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ONE of the oldest annual fairs in the UK is takes place in Neath every Sptember.  But visitors walking amid the bobbing balloons, busy trade stalls and whirling waltzers at Neath’s “great fair” will mostly be unaware of the bloody turmoil that gave birth to the event in medieval times.

The fair, which takes place on the second Thursday of September, can trace its origin back to an original Charter granted in 1280.

It was signed by the flame haired Gilbert “The Red” De Clare, whose family had helped William the Conqueror take over England in 1066. He ruled with an iron fist.

In the mid 1120s, Earl Robert of Gloucester had established the western frontier of the Norman lordship of Glamorgan on the banks of the river Neath. Norman knights were granted land in the area for their loyalty, but the local Welsh population did not take matters lying down.

It was said the banks of the river Neath were the most dangerous part of Glamorgan, as the Normans and their supporters suffered ferocious attacks from well armed bands of locals.

According to Sheffield University-based Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive, the granting of fair charters was done to encourage trade.

She said the 1280 Neath Fair Charter was almost certainly granted to give those who had suffered from raids a chance to do trade and sell their goods.

George Eaton, writing in The Story of Neath’s Fair, which was published to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the event, said the aim was to encourage the demoralised burgesses to recover from the traumatic experiences of warfare and siege.

He wrote: “There can be no other answer but that de Clare had faith in the commercial potential of the borough and that the burgesses needed to recover from the experiences they had undergone.”

The original Charter for the fair has been lost, but the date for the 1280 fair can be found in the surviving fragments of a Charter dating back to 1397.

The borough of Neath has had a number of fair dates, but over the centuries the most prosperous was the September fair, which became known as the Great Fair.

In line with other medieval fairs, its function was chiefly to sell goods, with the festivities a secondary by-product.

The 1783 edition of Owen’s New Book of Fairs lists two dates for fairs in Neath, one commencing Trinity Thursday, July 13, and one September 12, for cattle, sheep and hogs.

By the start of the 1880s steam powered roundabouts appeared on the fair, though theatre booths presented by showman William Haggar continued to be one of the main draws.

Vernon Studt, who now runs the Barry Island Pleasure Park, joined his family’s funfair business, Swansea based VAW Studt, as a teenager.

Mr Studt, 51, said his family started providing funfairs back in the 1830s.

He said: “Neath is one of the biggest in the country along with the likes of the Nottingham Goose Fair (granted a charter in 1284) and the Barnstaple Fair (which dates back to 930AD).

“Neath Fair traditionally heralds the end of summer and brings thousands of people into the town.”

Professor Toulmin said: “The Edwardian fairground is often described as the ‘golden age of the fair’ and the accounts from Neath during this time seem to reflect this.

“Prominent showmen such as the Studts, Edward Danter and Jack Scarrot would bring the latest up-to-date riding devices and novelty shows to the Great Fair.”

Boxing Shows, which had been a staple of the fair, were outlawed in the early 1900s by order of the Town Council, but other well known showmen presented Gallopers, Gondolas, Motor Car Switchbacks, Tunnel Railways and Bioscope Shows.

Despite the outbreak of the First World War, the fair continued and in 1915 Henry Studt’s vans were used as a recruiting office for the war effort.

The Deakin family became closely associated with the fair from the 1930s, under the management of Margaret Deakin, the widow of Alf Deakin, they would become of the most successful roundabout proprietors in Wales.

The Deakin family attended the 1935 event with a Lightning Swirl, Dodgems, Noah’s Ark and juvenile roundabouts. These rides continued to be a feature of the fair for the next 30 years.

In 1962 the September Fair was moved to the city centre to a car park near Neath Castle, the original site of the medieval fair.

The funfair was moved to the Milland Road car park in the 1980s where it remains until this day.

“The Great Neath September Fair plays a huge part in the heritage,” said Neath Port Talbot’s current council Leader, Ali Thomas.

“Visitors who come to the town from miles around bringing a huge boost to the local economy.”

Source: Robin Turner, WalesOnLine 2013

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