Wheatley Local History Group

by | 9 March 2020 | Heritage

A late change of speaker did nothing to detract from the enjoyment of their first meeting of 2020 for Wheatley Local History Group. Ann Featherstone travelled from Derbyshire to entertain members with her talk entitled ‘The Victorian Fair — Freaks and Fisticuffs’ covering the history of ‘fairs’ and the side shows with their mix of showmen. Her initial interest in the subject grew out her childhood adventures at her ‘home’ fair and looking forward to the annual Ilkeston Fair. These, often, annual events exist for a reason and many date back centuries. Ann explained they were often initially trading fairs with a follow on of entertainment, but over the years the onus altered as trade was done elsewhere and the fair remained as largely for fun and entertainment. Some were spontaneous like the Thames ‘Frost Fair’ when the river froze with two to four feet of ice which would support all the tents and man people with their horses and carts. The earliest recorded fair date was 1150, and they were regularly held into the 1650s. The last Frost Fair was in 1814 (maybe that’s when global warming began).

Her talk included a huge amount of information like the Charter Fairs, granted by the Monarch for trade from onions, to sheep, grain, and geese. Then there were the hiring fairs (see the Wheatley village lectern on Top Street) and most had specific days and places. Fairs celebrated parish boundaries, industrial holidays, northern wakes, food for Christmas and a number of other origins. She illustrated her talk with an extensive collection of slides from drawings, paintings, postcards and photographs. To name just a few: Boston May Sheep Fair, Birmingham Onion Fair, Loughborough Backend Mop Fair, Portsmouth Free Mart, Kings Norton Mop Fair, last held in 1963, and Nottingham Goose Fair. Most were big local events opened by the town mayor or village dignitary with all the regalia of maces and ceremonial swords, etc. There was even a ‘Runaway Fair’ held one week after a hiring fair which favoured the employer as he could obtain a different employee. The entertainment part, often the third day after the business had been done, was a hotbed of pickpockets, drunken and licentious behaviour to a backdrop of sideshows featuring animals and freaks, including the tallest or shortest man as well as the ugliest woman or fattest boy. Theatrical family businesses toured the fairs with their shows as well as rope walkers and boxing booths, dancing dogs as well as the flying pieman. He sold a very grey pastry coffin filled with questionable meat, and carried a jug of gravy which he poured into the top of his pies after making a hole in the pastry cover with his finger! Ann educated and amused members for over an hour with her stories and pictures.

The group’s next meeting will take place on Monday 16th March and will include their AGM followed by a talk by Bob Massey — ‘Bread and Beer; the start of farming’. The meeting will start at 10.00am and will take place at the Village Hall in South Wheatley. Visitors are always welcome to join them.