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Charlton Horn Fair

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One of London's most popular fairs, until it was discontinued in 1872, famous for its obsession with horns. In its heyday in the 18th century, visitors flocked to the fair in their thousands carrying or wearing horns and every stall was decorated with them. Every sort of horn imaginable, and everything possible made of horn, was for sale, and even the gingerbread men had horns. An origin legend provides a neat reason for the horn motif. King John was out hunting on Shooter's Hill, and he stopped to rest at a miller's house. The only person home was the miller's attractive wife and she and the king were just ‘kissing’ when the miller returned and caught them. He drew his dagger, threatening to kill them both, but when he realized who he was dealing with, he wisely asked for some other recompense instead. The king therefore granted him all the land visible from Charlton to the river beyond Rotherhithe, and also the right to hold a fair every 18 October (St Luke's Day). The miller's jealous neighbours gave the name Cuckold's Point to the river boundary and they started wearing horns at the fair as a derisive gesture. See HORNS for an examination of the connection between horns and cuckoldry/adultery.

Needless to say, no charter from King John can be found. In an early reference to the fair, in Kilburn's Survey of Kent (1659), it already has the Horn nickname, and a previous mention takes the horns, if not explicitly the fair, back to 1598. Although we cannot pinpoint its starting date, there is a more prosaic theory about the horns connection. The 18th of October is St Luke's Day and St Luke is the patron saint of the local parish church. In medieval pictures, Luke is invariably seen in writing posture, with a horned ox or cow prominently displayed. It is likely that the carrying of a large pair of horns, on a pole, indicated the opening of St Luke's Fair. Given the popular connection between horns and cuckoldry, the origin story was concocted later to fit the known facts. Be that as it may, the people who visited the fair made a point of wearing horns if they could, and many appeared in fancy dress, with sexual cross-dressing a common theme. William Fuller, for example, relates how his landlady's clothes were spoilt by horseplay, while he was wearing them (William Fuller, The Whole Life of William Fuller (1703), 122, quoted by Muncey, c.1935: 76). Many other writers denounced the fair for its rudeness and indecency, or, as Daniel Defoe called it ‘the yearly collected rabble of mad people’ (A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–1726).

Brand, 1849: ii. 194–5;Hone 1826: i. 693–4;R. W. Muncey, Our Old English Fairs (c.1935), 74–8.

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