How Did Mayfair Acquire Its Name?

The area we now know as Mayfair does not, as some erroneously believe, take its name from an annual fair held in May. It in fact took its name from Mary ‘May’ Davies who owned the land in the 17th Century before it was developed into the prime residential and commercial centre that it became. The fayre did exist but was originally called the St James’s Fayre, as mentioned by Pepys, and was held in Shepherd Market – on a piece of land once owned by a Mr Shepherd – between Curzon St and Hertford Street. Later it became known as the May Fair.

By ©Tyne O’Connell

Tyne O'Connell finding inspiration on the pavements of Old Bond Street

Tyne O’Connell finding inspiration on the pavements of Old Bond Street

Mayfair’s history as a Pilgrimage site for eccentrics dates before the Domesday Book of 1086 in which Mayfair was referred to as Tyburn a hamlet built around the Catholic Pilgrimage site of the magical Natural Springs on what is now Bond St Station.

The Water was said to possess healing powers inspiring the fabulous doyenne of fashion & poet of 1236, Queen Eleanor of Provence to persuade her husband, King Henry III of Britain to employ lead piping to carry it to The City Of London so the magic of Mayfair could be freely enjoyed by all. Her son the Plantagenet King Edward I, considered the greatest Plantagenet king of Britain permitted an annual fair to be held for a fortnight at the start of every May to raise money for the leprous maidens of the St James’s Hospital which stood on the site of the present St James’s Palace.

Tyne O'Connell St James's PalaceThe fair consisted of puppet shows, bear baiting, and famous showmen and women with an array of extraordinary acts from bearded women to Giant Dog-Men. There is much written about them in The Showmen of London who are referred to by both Pepys and Evelyn and have been detected in the works of Hogarth and other artists.

The fair was held on a piece of ground north of Piccadilly on what is now known as Shepherd Market after Mr Shepherd who owned the land although it seems not to have continued during Cromwell’s Commonwealth during which dancing, games, ale, singing and fun or festivities of any variety were illegal.

King Henry VIII raised the St James’s hospital for leprous maidens to the ground, dispatching the maidens elsewhere and building St James’s Palace on the site.

The St James’s Fair continued until Queen Anne’s time in the early 1700s when the genteel resident’s insisted a stop be put to these unruly showman who had no place in the now refined area.

It’s clear from newspapers books and plays of the time that the area was by this stage already being referred to as Mayfair. There has been much speculation as to why the area previously known as Tyburn should have come to be referred to as Mayfair. One theory is the name arose from the annual fortnightly fair held in May although this fair was still being referred to as the St James’s fair by the diarist Pepys and Evelyn right up to when the fair itself was banned.

So perhaps the other theory, that Mayfair derived its name from Mary Davies – May being an alternate name for girls called Mary, is the real source. The area upon which Mayfair is built, known as The Hundred Acres, was the dowry of a young girl called Mary Davies the daughter of Shrivenham, who wanted to use The Hundred Acres as a base to make a good match for Mary. He first married her off when she was nine years old to Lord Berkeley who he was unable to meet the terms of the contract and pulled out. So Mary was married off to Baronet Grosvenor and it is the Grosvenor family who still own the freehold of most of the hundred acres today.

Until the 18th Century, the fair was always referred to as St James’s Fair. The diarist, Pepys (1633 – 1703) refers to it as St. James’s Fair in his diaries as do other diarists of the time.
Mr Frost, in his History of the Old Showman Of London printed the following notice referring to “the Fair in St. James’s”. Taken from Mackyn’s Diary the notice gives a flavour of what could be found at the annual St James’s Fair.
The xxv. day of June [1560]. Saint James’s fayer by Westminster was so great that a man could not have a pygg for money; and the bear wiffes had nether meate nor drink before iiij. of cloke in the same day. And the chese went very well away for 1d. q. the pounde. Besides the great and mighti armie of beggares and bandes that were there.


Historic records show St James’s Fair ran continually apart from essential postponements of a few weeks or months in 1603, on account of the plague. The next written record of St James’s fair occurs in 1664, when Mr. Frost records in Old Showmen of London, “it was suppressed, as considered to tend rather to the advantage of looseness and irregularity, than to the substantial promotion of any good, common and beneficial to the people.”


Newspapers and diaries throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries describe the annual St James’s Fair held each May had changed over the centuries from a relatively acceptable affair of showmen and women performing various tricks and famous puppet acts, to scandalous and “irregular acts” and louche behaviour, unacceptable to the genteel residents that had made their home north of St James’s Palace from the end of the 17th Century onwards.

Although officially Westminster Palace was the principle palace, St James Palace grew in importance under the Tudors and Stuart Kings & Queens to become the principle palace of Britain’s Monarchy in order to separate their court from the Parliamentary business of Westminster Palace.

When King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 he embarked on a massive building scheme. With the help of Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham, Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Henry Jermyn (later the first Duke of St Albans) he succeeded in  turning the area West of Covent Garden – built thirty years previously – and around his palace of St James’s into the most elegant part of London. Under his guidance the West End became an area of garden squares, parks – such as St James’s Park – as fine as any on the Continent and grand buildings and glass fronted shopping arcades.


Godfrey Kneller's portrait of King Charles II

Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of King Charles II


By the end of King Charles II’s twenty-five year reign St Paul’s towered above a city of over 600,000 and Mayfair’s reputation as the most elegant part of London was firmly established in the imagination of Londoners.


Concurrent with the newly fashionable buildings and shopping arcades going up around St James’s Palace and North of Piccadilly, the annual St James’s Fair continued and it was in this period that the fair began to be referred to as the May Fair.  Inevitably the fair was not popular with the new residents but none-the-less it grew to accommodate the every growing crowds as curious to gape at the grand residents as any of the acts on offer.


As the spectacle of controversial acts grew so did the anger of the Mayfair residents and the press. By the time Queen Anne ascended to the throne in 1702 the editor of The Spectator decided that it had become too riotous for the tastes of the now genteel residents who called for its closure.
In fact, the St James’s fair became the focus of scandal and outrage, so great that the queen’s own morality for allowing the fair to continue was brought into question by the editor of The Spectator who wrote:—


Tyne O'Connell with guards in mauve dress with spaniel
Oh! the piety of some people about the Queen, who can suffer things of this nature to go undiscovered to her Majesty, and consequently unpunished! Can any rational men imagine that her Majesty would permit so much lewdness as is committed at May Fair, for so many days together, so near to her royal palace, if she knew anything of the matter? I don’t believe the patent for that fair allows the patentees the liberty of setting up the devil’s shops and exposing his merchandise for sale.”


According to Mr. Frost, in his work “May Fair” did not assume any importance till about the year 1701, when the multiplication of shows of all kinds caused it to enlarge its sphere of attractions.
“It was held,” he writes, “on the North side of Piccadilly, in Shepherd Market, Shepherd’s Court, White Horse Street, Sun Court, Market Court, and on the open space westwards, Chapel Street and Hertford Street, as far as Tyburn (now Park) Lane.” 


“The ground-floor of the Market House, usually occupied by butchers’ stalls, was appropriated during the fair to the sale of toys and gingerbread, and the upper portion was converted into a theatre. The open space westwards was covered with the booths of jugglers, fencers, and boxers, the stands of mountebanks, swings, roundabouts, &c.; while the sides of the streets were occupied by sausage-stalls and gambling-tables. The first-floor windows were also, in some instances, made to serve as the proscenia of puppet-shows.”


“I have been able to trace,” he adds, “only two shows to this fair in 1702, namely, Barnes and Finley’s, and Miller’s, which stood opposite to the former, and presented ‘an excellent droll called Crispin and Crispianus, or a shoe-maker a prince, with the best machines, singing, and dancing ever yet in the fair.'” The fair, on this occasion, drew together a large concourse of persons, and an attempt to exclude some young women of light character resulted in a riot. The young women, arrested for the purpose of being turned out, were rescued by some soldiers; a conflict ensued, other constables came up, and the “rough” element, of course, took part with the accused women. In the end one constable was killed and three others seriously injured. The man who actually dealt the fatal blow to the unfortunate constable managed to escape; but a butcher who had been active in the affray, was tried for his part in the affair, convicted, and hung at Tyburn. This tragical occurrence helped, no doubt, to bring the fair itself into discredit, especially among the respectable inhabitants of the neighbourhood of Piccadilly.”
Pennant, who remembered the last “May Fair,” describes the locality as “covered with booths, temporary theatres, and every enticement to low pleasure.”


Given its associations and riotious goings on it was inevitable that the fair would have to be stopped given the proximity to both St James’s Palace and the aristocratic and genteel residences of the area. However the showmen and showwomen continued to perform and ply their wares in numerous other such fairs which flourished until the latter part of Queen Victoria’s reign without protest or censure in other less fashionable parts of London such as Southwark.


After the death of Queen Anne, King George I ascended to the throne of Great Britain in 1714 and quickly bowed to Court pressure to put a stop to the St James’s Fair once and for all. By the time the fair was stopped, the area north of Piccadilly and South Of Oxford Street (still known as Tyburn Road) had firmly established itself as Mayfair, quite separate to the fair for which it had been named. More importantly, by 1714, Mayfair – an area known as The Hundred Acres before the Restoration of 1660 – had firmly imbedded itself into the imagination of Londoners as the grandest, most fashionable and elegant part of London which it remains to this day.
Main Sources:
The Diary of Samuel Pepys
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