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 1789: this 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.