Category Archives: Auction

Custom demised: Yarnton Lot Meadows Ceremony, Oxfordshire

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In this quiet Oxfordshire village each July all eyes would be on their meadows. Here survived until fairly recently, a peculiar and potentially ancient custom which would allocate these meadows, called Lot Meadows, according to the drawing of balls – called Mead Balls.

Balls up

These meadows were arranged in 13 lots. There were divided in strips called customary acres which covered as much land as one man could mow in a day or ‘man’s mowth’. The balls represented by these inch in diameter balls, made of cherry or holly wood were inscribed with the name of each lot and of which 4 belonged to the neighbouring Begbroke. The names were thought to represent the names of tenant farmers: Boat, White, Dunn, William, Water Molly, Green, Boulton, Rothe, Gilbert, Harry, Freeman, Walter Jeoffrey and Parry. Traditionally the organisers, called the Meadsmen would proceed to a certain spot in the meadow where the balls were to be draw, but at later times they met at the Grapes Inn in the village.

Here a ball was drawn from the ball and its name proclaimed and as this is done a man would scythe six feet of hay and another would cut the initials of the winner. This was repeated until all the lots were drawn and which point the Meadsman would write down the owners of each strip.  Disputes would occur. A report records that:

“There is a record of one disagreement over trespassing after the lots had been drawn and a fight resulted. This was in 1817, in the reign of George III, and in the ancient warrant for the arrest of the participants the Sheriffs are entreated to keep them safely, so that you may have their Bodies before us at Westminster’. To Westminster they went for their trial and careful record of their expenses they kept, even down to two shillings and ten-pence for the hire of a coach!”

To distinguish the boundary, men would tread up and down the edges and this was ‘running the treads’.

Having a Field Day

The cutting of the meadows themselves developed into a popular intense one-day custom with large quantities of plum puddings and plum pudding being consumed. The day ended with some subsequently rather drunken races for the honour of ‘securing a garland’ which would be proudly displayed in the church.  It was not always good humoured; as riots and one man died as a result in 1817. Consequently, the vicar gave a severe sermon that Sunday and the mowing was spread over three days to even out the alcohol!

Blackballed!

Despite a survival from the Norman conquest and its survival post fatality, numbers dwindled and then in 1978 as a consequence of the area becoming a nature reserve. The balls and the Meadsmen survive however, the latter being a hereditary title should the meadows return to service!  Until then the fields at this time of year are a blaze of local wild flowers and I suppose this can easily replace the loss of an ancient custom.

Custom demised: Weyhill Sheep Fair

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“To Wy and to Wynchestre I wente to the feyre.”

So does Langland record Weyhill Fair, in Piers Plowman, in 1377, the largest and most important livestock fair in the country. One of the features were the establishment of booths to sell produce and so many hops from Farnham were sold that they became known as Farnham row.  Like many great fairs despite an ancient provenance it was like others a charter fair…like others it did attract fringe activities – hiring of labour, a pleasure fair, bull baiting and even mummers and mystery plays.

Ancient fair

Twelve twenty five is the fair’s earliest reference being called Fair of Le We then. However this is not a charter. Indeed, the lack of a charter is perhaps because the fair was very ancient lying as it does on ancient crossroads which crisscrossed tin merchants, gold transporter and even pilgrims from as far as way as Cornwall, Kent and the Continent. Laying also on three parishes and three estates helped it escape the need for a Charter. For when in Andover town folk claimed a right to hold their own fair, by 1559 Royal charter, the fair owners claimed that the rules did not apply to their fair!

Court fair

As it grew into the 19th century the volume of trading grew exponentially. Cheeses from all over Wessex were sold and around 100,000 sheep were sold in one day.  Irish horse traders were accused of putting everyone in danger by showing off ‘charged up and down, and over hurdles’. Lawlessness was a common problem and so large was the fair that by the 16th century it was necessary to set up a Court of Pie Powder. This a common feature of large fairs was a court which provided quick settlement on disputes and could punish lawlessness. Wife selling was a custom associated with many fairs and one immortalised by Thomas Hardy in his 1886 The Mayor of Casterbridge. Renamed Weydon Priors one of his characters, Henchard, sells his wife for five guineas. Wife selling was not unknown in the days before divorce was relatively easy and affordable. An account records that a man called Henry Mears bought Joseph Thomson’s wife for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog – he was originally asking 50 but the account states both parties were happy. I am not so clear as the wife’s opinion.

The fall of the fair

The 1800s was perhaps the final heyday of the fair. By the end of the 19th century it was in decline. William Cobbett in his Rural rides visited the Fair in 1822. He had been a regular attendee for 40 years previous and found it already depressed:

“The 11th of October is the Sheep Fair. About £300,000 used, some few years ago, to be carried home by the sheep-sellers. Today, less perhaps, than £70,000 and yet the rents of these sheep sellers are, perhaps as high, on average, as they were then. The countenances of the farmers were descriptive of their ruinous state. I never, in all my life, beheld a more mournful scene.”

Reports suggest that despite being still the biggest fair in the South in 1867 each year less and less hops and cheeses were being sold.  Sheep and cattle continued to be trade until just after the Second World War. In 1948 only 1400 sheep were sold – a far drop from the 100,000s. The rapid progress of modernity, better roads, rail and communications meant such large meetings were unnecessary. Although the pleasure fair continued to thrive as in many places. In 1957, the last livestock auction was held and then so few animals were sold that the auctioneers deemed it unprofitable. So the fair stopped and unlike other fairs such as Nottingham Goose fair so did the pleasure fair. The booths were bought by a building company Dunnings Associates using them for storage. They themselves went bankrupt and the buildings fell into disrepair. The site is now a light industry site with the Fairground Craft and Design Centre continuing the name and tradition of selling.

Custom survived: The Brigg Horse Fair

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Brigg Fair5

It was on the 5th of August, the weather fair and fine,
Unto Brigg Fair I did repair; for love I was inclined.

So famous a fair which became immortalised in the well-known folk song. However visiting on the day in the early 2000s I found a different story. The town sign clearly pronounced – Brigg – Town of the Horse Fair – but where was it? So famous a fair I thought would be much trumpeted with posters and banners. So I asked in the  Tourist Information Centre, they said they knew nothing? How strange I thought…then a local man learnt over to me and said in a quiet voice “It’s still on…they want to get rid of it and so are keeping quiet about it….it’s on the industrial estate on the edge of town.” Industrial estate I thought?

Horse whispers

It was a sad statement for an event which was the oldest of its kind in the country. Legendarily founded in 1204 in the Reign of King John it was an important charter fair which ran for five days. It may have originally been a general fair becoming a horse fair only later in its history. The sight of large numbers of horses and their assembled traveller community was a memorable site.

The Fair has in recent years apparently had a tenuous hold on survival. Maureen Sutton notes that it was in rapid decline in the early 1990s. She notes that in 1995 a new committee took it over the organisation and the fair was revivatilised and in 1997 80 horses were present. Morris dancers and local folk singers attended as well….these sadly were nowhere to be seen in the early 2000s.

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Of course in the world of NIMBYism an event which attracts large numbers of traveller folk was always in modern times to be not looked upon favourably and one wonders whether this was behind the councils attend to sequester it. Certainly if Maureen Sutton (1996) account is anything to go by in her Lincolnshire Calendar, the attendees were not shy of sharp practices.  An 89 year old man recalls:

“Oh aye, Brigg Fair, I seed it with me own eyes, I seed it. I was a boy of ten and me dad took me. Me dad bought twenty horses and one of them was lame, it it had sort of – like this, gristle in the leg. When they run with others up and down they kept this one to the wall side on the street, when they run them back again they made sure it was hid in the others, tricksters – they were that. I seed it bit I was too daft to tell me dad, lame it were – no good.”

Such activity was sure to make in unpopular. Indeed the reluctance to ‘allow’ the proper fair resulted In 2003 with two fairs occurring one unofficial one with horses the official one didn’t! Then the original fair site disappeared under a Tesco supermarket and an alternative could not be found and so the fair did not occur. Even barriers were placed across Station Street to prevent the traditional trotting of ponies, due to the danger to the general public…All this appeared to send the message that the fair or rather its traditional attendees were not welcome!

Brigg Fair3
Horsing around
Certainly there was a depressing and subdued atmosphere at the industrial estate – a very perfunctory place for a fair. Yet it was like stepping into another age. The roads were lined with caravans, stalls selling china and jewellery mainly and of course horse boxes with their horses and ponies sheltered in their shade. Nearby men had hushed conservations, every now punctuated with hand slapping and an occasional laugh. Up and down the lanes people milled around examining the materials on the stalls or else being curious. Every now and then a trap would come by with a pony trotting along. There was a feeling of being an intruder into another world – this was long before the media’s obsession with Gypsies – and certainly I experienced a number of furtive and concerned looks from the attendees – why was I taking photos they may have thought.
As I took these photos of the dying world I thought that this would be one of the last…but somethings customs can have greater resilience than that. Perhaps thanks to a combination a better organisation, that increased desire to preserve old customs and the media appeal of the travellers and their customs the Brigg Fair is bigger and better than ever.  Now the event starts with a parade of horses for the entertainment of the crowds…which sounds like a long way away from the trotting ban of early in the 20th century.

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Custom revived: Old Bolingbroke Candle Auction

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Flaming popular

The tools for the auction“It was pleasant to see how backward men are a first to bid; and yet, when the candle was going out, how they brawl.”

So wrote Pepys of an auction in 1662. Auction by candle and pin was very popular in the mid 17th century, often over land for grazing and those given as bequests for charitable purposes. The basic procedure being the inserting of pin into the lit candle and then the bids continuing until the said pin fell.

Waxing and waning

Eleven candle auctions survive in England, some more famed than others. In Old Bolingbroke, Lincolnshire, a piece of land called Poor Folk’s Close a six acre site in the parish was auctioned for providing a money for the poor on the 21st December, St Thomas Day, noted for Thomasing, so no doubt it was established to prevent begging! Henry Brown in the book, Sold Reminiscences of a Lincolnshire Auctioneer noted:

“One can imagine the frantic flurry of bids as he final point approached and the pin perhaps began to sway a little. I imagine there must have been many arguments as to who exactly had the last bid as the pin fell. As always the auctioneer’s decision was final.”

This original auction appears to have died out in 1920s. The present form dates from the 1937, in celebration of the silver jubilee of George V, when a will of the Ramsden, gave land to pay for the upkeep of the village hall was knowingly established to revive and maintain the custom.
The will stipulating:

“Let the grazing of the field annually by the ancient custom and method peculiar to Old Bolingbroke, known as the Candlestick auction. The pin shall be inserted in the side of a lighted candle not more than one inch from the top and the person who is the highest bidder when the pin drops out shall be the purchaser of the grazing for the year.”

The holder had grazing rights for sheep only, although two horses could be grazed there as well but no poultry. The grazing commennced from the 1st April to 31st October, with half the hammer price being paid at the auction and half at the termination in October. The holder is responsible for the upkeep of the fencing and weed removal but the materials would be paid for by the council. Interestingly, a percentage of the profit would go to support any student in the parish who may need monetary help for the studies. The custom was for many years continued at the Ramsden Hall in the village, but seeing the rent contract for a number of years, moved it to Horncastle to join an equally old, or infact older, summer graving auction.

Candle in the wind

The day of the auction was very cold and a harsh wind was blowing on and off fortunately the auction was to be held in the warmer surrounds of the Black Swan, Horncastle, one of many inns in this delightful town, a few minutes before the start. I was met by the rather bucolic and friendly figure of George Bell, the auctioneer. Soon the room began to fill up with the world weary local farming community. A sea of green Barber jackets could be seen nestling in the pub surrounds awaiting the start of the auction. What was clear that this was a community coming together over the auction, Mr. Bell being very familiar with a large number of attendees.

Lighting the candleInserting the pin

At 1.30 sharp the auctioneer banged his gavel, and outlined the procedure. The candle was the light set up in ornate candlestick and diligently, over some discussion over what pin to use, a pin was inserted and the bidding begun…the eyes of he auctioneer flitting across the room as he repeated feverishly the bids, 20, 20, 22…the weather worn focused farmer faces breaking occasionally in the humour of the situation as it appeared the pin was not moving…after 7 minutes or so, it was decided to go to another lot. Asking of anyone else was about to bid – the room was silent at £32. Just as the bidding on this ended and another lot was to be read the pin began to rock and just when no one was looking it fell. The bidder got it for £32 an acre, a bargain as in 2011 it reached £322 and in 2008, the first year the auction moved to Horncastle it raised an enormous £980. Understandably, with the cold harsh wintry weather outside, with snow on the ground, thoughts of summer grazing was perhaps not formost for some. The auction was a window displaying how hard it has been of late for these farmers – wet summers, compounded with snow into spring – have meant it has difficult for many of these communities and not surprisingly perhaps the price of a small field in Bolingbroke was less than it had been.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Old Bollingbroke Candle Auction (35)Has it gone?..it has!