Hereford City Heritage

The Mayor’s Chain

The May Fair

            In every year in such places as the Council may designate (including streets in what otherwise would amount to an obstruction of the highway) is held the May Fair, this occurring as set out in law in the Tuesday after the first Monday in May and on the next two days.

                        The current power under which this is done is  sections 4 to 6 of the Hereford City Council Act 1985, but there is an interesting historical background to this.   The fair is also known as St. Ethelbert’s Fair, and its rights until 1838 were vested in the Lord Bishop of Hereford, it also being known as the Nine Days Fair.  A local Act of Parliament at that time transferred the rights to the council and reduced the length of the Fair’s duration as ‘it would greatly tend to the Advantage of the City and to the Improvement of the Morals of the Inhabitants thereof.’   Whether it did so, as a book written in the early 1900s states that the Fair ‘has degenerated into a three-day revelry which the authorities are not strong enough to remove because of the interests of the brewers and publicans are supreme or thought to be supreme in the Council Charter.   All candidates for a seat in the Council who were supposed to be in favour of its abolition or removal to another site have ignominiously failed at the polls.’

             For the privilege of holding the Fair, the 1838 Act provides that the Council pay annually to the Bishop twelve and a half bushels of the best wheat or the equivalent in monetary terms.   Although the 1838 Act was repealed by the Hereford Improvement Act 1854, the rights to hold the Fair and for the Lord Bishop to compensation were preserved.  While this payment was formally commuted in 1971, the Fair is still opened with the colourful and traditional ceremony of the weighing of the wheat.

             Successive Bishops have continued to show an interest in the Fair and to participate in its activities.   At the time the 1985 Act was presented to the Parliament an offer to show their Lordships a photograph of the then incumbent (described as ‘a member of this most noble House’) on the dodgems and helter-skelter were gratefully accepted (the committee chairman stated ‘We must see these’) which he and his colleagues did with much relish and amusement.

At the ‘House of Lords’ hearing, letters in support were submitted from both the Showman’s Guild (who, in practice, run the fair) and the Chief Superintendent of the West Mercia Police giving their backing for its continuance. Any moves to adjust dates or the fair’s location would, therefore, need to be the subject of consultation with both such bodies. The principle of the right to hold the fair could only be the subject of appropriate legislation.