“This is the time of the year when St Margarets empties out and turns into a ghost town…”
Overheard at the St Margarets Fair – Saturday 11th July 2015
The speaker was right. Over the next few weeks St Margarets will turn into a ghost town. Parking will be easier, trains less crowded and our streets empty with most of the school children away on their holidays — unless of course you live in Surrey where the schools don’t break up until the 21st July. This is summer and a time for frivolity, fun and fairs.
There have been at least four major neighbourhood fairs in the district over the last week or two. First the Twickenham Green Fair on the 5th July, then the St Margarets and Barnes Fairs on the 11th and then the Strawberry Hill Music and Fun Day on the 12th. The mix is usually the same… bouncy castles, food stalls, bric-a-brac and live music. The St Margarets Fair — always a pace setter — even had a Dog Show, a Karate demonstration and a Soap Box Derby. The sun shines some of the time and people enjoy themselves most of the time and communities bind themselves together to raise money for charity — but it wasn’t always so.
The earliest fairs were simple gatherings of people coming together to trade livestock, farm produce and made goods like baskets, clothes, tools and cooking utensils. Over the years the fairs grew in size, regularity and importance and before long they were being used for other uses.
HIRING and ‘MOP’ FAIRS
These where annual events in many market towns in England and Wales and usually took place on Martinmas Day, 11th November. They date from the time of Edward III and the introduction of the Statute of Labourers in 1351. This was an attempt to regulate the labour market following the Black Death and the resulting national labour shortage. Job seekers would stand in a line for inspection by possible employers. They would often carry a token to indicate their particular calling. A shepherd might wear a tuft of wool; a milk maid might carry a milking stool and a servant a mop. 700 years on and ‘Mop’ and Hiring Fairs still take place across England in places like Stratford upon Avon, Tewkesbury, Daventry and Evesham.
Held at Michaelmas, towards the end of September, for the marketing of geese. The most important of the Goose Fairs is still takes place in Nottingham, although no geese are sold there now. Founded just after 1284, when the Charter of King Edward I referred to city fairs in Nottingham, many of the geese on sale at the fair were walked to Nottingham the 40 miles or so from Lincolnshire. To make it easier for the geese the drovers would protect their feet by dipping them into hot tar or a grease and sand mixture. There is a Goosey Fair held in Tavistock at the end of September and apparently goose lunches are still sold.
Tes jist a month cum Vriday nex' Bill Champernown an' me Us druv a-crost ole Dartymoor Th' Goozey Fair to zee.e
Traditional Goosey Fair Song
British folklore suggests that Michaelmas day is the last day that blackberries can be picked. It is said that when St Michael expelled Satan from heaven he landed in a blackberry bush. Satan cursed the fruit, stamping and spitting on them so that they would be unfit for eating. As it was considered ill-advised to eat them after September 29th, a Michaelmas pie was made from the last pick of the season.
Many medieval Fairs have either gone or evolved. One of the most famous was the Bartholomew Fair held on St Bartholomew’s Day, in August, at Smithfield in London. The Fair started in 1133 and continued until 1855 when it changed its name and location to become the Caledonian Market now held in Bermondsey. Known for the sale of cloth and livestock the Bartholomew Fair was famous as a centre of London social life. One of the most popular attractions was a whole roasted pig, cut up and served piping hot. This lead to the expression “Bartholomew Pig” used to describe a very fat person, as when Dolly Tearsheet insulted Falstaff…
“Thou whoreson little tidy Bartholomew boar-pig!”
Shakespeare – Henry IV, Pr 11
Another fair that has disappeared is the Donnybrook Fair held in August in a village to the south east of Dublin. Running from the early 1200’s to 1855 the Donnybrook Fair had a reputation for drunkenness, fighting and riotous behaviour. Its name has now entered the dictionary with the definition… “an inordinately wild fight or contentious dispute; brawl; free-for-all.”
Fortunately none of our own neighbourhood fairs have such a reputation, although the occasional overly-refreshed merrymaker can still be seen wobbling his way home through the crowd. Like him I too will be wobbling off for a few weeks so let me leave you with a wish for warm weather, good company and some time to spare…
So it's come then, Young folks and old, To the fair in the Pride of the morning, So lock up your house, There'll be plenty of fun, And it's heigh-ho! Come to the fair!
Easthope Martin and Helen Taylor, “Come to the Fair” (1917)
‘Come To The Fair’ (Taylor-Martin)
By Ella Logan, orchestra accompanied by Perry Botkin, recorded exactly 77 years ago – July 17, 1938
— from Martyn Day