Manchester's Easter Fair

Manchester's 19th Century workers would have enjoyed the delights of Knott Mill Fair during Easter Week, after a long Lent of abstinence...

Initially a small affair, Knott Mill Fair grew to take over the southern end of Deansgate and Liverpool Road.

Crowds came to the theatres, equestrian shows and animal menageries, wanting to see wild beasts like the Lion Queen. The fair boasted fortune tellers, peep shows (not like that – more like Victorian puppet shows), steam-powered fairground rides, ballad singers, ‘try your strength’ machines and more. The number of stalls selling trinkets, gingerbread, sweetmeats – over 500 by the middle of the century - led to complaints that the fair clogged up the street making Deansgate ‘inconveniently narrow’.

The Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian newspaper) published increasingly lengthy reports as the years went by, bemoaning the ‘collection of monstrosities, absurdities, and nastiness usually found in what is called “Pleasure Fair”’. Heaven forbid the workers have some fun.

‘brutality, roguery, and every other phase of human degradation’

‘We cannot conceive a possible good resulting from this Easter fair; and no person with ordinary perception can press through the heaving mass which congregates there, without seeing glaring evil on every side.’

Such gatherings were ideal for Manchester’s more criminal entrepreneurs – in 1846 30 nut vendors were convicted for using defective measures with false sides and bottoms. Pickpockets seemed partial to pocket handkerchiefs, but were generally said to ‘stand in awe of the police’, probably helped by the proximity of Knott Mill police station (roughly standing where the Beetham Tower is today).

Manchester detective Jerome Caminada wrote about catching two ‘smashers’ or ‘pitchers’ of forged coins. One tried unsuccessfully to use the fake money to buy some gingerbread, while his accomplice – the one with the rest of the swag – watched on from a distance. Caminada – alert to the scam – seized the two with the help of a colleague. The pair received five years penal servitude having been previously convicted of the same offence.

Such crimes helped bring the end to the fun as the fair was banned in 1876 by order of the Home Secretary.

Hear stories of Knott Mill fair on a tour of Campfield.

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