What Does It Mean?

Markets and Fairs

by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

When I was a child, I attended Tavistock Grammar School in southwest Devon in England. Every Friday, there was a market in the town, with farmers and merchants from up to 30 miles away. I remember some delicious handmade chocolate from across the Tamar River in Cornwall. Once a year there was a three-day fair, called Goose Fair, which involved midway entertainment's, livestock sales, and a much larger market. What was a market? What was a fair?

A thousand years ago, people made and sold goods and produce in their homes, There were some travelling merchants, such as chapmen and tinkers. But shopping could be a difficult job. It became obvious that it is good for buyers and sellers if the merchants can bring a large inventory to a central location. As usual, this required a license from the King, which a town, manor or abbey could purchase for a substantial sum. Tavistock Abbey purchased Letters Patent authorizing a Friday market in 1105.

Any person could trade at a market. The residents of any town (the burgesses), the tenants of the King's own land, and certain privileged groups like the Hospitallers, could do so free of charge. Everyone else who set up a stall had to pay a toll to the market holder. A popular market did very well, and quickly repaid the original investment. Tavistock market was still yielding a healthy 1500 pounds annually in the 1950's.

Many towns were designed with large open spaces in the centre, where the market could be held. They are often still there, with a market cross in the middle. Sometimes, where major trade routes crossed, a market was held even if there was no town. Look for place names including the words Chipping or Market. In those cases the market created the later town. Villages held general markets. Larger towns often had specialized markets, dealing perhaps in pigs only, or cloth only, and the largest towns had several special markets.

The rules of the market required the stalls to be taken down at the end of market day. Over time, the stallholders began to leave the stalls in place. And, of course, if the stall was there, one might as well do some business. Soon, the stalls became permanent shops; and that is the origin of the downtown commercial area that every town now has. As the merchants filled the market square with permanent shops, they moved their families there too, living over or behind the shops. We still can see those narrow stall-width shops with living quarters above or behind them.

Each market charter required the holder to set up a market court, to regulate weights and measures, to prevent theft and fraud, and to keep the peace. The charter holder's steward and a jury of market traders ran the court. Since merchants came from across Europe to trade, the law used was the commercial law used throughout Europe, called the law merchant. Today's banking laws involving cheques and notes originate in this, and NAFTA is not so novel!

Bakers were notorious for making very light bread, lots of air and not much flour. Bread was supposed to be sold by weight, and because of the light-bread scam, the rules required thirteen loaves to the dozen, a baker's dozen. The area where fresh meat and fish were sold was called the shambles, and was very messy and smelly since waste was dumped in the street, A meat and fish seller who tried to sell rotten flesh was clapped in the stocks and his merchandise burned slowly under his nose. Substantial fines were imposed on other offenders.

A fair was a right granted by the King to a market holder, to have an extra large market with shows and games, often coinciding with the festival of the patron saint of the parish church. Tavistock's fair was granted in 1116, and was held on the feast of St. Rumon, its patron, at the end of August. Fairs tended to be specific to particular merchandise, such as horses, sheep, cheese, and so on. You don't need me to tell you the main trade item at Tavistock's Goose Fair.

Hiring fairs were also held, at which domestic servants, farm labourers, artisans and others could be hired for a term of one year until the next fair.

So critical was trade to prosperity that our ancestors swallowed their religious and social prejudices, and welcomed Italians, Flemings, Jews and other foreigners into their communities, often on a permanent basis. These merchants were particularly evident in those towns which served by law as centres for major objects of export, such as wool and tin. These towns were called staple towns, and Tavistock was in fact a tin staple town.

Markets and fairs are important events for genealogists and family historians. They were often the place where future husbands and wives first met, while there with their parents on business. Your ancestor's trade will have taken his family to the appropriate market, not necessarily the market nearest his home. The records of markets and fairs, including ts court (the pie-powder court) ran be found among the town's archives, or in the rolls of the manor or abbey. They tell us a great deal about how our ancestors, rich or poor, lived their daily lives.

This article first appeared in the April 2000 newsletter, Volume 16 - Number 1