Bread & Circuses

In the early part of the 2nd century AD Roman poet and author Juvenal wrote The Satires, sixteen poems published in five books giving his view on Roman society at the time – its highs and its lows. In Satire X, Juvenal turns his attention to his contemporaries, calling them ‘the mob of Remus’. He bemoans these people who he feels have given up their birthright of democracy so that now all the ruling elite need to do to obtain their vote is to ensure that Rome’s food supply is uninterrupted, and that they stage increasingly elaborate gladiatorial games and chariot races.

‘ ... duas tantum res anxius optat, panem et circenses.’

... only two things does he worry about or long for, bread and circus entertainment

Whilst democracy has since been enshrined in law across large swathes of the world, the preoccupation of the masses with ensuring they have food and something to distract them for their woes has endured.

This exhibition highlights some of the markets, fairs and circuses associated with the Borough of Runnymede and the individuals who brought them to us.



In Ancient Rome the population was entertained by lavish circuses, where acrobats and jugglers walked amongst the crowds to amuse them. However, the events that Romans called circuses were actually chariot races and athletic games set in an elliptical shaped arena. They were not the spectacles that the British call circuses today, they owe their history to an 18th century former Sergeant Major in the Fifteenth Light Dragoon Regiment and outstanding horse trainer, Philip Astley.

In 1768, having left the army, Astley opened a riding school near Westminster Bridge. The school was built around a circular arena which Astley called his circus or ring. Early trick-riders had adopted the circus ring as its shape helped them with their balance. In the morning Astley taught riding and in the afternoon he performed his amazing "feats of horsemanship". Within two years he had stopped giving riding lessons and instead focused his attention on performing. At this time, the shows were staged in a theatre-like building which he called his Amphitheatre Riding House. When the original building burnt down it was replaced in 1804 with an even bigger edifice, containing a 44 foot diameter ring surrounded by benches, with three massive tiers of boxes or galleries. Astley, however, never referred to his show as a circus. The first reference to a circus comes from a gentleman called Charles Dibdin who proposed building The Royal Circus in 1782. Until this point, a circus was merely a circular open space such as Piccadilly Circus.

Circuses began to spring up all over the country throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. These were usually simple wooden buildings with tin roofs which had jets of gas to light up the stage at night. Between 1800 and 1899, 15 circus buildings were built in Liverpool alone, with a further 8 in Manchester and 10 in Bristol. The rush to cash in on the circus trend meant that many of these structures were hastily built and as a result were not very safe, with numerous accounts of injuries from falling galleries or roofs. Some of these buildings were so basically built that they were used as touring circuses, being taken down and rebuilt across the country. The earliest record of the use of a circus tent relates to the “Father of Circus”, Philip Astley, of course, who performed in his Royal Tent in Liverpool in 1788. However, this idea didn’t catch on for another 50 years.

It is also to Astley that we owe the inclusion of circus clowns as, when his show needed to be revamped in 1768, he added acrobats, rope-dancers, jugglers and clowns to the display. The idea of a clown or fool dates back to Medieval times when jesters enthralled the nobility in the Royal Courts and beguiled the populace as street entertainers. These performers would present acts of skill and daring in a way to make their audiences laugh. As society developed these acts eventually found themselves in theatres up and down the country - that is until 1642 when the Puritans banned all performances. With the Restoration of the monarchy, clowns found they were no longer wanted in theatres and so they took to the open road and entertained the crowds at the fairground instead. Across the Channel and into Europe a style of street theatre called ‘commedia del'arte’ had spread from Italy across to France. These clowns, with their faces painted white and their gaudy clothes, performed their juggling, tightrope walking, and tumbling shows in front of fairground theatres to entice fairgoers to pay to see the main show. Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) was probably the most famous and influential clown in the world, however, he never set foot in a circus instead performing his routine in theatres. One of Astley’s most famous clowns was Baptiste Dubois who joined the circus owner in 1780. It was Dubois who drew on the tradition of the country bumpkin with his comic clothes and naïve stupidity and dressed in a red wig with a whitened face and ruddy cheeks. Although this became the standard look for a clown, each clown’s make-up is unique to the artist and is considered by the profession to be the copyright of the performer.

Astley was also the first to train wild animals to perform in his circus. Whilst animal shows trace their origins back to the travelling menageries of the 17th and 18th centuries when the public would flock to see these wild and exotic animals in cages, Astley realised the draw of teaching these animals to perform. He began with zebras, which were a natural progression from the performing horses he showed in 1780. By 1825 more ferocious animals such as bears, lions and tigers were used and the first written report of a trainer daring to put his head in a lion’s mouth appears, although it would be another 22 years before the first woman, Madame Pauline de Vere, the Lady of the Lions, dared to do the same. By the middle of the 19th century these exotic animals were travelling with the circus, rather than performing in circus buildings, and this tradition continued until 2006 when changes to public opinion on the use of animals resulted in a ban on dangerous animals being used in shows. Although this ban didn’t come in to affect until 7 years ago, circus owners with animals found it increasingly difficult to get permits for their tent from the early 1990s onwards. However, it was only in April this year that the government passed a law to ban all animals in circuses, with the Bill coming in to effect in December 2015.

By the mid to late 19th century a wave of big and glitzy American circuses started to visit Britain. Probably the most famous was Barnum & Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show On Earth’ which came to Olympia in 1889. It was indeed the largest circus the country had ever seen with a 3-ring circus, menagerie, and a human and animal freak show. What’s more it involved 450 performers, 300 horses, 21 elephants, 32 wild animal cages and 35 parade wagons. Eight years later, Barnum & Bailey’s circus returned to tour the country by train – the first circus to do this. The 70-car train must have been quite a sight as it rolled into stations up and down the country, but more impressive was the parade from the station to the showground which was 3 miles long. It would take 20 minutes for the hundreds of mounted riders, 20 elephants, scores of animal dens and all the performers to pass any given point.

Whilst the Americans were the first to take their circuses on the rails, it was to Britain that the world owes the circus traditions we know and love today. George Sanger was the first to use a 3-ring circus in 1860; Charles Hughes was the first to use colourful gilded wagons in his 1845 parade; and of course Astley with his trained animals and clown shows. This tradition of British circus talent reached another peak in the 20th century when names such as Bertram Mills, Chipperfields, Billy Smart and Gerry Cottle once again dominated the world.

Gerry Cottle

copyright: Gerry Cottle

The light and glamour of the circus have been a lure to children for hundreds of years. How many of them dreamed of running away to join the travelling band of performers? How many actually did it? Well, that’s exactly what Gerry Cottle did at the age of 15. One March morning in 1961, dressed in his school uniform, he cycled down to the nearest train station, changed into more suitable clothes, and took the train up to London and on to Newcastle to join the Roberts Brothers’ Circus.

His Surrey stockbroker father, and his mother, took him to see his first circus as an excited 8 year old, and it was to transform his life. At first his parents thought it was just a child’s preoccupation but it became an all-consuming passion for the man who is now synonymous with ‘circus’. Having spent his evenings secretly practicing his juggling and stilt-walking at their Cheam home, and his days, not at his prestigious grammar school but helping out at the circus at nearby Chessington Zoo, he ran away to the circus. On arriving in Newcastle he was told by circus owner Bobby Roberts that he could only stay if his parents gave him permission – and that seemed unlikely to happen. Five days later he telephoned his father to ask his permission, and to his surprise, was told that if his Headmaster agreed, then Gerry could leave school. Gerry readily agreed, because what he knew that his parents didn’t was that he was about to fail his O levels and the school would be pleased to see him go!

So Gerry officially joined the Roberts Brothers’ Circus as an apprentice artiste just before the Easter season. Gerry soon learned that it was not all sawdust and spangles; that the life of a circus performer consisted of long days and hard work. The circus would travel to a new site every few days meaning that all the wagons, the tents, the animals had to be packed up and moved out. The long days started at 5am when the convoy would leave their pitch, travelling to a new site to put up the Big Top and perform that night. If they were lucky they would stay there another day; if not it all had to come down again before they went to bed ready for another early start. It was a great way for Cottle to learn the mechanics of a circus but soon he realised that circuses were invariably family businesses and outsiders, or jossers as they were known, had a hard time breaking through. It soon became clear to him that he was not going to be allowed to make it in to the ring to perform, and so on the advice of the tent master he left to join a smaller circus who might welcome his skills. The Gandey’s Circus welcomed him into their family and soon he was performing as JoJo, and later, Scats the Clown, and learning the tricks of the trade as Joe Gandey took him everywhere with him, teaching him how to manage a circus. After three seasons with The Gandey’s Gerry left to tour Europe and the Eastern Bloc with Kirby’s Flying Circus.

Cottle had ambitions to be Britain’s biggest and best circus owner, but soon realised that he was at a disadvantage, not coming from a circus family. Some of the circus families, such as the Fossetts, had been in the business for nearly 200 years. The Roberts Brothers and the James Brothers were all related to the Fossett family with its distinguished circus heritage. The Gandeys had teamed up with the James Brothers to do a show together and this is where, at the age of 17, Gerry fell in love with Betty. He was determined that she was the woman for him and set about trying to impress her, despite the five year age gap. He offered to run publicity for her father and took over their bookings, taking every opportunity to spend time with Betty who performed with her trained dogs. Cottle became one of the family, eating with them in the caravan after a show to discuss the business, and before long Betty and Gerry were married. Gerry was now officially part of one of the great circus dynasties.

A circus only tours for a season, normally from March to October so unless there is a Christmas show to perform in, there is always a quiet period at the end of the year. Many circus performers ply their trade in pantomimes or on film sets to make ends meet over the winter. It was at Shepperton Studios, whilst hired as a stilt-walker on the film The Evil of Frankenstein, that Gerry met Brian Austen and forged a friendship that would last a lifetime.

Austen had also run away from home at the age of 15 to join the circus and he and Gerry instantly became friends. They were both passionate about what they did and Brian was a mastermind when it came to how to move a circus show from town to town. Perhaps inevitably for two such ambitious young men, the decision was made for them to set up their own circus, The Embassy Circus. Through a contact made years earlier Cottle got financial backing for his new venture, and all there was left to do was to tell the family. Not surprisingly, the Fossett family did not take kindly to a family member breaking away to set up a rival, and so Gerry and Betty were kicked out of their winter quarters with nowhere to go. Through a friend of Gerry’s sister, Cottle, Austen, their wives and Austen’s brother, Michael, set up camp in a pig farm just outside Reigate. Cast off from the circus family with no money it was imperative that they put together a circus as soon as possible. The Austen brothers sewed a tent together in between teaching themselves how to perform new tricks. Despite the bad start, the circus was ready for the 1970 season, although it was short-lived, closing after only three months. Once again Cottle found himself without any money, with no circus, and nowhere to go, but once again fate looked kindly on him as he stumbled across the great Chipperfield’s Circus. He and Brian were hired as casual labourers, but soon took over the publicity and logistics of moving the troupe. However, having two highly ambitious would-be circus owners made for tempestuous times, and soon the two fell out with owner Dicky Chipperfield, and were sent on their way. Never one to be kept down for long, Cottle took to the road again with the Cottle & Austen Circus in the summer of 1970; just days his first child, Sarah, was born. As soon as she was able Betty re-joined the circus, taking on the role of ring mistress whilst her husband reprieved the role of Scats the Clown. The circus was doing well. Gerry’s head for business and willingness to take a risk, saw them perform at sites that hadn’t seen a circus for years. The success saw enough money to buy a bigger and better tent and Betty’s sisters joined them the following year.

Cottle was about to become a household name when a BBC documentary on the circus, aired in 1971, propelled him into the spotlight. Suddenly everyone knew the name Gerry Cottle and by the end of the season he and Brian had toured a massive 44 showgrounds in just 27 weeks, made money, and become the first circus to visit the Channel Islands in over 15 years. Things at last were on track to realise Cottle’s ambition to be the owner of the biggest circus in the country. Success was just around the corner and by 1973 the circus has 5 elephants, 6 lions, 10 horses, 10 monkeys, 3 camels and 5 llamas. They had performed in London for the first time where there were queues of people waiting to buy tickets. Of course the logistics of moving such an enterprise from borough to borough was not without its problems – just where do you find enough food to feed the travelling menagerie?! The circus had grown to such an extent that they needed somewhere to keep the animals during the off-season, and so they bought a farm in Cricklade, Wiltshire. However, Cottle wanted to build on their success and put together a Circus on Ice for the winter months, but this venture was less successful and resulted in a split with business partner Brian Austen. Austen kept the farm in Cricklade and Gerry kept the tent. So, the following year Gerry Cottle’s Circus was born and took to the road.

This time, the show was a great success and he soon found himself scouting for more acts to join him including a strongman, a fakir complete with a bed of nails, an India Rubberman and a lion tamer. The ever growing band of performers, plus the increasing Cottle family (second daughter, April, was born in 1973) meant the need to find new winter quarters. Word came to Gerry of a derelict pig farm at Addlestone Moor and the 15 acres site was going cheap as the wealthy gypsy brothers who owned it, wanted a quick sale. It was the perfect site; near to London, plenty of space and near to a proposed new motorway linking it to the rest of the country. Despite it being overrun with rats, smelling of pigs, churned up with mud and under the electricity pylons, Gerry Cottle in his autobiography, Confessions of a Showman, states that ‘Addlestone turned out to be the best purchase ever made’ – although Betty was less than convinced.

The same year Cottle was asked by the BBC to provide a Big Top for their new Saturday night big entertainment show. The coverage was to propel Cottle in to the big time, the heyday of Gerry Cottle’s Circus had arrived, and as a result he was asked to take his circus to perform for the Sultan of Oman and in doing so became the first circus to travel outside of the country since the beginning of the 20th century. The logistics of moving the animals was slightly easier than it was when the last troupe had toured abroad; now there were airplanes to load the animals on to and Rani the Elephant became one of the first jumbos to travel by Jumbo!

Just when success was within grasp, the public’s attitude towards circuses was changing as there was a small but growing concern over their use of animals. Despite this, Cottle decided to put a second circus on the road, borrowing heavily to do so. An invitation, complete with guarantee, to visit Tehran in the winter of 1978 seemed too good an opportunity to pass up and so Gerry and his team put together a show for the Shah. However, once they got to Iran they soon realised it was a huge mistake. Between the agreement to pay for the tour and Cottle’s Circus actually arriving in Tehran political instability had gripped the country and the Shah was overthrown. Cottle packed up his circus and his team of performers and headed home - £100,000 poorer. With the team in place, and the show ready to go the decision was taking to tour Britain to try and recoup some of the losses incurred in Iran. However, the winter of 1978/79 was a bitterly cold one making it hard to move the circus from venue to venue. The winter of discontent, with its strikes and power cuts, was a dismal time to take a show on the road and instead of recouping losses, the debts piled up. Cottle had no choice but to face his creditors and declare himself bankrupt.

Gerry Cottle was down but not out. Eventually he managed to scrape together enough money to buy back his circus from his creditors and take to the road again; after all, the circus was, if not in his blood, certainly under his skin. The family lived at Addlestone Moor and were quite settled there with Sarah, April and youngest daughter Polly attending the local school. That is until their father was asked to take a circus to the United Arab Emirates and they joined him in their own tumbling act.

As the 1980s progressed the protests against circus animals gathered pace until it was virtually impossible for a circus owner like Cottle to get permission for his show. Gerry decided, with heavy heart, it was time to sell his beloved animals and try something new. At first the great British public was not ready for a circus without elephants and lions, but eventually Gerry had huge success with bringing the Moscow State Circus and the Chinese State Circus to Britain.

By 1992 Gerry Cottle had fallen out of love with the circus and, disillusioned, was looking for a new venture. He turned his attentions to funfairs and sold his circus to fund the new business with the idea of touring with a travelling theme park with showmen paying to tour with their rides. However, once news got out that Cottle was turning his attention to fairgrounds, the previously good relationship he had had with the showmen disappeared – no-one likes to encourage the competition. With no showmen willing to tour with him, Gerry had to buy his own rides, and once again fate smiled upon him. Stumbling across a showman wanting to sell his clapped-out 1950s rides, Cottle bought them all and took them back to Addlestone to be refurbished. Not being a member of the Showman’s Guild meant the most lucrative fairgrounds were not available to Cottle, but he also realised that fairgrounds are a very different prospect to circuses, and soon he decided to cancel all his bookings and return to Addlestone despondent and dejected. This was the last straw for Cottle and he once again declared himself bankrupt. His daughters still loved the circus life and begged their father to tour once more, but Cottle was not to be persuaded, and so the Cottle Sisters Circus was created. The girls went it alone with Sarah with her trained horses and dogs, April a talented juggler, and the youngest, Polly, flying through the air on the trapeze. The circus life was hard for the Cottle Sisters but they persevered.

In 1995 Gerry was approached by performer and entrepreneur Dr. Haze who had been travelling with a small show called the Circus of Horrors. Haze wanted Cottle to join him in bringing his alternative, adult circus show to Glastonbury. Cottle was still unwilling, but his daughters talked him around and joined him at the festival. The show went down a storm with its jugglers using chainsaws instead of the traditional circus clubs, and dark gothic sets. Flushed with success Cottle and Haze toured the festivals of England with an ever increasing loyal band of followers, and played the Edinburgh Festival to huge crowds.

Cottle was back on the road to success, and in October that year he was to work once more with Brian Austen. Austen visited him at Addlestone and asked him to help bring the Moscow State Circus to Britain. The partnership was a great success, so much so that they created the Cottle & Austen Electric Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus, and then bought another tent to tour with the Chinese State Circus. Cottle and Austen had three massively successful shows on tour across the county, propelling them back in to the highlife – they had become the owners of the biggest and best circuses in the country, if not Europe. In total they employed 250 people, had 150 trucks and 50 artistes, all of whom overwintered at Addlestone Moor.

Things seemed to be going well for Gerry. However, he had decided that he wanted to leave the circus business for good and try a new venture; something tangible he could leave to his family if anything happened to him. He set his heart on building an antique centre on the Addlestone site. However, the land was designated Green Belt and Runnymede Borough Council rejected his planning application. Gerry had had enough. Remembering an advert he had seen months early for Wookey Hole, Somerset, he decided to sell up and buy himself the Caves. Brian agreed to buy him out of the business and Gerry began to raise the rest of the money he needed to buy Wookey. So, after thirty years in the area, Gerry Cottle sold his farm at Addlestone Moor and left the area for good.

Now based in Somerset, Gerry Cottle has established himself in Wookey Hole and has been joined by his children and their families, all of whom are in the circus trade. Only his son, Gerry Jr. sought a career away from the sawdust and spangles and chose a career as an events promoter with the successful Rooftop Film Club. The Cottle family have established a circus training school in the old mill where they are hard at work teaching the circus stars of the future, and despite his assertions that he would no longer tour, Gerry Cottle is about to take to the road again – watch out this summer for his Circus Express at a venue near you!

So, whilst the circus may no longer come to this town, the townsfolk still remember fondly the sight of elephants, camels and llamas parading through Chertsey and Addlestone on their Sunday stroll, and the roar of the lions that used to fill the air at night.


F.J. Thomas

Renowned coach and carriage builder Frederick Thomas opened his business at 15-19 Guildford Street, Chertsey in 1893. Thomas’ employed 25 men including a whitesmith, working with white metals such as pewter, carpenters, cabinet makers, and painters. By the outbreak of the First World War local trade directories list the premises as a specialist coach ironmongers. At some point between 1914 and 1290, F.J. Thomas’ expanded to make swings, roundabouts and hoop-las for travelling showmen. In time, he became the premier swing boat maker in the South of England.

Another sideline for the company was the building of living vans, or gypsy caravans or Vardos as they are sometimes called. The bodies of the van were made by the cabinet makers and were highly decorated with carved details finished in gold leaf. A small living van made by F.J. Thomas’ would cost a showman £50.

Living vans were in use in France from the early part of the 19th century, and came to England in c.1820. At the time they were exclusively used by travelling showmen as a means of moving from one fair or circus to another. They were pulled by horses and travelled at a sedate 15 miles per day. It was not until 1850 that these vans were used by Gypsies.


Stevens' Amusements

copyright: Stevens' Amusements, Chertsey

Showman Perrin Stevens used to travel around the London fairs with his coconut sheet, or shy as they are often called. Perrin and his wife Amy had six children and it was their son Joe who, in 1942, married Peggy Smart daughter of the well known fairground riding master, Billy. At the time Billy Smart’s fair was one of the largest in London, even though it was wartime. Joe began to learn the Smart family trade and assisted his father-in-law when four years later he opened a new circus for the first time at Southall Park.

The circus was accompanied by Smart’s traditional fair which had just taken delivery of four new rides; a brand new Dodgem, a Dive Bomber, a Lusse Big Wheel and an Octopus. These rides supplemented his traditional horse roundabout or Gallopers, Ghost Train and enormous Brookland’s Track, the largest car track ever to travel in this country. By the late 1940s, Billy Smart was focussing more on the circus than on his original fair, and he started to sell off his machines. So, with his father-in-law turning away from the fairground, Joe saw an opportunity to fill the void. He began to take over the fair from Billy, and bought new machines of his own, so that by the mid 1950s the fair had officially become Stevens’.

Stevens set about acquiring the latest in fairground rides such as a new Supercar alloy Dodgem. However, he also maintained more traditional rides such as a set of Gallopers he purchased in 1956 and with five major rides Stevens’ fair was really up and running.

Joe Stevens, his wife Peggy and children Joseph, Charmaine, Perrin and Peggy moved from Feltham to Chertsey in 1963 to premises that included an old aircraft hanger, ideal for winter storage. Stevens’ is very much a family run business with Joe’s daughter Charmaine and her husband John Guest also travelling with an Arcade and other amusements, as do Joes grandchildren.


In early Medieval England there were very few fairs in the country, and those that were held were associated with religious festivals. However, during the 13th century there was a rapid expansion in numbers, due to rights to hold fairs being granted to powerful individuals or institutions. Between 1199 and 1350 over 1500 charters were issued granting the rights to hold markets or fairs, and so by the mid 14th century there were somewhere in the region of 2,700 fairs in England and Wales. Most of them sold a variety of produce but some of them were more specialised, such as the now world famous Nottingham goose fair.

Those who owned the rights to hold fairs also had the rights to charge tolls and rents and to impose taxes on all sales. They also had the right to ban other trading in the area for the duration of the fair. In reality, many of the charters that were issued at this time were not for new fairs, but for those already in existence. Not having a charter did not mean that fairs were not held, if they were reputable and long standing, the King, or his local representative, often allowed them to continue.

During the 12th century the area we know today as the Borough of Runnymede belonged to Chertsey Abbey, and it was to William, Abbot of Chertsey, that Henry I granted a fair in 1133. This three-day fair was to be held to celebrate the feast of Peter ad Vincula on 1st August each year. However, the date seemed to have moved to 7th August by 1863 as an entry in log books from St. Paul’s School, Addlestone, states that a fair in Chertsey adversely affected attendance that day. The slight changes to the date of fairs seems to have been quite common place as the fair and market, which was granted in 1249 to mark the Exaltation of Holy Cross on 14th September, by the 19th century was celebrated on 25th September, Holy-Rood Day; again, with negative effects on school attendance. In 1351 the Statute of Labourers was passed and so this fair, also known as the goose or onion fair, became a hiring fair where local landowners engaged new staff to work on their estates.

Further local fairs were held: on Ascension Day, granted by Edward I in 1281; a May Fair where livestock was sold; on 26th July to mark the feast of St. Ann; and a fair on the first Monday in Lent, granted by Elizabeth I in the Chertsey Market Charter. All of the above were still being held at the end of the 18th century, however, they had all but disappeared by the end of the 19th century, with two exceptions. The fair to mark the feast of St. Ann, latterly known as Black Cherry Fair, continued into the 20th century, albeit on a different day, and the May Day livestock fair continued as a horse fair until 1962.

Fairs differed from markets in the types of goods they sold. The larger fairs or Great Fairs such as London’s St. Bartholomew’s Fair (1113-1855) was a place where merchants from across Europe went to buy commodities such as wool, and to sell continental luxuries. As such, fairs offered locals a chance to buy more exotic goods not seen at their weekly markets. As with markets, fairs were often the location of Pie Poudre Courts to deliver swift justice – essential for settling any grievances of tradesmen who were in the area only for a short amount of time. It is this transient nature of the stallholders that made fairs more difficult to regulate and police than markets. Market trading was largely self regulating; if a stallholder sold inferior goods or tried to fiddle the weights and measures, word would spread and no-one would buy from them next week. However, with a passing fair, this level of trust and reputation wasn’t there so customers had to be on their guard much more for rogue stallholders.

As fairs traditionally marked feast days there was always an element of entertainment with them. In medieval England bands of travelling musicians accompanied stall holders from fair to fair, with acrobats, singers and actors entertaining into the night. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries fairgrounds began losing their commercial stalls and instead they became travelling theatres with wild beast shows, circuses, swings and roundabouts.

The first modern fairground rides were around in the early 19th century. Horse roundabouts were known at the time as Dobby sets or Dobbies. The first such rides were not powered by steam but by people power, or more precisely, children. ‘Lord’ George Sanger was a famous showman and circus owner in Victorian England. Sanger’s horses were turned by the local children who could not afford the ha’penny fare but if they were hard working they were rewarded with a free ride. Eventually muscle power was replaced by steam, but not until 1861 did the first steam powered merry-go-round appear. The use of steam made possible more exciting fairground rides such as Savage’s Steam Yacht swings, which was patented in 1888. However, it was the advent of electricity which made the modern fair possible.

One of the most important developments in fair rides came in the early part of the 20th century when the Scenic Railway came into being. It was evolved from the ‘switchback’ rides of the 1880s, the precursor to the roller coasters of today. Thrill-seekers in the Scenic Railway sat in massive motor cars and travelled the circuit up to 60 mph. In an age when motor cars were unknown and unaffordable to most, it was a chance to experience the thrill without the cost. Alas, the outbreak of war in 1914 saw the end of new fast amusement rides, at least for the time being. However, by the 1920s and 30s the War was forgotten – at least as far as showmen were concerned – with many of the biggest and best new rides being made in Germany. The Big Wheel, although first seen at large exhibitions such as Earls Court in 1894, became a regular attraction at fairs at this time. Dodgem cars were first introduced to Britain in 1928 and the first Waltzer was built in 1933.


Black Cherry Fair

On 24th May 1440, King Henry VI granted a fair to be held on St. Ann’s Hill, Chertsey, on 26th July, the Feast of St. Ann, mother of the Blessed Mary. This fair was one of a number that the Abbot of Chertsey had rights over. He imposed a charge on all stollage (stalls) and pickage (the right to erect tents) and the income was a welcomed addition to the abbey’s coffers.

Over the next century the fair continued to thrive, was renamed Black Cherry Fair, and with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 was held on 6th August each year, the new date for the feast of St. Ann. Local directories in 1794 list the items on sale as black cherries, hogs, horses, cows and toys. However, by this time the fair took place in July once more and was no longer held on the Hill, but in the town itself.

Records show that Black Cherry Fair continued to be held into the 20th century when, in the 1930s, after nearly four centuries it ceased. It was not until 1975 that the Chertsey Chamber of Commerce re-established the fair which continues to be held on the second Saturday of July each year. As with fairs in general, somewhere along the line Black Cherry Fair stopped being about the selling of produce and became a time of celebration and entertainment.

In 2006 the Rotary Club of Chertsey took charge of Black Cherry Fair and the organisation behind it. In keeping with tradition, the Rotary Club uses money raised from the stallholders to provide grants for local projects and good causes.



As soon as towns and villages began to appear in England, so too did markets. In an economy largely driven by agriculture, farmers needed a mechanism by which to sell their produce. In Tudor England there were 760 market towns in England, ten of which were in Surrey: Chertsey, Croydon, Dorking, Farnham, Godalming, Guildford, Haslemere, Kingston upon Thames, Reigate and Southwark.

With no mechanical means of transportation produce could only be moved as far as a horse could take it before it spoiled. This meant markets tended to sell very local produce. Fish, for example, was difficult to get hold of in towns that were not near to the sea as fish had to be transported live in buckets of water to the market. Therefore, most traders travelled a maximum of ten miles to market, with the average market area for Surrey being 45,000 acres.

The 11th century saw the beginning of the rise in markets with over 1,500 charters granting rights to hold markets or fairs being issued in the 150 years leading up to the mid 14th century. In this area the Abbots of Chertsey had been granted the rights to hold a market since the 10th century, a right that was reconfirmed in 1249 and 1282. The market was to be held each Monday in the area in front of St. Peter’s Church. It had been quite common for markets to be held in churchyards, on a Sunday, as that was where people gathered. However, by the 13th century there was a move away from Sunday trading and so markets were held mid week in an open space away from the church, often at road junctions.

Some towns marked the market area with a stone cross as a way, not only to identify where the stalls should be set up, but also to remind traders that they needed to ensure law and order, and above all, honesty. Just in case they forgot these virtues, stocks and pillories were also situated there. By the 14th century permanent structures such as halls and market houses were becoming popular. Market houses were normally built with a public meeting place over the top of an open area where the stalls were. This meeting room was often used as the manorial courts, and was the place where the market weights and measures were kept. As there were no official national weights and measures it was up to the scrutiny of the market officials to ensure that traders didn’t try to con their customers. There were a number of regulations for produce sold at market to ensure the safety of the customers. For example, it was illegal to sell meat by candlelight so that it was possible to inspect the meat for freshness. For the same reasons there were strict controls on pie sellers to prevent the unscrupulous trying to disguise rotten meat under the pastry.

In 1599 Elizabeth I granted the town of Chertsey a Wednesday market and issued a Charter setting out the terms. It was probably at this time that the Monday market ceased to trade. The charter stated that a piece of waste ground, about one acre in size, be set aside for the purposes of the market, and the boundaries were marked with special posts which existed until at least the mid 19th century. The location of the market ground was between the area of the church and the Black Swan pub, probably taking in the area of Curfew House up to the church. The charter also stated that a Market House should be built. This was built in front of the church at the point where Guildford Street meets Windsor & London Streets. The Market House was half-timbered and quite substantial, with a granary above. Some stalls were set up there, and it was a place for stallholders to go in bad weather. Records show that the market sold butchers’ meat, grains, pulses, and vegetables, and was particularly known for live poultry which was sold for the London market.

The Market House was also the location for the Court of ‘Pie Poudre’ (which means court of ‘dusty foot’) which was a summary Court of Record held by the Steward of the Market. The court was supposed to settle disputes arising at the market, and the Market House was also the location of a ‘Cage’ or jail and a set of stocks. It was the subject of a dispute itself when, in 1809, one of the market Feoffees or trustees had it pulled down. The reason John Brown gave for his action was that it was in a bad state of repair and that the local ‘youths’ were gathering there, especially during church services. This hints at probably the main reason why it was pulled down – it obscured the view of the new church which was built in 1806. The dispute was eventually settled in 1819 when it was agreed that a new Market House was to be built on site of the current Old Town Hall. In turn, the Town Hall was completed in 1851.

Elizabeth’s Market Charter states that the tolls paid by the stall holders should be used for the benefit of the poor. Originally it was used to purchase coats and blankets for the poor. These blankets used to be scarlet, but were altered in the 19th century because was too obvious that people were receiving charity. The Feoffees still collect the rents for the market stalls, but instead of purchasing blankets for the needy they give the money to local charities and organisations in the form of grants for good causes. 


Special thanks to the wonderful Gerry Cottle for his time and enthusiasm - and for some amazing childhood memories.