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Famous Fairs and their Origins

by Charles G. Harper
Author of "The Sussex Coast," etc.

Transcribed from Volume II of
Wonderful Britain: Its Highways Byways & Historic Places
edited by J. A. Hammerton
[ undated, but likely to be 1930s ]

Click the photos to see a larger version in a separate window
and see also (at the end of the article) the original captions
which include more information.

Procession, Corby - click for enlargement, and see also below for original caption with more information. That once important feature of country life, the fair, has now declined into the condition of merry-making and a rustic saturnalia. But it has a long and noteworthy history. No man can trace fairs to their first beginnings. In distant times, when every community was self-contained and travel was difficult and dangerous, the sellers came to the buyers, and goods were marketed for the needs of a whole year.

Fairs originated in several ways; many of them centred about the great medieval abbeys, and such as these were held on the feast-day of the saint to whom that abbey, priory or other religious house was dedicated. Thus the one and only fair held within the walls of the City of London was Bartholomew Fair, which took its origin at the time of the founding of S. Bartholomew's Priory, Hospital and Church in 1102, by Rahere, the king's jester.
[More on Bartholomew Fair towards the end of the article.]

Whether "Bartlemy Fair," as Londoners knew it, was a fair by prescription or directly by Royal grant is not known; and this brings us to the legal status of fairs. No man may legally establish a fair otherwise than by royal grant or by Act of Parliament, but all fairs whose charter cannot be adduced are deemed to be fairs by ancient prescription or originally to have been established by royal grant.

A typical fair of religious origin was S. Audrey's, held on the feast-day of S. Etheldreda, or S. Audrey, at Ely. Then and there the country folk assembled and purchased such favours and tokens of the saint as "S. Audrey's Chains," and images of her. The "chains" were lengths of coloured silks and laces. Like most articles sold at the stalls, they were cheap and common. From their associations with "S. Audrey" comes the word "tawdry."

Such fairs were prime assets of the monasteries, for they brought tolls, rendered to the abbot or prior. Pleasure, equally with business, entered into them, as must, from the earliest times, have been the case, when we consider that the word "fair" comes partly from the Latin "feriae," for holidays, as well as from "forum," a market-place.

The once great fair of Stourbridge at Cambridge was actually the largest in England, and is claimed by historians to have been larger than that of Nijni Novgorod itself. The origin of it, wrapped in the mists of antiquity, is explained with more or less convincing detail in a legend which tells us how it arose. A company of Westmorland cloth-dealers, being overtaken by a storm on the outskirts of Cambridge, nearly lost their goods in the waters of the rivers Cam and Stour, which here join on the Newmarket road outside Cambridge. Those Kendal clothiers, so we are told, fished out their bales and spread their goods out to dry on Stourbridge Common. So many of the townsfolk came to see and to buy that all the stock speedily was sold, and the clothiers returned to Kendal without having visited Norwich at all, whither they had been bound.

Where these traders had found such unexpectedly good business, those of other trades followed, and thus, according to the story, arose Stourbridge Fair. But against this there is the obvious criticism to be made that the cloth-making trade was of far later date than the ancient origin of this fair, which was a great and important gathering of many trades even so far back as the reign of King John, who in 1211 endowed with its tolls the Lepers' Hospital of Barnwell, hard by, that hospital whose Norman chapel still remains. The hospital owned twenty-four and a half acres of land here, on which the fair was held.

It would seem that the townsfolk of Cambridge must have founded the hospital for lepers, for the town always claimed certain rights; while, on the other hand, from early times the University had the right of annually proclaiming the fair, and to its officers fell the duty of testing all the weights and measures used at it, and of viewing all goods, and of regulating and, if necessary, of punishing persons resorting here.

The laws regulating the prices of foodstuffs and their quality were very strict, and proclamation or "Crying the Fair," in the practice laid down by the Chancellor of the University, was a very lengthy matter. Long and bitter were the disputes between the town and the University as to their respective rights over the fair. These at last were ended in 1855, the last occasion on which Stourbridge Fair was proclaimed by the University authorities. The mayor of Cambridge in after years performed the ceremony. This was a three weeks' fair, from S. Bartholomew's Day (old style), September 6. In former times this annual fair-ground was agricultural land, often under corn.

The booths of Stourbridge Fair were built in orderly streets, each to its distinctive trade. Every imaginable article of commerce was sold. Garlick Row, Cook Row, Booksellers' Row and many more such were to be found, while in the drapers' section, called the "Duddery," it was said that over £100,000 worth of woollens had been sold in less than a week's time, beside the prodigious trade done by the wholesale tailors from London and from other parts up and down the length of England.

Here, as at most of the considerable fairs, was held a daily court of justice, dealing solely with cases arising out of the business of the fair, or with misdemeanours committed at it. This court of summary jurisdiction was the "Court of Pie Powder," an odd designation which hid within it a Norman-French origin, as a court of "Pieds Poudreux"; literally the "Court of Dusty Feet," in allusion to the itinerant character of most of the fair's frequenters. It may be mentioned that in old French "Pieds Puldreaux" was a nickname for pedlars.

It was Stourbridge Fair that Bunyan had in mind when writing of "Vanity Fair" in "Pilgrim's Progress." As a native of Bedfordshire, not so far removed from these scenes, he must have been familiar with them. To-day the glory of Stourbridge Fair has departed, and the horse fair is almost its only vestige.

At such great commercial gatherings as this not all the goods were honest value for money. In the fifteenth century the manufacturers and merchants of London and other towns sought to send representatives to examine goods at the fairs and to seize and impound such as were faulty to the discredit of the several guilds. But there was more in it than that: for London and other great trading places were jealous of the business done at fairs; and they sought from time to time to restrict their trading. One of these pleas was that goods left unsold at fairs were conveyed away and sold all over the country for what they would fetch: to the hurt and loss of manufacturers. The complaint has a certain modern echo about it.

Sheep fair at Weyhill - click for enlargement, and see also below for original caption with more information. The largest fair now in England is that of Weyhill. Once a six-days' annual market, it is now reduced to four. It is held annually between October 10 and 13. Weyhill Fair, in common with nearly all others, is an ancient institution, and is alike old enough and famous enough to find mention in Langlande's poem. "The Vision of Piers Plowman," written about 1326, in which occurs the line:

At Wy and at Wynchestre I went to ye fair.

By "Wy" he meant Weyhill, which is a hamlet in the parish of Penton Grafton, three miles north-west of Andover. Weyhill Fair, of course, was a hoary antiquity even when Langlande thus mentioned it. It is a singular place, this Weyhill, situated on the old road through Andover to Amesbury, Stonehenge and the West.

Coming upon it, you do not receive the impression of being on a hill, although the situation is an elevated one—part of a lofty plateau rather than a hill. And coming upon the place at any other than fair-time, and knowing perhaps nothing about it, you have the impression of a hopelessly derelict assemblage of forlorn and deserted huts and sheds. These are the several groups of permanent sheds used only for the purposes of the fair, which is divided into the sheep, horse, hops, cheese, and statute for hiring, and pleasure fairs.

On each of the fair-days the road from Andover is thronged with wayfarers and conveyances; not, perhaps, so very different from the throng which was present when in 1829 Michael Henchard sold his wife, as recounted by Thomas Hardy in the opening pages of his novel, "The Mayor of Casterbridge." Even then Weyhill Fair was described as decaying: "Pulling down's more the nater of Weydon than building up."

But the country folk will not willingly let Weyhill Fair die. The first day is that of the sheep fair, at which so many as 150,000 sheep are known to have been sold. The horse fair is an every-day matter. The second day is, or was, known as Mop Fair, or Molls and Johns Day: otherwise the statute or hiring fair. This has suffered much change from those times when at twelve midday, as a matter of course, farm-servants, men and women, the "Molls and Johns" aforesaid, left their employ and, drawing their wages, offered themselves to be hired for the coming twelvemonth. They stood in long lines, the carters with a piece of plaited whipcord in their hats, the shepherds with a lock of wool, and the maids after their sort; and waited while the farmers came and bargained with them.

When an agreement was struck up, the men proceeded to fix coloured ribbons in their hats and did their best to have a merry time with the wages just paid. That old hiring pageant is of the past, but the merry time still goes forward. All the proverbial "fun of the fair" is to be had, as ever. The rustics used to patronise a tailor's stall, bespeak a suit of clothes, wear it the year, and pay for it next fair.

The cheese fair is smaller than of yore, being devoted largely to kinds of cheese the Londoner and dweller in great towns has probably never heard of: the Blackmore from Wiltshire, and Blue Vinney from Dorset, greatly delighted in by the West of England people. The hop fair is held on the last day. There are two separate and distinct hop markets; the Farnham Row and the Country Side. Here hops from Farnham, Bentley, Petersfield, Liphook and other places find a ready sale; but are now dealt in almost exclusively by sample, and so only a few of the plethoric tightly-packed hop-pockets are on the ground. But many thousands of pounds of hops are marketed, all the same.

The fair at Winchester referred to in "Piers Plowman" was S. Giles's Fair, held on S. Giles's Day, September 12, and following days. This great gathering of merchants and buyers, rivalled in the whole of Europe only by our own Stourbridge Fair and by the fairs of Nijni Novgorod in Russia and Beaucaire in France, was founded by licence granted to Bishop Walkelin by William the Conqueror. S. Giles's Hill, the scene of it, is that lofty hill on the downs at the east of Winchester. Streets of booths occupied the hilltop, and were occupied by the foreign traders to whom the English market strongly appealed. It must be borne in mind that not until the era of Queen Elizabeth did England begin to be a manufacturing country. Hence the Flemings, the Genoese and the French had their special streets at the fair. Here were the streets of the drapers, the potters, the spicers, and so forth. The rights of S. Giles's Fair were jealously guarded, for the tolls taken by the Bishop of Winchester were an appreciable part of his revenues. Thus during fair-time all business was prohibited at Southampton and at every place within seven leagues of Winchester.

For centuries S. Giles's Fair had carefully to be guarded and the country round about patrolled, to protect traders from the bandits who sought to rob and murder them. Among the many foreigners who attended the fair and thence pervaded the country generally were some who formed themselves into a guild—the "Schola dei Schiavoni," or Guild of Slavonians. Their business was so great that about 1491 they purchased a vault in the church of North Stoneham, between Winchester and Southampton, where they might inter any of their guild who should chance to die in England. The need for their vault soon arose, for in 1499 highwaymen attacked their trade convoy between Southampton and Winchester and killed two of their number. On the chancel floor of North Stoneham church may still be seen the elaborate armorial stone covering the vault.

The fair held on Woodbury Hill above the village of Bere Regis, in Dorset, is now a small matter, but at one time lasted a week. It begins on September 18. Formerly great numbers of sheep were sold here, and the tolls paid to the Lord of the Manor came to some £700. Nowadays this income is a very negligible quantity. Readers of Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd" will have vivid memories of his description of the fair at "Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill."

St Giles Fair at Oxford - click for enlargement, and see also below for original caption with more information.

S. Giles's Fair, Oxford, held for two days early in September, is another survival; while Bridgwater has a horse fair on the last Wednesday in June and a horse, cattle and sheep fair on the last Wednesday in September, followed by a two-days' pleasure fair.

Nottingham Goose Fair is one of the hardy survivals. It is not of any high antiquity, for the earliest mention of it is in 1541. For long years this great Goose Fair, held in October, lasted fifteen days; but it is now a three-days' affair; nor are geese any longer marketed at it. It is a pleasure fair, and a noisy time of misrule at that. Most of the steam organs and roundabouts in the country would seem to attend it and used to make of the great market place a pandemonium.

Goose Fair at Nottingham - click for enlargement, and see also below for original caption with more information.

Opening of the Mitcham Fair - click for enlargement, and see also below for original caption with more information. Londoners of to-day have but few notable fairs in their surroundings apart from the Mitcham Fair, which is a three days' fair held annually on August 12 to 14, and has been threatened with being suppressed, under the Act of 1871; but it is still enjoying a respite because of representations made, showing that the suppression of it would be a great hardship to the stallholders and proprietors of circuses and amusements accustomed from time immemorial to resort to Mitcham Green for the historical occasion.

Stratford Mop Fair - click for enlargement, and see also below for original caption with more information. If to-day we allow that fairs, generally, are unnecessary survivals and that they are perhaps vulgar, we have conceded enough. Some find alike pleasure and profit in a fair; while others consider it to be an unmitigated nuisance. As a sheer matter of taste, for example, Stratford Mop Fair, held in the streets of Shakespeare's town, is an offence to people of delicate sensibilities, for a feature of it is the roasting of an ox, whole, in the street. It is an old English custom, but it is revolting to most people to-day — and the cookery is somewhat barbaric.

In this connexion we may turn to an ancient fair still held on the outskirts of London.

Gypsy family at Barnet Fair - click for enlargement, and see also below for original caption with more information.
Barnet Fair lasts three days, beginning on the first Monday in September. It is not looked upon favourably by the residents of the neighbourhood, but local opinion is sharply divided. The residents want peace and quiet, which the fair effectually abolishes; but the tradesfolk want trade. A vestry meeting at Barnet so long ago as 1888 passed a resolution that as the fair brought more than 20,000 people into the district, and was the means of some £10,000 to £12,000 being spent annually, it would be a great hardship to the commercial classes in Barnet if it were abolished.

Barnet Horse Fair - click for enlargement, and see also below for original caption with more information. The fair ground at Barnet is not of great size, and was to great degree spoiled by the making of Telford's new road approach to the town from London, about 1825. Barnet is a horse and pleasure fair of very Cockney or Hampstead Heath holiday kind, full of typical London rough jollity. But the business in the sale and purchase of horses is still very considerable. Here are an astonishing number and variety of horses. Irish horses, Welsh ponies, Scotch horses, cart horses of the Suffolk Punch type and New Forest ponies. Young cart horses look proud, with their manes and tails plaited in straw.

The very pick of the horses does not, however, reach Barnet at all; but is snapped up by knowing buyers on the roads, for many of these horses come by road from very long distances.

18th century illustration of St Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield, London - click for enlargement, and see also below for original caption with more information. S. Bartholomew's, popularly "Bartlemy," Fair, held for more than seven centuries in Smithfield, London, was a famous gathering; so famous and with so long a story that it has had a history written and published to itself. This great fourteen days' fair was, so far back as 1708, reduced by the City of London Court of Common Council to three days. But "hardship" was pleaded, and in 1739 the fair was extended to four days; and in the following year the Prince of Wales visited "Bartlemy," giving it an increased lease of life. Theatrical shows were then, and for long after, a feature; and the "stars" of Drury Lane Theatre did not consider it beneath their dignity to act in booths at "Bartlemy," and licences were granted for three and even four weeks.

Again, in 1798, the City sought to restrict this fair, and proposed to reduce it to one day; but the scheme was abandoned for fear of a riot.

The proprietary rights in S. Bartholomew's Fair at this time belonged to the Corporation of the City of London and to Lord Kensington. The City was prepared, if the fair were abolished, to forfeit its revenue from tolls and licences; but up to that time Lord Kensington had refused. The Corporation at length purchased his rights, and in 1843 prohibited the assemblage of shows of any kind in Smithfield.

At the same time a new site was found for the fair, in Britannia Fields, Hoxton, close by the Britannia Theatre. But fairs, like markets, are growths that seldom bear transplanting; and the new Bartholomew Fair languished and died. Indeed, although for the country fair there may yet be some reason, fairs in towns have no excuse, and many such have been abolished; notably the ancient fair of Manchester, which lasted three days. It was ended in 1876.

Original captions for the photographs (in the order in which they appear in the article above) were as follows:

The right to hold a fair – which has to be obtained by royal warrant or by Act of Parliament — was granted once in twenty years to Corby, Northamptonshire, by Queen Elizabeth I. The story goes that she lost herself in a fog in the royal deer forest of Rockingham, and that, being rescued by the people of Corby, she gave them the privilege in gratitude.

The sheep fair at Weyhill, near Andover, Hants, once one of the biggest fairs in England.

Oxford has its S. Giles's Fair on the first Monday and Tuesday following the first Sunday in September, except when the Feast Day of the Saint happens to fall on a Monday, when the fair is held one week later. The appearance of stalls outside the front of Balliol seems most unacademic, while steam roundabouts do not harmonise with the Martyrs' Memorial. However, the fair is over several weeks before the end of the University vacation, so that the noise of mechanical organs does not intrude upon the pursuit of scholarship.

Nottingham Goose Fair:
For 400 years the fair at Nottingham has been called the Goose Fair. Once the birds were largely bred in the neighbourhood. The fair was founded under a charter from Edward I, and lasted a fortnight. Now it is curtailed to three days in October. In 1928 it was decided to remove the site of the fair from the market-place to the Noel Street side of the Forest, since the permanent market was being moved in favour of an open square in front of the new city hall.

One of the oldest fairs in England takes place every year at Mitcham, formerly a Surrey village famous for its cricket, but now a suburb of London. The Showmen's Guild possesses a Charter which is claimed to have been presented to them for the holding of the fair by Queen Elizabeth I on the petition of Sir Walter Raleigh, who once lived at Mitcham. The Charter was produced when the Urban Council decided to move the fair ground from the village, where it was impeding the traffic, to its present site on the common. The change has made the fair more prosperous than ever. The Showmen's Charter contains the hope that "the blessings of God may be showered on the innocent recreations held within the confines of the Fair."

October sees Stratford's Mop Fair in full swing in the midst of the town whose old houses have looked down, some of them, on four hundred of these festivals. A feature of the Mop Fair as old as the houses is the roasting of oxen and pigs whole in the street — a rather grisly business to those unaccustomed to such sights and scents.

Barnet Fair (1):
All sorts of folk can be seen among the caravans, booths and roundabouts when Barnet Fair is in full swing. Here is a gypsy family doing their own laundering in the midst of the great camp which is formed here for a few days annually.

Barnet Fair (2):
Barnet Fair is held at the bottom of the hill on which stands the ancient town of High or Chipping Barnet, which gets its second name from the fact that the right to hold a market ("Chipping" has the same derivation as Cheapside: Anglo-Saxon "ceap", a bargain) here was given to the abbot of St. Albans by Henry II. As long ago as 1888 it was estimated that the fair brought an extra 20,000 people into the locality, and the horses sold at the fair come from places as far apart as Scotland, Ireland and the New Forest. Many of the animals are, however, bought by dealers while still on the way to the fair, for a great number come long distances by road. All the usual side shows are to be found. In the background are the sidings of High Barnet station.

St. Bartholomew's Fair:
In the eighteenth century, when this picture was made, the great fair of "Bartlemy" was an annual custom for the City, just as the May Fair was in the West End. In 1708 the Corporation reduced the fair from fourteen to three days, although in 1739 an extra day was granted. The proprietary rights belonged jointly to the Corporation and the lord of the manor of Kensington. When the latter at last consented to sell his rights, the Corporation forbade the fair in 1843. Notice a roundabout on the left, with sedan chairs to ride in.


National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield
A very extensive site with a wealth of information, articles and links.

Unfortunately the valuable Circus, Theatre and Music Hall Families site, which included material on travelling showmen, appears to be no more; but you may find helpful information at the Romany & Traveller Family History Society site which also has a useful links page.

Wonderful Britain - more transcripts to come!

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