History of St Lawrence Fair

Since the 14th century, the village of Hurstpierpoint has celebrated the Feast of St Lawrence with a village fair. The fair is one of the oldest in the United Kingdom.

King Edward II granted a charter which allowed one fair a year to be held to celebrate St Lawrence, the patron saint of the village. Historians say that the fair has taken place every year since then, breaking only during World Wars I and II. During those inter-war years, it was used as a means of raising money for local hospitals.

More than just a village fete, the fair spreads over several days, with a funfair, carnival procession, fun run through the village and a range of competitions and events for local children, including a Teddy Bear’s Picnic.

The Harris Funfair has been the central attraction of the fair since the early years of the last century. You can find it on South Avenue Recreation Ground for the week.

The Fair is not only a chance for the village to let its hair down, but also an opportunity to raise money for local charities.

Where did the Fair come from?

We can’t be sure because there were always fairs in communities. People would get together to trade and have a drink and nothing would be written. Usually, markets and fairs were held on the feast day of the parish saint as people would come into the village on that day. The lord of the area would control these markets and fairs and collect a tax on trading.

Following the Norman invasion, these rights became controlled by the King who then passed them down to his ‘tenants in chief’ – in the case of Hurstpierpoint, the de Warenne family. If there was a dispute about who controlled the fairs and therefore had a right to this sales tax, there was an appeal directly to the King. It seems that both Lewes Priory and the Bishop of Chichester were after the money and appealed.

Records show that John de Warenne was there to present his case, and the King found in his favour for Hurstpierpoint and many other fairs and markets in this area.

The record reads:

The King to the Archbishops, greetings. Know ye that we have granted and confirmed by this our present deed to our dear and faithful John de Warenne and his heirs that they may hold in perpetuity… one fair on one day a year in his manor of Hurst in the same county on St .Laurence’s Day… – providing those markets and fairs are not damaging to any neighbouring markets and fairs. Wherefore we will and we firmly decree, for ourselves and our heirs, that the aforesaid Earl and his heirs may hold the aforesaid markets and fairs, with the proviso aforesaid, with all their liberties and free customs pertaining. Given at London on the 24th day of July by the King himself.

Around 1775, the Fair moved to May and stayed there for many years. Kelley’s Directory for 1855 says: “there is a pleasure fair on 1st May.” In the 20th century it was sometimes called ‘Hospital Saturday’.

Violet Morley, who was born in 1901, recorded her memories of Hurstpierpoint for her family:

A carnival took place each year to raise money for the hospitals. A hurdy-gurdy would go round the village in the morning, playing tunes to let people know the fun had started. Adults and children would get into fancy dress and there would be prizes for these and for sports in the recreation ground in the afternoon. As it got dusk, there would be a lantern procession round the village. I don’t know who owned these lanterns, they were collected from the New Inn, and when returned we were given a bun.

Later the Fair was called Hurstpierpoint Carnival.

Eva Daisy Ellis wrote in ‘Daisy: Growing Up in the Sussex Village 1897 – 1918’:

There were other festivals in the village at the time. An annual ‘Our Day’ carnival and a ‘Hospital Saturday’. I was usually in the front line of any photographs being taken of village events. Hospital Saturdays were a special occasion, like a mini-fair. There were processions and performers and something of a carnival spirit. I was always to the forefront, I always remember a clown on stilts. I developed a fear of him, and for a while all clowns. Was it his clown’s make-up, or his clothes? I never reasoned out why. We did have one famous clown in the village “Bimbo” but I came to like him very much and knew him until he died in the 1950’s.

The name of St Lawrence was restored by Theo Franklin, soon after he became Rector in 1954.

With much thanks to Heather Warne, Rose Cottis and Ian Nelson for this article.

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