A weekly cattle market was held in Smithfield - the smooth field outside the city walls - from the 12th century at least, and flourished from 1327 when it received Royal Charter and became the King's Great Market. Every Friday drovers would bring livestock from the country to sell to the butchers of the City of London, and they continued to do so until the middle of the 19th century. Only then did it become purely a meat market.
Immediately to the east and south of the market ground, and also dating from the 12th century, were the Priory and Hospital of St Bartholomew - the commercial and the spiritual existing happily side by side. The Priory presided over, and profited from, the activity at its gates, and once a year it launched into commerce itself, because as part of its endowment it had the right to hold an annual fair on the feast of St Bartholomew, 24th August, and the days preceding and following it.
By Elizabethan times, Bartholomew Fair was one of the great events of London, with many different trades represented there and sideshows and spectacles of all sorts, but originally it involved only the cloth trade - and so Cloth Fair, because it was on the site of this street that the fair was originally held, in the early days when it was contained entirely within the priory precinct. The booths were set up on the green to the north of the church, covering the burial ground and even extending into nave of the church itself - this was not considered sacrilege then, a rental of 1306 unconcernedly listing rents paid "from the stalls that are inside the Church and those fixed to the church outside".
Later the fair overflowed into Smithfield and the streets around, but in the medieval period the main entrance was an archway on the site of the present entrance from Smithfield to Cloth Fair, which was locked at night in order to safeguard valuable goods. Here the proclamation was made declaring the Fair to be open:
All manner of persons may take notice that in the close of St. Bartholomew the Great and West Smithfield, London, and the lands and places adjoining, is now to be held a fair for this day and the two days following, to which all persons may freely resort and buy and sell according to the liberties and privileges of the said fair, and may depart without disturbance, paying their And all persons are straitly charged and commanded, in his Majesty's name, to keep the peace, and to do nothing in the disturbance of the said fair as they will answer to the contrary, at their perils; and that there be no manner of arrest or arrests, but by such officers as are appointed.And if any persons be aggrieved let them repair to the court of Pie-Powder, where they may have speedy relief according to justice and equity. God save the King and the Lord of the Manor!"(Early 17th-century version)
It was not until after the dissolution of the priory in 1539 that houses were built in this area.The priory buildings, together with the right to hold Bartholomew Fair, were bought in 1543 by Sir Richard Rich, for the sum of £1064 11s 3d. He was Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, which was responsible for the management and disposal of the monastic estates, and so was in a good position to snap up the best of them; he had already moved into the Prior's House in 1540. It was his grandson Robert, 3rd Baron Rich, who began to build on a serious scale, after he came into the property in 1581. This Lord Rich was also husband of Penelope, the Stella of Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, who "Hath no misfortune but that Rich she is". E.A. Webb, whose immensely detailed Records of St Bartholomew’s Priory (1921) is the chief source for the history of the area, says that houses were now built in Long Lane, Cloth Fair, Kinghorn Street, Middle Street and Newbury Street:
After having obtained from the queen, in the year 1583, confirmation of his rights and privileges, he started to cover the vacant ground by granting apparently thirty-one year building leases. This was in or about the year 1590, for in that year Lord Rich wrote to a Mr Hicks to ask Lord Burleigh to persuade the Lord Mayor of London not to stop his building at St. Bartholomew's. This appeal unfortunately seems to have been effectual as the erection of the crowded buildings went on; in fact it appears that Rich exceeded his rights, for about the year 1595 the Court of Aldermen directed that "Lord Rich be waited upon touching a building set up by him on the city's soil near Gt. St. Bartholomew's"; and later they directed that "an encroachment in Long Lane near St. Bartholomew's by the tenant of Lord Rich be viewed".
It is probable that the buildings in Long Lane, and from the church to the Smithfield gate of the Fair (that is to say the buildings on the north side of the great churchyard), and the buildings, demolished in 1917, in Cloth Fair eastward of the north door of the church, were completed by the year 1597, for the leases in the rental of 1616 date from that year.
The north and south sides of Cloth Fair, Kinghorn Street, and the north side of Middle Street had leases dating from 1598.
The leases on the south side of Middle Street, on both sides of Newbury Street, and from Sun Court to New Court, dated from 1608 to 1614. The houses were probably all finished, or nearly so, when Lord Rich conveyed the property to his son Henry on the latter's marriage with Isobel Cope, in the year 1612. Building, however, was still going on somewhere in the parish between 1651 and 1653; even as late as 1669 there is a record that the Court of Aldermen ordered "a stay to be made of buildings in the parish of St. Bartholmew", but this was probably in the Close precinct.
Lord Rich's development did not go unopposed; according to Webb a great outcry was raised at the erection of houses on this land, known to many as the "Great Green of the Fair". His profiteering was flagrant too, the houses being crowded in, tiny tenements into which people were crammed. Speaking of further, and similar, development by Lord Rich's son Henry, created Earl of Holland, a letter from a Thomas Gundrey to the Earl of Middlesex in 1636 describes the poor of the parish as "a commodity the parish hath gotten by the Earl of Holland's building". But the protests were no more effective than were those which, paradoxically, were made in 1914-1917 when most of these houses were swept away. There was, in any case, no need to fear that so profitable an event as the Fair itself would be threatened. Because once a year, the houses and shops were turned into fairground booths, it being a condition of the leases that this should be so. Webb quotes a later example, a lease by the 2nd Earl of Holland to John Wotten, cloth worker, of a messuage in Newman's Row, Cloth Fair (see the tour which follows) containing a cellar, a low room, a shop, two chambers and a garret:
"Except and always reserved out of the present demise unto the said Robert Earl of Holland, the low room or shop of the same messuage or tenement for the space of seven daysin every year during the term hereafter mentioned, that is to say the feast day of St. Bartholomew the Apostle and the three days next before and the three days next after the said feast, to be had and used as a booth or booths in the said fair there by such person or persons to whom the said Robert Earl Holland shall from time to time yearly during the said seven days and for the use aforesaid let and dispose the same."
Before long these new and controversial houses in Cloth Fair and the neighbouring streets were an integral part of the City, and came to be regarded all the more in that, standing outside the actual city walls, they mainly escaped the Great Fire of 1666. As such they survived into this century as a relic of "Old London", the only place where the true feel of the crowded medieval - or Elizabethan - city could be obtained. It was also, by 1900, a squalid and insanitary slum and so, for praiseworthy reasons, some of its most ancient and important buildings were swept away.
The debate between conservationists and improvers is recorded in the newspapers of the time, and it is amusing to compare this with the conservation battles of today. Fortunately, for nearly a century before artists and photographers had been recording the street, with its ancient houses and the alleys and yards leading off it, and many of their works are retained in the museums and libraries of London. With the help of these, and other sources such as Trade Directories and Census returns, it is possible to put together a tour of the street as it was in the late l9th century when, as Webb its chief historian says, very little change had occured since 1616, the date of a Rental drawn up for Lord Rich, giving precise details of all the houses on his land. We start at its western end, on the northern side, and return along the south, to finish by St Bartholomew's churchyard, where it all began.