Covent Garden May Fayre & Puppet Festival – Celebrating the 360th Birthday of Punch and Judy

One of the things about doing tours in London is that in a way it is both my office and indeed my stage and tours can be variable and incorporate whatever it is we come across in addition to my vague plans for the day. Yesterday (Sunday) we happened across the annual Punch and Judy Festival in the beautiful gardens of St Pauls Church. Full of puppets and activities for children and adults as well as television crews and others all witnessing this ingrained part of British culture that was meeting for the first time in several years due to Covid.

If you don’t know much about Punch & Judy then a typical show as performed currently in the UK will start with the arrival of Mr. Punch, followed by the introduction of Judy. They may well kiss and dance before Judy requests Mr. Punch to look after the baby. Punch will fail to carry out this task appropriately. It is rare for Punch to hit his baby these days, but he may well sit on it in a failed attempt to “babysit”, or drop it, or even let it go through a sausage machine. In any event, Judy will return, will be outraged, will fetch a stick, and the knockabout will commence. A policeman will arrive in response to the mayhem and will himself be felled by Punch’s slapstick. All this is carried out at breakneck farcical speed with much involvement from a gleefully shouting audience. From here on anything goes.

Joey the Clown might appear and suggest, “It’s dinner time.” This will lead to the production of a string of sausages, which Mr. Punch must look after, although the audience will know that this really signals the arrival of a crocodile whom Mr. Punch might not see until the audience shouts out and lets him know. Punch’s subsequent comic struggle with the crocodile might then leave him in need of a Doctor who will arrive and attempt to treat Punch by walloping him with a stick until Punch turns the tables on him. Punch may next pause to count his “victims” by laying puppets on the stage, only for Joey the Clown to move them about behind his back in order to frustrate him. A ghost might then appear and give Mr. Punch a fright before it too is chased off with a slapstick.

Some of the wonderful Punch and Judy puppets

In more uncritical times, a hangman would arrive to punish Mr. Punch, only to himself be tricked into sticking his head in the noose. “Do you do the hanging?” is a question often asked of performers. Some will include it where circumstances warrant (such as for an adult audience) but most do not. Some will choose to include it whatever the circumstances and will face down any critics. Finally, the show will often end with the Devil arriving for Mr. Punch (and possibly threatening his audience as well). Punch—in his final gleefully triumphant moment—will win his fight with the Devil, bring the show to a rousing conclusion, and earn a round of applause.

In times of old or the 1980’s as I remember them, Punch and Judy became a bit criticised for encouraging violence and it has all been a little watered down but that hasn’t really dampened the love for the largely unscripted puppet shows that are found on beaches and parks throughout the summer.

The Covent Garden May Fayre & Puppet Festival was first held in 1976 after the famous fruit and vegetable market moved out to its new home south of the River Thames. The Covent Garden Community Association fought hard to save the old market buildings from destruction. They won this battle, but the centre became boarded up and deserted for five years before it was re-opened as a shopping mall, so the locally based arts organisation, Alternative Arts, decided to help regenerate the area by starting a Street Theatre in 1975 under the Portico of St Paul’s Church. The then vicar, the Rev John Arrowsmith gave his permission and also agreed to commemorate one of the most famous street performers of all time – Mr Punch – with a special celebration once a year in May, when in 1662 Samuel Pepys wrote the first recorded sighting of Punch* in England ‘within the rayles of Covent Garden’ on the 9th of May. The plaque to mark this occasion is on the wall of the Portico of the Church.

Diarist Samuel Pepys witnessed the first performance of Punch and Judy

Inspired by this plaque Alternative Arts researched as many Punch Professors as they could find from all over the UK and invited them to the first Covent Garden May Fayre and Puppet Festival held in the garden of St Paul’s Church. This was an opportunity for the local community and this world famous puppet to come together to celebrate an important piece of local history and celebrate the art of puppetry and Mr Punch. A service was specially written by the vicar and included Mr Punch in the Pulpit. The May Fayre was so immediately popular with everyone that it has happened on the second Sunday in May at St Paul’s ever since. The day always starts with a procession on foot around the neighbourhood led by a marching brass band. Punch and Judy ‘Professors’ & puppeteers from all over the country and other parts of Europe, America and Australia attend and perform throughout the day.

Traditional characters from Punch and Judy

Over the years the event has been enjoyed by thousands of children and adults. It remains a completely non-commercial occasion. Admission is free and all the work done to put the May Fayre together is entirely voluntary. Alternative Arts raises the funds and makes all necessary arrangements. The Covent Garden Community Association sets up its stall alongside other local voluntary groups. Many people who once lived in Covent Garden return on this day to meet up with each other and join in the celebrations.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was one of many who came to enjoy the event.

The May Fayre has become an important platform and annual focal point for the popular art form that is Punch & Judy, serving to maintain the tradition in Covent Garden with its unique history as the original home of Mr Punch in England. Mr Punch is an anarchic character, he pokes fun at the establishment and certainly does not meet with everyone’s approval, which is probably why he is so popular with children.
The fact that the Covent Garden May Fayre has lasted so long has a lot to do with the history and determination of the local community and all the Punch Professors & puppeteers involved. It is a true celebration of our cultural heritage.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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1 Response to Covent Garden May Fayre & Puppet Festival – Celebrating the 360th Birthday of Punch and Judy

  1. Pingback: Covent Garden May Fayre & Puppet Festival – Celebrating the 360th Birthday of Punch and Judy – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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