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Marlborough's Mop Fairs


Marlborough's Mop Fairs :  Peter Noble joins' squad of columnists


Marlborough High Street has been highlighted as having poor air quality, and buses drivers are obliged to switch off their engines while awaiting passengers, similarly lorry drivers while delivering to shops. 

On 7 October 2017 eighteen lorries parked on High Street, switched on their diesel engines and left them pumping out their noxious exhaust fumes for over six hours!  And again on the 14 October it all happened again.

Why was this allowed one may ask?  Why was no one prosecuted?  Because, we are told, there is an Act of Parliament saying we have to hold Mop Fairs on that sensitive street;  but unlike the carbon free traders' stalls of old, the modern funfairs need electricity; electricity supplied by large diesel-powered generators… and they fill the poorly ventilated High Street with an asthma inducing, carcinogenic soup.

In his 1967 novel The Pyramid, William Golding takes a satirical look at Marlborough via his fictional market town of Stilbourne.  After commenting that High Street traders had often tried to get the fair moved he writes: "The Fair was so old - Saxon perhaps - that only a special Act of Parliament could have abolished it".

Golding is not stating a fact but merely commenting on the lack of interest or action by his town's council.  Unfortunately his hyperbole has been accepted as fact and interpreted as meaning the Marlborough Fair exists because of an act of Parliament, and this belief continues.

In 2009 Daniel Garrett of BBC Wiltshire said: "There are occasional pleas to move the [Mop] fair from its location on Marlborough High Street to the Common, but this is unlikely to happen as due to the town's ancient charter, it would take an Act of Parliament to sanction it." 

In 2010 the Gazette & Herald reported: "The two annual Mop Fairs in Marlborough cannot be moved out of the town centre because they operate under an 800 year old statute that would take an Act of Parliament to reprieve."

Again in 2010 the president of the Showmen’s Guild (who now run the Mops) told the Gazette & Herald: "…the Mops... date back to the reign of King John in the 13th century.  It would take an Act of Parliament to move the Mop to the Common…"

The website Time for Wiltshire adds: "Known as the Marlborough Big Mop and Little Mop, the Mop Fairs were granted to the town in line with a Charter from King John in 1204 where agricultural workers would come to be hired."

It all looks quite convincing until one realises that:

There were no Mop Fairs anywhere in the country before 1351 and probably even later - that is at least one hundred and fifty years after King John's Charter.

The Charter of 1204 granted by King John included provision for an eight day fair (not two weekends) with no indication as to where it should be held.  Local tradition owns it was held in St Peter's Field, now River Park housing estate south of St Peter's Church.  British History Online suggests it being sited on The Green and then moved to The Common until the 1960s.

There have been other annual 'chartered' fairs in Marlborough: In 1229 Henry III granted a four day fair on New Land (now St Martins).  It eventually moved date and venue ending up on the Common but lapsed in 1960.  This closure date suggests the 1204 fair was possibly subsumed within the 1229 one.

In 1246 the same Henry granted another four day fair to be held around St Peter's church-yard but that too had lapsed by 1879.

Jesse Chandler in his excellent History of Marlborough (1977) notes, "The hiring fairs [Mop Fairs] at Marlborough are first noted in 1831 but the fact that they are held on the Saturdays before and after the Old Michaelmas Day shows that their origin must be placed before the change of the calendar in 1751." 

But again Jesse makes no mention of any statute concerning the Mop Fair. Indeed he says the "name Mop Fair is first known in England in the late 17th century."

It seems evident that no fair has ever been granted or ordered by any King or Parliament to be held in the High Street, nor any fair to be held on two-weekends nor a fair around Michaelmas. So where else can we look for King or Parliamentary support of Mop Fairs?

In 2011 This is wrote: "…it has always been argued that as they [Mop Fairs] are statute fairs it would take an Act of Parliament to remove them."

We are now nearer the truth in that they were 'statute fairs', but these were the result of a statute, they were not ordered by it. 

In other towns (possibly in Marlborough too) they were often called 'Stattie Fairs' but the statute that led to them is later than King John.  The 'Statute of Labourers' was introduced by Edward III in 1351 and was designed to protect the lords, farmers and guildsmen against inflated wage demands of labourers.

After the Black Death there was a serious shortage of workers, so labourers could have demanded high wages or found work elsewhere if their 'masters' did not pay up.  The King's statute restricted workers pay and places of employment to those current before the Black Death.

The statute does not mention the specific location of a fair, nor indeed does it mention any fair at all.  Hiring and firing fairs (Stattie fairs) were however a direct result; effectively they were humiliating trade fairs for workers seeking employment but they would later perhaps have attracted pedlars and itinerant entertainers as well.

It is possible that the 'hiring and firing' aspect of Stattie or Mop Fairs were added to one of Marlborough's existing fairs after 1351 but there is no evidence or hint of this in Marlborough before the late 1600s and no Parliamentary Act or Statute was involved in their inclusion.

If the late 1600s was the start of Marlborough Stattie Fairs, they were possibly the result of a Charles II statute of 1677 that confirmed the 1351 statute. 

There is however a further consideration: until the Great Fire of Marlborough in 1653, the current wide High Street was two distinct lanes separated by various wooden buildings: shops, shippens, workshops and possibly houses.  There would have been little space for a fair.

A History of Wiltshire Vol XII (edited by DA Crowley published 1983) mentions all the above fairs and adds: "Hiring or mop fairs were held in the early 19th century…" and "…Little Mop and Big Mop fairs were held in High Street…."  As Crowley et al link all the other fairs to statutes, one would expect a similar link here if a statute existed.  There is no such link.

However all the above references prior to the fifteenth century are actually irrelevant, for it is reported by both Crowley and AR Stedman (in his Marlborough and the Upper Kennet Country, published 1960) that a Charter of Elizabeth I of 1576 confirmed and replaced all previous Charters and  - making Marlborough a Free Borough in the process. 

Hence any claims that the Mop Fairs have any legal basis earlier than this date are, like the early Charters themselves, invalid.  And, as has been shown, Mop Fairs have no charter, statute or law to support them… One suspects they have existed on the High Street simply at the discretion of whatever level of local government had legal control of the High Street at the time.

It would seem that William Golding's cynical comment was pretty accurate.  Local traders want the Mop Fair moved to the Common, and Marlborough Town Council could easily order the change, but to re-visit Golding: It could take an Act of Parliament to encourage them to do so.

But why is it important?  Would there be any advantage other than the oft quoted lost trade and shoplifting endured by shopkeepers? Well there would be the reduction of air pollution and also social and visual improvements would be available. 

Currently the High Street is a boring car park surrounded by shops, but without losing the essential parking it could be very attractive.  Because of the Mop Fair there can be few permanent structures, since 'obstacles' have to be removable to allow the fair to set up.  With no Mop Fairs there could be elegant lamp-posts, trees, better floral displays, maybe even a fountain!  It could be beautiful…

And what about the Showmen?  By moving the fair to the Common it could be set up at leisure and left up all week instead of enduring the mad midnight scramble to vacate the High Street before Sunday morning… also the noxious fumes would dissipate more readily.  Surely a win-win situation for town and fair.


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