Roll up, roll up for the King’s Lynn Mart
For two weeks each year, King’s Lynn’s Tuesday Market Place transforms into a sensory delight, as the annual fair, or ‘Mart’ to the locals, rolls into town
Boasting bright lights, upbeat music, and an abundance of entertainment, the Mart is undoubtedly one of King’s Lynn’s most unique and vibrant annual events. It’s a striking spectacle that’s been rooted in the town’s history for more than eight centuries.
The original Royal Charter was granted for a market (or “mart”) by King John over 800 years ago. There were originally two markets in the town, one held in October, known as the “Cheese Market,” and the other held in Norfolk Street in February. In 1537 Henry VIII amalgamated them, giving permission for a Valentine’s Fair – a Charter dictating the Mart’s opening date, even today. In contrast to the neon lights and loud music of the modern Mart, these earlier markets were small-scale commercial events, with past traders travelling from as far afield as Germany and Italy to buy and sell their wares. Traditionally opening around Valentine’s Day, this year’s extravaganza is the 818th Mart according to the records.
A highly anticipated annual event, King’s Lynn Mart has endured much upheaval over the centuries. During the medieval period, frequent bouts of plague resulted in several cancellations as well as the relocation to Tuesday Market Place, in 1584, to avoid overcrowding. These issues aren’t just confined to history: the 2021 Mart was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic for the first time since the Second World War.
The nineteenth century first saw popular entertainment sitting alongside the traders. A penchant for fun and showmanship is evident on a poster from 1826 which encourages crowds to come and view a “surprising, large ox,” with gargantuan proportions (5ft 7inches high, 18ft long and weighing 150 stone). ‘Gentlemen’ paid sixpence and ‘working men,’ threepence for the privilege.
As transport links improved and travelling markets became less popular, the Mart evolved into a funfair, thanks in great measure to local innovator and engineer, Frederick Savage. A statue commemorating him stands at the historical entrance to King’s Lynn, near the South Gate.
Poverty stricken when his father was deported to Tasmania for poaching, Savage started work as a farm labourer aged just ten. He was then taken on by a Dereham machine-maker, gaining crucial engineering experience. In 1850, aged just 22, Savage set up his own business exploiting the emerging technology of steam power to revolutionise farming, designing and making a wide variety of steam-driven machines to improve productivity.
His success lay not just in his engineering brain, but also in his ability to spot trends and capitalise on them. Noting that trading fairs were turning to public amusement and showmanship to survive, Savage began to develop steam driven roundabouts, improving on earlier incarnations invented by others, such as Sidney George Soame, also from Norfolk.
The earliest record of Savage displaying a ride at King’s Lynn Mart is in 1866 – the ‘Velocipedes,’ a cycling ride powered by steam instead of the riders’ legs. ‘Dobby’ horse rides were also popular – the early iteration of the modern carousel. Travelling showman George Twigdon operated one of Savage’s sets at the 1868 Mart.
Savage’s manufacture of rides grew, with ever more fantastical names and ambitious features: Racing Peacocks, Jumping Cats, Flying Pigs and the Switchback – a car ride from which most modern amusements have evolved. In 1897, moving pictures joined the array of entertainment on offer, with Randall Williams bringing his impressive displays to the Mart for the first time.
This was a significant development for the fair. Williams’ impressive mini-melodramas and haunting ghostly illusions had received royal attention from Queen Victoria and local crowds scrambled to see his spectacularly realistic moving pictures for themselves.
Savage set the standard for our modern Mart, which traditionally remains the first event on the showmen’s calendar each year - and is still the place to show off their new, faster, bigger rides.
Whether you’re a thrill seeker out to try this year’s new rides or are passing through in search of Rocky Thompson’s famous rock and nougat, spare a thought for the brilliant minds of thee past who laid the foundations for an event that still draws visitors to the town, centuries later.