St James' Fair was an annual fortnight of excitement, adventure and entertainment for the people of Bristol. Beginning in the 13th century in and around the churchyard of St James, it originally took place during the feast of St James at the end of July, but by the 19th century it was held during the first two weeks of September.
It attracted traders and shows from all across the UK and overseas, which included, according to the exhibitors list, wild beasts, waxworks, flying coaches, peep shows, a camera obscura, air bathing, a revolving panorama, dwarves, giants, and even 'a learned pig'. Traders sold goods ranging from earthenware pots to silk ribbons, and there were food and drink stalls, theatres, and fair ground rides. Bush houses, unlicensed pubs identified by an evergreen garland or bush, were also extremely popular until they were outlawed in 1815. It's little wonder that the citizens of Bristol were seduced by the colour and spectacle of the fair.
However, detractors believed it also attracted pirates, brought the plague to Bristol in the 17th century, and was a hive of corruption and criminality. The Bristol Mirror reported on Saturday 6th April 1823 that 'There is scarcely an exotic in nature that may not be seen there', but also that 'the light fingered tribe are as usual, very active'.
St James Church made a great deal of money from the fair, and thus turned a blind eye to the negative aspects of the lucrative fortnight. But during the 19th century nonconformist ministers campaigned tirelessly to close it down, preaching sermons, producing pamphlets and gaining support from some of the local press. Samuel Colman's 1824 picture of the fair shows every pitfall including robbery, prostitution, vanity and gambling.
Deemed a bad influence on Bristol's populace, and with trade declining, the fair ended for good in 1838.