Abingdon Fair Past and Present

After we missed out on it last year, we could enjoy the fair again this year, filling the Market Place and stretching all the way down Ock Street. Today the Runaway Fair is on, and this gives us the opportunity to look back on the fair(s) of Abingdon in history. One of our team members has contributed her personal memories of the fair as well.

But first, a bit of history. In the Middle Ages and later, there were several fairs throughout the year, usually linked to saints’ days, and the early October fair was the Michaelmas Fair. This had long been a hiring fair, an occasion were employers seeking staff and workers seeking positions could come together and make a deal. Farmers in particular sought workers at the fair, but the money one could earn varied with the market conditions and supply and demand. In 1805, for example, Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported that dairy maids “were hired at very low wages, owing to the reduced price of cheese”. Taskers on the other hand – day labourers hired particularly for reaping and threshing – “went off briskly, and at high prices, the farmers being in a hurry to get their corn thrashed out for market”.

Those seeking employment would often wear an emblem symbolizing their trade on their hat or clothes, perhaps a small hank of wool if you were a sheep shearer, for example. These emblems were also known as “mops”, and the hiring fair as “mop fair”. (This is where the Chippy Mop, mentioned below, gets its name – it was the Chipping Norton hiring fair.)

Engraving of Abingdon’s hiring fair. The man with the beard and the little notebook is looking for employees, while the people on the left are seeking work. The man in uniform (centre right), whose medals are being admired, might be recruiting for the army. (From the museum collection.)

The Runaway Fair was connected to the Hiring Fair, and held in the following week. This was an extra one-day fair, at which those who had found the employment they had entered into at the Hiring Fair not to their liking, could find a new employer without punishment for leaving their job. Any agreement entered into at the Runaway Fair, though, had to be honoured until the next Hiring Fair.

Today no-one comes to the fair trying to find a new employer. It’s all about the fun, the lights and the music, and the food. The various fairs of Abingdon were conceived as trading fairs, or the Hiring Fair, but fun was added early on. Samuel Pepys, who visited Abingdon in 1668 at the time of St Edmund’s Fair, writes in his diary of “some pretty good musick” and that he “sang and danced until supper”. At the 1805 Michaelmas Fair, the entertainment ranged from a menagerie of wild beasts, a performing troop of equestrians and German musicians to the “Grand Turk’s Palace”, the Pentonville Organ, the Little Strong Woman and the Learned Little Horse.

The Galloping Horses at Abingdon Fair in 1934 – steam powered!

Despite all the fun, though, visiting the fair could be a dangerous business. During such an exceptional time it was more difficult to uphold law and order than usual.

In the past there was no police force as we know it today, and it fell to the constables and their helpers to keep the peace. Two constables were appointed by the parish. They were assisted by tithing-men, who were provided by each ward. These were in effect deputy constables. Much of their duty consisted of the pursuit of vagrants, who were expelled from the parish if caught. Sometimes though they were given money to help them on their way. During fairs, the constables and tithing-men kept a particularly sharp look-out for these vagrants. Since a lot of people would be travelling into the town to conduct their business legitimately, it might have seemed easy enough for others to mingle with them and try their luck.

Someone is having their purse stolen while watching a conjuring trick. Painting by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch.

Pick-pocketing was rife, and the victims appear to have been people visiting from the countryside, who were unprepared for such criminal activity. People like the countryman, who had 3 pounds stolen from him, or the farmer, who was relieved of his pocket book, both reported in the newspaper. It wasn’t just pick-pocketing either, for example in 1777 a horse was stolen during St Edmund’s Fair. Sometimes people were cheated when conducting their business at the fair. There were much worse things that could happen to you as well. At the 1781 Michaelmas Fair a person was killed by a stone falling from the top of the Market House (i.e. the County Hall). In 1767 a pedlar by the name of David Chartres was found murdered in a ditch near Nuneham. He had been on his way home from the fair. The death of a man found drowned in a ditch near Milton after the Michaelmas Fair of 1816 was probably accidental though.

Violence could also erupt during disagreements between traders.

Such thefts, frauds and assaults during a fair had to be dealt with quickly, before the fair moved on to its next destination. For that purpose a special court was established, the court of pie-powder. The name is derived from the French “pieds poudres”, dusty feet – referring to the feet of the travellers on dusty roads. The courts of pie-powder existed from the Middle Ages well into the 20th century. Proceedings were held in front of the mayor and bailiffs, with the plaintiffs making their case first and the defendants countering it with evidence of their own. Usual punishments would be fines or a time in the stocks or pillory. In Abingdon, these proceedings were held in the County Hall, conveniently situated in the centre of the town, right where the fairs and markets took place. Punishment swiftly followed the judgement, since the stocks, pillory and a cage were situated right outside the County Hall. You can see the stocks on display at the museum. The courts of pie-powder were officially abolished with the Administration of Justice Act 1977, but in practice they hadn’t been active since the 19th century.

Such is the long history of the fair (or fairs) in Abingdon, and many residents will have their own memories of going there. Here is Museum Assistant Shirley Buckle with her memories and impressions of going to the fair:

I have always enjoyed going to funfairs.  In Oxfordshire we are lucky enough to have several and over the years I have had many hours of enjoyment.

As a child I would look forward to going to the fair every year with my family.  We would go to St. Giles fair, Witney Feast, Chippy Mop and Banbury Michaelmas Fair.  Growing up as a teenager I would go with friends and enjoy the bright lights and music blaring so loudly from the speakers.

When I moved to Abingdon in the early 80’s I had heard so much about the Abingdon fair, and when the fair arrived I was not disappointed.  I realised there was something very special about this fair. 

The fair arrives in Abingdon in October every year.  It is the largest street fair in Europe and runs a mile down the length of High Street from the Market Place and down to Ock Street. The Fair is usually set up on a Sunday morning and leaves early on Wednesday morning.  The Fair disappears as quickly as it arrives ready to go onto the next location.  This is followed by the Runaway Fair held a week later held in Market Place and High Street.  This is a much smaller fair mainly for children.

The Galloping Horses in 2021. Photo by Elin Bornemann.

It transforms the town centre with a host of traditional rides, games and food stalls.  It brings people from different areas into the town to enjoy and experience the fair.

It always takes ages to get from one end of the fair to the other and there is always someone I know who wants to stop and chat!  It is a very enjoyable walk and you don’t realise how far you have walked until the return journey.

The Waltzers, Dodgems, Fun House, Helter Skelter, Mission Space ride, Sky Fly ride, Swing Roundabout, Galloping horses, Shooting Galleries, Hook a Duck stalls, cuddly toys, amusements – the list is endless.  Popcorn, candy floss, toffee apples, doughnuts, burgers, fish and chips are just a few things to eat and enjoy, and always taste so good outside eating them as you go along exploring.

The atmosphere is great – people just wandering around, the feel and vibration of the music, the sights and sounds of people enjoying themselves.  People sitting on walls eating their takeaway food and having a drink outside the pub.

I will continue to visit and enjoy the Fair year after year – long may it continue.

Elin Bornemann and Shirley Buckle

Featured image: The Meteorite, in sleep mode during the day. Taken in 2021 by Elin Bornemann.

The various goings-on at the Abingdon Fair in history were reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal. All the extracts relating to Abingdon were conveniently collected by James Townsend and published in 1914 under the title “News of a Country Town”.

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