Dancing bears in Sevenoaks high street

Gypsies, pedlars, labourers and the squire turned out in force for the annual town fair. With a circus, theatre and dancing bears, it was the local people’s ‘fiesta’. Local historian and Vine columnist Monty Parkin on a Sevenoaks tradition that lasted until 1874.

Dancing bears in Sevenoaks high streetThe great Sevenoaks Fair in the mid 19th century

This drawing by Sevenoaks artist Charles Essenheigh Corke shows the great Sevenoaks Fair in the mid 19th century. The illustration comes from the book on ‘Old Sevenoaks’ by Frank Richards, published in 1901, which recalls Sevenoaks in the preceding century.

The Fair was originally held in July and October, and then just October. Stalls and caravans took over the High Street, interspersed with drinking booths. Gypsies, pedlars, beggars and travelling entertainers came and a circus and a theatre were set up. One writer described it as the local people’s ‘fiesta’.

Apparently all classes attended the Fair – the labourer, the parson, the schoolmaster and the squire – and it did seem to cater for a wide range of tastes. The clowns or the ‘educated pig’ entertained some whilst the more serious-minded could shop for a bust of John Wesley or the Duke of Wellington. A travelling doctor sold medicines to cure all known diseases, his ‘phenomenal eloquence’ enabling him to do very good business.

An earlier writer says that, at the Fair, there was ‘no roughness, only innocent merriment’ but perhaps, later in the century, those drinking booths led to some over exuberance because it seems it gradually became more difficult to keep order – the Sevenoaks parish beadle is reported to have had a torrid time – and the Fair was eventually abolished in 1874.

But after its disappearance some of the travelling entertainers continued to visit the area, including the man with the dancing bear. There are reports of him visiting Sevenoaks villages in the 1890s and then proceeding to Tunbridge Wells. The photograph comes from the early 1900s. It seems odd that this medieval form of entertainment continued into the 20th century.

The man with the dancing bearThe man with the dancing bear

The travelling theatre added something to local culture. It can be seen centre left of the drawing next to what is now HSBC bank. The sign says ‘Richardson’s Theatre’. Richardson was a shrewd entrepreneur who, although illiterate, made a fortune from his travelling theatres. The fact that he came to Sevenoaks indicates what a great Fair it was because Richardson only attended the biggest and best. If you paid your money and entered his booth you could enjoy a half hour’s entertainment which included a melodrama, a pantomime and a selection of songs. So a pretty fast moving show. For some country people then, as now, a visit to the pantomime might be their only experience of theatre all year, but Sevenoaks town dwellers were more used to such diversions.

In the early 19th century the great actor Edmund Kean, known for his tempestuous performances, had made an appearance in an old barn just off the High Street near Bligh’s (‘The Oak Tree’) – Kean was a higher class of barnstormer.

And, at the end of the century, a travelling theatre came regularly to perform at the Club Hall by The Vine. Their productions were advertised with huge posters on another barn on the corner of Pembroke Road. Some of their plays sound quite interesting and perhaps deserve a revival. A modern Sevenoaks audience might enjoy a re-run of one of their greatest hits ‘The Girl Who Lost Her Character’. Not a Sevenoaks girl, obviously.