Findings: End to dancing in the street

June 21, 2002

The Restoration has gone down as a time of merrymaking after the Puritan austerity of the Commonwealth. The return of Charles II in 1660 meant theatres reopened, carol singing was decriminalised and people were allowed to let their hair down again. But new research suggests it also spelled the beginning of the end for partying in the heart of English towns, writes Steve Farrar.

Emma Griffin, a British Academy postdoctoral research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, has charted the gradual transformation of urban market squares from popular recreation centres to regulated sites for trade and traffic.

Dr Griffin's analysis of civic financial accounts and other records - published in the Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research - found the process took more than a century to complete, with its roots in the Restoration.

Town squares were places where market stalls competed with many other activities for space.

Citizens gathered for celebrations, feasts and festivals that were often paid for by the authorities. Football matches were played according to ad hoc rules that could, for example, pit large teams of married men against single men, with church doors as a goal.

Crowds watched bull baiting and plays performed in temporary booths, while the challenge of cock throwing involved players throwing wooden batons to knock down and win a tethered cockerel.

The end of the Commonwealth saw the return of town-centre pastimes after their prohibition under Oliver Cromwell, but cultural and economic pressures soon began to conspire against them.

Civic authorities slowly withdrew their financial support and pushed many events to the edge of towns through bylaws.

Dr Griffin said the elite had new ideas about the environment and wanted to make town centres more decorous. The poor were powerless to stop this and, in the end, the authorities even stopped children playing in the market square.

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