Charter Fairs - A History
The majority of fairs held in this country trace their ancestry back to charters and privileges granted in the Medieval period. In the thirteenth century, the creation of fairs by royal charter was widespread, with the Crown making every attempt to create new fairs and to bring existing ones under their jurisdiction. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the majority of English fairs had been granted charters and were reorganised to fall in line with their European counterparts. The granting of charters however did not necessarily herald the right to hold a fair: it was in effect the control of revenues for the Crown in return for the control and organisation to stay with a particular town, abbey or village. Between 1199 and 1350 over fifteen hundred charters were issued granting the rights to hold markets or fairs.
Oxford St. Giles Fair, September 1930.
However it is clear that these charters were granted to fairs that already existed. Nottingham Goose Fair was already in existence when it was granted a charter by Edward I in 1284, for a fair to be held in November. Wolverhampton, like Nottingham, was granted a charter for an already existing fair, as was Stockport in Cheshire.
Fairs could also be claimed by prescriptive right in that they were never granted a charter but were allowed to take place by the King or his representative in the borough, due to their long term establishment.
Chipping Norton Mop, 1930s.
The start of hiring fairs or mops can be traced to the fourteenth century with the passing of the Statute of Labourers in 1351 by Edward III. These Statute fairs or Mops, as they are known in the Midlands, still continued in their original purpose until the end of the nineteenth century. The description of wife-selling in The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy has as its origin an incident of wife-selling at the nearby village of Andover in 1817. However even with these hiring fairs the original purpose of the event was soon superseded by the amusement side, with over three quarters of the East Riding Hiring fairs in Yorkshire failing to survive into the twentieth century. Despite the failure of these fairs to continue in strength in the twentieth century, the Mop Fairs held in Studley, Stratford, Warwick, Burton, and Loughborough, for example, all owe their existence and continuation as fairs to the original hiring fairs of many years ago.
By the fourteenth century a network of chartered and prescriptive fairs had been established throughout England. During the eighteenth century these great fairs prospered with Bartholomew Fair, Stourbridge, St Ives, Weyhill and many others renowned throughout the country as centres of trade, commerce and entertainment. However, Thomas Frost in 1874 when writing on the history of fairs in this country prophesied that:
Fairs are becoming extinct because, with the progress of the nations, they have ceased to possess any value in its social economy, either as marts of trade or as means of popular entertainment ----------- What need then of Fairs and Shows? The Nation has outgrown them and the last showman will soon be as great a curiosity as the dodo.
The accuracy of this prediction can be seen in that more than a hundred years later, over two hundred fairs take place every weekend in the United Kingdom. Fairs still open successfully on traditional sites all over the country, with the Goose Fair at Nottingham and Hull Fair both growing in size and popularity every year.