘Mr. Newman’ opposed this and called for the whole event to be scrapped, saying: “the beastly sights were enough to make anyone stand up against anything of the sort. For two days it is unsafe for any female to be about in Rayleigh. It is worse than a show in an Indian village. I thought we were back in the middle ages!”
In 1899 the authorities finally decided to put an end to the long-running event and on August 8 of that year the Rayleigh Trinity Fair was legally abolished in a document signed by Matthew Ridley, the Home Secretary
In 2017, however the fair made a triumphant return and the re-established event saw more than 10,000 people flocking to enjoy a day of fun.
The Rayleigh Trinity Fair this year will take place on Sunday June 10. Meanwhile, check out these vintage images unearthed by the Rayleigh Town Museum archives of Trinity Fair’s from the past….