16 October 1998

Rise and fall of the English fair – backbone of medieval economy

IN the days before Britain was opened up by rapid road and rail transport, fairs were an integral part of the countrys economy.

Their origins, expansion under often dubious church and royal patronage, major seasonal events and their final degeneration and decline into bawdy funfairs, are charted in detail by David Kerr Cameron.

His text* is the stuff of turbulent history and covers the build up to massive fairs in the Middle Ages which went on for weeks .

The old drove roads along which stock were walked slowly from Scotland to St Faiths Fair in Norfolk, are charted. Cattle were then finished on East Anglian pastures before a final walk to Londons Smithfield, site of the notorious St Bartholomews Fair.

Many fairs were claimed to be the biggest and best and numbers quoted were probably apocryphal, but Stourport Fair near Cambridge, probably held pride of place for hundreds of years. Penkridge in Staffs came close and Nottingham Goose Fair, still in existence but without geese, was once a major event in the calendar.

This was an era when horses were the main source of power and transport and great horse fairs took place like Brough Hill on the high Pennines and Appleby, the latter still in existence. Howden, Yorks and Horncastle, Lincs were major fixtures which went on for weeks. The latter would sell up to 4000 horses of all types in a single day. Despite the difficulties, buyers came from all over Europe and it was not uncommon for horses to be bought in their thousands to supply Continental armies.

Those were the days when Londons roads were just as congested as they are today by up to 300,000 horses and the daily removal of manure was a major operation.

Once serious business had been transacted many fairs invariably degenerated into an orgy of drinking, vice and simmering violence. This finally led to the demise of events like the notorious Bartholemews Fair in and around Smithfield, and those on Londons outskirts including Greenwich which attracted visitors in their thousands, mainly by river boat.

Reviewers verdict: A cracking read and an excellent Christmas present which will appeal to young and old and serious students of history. HPH

*The English Fair by David Kerr Cameron, Sutton Publishing, (£25).