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With dictionary look up. Double click on any word for its definition. This section is in advanced English and is only intended to be a guide, not to be taken too seriously!

Fairs in the UK

One of the most famous fairs in England is Widdecombe Fair. In literature, the name appears in one of the most well-known English rhymes; Widdecombe Fair. The fair is held in Devon annually and is possibly all the more popular because of the song Widdicombe Fair, a short extract goes…

Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare, All along, down along, out along lee, For I want to go to Widdicombe Fair, Wi’ Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk, old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all, Old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.

The rhyme dates from before 1850, and church records show that ‘Cobbley, Stuer, Davy and Hawke’ shared the same place of birth at Crediton parish and were very likely friends. Peter Gurney was also most probably a friend and the rhyme tells the story of an old mare of Tom Pearce going with these friends to the fair and Pearce anxiously awaiting her return, but never to see her again. The old mare returns as a ghost ‘rattling bones’. The only significance attached to the rhyme is that Cobley was a wealthy man who was not quite sure who should inherit his fortune and only after many drafting of the will eventually made up his mind and then lived to be 96 years old! Harrowen, Jean Origins of Rhymes, Songs and Sayings.

Another famous fair is Scarborough Fair, made famous by the song from Simon and Garfunkel. In the late Middle Ages the seaside town of Scarborough was an important venue for tradesmen from all over England. It hosted a huge 45-day trading event, which started on August 15. It was an exceptionally long time even in those times. Merchants visited from all over England, and even as far away as Norway, Denmark, the Baltic states and the Byzantine Empire, bringing wine, silk, jewellery, lace, glass, silver, gold, iron, timber, furs, amber, spices and dried fruits and taking back with them woollen cloth and leather, grain, foodstuffs and many craft goods. Minstrels, jugglers, dancers, and fortune-tellers came to entertain the people. It was granted a charter by King Henry III on 22 January 1253, stating “The Burgesses and their heirs forever may have a yearly fair in the Borough, to continue from the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the Feast of St Michael next following. Unfortunatley the traditional “Scarborough Fair” no longer exists, it petered out in around 1788 when it ceased to have any real commercial importance, but a number of low-key celebrations take place every September to mark the original event.

The word fair comes from the Latin feria, a holiday. Some fairs were fairly specialized events with traders dealing in wool, leather or cloth; other fairs would have a dazzling array of goods. The famous Scarborough Fair (also imortalised in song) originated in 1253 when Henry III granted Scarborough the privilege of holding a 45-day fair, from August 15 to September 29. Traders from many parts of Europe

In the 19th C, the distinction arose between a market which is held once or twice a week for selling goods and a fair which is an event largely for pleasure rather than commerce. However, there is also a distinction between fairs themselves. Many fairs can trace their origins back to charters, thus confirming that they were established for commerce. Single commodity fairs were common and the Goose Fair in Nottingham would be a place for selling more than 20,000 geese; the Dish Fair in York would specialize in the sale of small domestic ware; the Timmer Market in Aberdeen, Scotland was originally devoted to the sale of small wooden objects. One type of fair important in England from the Middle Ages up to the 19th C was the hiring fair or mop fair, which grew up to control the movement of labour after the Black Death had decimated the working population and undermined the old manorial system which had kept workers in their place for life. Labourers who wished to hire out their services for the coming year attended the nearest market town with their instruments (serving girls brought their mops!) These hiring fairs ended in the mid 19th C because of changing labour laws. However, mop fairs still exist as very popular annual pleasure fairs in several English towns, notably Stratford-upon-Avon, Tewskebury and Warwick.

Other fairs, which were for pleasure, had their origins in festivals of the Christian Church and perhaps even in pagan festivals which the Church took over. These fairs called wakes were parish celebrations held on the anniversary of the parish church or on the feast day of their patron saint and originally lasted three days – the day before, the day of and the day after the feast day. The people who would gather were a ready-made market. St. Giles Fair in Oxford is probably the largest of the wake fairs still surviving. It is a great pleasure fair which began as a parish festivity, grew to a market fair by the reign of Elizabeth I selling cloth, crockery, iron and agricultural produce and today, once again focuses on its original purpose of providing fun and entertainment.

Many of the agricultural shows held today have their origins in these fairs and there are hundreds of fairs all over the UK at this time of year. Contact a local Tourist Information Office for information on fairs and shows.