Monday, September 5, 2011

Wootton Bassett Hiring Fair


James Drake, a schoolteacher from Wootton Bassett, is another unsung hero of Victorian account keeping.

In 1836 Drake was appointed Deputy Clerk by the newly founded Monthly Market Committee. His duties were to take the minutes of meetings, record the sales and names of the Christmas Show winners, and most importantly for the family historian, make full lists of those who were employed at the Hiring Fairs.

Hiring or mop fairs as they were sometimes called, were events where job seeking labourers and servants presented themselves for hire.

Traditionally the servant wore clothing or carried an implement to advertise their trade. A shepherd wore a lock of wool or carried a crook, a maid might carry a mop, hence the name 'mop' fair. Potential employers browsed the ranks, asking questions and stopping just short of testing muscle strength. It was the demeaning nature of these events coupled with improved methods of communication that eventually saw the end of the hiring fair towards the end of the 19th century.

The right to hold a market at Wootton Bassett dates back to a royal grant made in 1219. Held on a Wednesday, by the 19th century the market had lost popularity and eventually ground to a halt around 1813.

In 1836 a group of local farmers and dealers keen to bring new trade and prosperity to the town, decided to establish a new monthly market. Captain Bartholomew Horsell of The Marsh, Lydiard Tregoze was appointed Chairman, a role he was to hold from 1836-1851.

The first Hiring Fair was held on 4th October 1836 and was by all accounts a huge success. James Drake recorded in the Committee Minute Book that between three and four thousand people crowded into the town.

Drakes' description reads like something straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel:
"The servants who were hired were supplied with a blue favor which they display, the Women in their bosoms and the Men in their Hats, and a Band of Music paraded the Streets during the day. The merry Dance engaged the Rustics until late in the evening when (we feel pleasure in stating) the whole multitude dispersed in the most peaceable and orderly manner."




Wootton Bassett Hiring Fair was held twice a year, on the Tuesday before Lady Day (April 6th) and the Tuesday before Michaelmas (October 11th).

Hard working servants were rewarded for their year's labour - women received a gown and the men a hat, paid for by subscribers to the Market. A cash payment was paid to servants retained by the same employer for a number of years.

The Minute Book accounts provide an intimate view of mid 19tn century agricultural life. Although Drake may have taken a few short cuts in his record keeping, he has left a valuable finding aid for the family historian on the trail of the agricultural labourer or farm servant.

At the Michaelmas Fair in 1839 and 1840 both Eliza and Leah Pitt, servants at Mannington Farm, received an award of a gown.

The Great Monthly Market Committee minute book 1836-39 and 1839-1849 is available for consultation at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, Chippenham.

Swindon Central Library holds copies of a transcription published by the Wiltshire and Swindon Family History Society, ask at the enquiry desk for information. Copies can be obtained from the Society - visit their website www.wiltshirefhs.co.uk/publications.




Frances Bevan

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