From the Sussex County Magazine August 1929
Some Old-Time Fairs
By Maude Robinson
An ancient book describing all parts of England, which was published in 1779, finishes every chapter with a list of the fairs held in each county. It makes one realise what an important item in country life those fairs were, when roads were almost impassable and all locomotion was very slow.
Country folk could not go far afield to do their shopping, and the list for our county gives 160 fairs, besides markets. Some of these were held in quite small places. Ashington, Beeding, Shoreham and Southwick, each had its annual fair, while Steyning had no less than four in the year. Arundel and Cuckfield also had four each, and Lindfield three – one in May for cattle and horses, one in August for the same, with the addition of sheep, and one in October for "Pedlary." This, I suppose, meant all the minor needs of life, such as pedlars carried on their backs.
Farm and village were wonderfully self-supporting in the matter of food and clothing. The housewife’s spinning wheel, and the village Silas Marner with his loom turned out raiment which wore year after year, as no modern garment will do. I well remember a worthy dame who boasted of having spun her wedding gown of pink and white linen, and how long it lasted.
But such commodities as pins and needles, cutlery, buttons and other small needs were probably bought at the fairs which are classed as "Pedlary." If Robin lost his pocket knife, or Sukey broke her comb, they would have to wait long months until next fair day to replace them, and the "bunch of blue ribbons to tie up her bonny brown hair" could only be purchased there by Johnnie, whose long delay is lamented in the old song.
It is quite probable, too, that such necessities as salt and pepper were brought there, and the small store of that costly article, sugar, needed by the housewife, who sweetened her fruit pies with honey from the home hives.
As it became easier to get into towns shops increased, and one by one the fairs died out, except for cattle and sheep, and of late years, as pleasure fairs, with the usual swings and roundabouts.
Crawley fair is still held on the days given in the book of 140 years ago – on May 8th and September 9th, and the old tradition, that "It always rains on Crawley fair day," is still curiously true. An old man who lived to be nearly a hundred in his native town of Crawley said he had known very few fair days without at least a shower.
The writer’s grandfather remembered an abnormally fine summer, when the May fair was a day of heavy rain, and after that none fell until September 9th, when it again came down in abundance!
It was an old Crawley man who said, after his first visit to London, he was so lucky, for it was fair day there – the streets were full of people!"
The motor traffic on the main London road has at last driven the cattle fair – which was so inconvenient in Crawley, and left the broad street so dirty – into adjacent fields; but even cattle fairs are gradually disappearing. Dealers prefer to put their animals into auctions, near railway stations, and the beasts are generally moved by train, and not driven about in immense droves as they used to be.
In olden days Steyning Fair was the resort of all farmers who needed new working oxen, the hardy black Pembrokes, with their enormous horns being brought there from Wales, as well as droves of pretty mountain ponies, Railways save animals much footsore weariness, although such travelling must be alarming at first; and there is an authentic story of a pedigree bull in a horse box which was mislaid in a siding at a Sussex station for over a week, while its owner was telegraphing all round the country for news of it! It emerged thirsty and hungry, but little the worse for the long fast. It was curious that it did not raise its voice in complaint of such treatment, but took it with bovine patience.
Lindfield Fair and that held at St John’s Common were crowded with thousands of lambs in the palmy days of South Down sheep farming – the best going to Lindfield, and the "culls," or small and unthrifty ones, to St John’s.
Now motors on the roads – which are as heartily disliked by the shepherds as the dense flocks are by the chauffeur – have driven the sheep fairs on to the Downs at Lewes and Findon, where the flocks can gather safely and be sold by auction – a more convenient way than when each farmer stood by his pens and chaffered with the buyers.
Findon Fair, held in the beautiful valley, shaded to the south by beech woods, is a very interesting sight when some 17,000 sheep are penned there. The vast majority are the shapely, compact, grey-faced Southdowns, although a few pens may show the horned Dorset, the large, coarse, black-faced Hampshire Downs, or curly-coated Cotswolds.
The shepherds, each with his intelligent dog and big umbrella, stand by the pens. It is one of the red-letter days in their quiet lives, and much professional gossip goes on. A few stalls of toys and eatables are on the outskirts, but the old delectable "fairing" – a ginger nut adorned with a crescent of candied peel – seems a thing of the past.
Instead, we bought at Findon Fair, with the intention of treating some children, attractive cakes sprinkled with what were supposed to be comfits. But the comfits proved to be grains of hard, raw rice, coloured pink, and the chickens – not children – partook of those delusive fairings!
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On Primrose Day I met a maid
Whose yellow hair hung disarrayed
And little tendrils mingled
Among the primroses where she
Reclined in manner gracefully
Forget-me-nots hid in her eyes
Blue as a mirror of the skies
And her pink cheeks transcended
The windflowers’ petals in a wealth
Of dainty beauty and good health
Her gown of fair and misty mauve
From ladysmocks was surely wove
She was the loveliest thing
And now you surely have surmised
On Primrose Day all undisguised
I saw – Spring !