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Guest Post by BK

October 11 is the date of the Blackheath Fair.

Fairs for the sale of local goods and livestock, granted by Royal Charter, have been held since medieval times. They were so popular informal fairs developed as well. Some for the old agricultural reasons; but they also became more well-known for drinking, revelry and side-shows; the exhibitions of “freaks” were particularly popular. Among these was the fair on Blackheath.

The first fair was held on the traditional May Day in 1683. John Evelyn reported:-

“ I went to Blackheath to see the new faire, being the first, procured by Lord Dartmouth. This was the first day, pretended for the sale of cattle, but I think, in truth, to enrich the new tavern at the bowlinggreene, erected by Snape, his Majesty’s farrier, a man full of projects. There appeared nothing but an innumerable assembly of drinking people from London, pedlars, &c; and I suppose it is too neere London to be of any greate use to the country.”

Such was the popularity of the fair that when the calendar changed in 1752 it was held twice yearly on May 12-14 and Oct 11-13. This arrangement continued until 1772 when the fair was held only on May 12 and Oct 11 when it was described as a “hog and pleasure fair”.

Victorian moralists became very concerned at the drunkenness and debauchery at these fairs and in 1871 the Fairs Act was passed. It enabled any local council to petition the Home Secretary to close a fair. It stated:

“Whereas certain of the fairs held in England and Wales are unnecessary, are the cause of grievous immorality, and are very injurious to the inhabitants of the towns in which such fairs are held, and it is therefore expedient to make provision to facilitate the abolition of such fairs.”

So, in 1872 Blackheath Fair, along with others at Greenwich and Charlton were reported by the authorities and closed.

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Blackheath Fair also has a footnote in another part of British folklore. It was the site of the first sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack. He was first sighted in London jumping out at lone pedestrians, usually young ladies and sometimes attempting to molest them. When startled or pursued he would escape by making giant leaps and jump over high walls. Some reports said he had had a large black cloak. Others mentioned fire from the eyes or mouth.

In 1837 Jack appeared to a servant girl called Polly Adams and two other ladies on the outskirts of Blackheath Fair. Polly reported that he ripped off her bodice with his iron-tipped fingers before running off with a series of giant bounds.

In 1838 The Lord Mayor Of London mentioned this and other reported attacks and a national outcry ensued with vigilante groups scouring the country for Jack. Many sightings were reported but Jack was always able to escape by clearing a high wall or a river.

The last sighting seems to have been in Liverpool on 1888. But the urban myth lives on and there are similar characters reported in many countries. My own parents were frightened by stories of Spring Heeled Jack in the 1930s.

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