Monthly Archives: October 2012

Custom survived: The Nottingham Goose Fair


Goose that laid the golden egg

Nottingham’s Goose fair is unique. Indeed there are many fun fairs, many of them having older origins, but there is something special and atmospheric about this 700 year old event. The size is certainly one of them. Started by Edward the First in 1284, it has survived cancellation during the plague of 1646, two world wars and its removal from the city centre in 1928. Now it sprawls across the Forest recreation ground, a large area of football pitches and park and ride car park, which is for most of the year rather bland and uninspiring, an island of colourful garish  giddy excitement laying in a sea of white caravans and lorries. Another reason is the anticipation, a week before the roundabout along Mansfield road, the ancient route to the city from North Nottinghamshire, a large white goose appears upon its plinth. A visual sign to its imminent arrival for no words are affixed to it (although occasionally it does inherit some comedy flotsam and jetsam, such as a large golden medallion.) This expectation is also built up by the entrance into the fair from this road. A long walkway like a procession route downwards with the senses excited by the visual delight of the fair looming on the horizon, the smell of kerosene and the sounds of ecstatic children crying ‘It’s the Goose fair!’

Having a gander

Even if like me you are not biggest fan of those heart pulsating spinning rides, there is much to interest. Taking that processional route one enters a strange row of infant orientated rides, a plethora of food stalls and some strange stalls.

Focusing on the strange stalls first, this is again where the unique nature of the fair is again underlined. Over the years there have been cacti stalls, clothes stalls, the fire service, the army and this year the Church of England each taking the chance to promote themselves! Showing that it’s not all fun at the fair but faith as well.

The food stalls are a varied phenomena as well indicating the ethic mix of Nottingham, however the minty mushy peas is the central food focus for those that come and the largest at the junction of the row and the main centre of the fair is always packed, sending the smell of peas and mint into the air from frothing vats…

What’s good for the goose….

Elsewhere the demand for the new has seen the traditional rides fall by the wayside, but again not here. Over the years, those rides have survived and so we can find Victorian and Edwardian originals such as the Helter Skelter, a cake walk, a waltzer and gallopers all of which have certainly working far into a second century. Together with these one can encounter on and off, a wall of death, a guess your age man, a flea circus and freak show. This later attraction, sadly absent over the last few years is a memorable edifice, a large pantecnicen with flashy bulbs with crowd pleasing slogans such as ‘ see the ….. ‘ or my favourite ‘ a piece of the Berlin Wall. Believe it or not.’ To which I sorry I cannot believe…nor can I  believe in a ‘Japanese Octopus!’ Of all things! More easy to believe are the atrocious spellings. Inside one is witness to a strange selection of aborted animal foetuses, stuffed ‘dare I say it’ fakes and antique relics from older exhibits slowly in many cases in a slow gentle decay. One always leaves it laughing but by the look of the owner I am not sure that is their desire!  On a wild goose chase Despite the obvious reason that Nottingham lay on a convenient stopping point for goose from Lincolnshire, indeed over 16,006 to 20,000, were annually driven up from the fens for sale here. The sale of geese at this time being associated with the rather convenient, for those breeders, belief that eating geese on Michaelmas was considered lucky, and helped the consumer avoid debt.  However, despite this a legend is told of an angler who was engaged in angling in the Trent, near Nottingham. In a time he felt or saw a bite that had been made. Unlike modem anglers he jerked the line high up in the air, together with the catch, which preyed to be a large pike. A wild goose happening at that time to be flying overhead espied the fish in the air, which he at once secured. Not content with the pike, he carried off with him the rod, line, and angler too. The story goes on to relate that when passing over the Nottingham Market Place, either from fatigue or other cause, the goose dropped his booty of man, fish, and tackle. Very strange indeed to relate, the hero of our story alighted very comfortably, unhurt. To celebrate this exceeding good luck a holiday was proclaimed, and there was great rejoicing among the good folks of old Nottingham.

Can’t say boo to a goose

Today the fair is rather lacking is geese, although I did spy two children with Geese hats! One tradition which every year appears to be threatened with disappearance is the Cock on a stick, chicken shaped (surely it should be a goose) sweet on a stick. The tradition goes back to the 19th century and has continued through one family. It is said that this confections came over from Italy with the Whitehead family. It’s a Goose fair tradition as is the crude jokes made about it. Why no geese? Well obviously tastes change, but perhaps one can could suggest 1752 was the result. This was when the calendar changed, and such the fair moved from 21st in September (ideal for a Michealmas goose) to the first Thursday in October (not ideal!) and perhaps this resulted in the shift from fowl to fun!

Yet this is of course unimportant for the Goose Fair remains one of the greatest of England’s travelling fairs.

copyright Pixyled publications


Custom revived: Halloween Guisering or Trick or Treating



Damn American custom…Japanese Knotweed of festivals

Ask any person on the night of Halloween and many will be against Halloween’s most famous tradition; Trick or treat. Many will give the reason as being that it has no basis in English tradition, but of course they are wrong…trick or treating did begin in Britain.


In the US, the first record of children Guisering is recorded in a newspaper in 1911 from Ontario, but interestingly by 1919, an author directly references that the customs undertaken are Scottish, as visiting other people’s homes to collect cakes, fruit and money was recorded in 1895 in Scotland.  However, the first reference of the term was in 1927 in Alberta. I have been unable to find the earliest English record of the import, it would be nice to think it came over with the American service men during the war, but as the custom itself was still not widespread in the US, being restricted to the western states, by that time this seems unlikely. The only hint of this is in Maureen Sutton’s excellent Lincolnshire Calendar, where a correspondent speaking on their childhood in the Stamford area in the 1950s notes:

“There used to 20 of us, going around one of the bigger houses of the village…we used to spend the day before hollowing out pumpkins: we used the inside to make pies and put candles in them to show a face through the hole. And we used to decorate witches hats and broomsticks and hold competitions for the best…”

The making of lanterns still continues in Somerset with Punky Night, and appears to have widespread being also recorded in Hertfordshire. However, none of these accounts explicitly refer to Trick or Treat. As regards this as a custom, it was certainly it was established in the 1970s and well established by the 1980s.

Pagan origins of the day

There is no debate on the ancient origin of the custom, a Christianised tradition based on the pagan Samhain, a Celtic celebration which was their equivalent of New Year’s Eve, when the end of the summer was recognised and winter begun. As such livestock were slaughtered and consequently the date was associated with death and the date was seen as a gateway between living and dead. It is believed that often Celts would wear animal skins and skulls and this disguise may have been the origin of the dressing up aspect of trick or treat. It was also believed that when the elementals were free to travel the real world, they dressed as beggars and asked for food door to door. It was thought that those who gave food were rewarded but if they did not the elementals would punish them, and this appears to be the origin of the trick or treat itself. However, the true origins of the custom appear after the establishment of All Saint’s Day by Pope Gregory IV on the day after the pagan tradition and thus hoping to deflect from the practices on that day. This was not successful so it appears that an establishment of Old Souls Day, honouring the non-saintly dead resulted in converting Samhain to All Hallow’s Eve and Hallowe’en was born.

But what about the Trick?

The Trick aspect of the tradition, appears to have arisen also from a Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire tradition of Mischief night. In this tradition generally associated with the day before Guy Fawkes Night is clearly has origins in the ancient Hallowe’en and perhaps was shifted when the calendar was moved in 1752. Alternatively the custom is associated with the mischief caused by the Gunpowder Plot perpetrators. Whatever its origin the rather structureless custom of tying doorknobs together, removing signs to slightly more destructive shoving fireworks through letter boxes or defacing public property clearly is the Trick of the custom

What about the treat? 

A custom established in this Christian period was providing food and drink for the spirits of the dead, this was called souling and local people would go door to door, asking for soul cakers, food for the dead. This would assist the souls of the dead through Purgatory and it is clear that after the Reformation, the practice befell the children who in Sussex they begged for a spiced bun, milk or ginger beer. Their begging song went:

“Soul! Soul! For a Soul-cake! Pray good mistress for a Soul-cake! One for Peter, two for Paul, Three for Him who made us all!”

However, it would appear that in Cheshire, the last place where this tradition has survived in England, that in exchange for the food a play would be enacted. However, in other areas the custom was a simple form a begging except for in Sheffield where the night became Cakin night. This without a doubt is the where the modern Treat tradition begun. Children would move from house to house in disguise, if they were recognised they gave a cake, but if they were not they received pennies or perhaps sweets and as such the treating was born.

A remix!

It is clear that something happened to those colonists who got their traditions mixed up, Guisering for cakes or money predates that in the USA. It is significant that many of these colonists came from Lincolnshire and Somerset where Mischief  and Punky night were still undertaken.  Thus the traditions of Mischief Night mixed with that of Soul caking, probably in a big bowl of pumpkin soup!


Custom demised: St Crispin Day celebrations



“If ever I Saint Crispin’s day forget
may my feet be never free from wet,
But ev’ry dirty street and lane pass through
Without one bit of sole to either shoe.”

St Crispin’s Day, famed as the date of the Battle of Agincourt, was once hailed as a holiday for shoe makers. Since medieval times, October 25th was celebrated in areas associated with cobblers and cordwainters, such that it was Shoemaker’s holiday, and cobblers closed shops. In Newark an annual feast was undertaken. In 1835 it is reported:

 “On Monday last, the disciples of Crispin held their annual feast in honour of their titular saint at the Wheatsheaf in Kirkgate and at the Duke of Cumberland in Middlegate. Plentiful repasts were provided at each place. The evening spent in a joyful manner and from the ordinary and peaceful conduct which was manifested by the jolly fellows, they were secured the highest approbation of the people of Newark”

In Hexham, Northumberland, a contributor to Notes and Queries (1st S. vol vi. p. 243) states that:

“shoemakers of the town meet and dine by previous arrangements at some tavern ; a King Crispin, queen, prince, and princess, elected from members of their fraternity of families, being present. They after­wards form in grand procession (the ladies and their atten­dants accepted), and parade the streets with banners, music, &c, the royal party and suite gaily dressed in character. In the evening they reassemble for dancing and other festivities. To his majesty and consort, and their royal highnesses the prince and princess (the latter usually a pretty girl), due regal homage is paid during that day.”

Nearby at Newcastle, Mackenzie (1827) in his History of Newcastle noted that they to celebrated the day by at first holding a coronation of their patron saint in the court at the Freemen’s Hospital, Westgate, and then processed through the town.

In Sussex it was a widespread custom, although by the late 1800s it appear hoave survived only in Cuckfield, Hurstpierpoint, Warninglid and Slaugham. Here it appears to have survived until 1900 where it was recalled that the swinging burning heath brooms and tar barrel rolling was undertaken down a steep hill in the village. It appears to have been another ‘excuse’ for begging, with boys went round Cuckfield and Hurstpierpoint with blacked-up faces and asked for pennies.

At Horsham a local author Henry Burstow notes in his Reminiscences (1911):

“The townspeople generally were interested in the day because it was made the occasion for holding up to ridicule or execration anyone who had misconducted himself or herself, or had become particularly notorious during the year. An effigy of the offending person-frequently there were two together-was on St. Crispin Day hung on a signpost of one or other of the public houses, usually in the district where he or she resided, until the fifth of November when it was taken down and burnt. For several weeks before the day, people would be asking ‘Who is to be the Crispin?’   

The author notes referring to around 1830:

“The first ‘Crispin’ I ever saw was hanging outside the Black Jug in North Street…..I never heard who it represented or what the man had done to get himself disliked. Another year the effigies of a man and his wife named Fawn, who loved ikn gthe Bishopric, were hanged up on the signpost of the Green Dragon. Together they had cruelly ill-used a boy, son of the man and stepson of the woman, they had also whipped him with sting-nettles. They were hung, each with a bunch of sting-nettles in the hand.”       

Apparently when the effigies were removed on the 5th, local people assembled at the Fawn’s house, assaulted the man in question and smashed a hand cart through his window! The perpetrators were fined £2, but as Burstow (1911) notes their fine was quickly paid by public subscription. Sometimes, one of the shoemakers own was the victim. This was Skiver Tulley, who’s crime is unrecorded, but by the sound of the nick-name it was probably due to lack of work. In this case, the effigy was brought into the pub every night by the bootmakers and was included into the drinking party!

A load of old cobblers? Why Saint Crispin?

The origin of his associations is a little obscure. A 3rd century Roman,  he converted to Christianity and was disinherited by his wealthy family and as such he turned to shoemaking and was martyred by Maximian for preaching the Gospel. Legend records that a vigil was kept by his fellow shoemakers and fter his body was pulled from the gibbet, his bones were made into shoe making tools!

The demise of the custom

It is unclear when the custom died out but it was probably a victim of the loss of customs which arose as a result of the decimation of villages after World War I. It is interestingly that this was another event with the lighting of bonfires, a tradition probably borrowed from Samhain-Hallowe’en and then given to Guy Fawkes Night, especially the making of effigies which clearly evolved into Guys and in particular the making of an effigy which displeased the community being undertaken at Lewes. So in a sense St. Crispin’s day may be remembered in this amalgamation. It is worth noting that perhaps the importance of St Crispin and his day has not been entirely forgotten. Northampton, famous for its shoe makers has held a funfair since the 1990s on the day and I have read of a bonfire and fireworks being enacted in the county on this day so perhaps a revival is afoot.