A fair was said to have been held in Torrington from at least 1220 and the right to hold fairs in the town was confirmed by Royal Charter in 1554. It was not until after 1873 that the first Thursday in May was set as the opening day of the fair and by this time traditions were long-established. In Victorian times it was the custom for young girls to get up early on May Day and wash their faces in pools, believing this would make them beautiful. A favourite place for this ritual was Lady Wash, a stream that runs down Castle Hill.
In the early days there was also a cattle market with animals penned in New Street. Men, women and children came into town from the surrounding villages on horseback and on foot. The main streets were lined with stalls selling a variety of wares. On Barley Grove the pleasure fair offered peep shows, boxing booths, shooting galleries and a variety of entertainments. At night, with flaring lights and a din from gongs, drums and trumpets, the excitement reached its climax.
The fair almost disappeared in the late 1880s, although the proclamation was still read from the window of the Town Hall. In 1924 an effort was made to revive the May Fair and, as well as wishing to preserve the past, the Town Council and Chamber of Commerce were also concerned for the future. Under the banner of ‘Uz be plaised to see ‘ee’ it was hoped to gain both publicity and custom for the town. After fair proclamations outside the Town Hall, near Vaughan’s glove factory in Whites Lane and at Cornmarket Street, the festivities began in the square with folk and floral dancing. The choral society gave its performance and school children danced around the maypole. In the afternoon there was a marathon race followed by a clay pigeon shoot on Castle Hill, skittles on Castle Green and a bowling tournament. The finale was a grand carnival. Cattle and sheep were auctioned and the funfair was in full swing at Barley Grove.
Since the late 1930s the crowning of the May Queen has been the main feature of May Fair day. The costumes of the queen and crowner, the boy heralds and the six attendants always have a theme commemorating a national event. In 2016 they were dressed in colourful Tudor costumes to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Crowds gathered in the town square to watch children dancing and various entertainments before the Town Crier called ‘Oyez, oyez …’ to get silence for the reading of the proclamation by the Town Clerk. Finally, the May Queen, accompanied by her heralds and followed by the crowner and attendants processed up the square to sit on her throne and be crowned. Then the local children danced around two maypoles accompanied by music from the Town Silver Band.
Further information can be found under the Mayfair heading on the Town Council Website or by clicking the following link: http://www.great-torringtontowncouncil.gov.uk/mayfair