‘Good entertainment & civill mirth’: English Provincial Fairs in the Eighteenth Century
Jessica Davidson, DPhil in History
On 24 May 1702, 18 year old John Cannon set off with his friend John Berryman for Binegar fair, 12 miles from their home in West Lydford, Somerset, ‘being joyous of seeing this great fair’. There they were to set up a stall to sell hats made by Berryman’s employer, but as it was raining, they dashed into a barn and spent two hours watching a puppet show. Afterward, still avoiding work, Cannon was convinced to lend his friend some money for gambling at cards. Berryman was quickly revealed to be a ‘cormorant & harpie’, betting continuously against his friend until all the money was spent, and replying with ‘curses, threats & bad language’ when asked for a little so Cannon could find his way home. Finally arriving back home, Cannon, clearly a bit sheepish, avoided his family’s questioning about the event, and offered up only a few pieces of gingerbread when asked if he had brought them any fairings, or souvenirs from the fair.
Despite this initial fraught experience, Cannon attended another fair in 1704 with a girl he was courting, where they ‘passed the night in good entertainment & civill mirth.’ In 1707, aged 23, Cannon runs into trouble again at Castle Cary fair. Having sold all the goods his father dispatched him with, Cannon paused to watch some games, when a sergeant handed him a guinea. Naively, Cannon asked the officer ‘what he meant by being so kind as to give me money’ only to find that he had unwittingly ‘taken the Queen’s money’ and was now conscripted in the army. Cannon threw down the money down and a fight arose as he tried to object. Eventually the local magistrate was tracked down and Cannon let off the hook as he was employed, and therefore not obligated to heed the recruiting officer’s wishes.
Though this is a fairly light anecdote, John Cannon’s experiences nevertheless highlight key elements of the eighteenth-century fair, a place of both opportunity and obstacle. It was a critical venue for buying and selling livestock, produce and consumer goods, and was deeply embedded into the social lives of the people as a site for courtship, entertainment and leisure pursuits with family and friends. It was also mired with potential detriments to reputation or livelihood; gambling, drunkenness, theft and brawling were not uncommon.
My research explores the role of the provincial fair in the lives of English people in the long eighteenth century (a period historians broadly define as c. 1680-1850). The existing scholarship about this period suggests that the fair was in decline, no longer relevant to trade because of changes to communication and transportation networks, and reduced to ‘merely’ a site for entertainment. Some fairs in the period had ancient origins and were notable occasions for corporation and community to perform civic identity, while others were newly founded, principally by the commercial classes who hoped to draw new business to a town. Fairs are significant because they challenge the historian’s expectations about the boundaries between the traditional and the modern in areas of social, cultural and commercial life.
As a social and cultural history, my thesis is interested in investigating the role and meaning of the fair in the life cycle of individuals and communities. It is a wide ranging study drawing on diaries, letters, newspaper reports, trade directories, account books, minutes of council meetings, and a variety of other sources, built around case studies to uncover who went to the fair, why they went there, and what it meant to them. I am interested in four main areas, including how trade was conducted at fairs, what types of entertainment could be found there, how the fair related to community identity, and how crime and moral transgressions influenced attitudes toward fairs. Several conclusions can be drawn from this approach.
First, the fair played a larger role in English domestic trade than is suggested in most existing scholarship. A study of the fair offers the opportunity to explore how retail and wholesale trade networks between 1750 and 1850 involved a diverse range of people and places, and sheds light on buying and selling beyond the walls of the shop. Second, it emphasis that a diverse range of social groups visited fairs for entertainment. As sites that had long been associated with pleasure, fairs provided a ready-made network for the dispersal of new, exotic entertainments into provincial locations, but their arrival did not mean that older forms of recreation became redundant. Third, fairs played a critical role in towns and villages as symbolic spaces for exhibiting civic identity, reinforcing community cohesion and mediating boundaries with outsiders and the unfamiliar. Finally, though the fair continued to be a popular activity, its detractors did become more vocal in this period. Objections to the fair usually occurred on two grounds. The first was from urban improvers, who thought the fair infringed on efforts to rationalise and modernise public space. The second was linked with wider moral reforms and concerned about the alleged prominence of theft, drunkenness, licentious behaviour and violence at fair time.
As a space that was both temporally and physically temporary, fairs were a time when boundaries between rural and urban, local and outsider, and transgression and order were all permeable. Though their role changed between 1750 and 1850, the history of fairs in this period is not as straightforward as has previously been suggested; though individual fairs might persist, grow or decline depending on local circumstances, ‘the fair’ as a category retained enduring cultural currency. Though on the surface fairs may appear to have been ancient remnants in a modern landscape, in fact, they are examples of how traditional cultural activities were adapted to meet changing local agendas. A study of the fair explores how communities were shaped and reshaped in this period.
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