A Celebration of the Cheam Charter Fair

Thu 18/May/23

A Celebration of the Cheam Charter Fair

by Imogen



On the 20th May 2023, residents of Cheam will be celebrating the 764th Cheam Charter Fair on Park Road, starting at 9am. Whitehall Historic House will be taking part in the fair, hosting drop-in tours of the house from 10am-1pm and a children’s coronation trail which can be booked here or bought on the day!


To celebrate this annual event, as well as its return after two years of lockdown, we will be looking back at the history of the Fair - its origins and the events that occurred there. This year Whitehall Historic House will be hosting some of the Charter Fair events, including: face painting, make-your-own beaded bracelets, French storytime, and tours of the house.


Cheam Charter Fair, 19th May 2012 (© Richard Marston)


The tradition of the Fair is thought to have started in 1259, when King Henry III granted Cheam (known then as Kaham) a Charter, officially making it a town. Traditionally, a place would be classified as a town if it had a market; villages traditionally had a “green” and cities traditionally had a cathedral. Henry also allowed a weekly market to take place in Cheam, though this tradition has died out over the years.


This was a common tradition for towns in the medieval days. Charter Fairs would be endorsed by the Crown and by 1516, it is estimated that there were 2767 fairs in England. However, these fairs were still expected to follow rules. For instance, one of the major requirements for the Cheam Charter Fair was that it would be held on the 15th of May. If not, then apparently the rights to hold it could be lost! Originally it would take place on the 15th and 16th, but over time it was changed to just one day.


Many of these fairs had ties with the local monasteries, which spelt disaster when Henry VIII set up the Church of England and began the dissolution of the old monasteries. As a result, several fairs were also shut down. However, others, such as the Bartholomew Fair in London, survived the dissolution and continued into the 19th century or even 20th century. It would seem that Cheam’s Charter Fair was one of the lucky ones too.


However, there are very few records documenting the Fair during the medieval and Tudor times. In fact, the earliest firm historical records of the Fair date from the 1800s. From these records, we can learn that schools would be closed on the 15th May so that children could attend the fair too. We can also learn that it was held in pretty much the same place as it is nowadays, albeit with a different name. Back then, Park Road was known as Red Lion Street, with the name being shared with the Red Lion Inn.


There are reports that sometime in the 19th century, the Fair was in danger of closing. One year, the Fair did not have any visiting side shows, which seemed to spell a bad omen for its continued existence. Fortunately, a woman named Elizabeth Sloper (nee Mills) was able to keep the Fair going by erecting a table outside her cottage and setting out things to sell, as well as things for the children of Cheam to do.


In 1906, a parish meeting was held on the 6th February to determine whether the Fair should be kept going. Initially, it was determined that it should be abandoned by a close vote of “23-22”, but upon the result being challenged, the vote was changed to 28 voting to keep the Fair and 16 voting to abandon it. After a poll was determined afterwards, the Fair ultimately kept going.


There are rumours that during the Second World War that despite most things shutting down for the war effort, the Fair was still being held, albeit only with an ice cream stall and dartboard for show. However, this information has only been discussed in some post-war newspapers and has not been fully clarified.


Between the years 1951 and 1953, the Fair was considered a major success. The souvenir brochure for 1951 in particular says that “there could be no finer contribution to the Festival of Britain than the Cheam Charter Fair”. Events from these years included maypole dancing, a Queen of the Fair event, folk dancing, a model railway and even a goldfish exhibition! 1953 was a particularly notable year – Cheam resident Juliet Chaplin recalled in 2014 that “the Fair lasted for a week in honour of the Coronation”!


A very outrageous event occurred at the Fair in 1962 when the traditional Yard of Ale competition was held outside the Harrow Inn. The last minute winner was Eric Price from Worcester Park, who downed about two and a half pints in 15 seconds! That would equal an average speed of six seconds a pint. Suffice to say, this is not something recommended to be done in everyday business.


In December 2011, the official website for the Cheam Charter Fair was set up. Additionally, the Cheam Ward Councillor gave the Charter Fair committee the task of rejuvenating the fair, with one of the proposed changes being to change the day of the fair to a Saturday rather than the traditional date of the 15th. It was hoped that this would allow more stallholders and visitors to attend. Despite some backlash, most people accepted the change, though some token stalls appeared on the 15th May in 2012 in order to maintain the requirements of the Charter. An activity is always planned on the 15th May each year in order to uphold the Charter in addition to the Fair being held on the nearest Saturday.


In 2013, Cheam Charter Week was set up between the 7th and 15th May so that a fixed period of events could be provided as well as honour both the traditional and actual dates of the fair.


For the 755th Fair in 2014, residents of Cheam, as well as knitters coming from as far as Florida, “yarn-bombed” Whitehall. As part of an art project by the Friends of Whitehall, people from between the ages of eight and ninety knitted hundreds of colourful woollen flowers to be draped outside the house. The flowers remained on display until the 18th May.


For the 2016 Fair, Whitehall themselves set up a pop-up museum in celebration of their Heritage Lottery Fund project, as well as a way to operate whilst renovations to the house were taking place. Here, they gave visitors more information about the project and even had crafts activities on show. This was not the only place where people could attend the pop-up museum – it was also set up at the Cheam Rotary Fair as well as other fairs, community events and schools. This year, Whitehall will be hosting a range of activities, including face painting and tours of the house.


You can check the official website of the Cheam Charter Fair for more information, both for the event itself and the history of the event: http://cheamcharterfair.org.uk/


Written by Imogen Easton, Whitehall Historic House Volunteer

Works Cited:

Articles from cheamcharterfair.org.uk

Staveley-Wadham. “‘A Saturnalia of Nondescript Noise and Nonconformity’ –The Rise and Fall of the Charter Fair.” The British Newspaper Archive, 9 May 2019, https://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2019/05/09/a-saturnalia-of-nondescript-noise-and-nonconformity-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-charter-fair/