Famous Fairs and Their Origins
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 remote 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.
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 yet 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 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.
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 northwest 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 receive 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 or 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 yet 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."
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.
Londoners of to-day have but few notable fairs in their surroundings apart from 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.
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.
Barnet Fair lasts three days, beginning on the first Monday in September. It is not looked upon with any favour 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.
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