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VANISHING FAIRS

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Cottages at Evesham
CHAPTER XVI
VANISHING FAIRS
The "oldest inhabitants" of our villages can remember many changes in the social
conditions of country life. They can remember the hard time of the Crimean war
when bread was two shillings and eightpence a gallon, when food and work were
both scarce, and starvation wages were doled out. They can remember the
"machine riots," and tumultuous scenes at election times, and scores of interesting
facts, if only you can get them to talk and tell you their recollections. The changed
condition of education puzzles them. They can most of them read, and perhaps
write a little, but they prefer to make their mark and get you to attest it with the
formula, "the mark of J----N." Their schooling was soon over. When they were
nine years of age they were ploughboys, and had a rough time with a cantankerous
ploughman who often used to ply his whip on his lad or on his horses quite
indiscriminately. They have seen many changes, and do not always "hold with"
modern notions; and one of the greatest changes they have seen is in the fairs. They
are not what they were. Some, indeed, maintain some of their usefulness, but most
of them have degenerated into a form of mild Saturnalia, if not into a scandal and a
nuisance; and for that reason have been suppressed.
Formerly quite small villages had their fairs. If you look at an old almanac you will
see a list of fair-days with the names of the villages which, when the appointed
days come round, cannot now boast of the presence of a single stall or merry-go-
round. The day of the fair was nearly always on or near the festival of the patron
saint to whom the church of that village is dedicated. There is, of course, a reason
for this. The word "fair" is derived from the Latin word feria, which means a
festival, the parish feast day. On the festival of the patron saint of a village church
crowds of neighbours from adjoining villages would flock to the place, the
inhabitants of which used to keep open house, and entertain all their relations and
friends who came from a distance. They used to make booths and tents with boughs
of trees near the church, and celebrated the festival with much thanksgiving and
prayer. By degrees they began to forget their prayers and remembered only the
feasting; country people flocked from far and near; the pedlars and hawkers came
to find a market for their wares. Their stalls began to multiply, and thus the germ of
a fair was formed.
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Stalls at Banbury Fair
In such primitive fairs the traders paid no toll or rent for their stalls, but by degrees
the right of granting permission to hold a fair was vested in the King, who for
various considerations bestowed this favour on nobles, merchant guilds, bishops, or
monasteries. Great profits arose from these gatherings. The traders had to pay toll
on all the goods which they brought to the fair, in addition to the payment of
stallage or rent for the ground on which they displayed their merchandise, and also
a charge on all the goods they sold. Moreover, the trades-folk of the town were
obliged to close their shops during the days of the fair, and to bring their goods to
the fair, so that the toll-owner might gain good profit withal.
We can imagine, or try to imagine, the roads and streets leading to the market-place
thronged with traders and chapmen, the sellers of ribbons and cakes, minstrels and
morris-dancers, smock-frocked peasants and sombre-clad monks and friars. Then a
horn was sounded, and the lord of the manor, or the bishop's bailiff, or the mayor of
the town proclaimed the fair; and then the cries of the traders, the music of the
minstrels, the jingling of the bells of the morris-dancers, filled the air and added
animation to the spectacle.
There is a curious old gateway, opposite the fair-ground at Smithfield, which has
just recently narrowly escaped destruction, and very nearly became part of the
vanished glories of England. Happily the donations of the public poured in so well
that the building was saved. This Smithfield gateway dates back to the middle of
the thirteenth century, the entrance to the Priory of St. Bartholomew, founded by
Rahere, the court jester of Henry I, a century earlier. Every one knows the story of
the building of this Priory, and has followed its extraordinary vicissitudes, the
destruction of its nave at the dissolution of monasteries, the establishment of a
fringe factory in the Lady Chapel, and the splendid and continuous work of
restoration which has been going on during the last forty years. We are thankful
that this choir of St. Bartholomew's Church should have been preserved for future
generations as an example of the earliest and most important ecclesiastical
buildings in London. But we are concerned now with this gateway, the beauty of
which is partially concealed by the neighbouring shops and dwellings that surround
it, as a poor and vulgar frame may disfigure some matchless gem of artistic
painting. Its old stones know more about fairs than do most things. It shall tell its
own history. You can still admire the work of the Early English builders, the
receding orders with exquisite mouldings and dog-tooth ornament--the hall-mark
of the early Gothic artists. It looks upon the Smithfield market, and how many
strange scenes of London history has this gateway witnessed! Under its arch
possibly stood London's first chronicler, Fitzstephen, the monk, when he saw the
famous horse fairs that took place in Smithfield every Friday, which he described
so graphically. Thither flocked earls, barons, knights, and citizens to look on or
buy. The monk admired the nags with their sleek and shining coats, smoothly
ambling along, the young blood colts not yet accustomed to the bridle, the horses
for burden, strong and stout-limbed, and the valuable chargers of elegant shape and
noble height, with nimbly moving ears, erect necks, and plump haunches. He waxes
eloquent over the races, the expert jockeys, the eager horses, the shouting crowds.
"The riders, inspired with the love of praise and the hope of victory, clap spurs to
their flying horses, lashing them with their whips, and inciting them by their
shouts"; so wrote the worthy monk Fitzstephen. He evidently loved a horse-race,
but he need not have given us the startling information, "their chief aim is to
prevent a competitor getting before them." That surely would be obvious even to a
monk. He also examined the goods of the peasants, the implements of husbandry,
swine with their long sides, cows with distended udders, Corpora magna boum,
lanigerumque pecus, mares fitted for the plough or cart, some with frolicsome colts
running by their sides. A very animated scene, which must have delighted the
young eyes of the stone arch in the days of its youth, as it did the heart of the monk.
Still gayer scenes the old gate has witnessed. Smithfield was the principal spot in
London for jousts, tournaments, and military exercises, and many a grand display
of knightly arms has taken place before this priory gate. "In 1357 great and royal
jousts were then holden in Smithfield; there being present the Kings of England,
France, and Scotland, with many other nobles and great estates of divers lands,"
writes Stow. Gay must have been the scene in the forty-eighth year of Edward III,
when Dame Alice Perrers, the King's mistress, as Lady of the Sun, rode from the
Tower of London to Smithfield accompanied by many lords and ladies, every lady
leading a lord by his horse-bridle, and there began a great joust which endured
seven days after. The lists were set in the great open space with tiers of seats
around, a great central canopy for the Queen of Beauty, the royal party, and divers
tents and pavilions for the contending knights and esquires. It was a grand
spectacle, adorned with all the pomp and magnificence of medieval chivalry.
Froissart describes with consummate detail the jousts in the fourteenth year of
Richard II, before a grand company, when sixty coursers gaily apparelled for the
jousts issued from the Tower of London ridden by esquires of honour, and then
sixty ladies of honour mounted on palfreys, each lady leading a knight with a chain
of gold, with a great number of trumpets and other instruments of music with them.
On arriving at Smithfield the ladies dismounted, the esquires led the coursers which
the knights mounted, and after their helmets were set on their heads proclamation
was made by the heralds, the jousts began, "to the great pleasure of the beholders."
But it was not all pomp and pageantry. Many and deadly were the fights fought in
front of the old gate, when men lost their lives or were borne from the field
mortally wounded, or contended for honour and life against unjust accusers. That
must have been a sorry scene in 1446, when a rascally servant, John David, accused
his master, William Catur, of treason, and had to face the wager of battle in
Smithfield. The master was well beloved, and inconsiderate friends plied him with
wine so that he was not in a condition to fight, and was slain by his servant. But
Stow reminds us that the prosperity of the wicked is frail. Not long after David was
hanged at Tyburn for felony, and the chronicler concludes: "Let such false accusers
note this for example, and look for no better end without speedy repentance." He
omits to draw any moral from the intemperance of the master and the danger of
drunkenness.
But let this suffice for the jousts in Smithfield. The old gateway heard on one
occasion strange noises in the church, Archbishop Boniface raging with oaths not
to be recited, and sounds of strife and shrieks and angry cries. This foreigner,
Archbishop of Canterbury, had dared to come with his armed retainers from
Provence to hold a visitation of the priory. The canons received him with solemn
pomp, but respectfully declined to be visited by him, as they had their own proper
visitor, a learned man, the Bishop of London, and did not care for another
inspector. Boniface lost his temper, struck the sub-prior, saying, "Indeed, doth it
become you English traitors so to answer me?" He tore in pieces the rich cope of
the sub-prior; the canons rushed to their brother's rescue and knocked the
Archbishop down; but his men fell upon the canons and beat them and trod them
under foot. The old gateway was shocked and grieved to see the reverend canons
running beneath the arch bloody and miry, rent and torn, carrying their complaint to
the Bishop and then to the King at Westminster. After which there was much
contention, and the whole city rose and would have torn the Archbishop into small
pieces, shouting, "Where is this ruffian? that cruel smiter!" and much else that must
have frightened and astonished Master Boniface and made him wish that he had
never set foot in England, but stayed quietly in peaceful Provence.
But this gateway loved to look upon the great fair that took place on the Feast of St.
Bartholomew. This was granted to Rahere the Prior and to the canons and
continued for seven centuries, until the abuses of modern days destroyed its
character and ended its career. The scene of the actual fair was within the priory
gates in the churchyard, and there during the three days of its continuance stood the
booths and standings of the clothiers and drapers of London and of all England, of
pewterers, and leather-sellers, and without in the open space before the priory were
tents and booths and a noisy crowd of traders, pleasure-seekers, friars, jesters,
tumblers, and stilt-walkers. This open space was just outside the turreted north wall
of the city, and was girt by tall elms, and near it was a sheet of water whereon the
London boys loved to skate when the frost came. It was the city playground, and
the city gallows were placed there before they were removed to Tyburn. This dread
implement of punishment stood under the elms where Cow Lane now runs: and one
fair day brave William Wallace was dragged there in chains at the tails of horses,
bruised and bleeding, and foully done to death after the cruel fashion of the age. All
this must have aged the heart of the old gateway, and especially the sad sight of the
countless burials that took place in the year of the Plague, 1349, when fifty
thousand were interred in the burial ground of the Carthusians, and few dared to
attend the fair for fear of the pestilence.
Other terrible things the gateway saw: the burning of heretics. Not infrequently did
these fires of persecution rage. One of the first of these martyrs was John Bedley, a
tailor, burnt in Smithfield in 1410. In Fox's Book of Martyrs you can see a woodcut
of the burning of Anne Ascue and others, showing a view of the Priory and the
crowd of spectators who watched the poor lady die. Not many days afterwards the
fair-folk assembled, while the ground was still black with her ashes, and dogs
danced and women tumbled and the devil jeered in the miracle play on the spot
where martyrs died.
We should need a volume to describe all the sights of this wondrous fair, the church
crowded with worshippers, the halt and sick praying for healing, the churchyard
full of traders, the sheriff proclaiming new laws, the young men bowling at
ninepins, pedlars shouting their wares, players performing the miracle play on a
movable stage, bands of pipers, lowing oxen, neighing horses, and bleating sheep.
It was a merry sight that medieval Bartholomew Fair.
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An Old English Fair
We still have Cloth Fair, a street so named, with a remarkable group of timber
houses with over-sailing storeys and picturesque gables. It is a very dark and
narrow thoroughfare, and in spite of many changes it remains a veritable "bit" of
old London, as it was in the seventeenth century. These houses have sprung up
where in olden days the merchants' booths stood for the sale of cloth. It was one of
the great annual markets of the nation, the chief cloth fair in England that had no
rival. Hither came the officials of the Merchant Tailors' Company bearing a silver
yard measure, to try the measures of the clothiers and drapers to see if they were
correct. And so each year the great fair went on, and priors and canons lived and
died and were buried in the church or beneath the grass of the churchyard. But at
length the days of the Priory were numbered, and it changed masters. The old
gateway wept to see the cowled Black Canons depart when Henry VIII dissolved
the monastery; its heart nearly broke when it heard the sounds of axes and
hammers, crowbars and saws, at work on the fabric of the church pulling down the
grand nave, and it scowled at the new owner, Sir Richard Rich, a prosperous
political adventurer, who bought the whole estate for 1064 11s. 3d., and made a
good bargain.
The monks, a colony of Black Friars, came in again with Queen Mary, but they
were driven out again when Elizabeth reigned, and Lord Rich again resumed
possession of the estate, which passed to his heirs, the Earls of Warwick and
Holland. Each Sunday, however, the old gate welcomed devout worshippers on
their way to the church, the choir having been converted into the parish church of
the district, and was not sorry to see in Charles's day a brick tower rising at the west
end.
In spite of the changes of ownership the fair went on increasing with the increase of
the city. But the scene has changed. In the time of James I the last elm tree had
gone, and rows of houses, fair and comely buildings, had sprung up. The old
muddy plain had been drained and paved, and the traders and pleasure-seekers
could no longer dread the wading through a sea of mud. We should like to follow
the fair through the centuries, and see the sights and shows. The puppet shows were
always attractive, and the wild beasts, the first animal ever exhibited being "a large
and beautiful young camel from Grand Cairo in Egypt. This creature is twenty-
three years old, his head and neck like those of a deer." One Flockton during the
last half of the eighteenth century was the prince of puppet showmen, and he called
his puppets the Italian Fantocinni. He made his figures work in a most lifelike style.
He was a conjurer too, and the inventor of a wonderful clock which showed nine
hundred figures at work upon a variety of trades. "Punch and Judy" always
attracted crowds, and we notice the handbills of Mr. Robinson, conjurer to the
Queen, and of Mr. Lane, who sings:
It will make you to laugh, it will drive away gloom,
To see how the eggs will dance round the room;
And from another egg a bird there will fly,
Which makes all the company all for to cry, etc.
The booths for actors were a notable feature of the fair. We read of Fielding's booth
at the George Inn, of the performance of the Beggar's Opera in 1728, of
Penkethman's theatrical booth when Wat Taylor and Jack Straw was acted, of the
new opera called The Generous Free Mason or the Constant Lady, of Jephthah's
Rash Vow, and countless other plays that saw the light at Bartholomew Fair. The
audience included not only the usual frequenters of fairs, but even royal visitors,
noblemen, and great ladies flocked to the booths for amusement, and during its
continuance the playhouses of London were closed.
I must not omit to mention the other attractions, the fireproof lady, Madam
Giradelli, who put melted lead in her mouth, passed red-hot iron over her body,
thrust her arm into fire, and washed her hands in boiling oil; Mr. Simon Paap, the
Dutch dwarf, twenty-eight inches high; bear-dancing, the learned pig, the "beautiful
spotted negro boy," peep-shows, Wombell's royal menagerie, the learned cats, and
a female child with two perfect heads.
But it is time to ring down the curtain. The last days of the fair were not edifying.
Scenes of riot and debauch, of violence and lawlessness disgraced the assembly. Its
usefulness as a gathering for trade purposes had passed away. It became a nuisance
and a disgrace to London. In older days the Lord Mayor used to ride in his grand
coach to our old gateway, and there proclaim it with a great flourish of trumpets. In
1850 his worship walked quietly to the accustomed place, and found that there was
no fair to proclaim, and five years later the formality was entirely dispensed with,
and silence reigned over the historic ground over which century after century the
hearts of our forefathers throbbed with the outspoken joys of life. The old gateway,
like many aged folk, has much on which to meditate in its advanced age.
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An Ancient Maker of Nets in a Kentish Fair
Many other fairs have been suppressed in recent years, but some survive and thrive
with even greater vigour than ever. Some are hiring fairs, where you may see young
men with whipcord in their caps standing in front of inns ready to be hired by the
farmers who come to seek labourers. Women and girls too come to be hired, but
their number decreases every year. Such is the Abingdon fair, which no rustic in the
adjoining villages ever thinks of missing. We believe that the Nottingham Goose
Fair, which is attended by very large crowds, is also a hiring fair. "Pleasure fairs" in
several towns and cities show no sign of diminished popularity. The famous St.
Giles's Fair at Oxford is attended by thousands, and excursion trains from London,
Cardiff, Reading, and other large towns bring crowds to join in the humours of the
gathering, the shows covering all the broad space between St. Giles's Church and
George Street. Reading Michaelmas Pleasure Fair is always a great attraction. The
fair-ground is filled from end to end with roundabouts driven by steam, which also
plays a hideous organ that grinds out popular tunes, swings, stalls, shows,
menageries, and all "the fun of the fair." You can see biographs, hear phonographs,
and a penny-in-the-slot will introduce you to wonderful sights, and have your
fortune told, or shy at coco-nuts or Aunt Sally, or witness displays of boxing, or
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have a photograph taken of yourself, or watch weird melodramas, and all for a
penny or two. No wonder the fair is popular.
Outside The "Lamb Inn". Burford, Oxon
There is no reverence paid in these modern gatherings to old-fashioned ways and
ancient picturesque customs, but in some places these are still observed with
punctilious exactness. The quaint custom of "proclaiming the fair" at Honiton, in
Devonshire, is observed every year, the town having obtained the grant of a fair
from the lord of the manor so long ago as 1257. The fair still retains some of the
picturesque characteristics of bygone days. The town crier, dressed in old-world
uniform, and carrying a pole decorated with gay flowers and surmounted by a large
gilt model of a gloved hand, publicly announces the opening of the fair as follows:
"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! The fair's begun, the glove is up. No man can be arrested till
the glove is taken down." Hot coins are then thrown amongst the children. The pole
and glove remain displayed until the end of the fair.
Nor have all the practical uses of fairs vanished. On the Berkshire downs is the
little village of West Ilsley; there from time immemorial great sheep fairs are held,
and flocks are brought thither from districts far and wide. Every year herds of
Welsh ponies congregate at Blackwater, in Hampshire, driven thither by inveterate
custom. Every year in an open field near Cambridge the once great Stourbridge fair
is held, first granted by King John to the Hospital for Lepers, and formerly
proclaimed with great state by the Vice-Chancellor of the University and the Mayor
of Cambridge. This was one of the largest fairs in Europe. Merchants of all nations
attended it. The booths were planted in a cornfield, and the circuit of the fair, which
was like a well-governed city, was about three miles. All offences committed
therein were tried, as at other fairs, before a special court of pie-poudre, the
derivation of which word has been much disputed, and I shall not attempt to
conjecture or to decide. The shops were built in rows, having each a name, such as
Garlick Row, Booksellers' Row, or Cooks' Row; there were the cheese fair, hop
fair, wood fair; every trade was represented, and there were taverns, eating-houses,
and in later years playhouses of various descriptions. As late as the eighteenth
century it is said that one hundred thousand pounds' worth of woollen goods were
sold in a week in one row alone. But the glories of Stourbridge fair have all
departed, and it is only a ghost now of its former greatness.
The Stow Green pleasure fair, in Lincolnshire, which has been held annually for
upwards of eight hundred years, having been established in the reign of Henry III,
has practically ceased to exist. Held on an isolated common two miles from
Billingborough, it was formerly one of the largest fairs in England for merchandise,
and originally lasted for three weeks. Now it is limited to two days, and when it
opened last year there were but few attractions.
Fairs have enriched our language with at least one word. There is a fair at Ely
founded in connexion with the abbey built by St. Etheldreda, and at this fair a
famous "fairing" was "St. Audrey's laces." St. Audrey, or Etheldreda, in the days of
her youthful vanity was very fond of wearing necklaces and jewels. "St. Audrey's
laces" became corrupted into "Tawdry laces"; hence the adjective has come to be
applied to all cheap and showy pieces of female ornament.
Trade now finds its way by means of other channels than fairs. Railways and
telegrams have changed the old methods of conducting the commerce of the
country. But, as we have said, many fairs have contrived to survive, and unless they
degenerate into a scandal and a nuisance it is well that they should be continued.
Education and the increasing sobriety of the nation may deprive them of their more
objectionable features, and it would be a pity to prevent the rustic from having
some amusements which do not often fall to his lot, and to forbid him from
enjoying once a year "all the fun of the fair."