THEN AND NOW ... fairs

2020 would have been, but for the coronavirus, one of Ditchling's biennial fair years but what is the origin of this ancient custom?


An article by Tom Dufty first published in the Ditchling Parish Council Magazine, July 1920

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In 1312 Edward II granted John de Warenne, Lord of the Manor, a charter to hold fairs on his estates 'and one other market each week on Tuesday at his Manor of Dychenyng in the same county and one fair at the same each year for three days duration (viz. in the eve and in the day and in the morrow of St Margaret the Virgin'.  Fairs had close associations with patron Saints - in our case St Margaret of Antioch.  Worship was an integral part of Fairs.  They were Holy Days.

The Fair and market attracted people from far afield particularly from the weald north of Ditchling which was not so well served.  Ditchling was not the first in Sussex to have a charter.  The earliest were in the 11th century and were on or near the coast or on important trading rivers.  The 13th and particularly 14th centuries however saw a big increase in the number of charters being granted and a move into inland Sussex.

The reason the King granted a nobleman a charter had to do with what the media today might call 'rewarding' and 'buying' loyalty.   John de Warenne had supported the King initially during his quarrels with his Barons and, after a slight wobble in the middle, had returned to the King’s favour.  He was 'rewarded' through the charge he could impose on those running stalls and he could ensure that no other market or fair could be held in competition.  In turn he bought the loyalty of his employees and the people of his manor. 

The word Fair derives from the Latin ‘Feria’ which means Festival or Holiday and who doesn't like a holiday particularly if there is also entertainment?  The main objective of the fairs was trade, however, every fair contained entertainment.  It typically divided into three – the indoor and outdoor participatory activities and the spectator entertainment.  Just how much of this applied to Ditchling’s Fairs we don’t really know.  For the traders the entertainment served the purpose of attracting a crowd and typically included musicians, acrobats, stilt walking, morris dancing, wrestling, archery, skittles, board games, feasting and fools.

Of the early Ditchling fairs we have little information but we have the accounts of two 18th century diarists.

Here is Thomas Marchant who visited fairs all over central Sussex:

the 2nd October 1716 Tuesday.  A showry day.  A Fair at Ditcheling Common.  I was at the Fair and bought 8 runts of John Jones at £25-4s, paid him for them ...

The 25th March 1717 Munday Lady day.  A wet day.  Ditcheling Fair.  Paid Mrs Courthope 10d  for a payr of gloves she bought at Lewis for Molly Balcomb, some time ago ...

John Burgess suggests that there were two fairs and that each lasted for a day.  He dealt in skins but there were few other trades he couldn't turn his hand to including selling nuts and ginger bread!    

Here's what he had to say:

Wednesday April 5th 1786: 'ork shop & washing the Meeting House &c   it was our Fair day very small Fair.

Monday October 13th 1788: Was at Home  our Fair was today.  Supposed to be about 100 Hogs & not above 4 or 5 Sold they were not so high as they had been for some time before.

Monday April 6th 1789:  our fair day I kept fair down at Mr Cox shop &c

October 12th 1789this day was our fair day so was at home in ye shop &c Very wet morning but fine day.    

Both diarists remind us of the strong commercial aspect of these Fairs but suggest that the size of Ditchling's fair had by then declined.  By 1839 Pigot's Directory was recording: 'A market was formerly held here, which has long ceased to be attended; but there are two fairs tolerably well frequented – one on the 5th April for sheep, and 12th October for pedlery'.  In 1901 village historian Henry Cheal wrote 'The weekly market has long since been discontinued, and the three days' fair forgotten....'.   The advent of the railway and canals enabling trade and travel between major urban centres seem to have contributed to the decline of Fairs in general.

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In Ditchling the fair was in many ways replaced by the Horticultural Society's annual vegetable and flower show.  Founded in 1822, the society can lay claim to being the oldest in in the UK.  Its shows were similar to the fairs with various forms of entertainment including competitions for best hand made nightdresses and darned stockings!  Try that today!

Historian Cheal said 'this annual event which takes place in July, is even now the principal social gathering of the year.'

There was also an an annual village horse show so, in a rather different way, the two fairs' tradition continued into the 20th century.  These shows were held in Star Field behind the North Star pub.

These 'events' kept going during WWI but on a modest scale without much entertainment.  However, writing in 1922, resident playwright Amy Sawyer, recorded that the Fair held that year succeeded one that had been 'revived last year (i.e 1921] after a lengthy lapse'.  The Horticultural Society decided in 1922 to put austerity aside and celebrate its centenary in style.

The Fair was revived again after WWII in 1948 and the biennial fairs introduced.  In this year proceeds from the Fair went towards equipping the new recreation ground.  'Miss Molly Wake, a tall, fair haired Land Army girl was chosen as Fair Queen and two brunettes as her attendants'.   And 'The Revd Crookshank won the prize for the largest biceps and took part in the Fancy Dress parade as a fisherman and carrying a large fish'.  The entertainment featured a ‘Ladies Ankle Competition' but by 1952 it had become a ‘Two Ankles Competition’ for both genders!  This time  Revd Crookshank set himself up on a stool outside his vicarage as a one-legged street artist with the notice 'one leg, one wife, eight children, but I am giving all the receipts today to the Fair' .  Later he had to leave his pitch and left a message, 'Back soon, union lunch hour'.

1953 was notable as the first occasion on which the Proclamation, written and inscribed by Dr Linton Bogle , was used to open the fair, as it has been most years since.  For many years it was proclaimed from the balcony of Vine Cottage by the Chairman of the Parish Council.

A newspaper article tells us that, 'The 1964 edition of the Fair will be remembered most for the Ditchling Dinosaur.  A terrible sight indeed was Dennis the Ditchling Dinosaur – he made the Loch Ness Monster look like a tiddler … one breathless local put forward the theory that Denis had been lying at the bottom of the village duck pond for several thousand years; then when he heard that yellow and black ‘No Waiting’ signs were going to be put on the cross roads he had risen up to strike a blow on behalf of his home village.  He was 20 feet tall and from his crimson nose, from which belched clouds of acrid smoke, to the tip of his mighty tail .  He was 35 feet long, had ten inch teeth and as he lumbered through the village he gave out a fearful roar'.  

It was about this time that the Pied Piper became a regular part of the fairs leading the children to the fair ground.  In the 1970s the new village green became the fair ground.