“At Corby near Rockingham, every twentieth year, the inhabitants assemble at an early hour, and stop up all roads and bye-ways in the parish, and demand a certain toll of every person, gentle or simple, who may have occasion to pass through the village on that day. In case of non-compliance a stout pole is produced, and the nonconformist is placed thereon, in a riding attitude, carried through the village, and taken to the parish stocks and imprisoned until the authorities choose to grant a dismissal. It appears that Queen Elizabeth granted to the inhabitants of Corby a charter to free them from town toll throughout England, Wales, and Scotland; and also to exempt them from serving on juries at Northampton, and to free the knights of the shire from the militia law. This custom of taking toll has been observed every twenty years in commemoration of the granting of the charter.—N. & Q. 3rd S. vol. i. p. 424.”
And much as the notes and queries records this is what greats the visitor today on Corby’s most important day.
My first and at that time only experience of the Corby Pole fair was unsurprisingly 20 years previous in 2002. I had found out about it from Charles Kighty’s The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain which at the time was one of my sole sources for calendar customs and was curious to see this rare event. However, I must admit it did not impress; true there were the gates and the stocks, but no riding the stang, more of in a moment. It was to all intents and purposes it was just a big funfair sandwiched into a suburb. The sky was grey and the town busy. I did not find it an interesting experience. Thus 20 years later I was slightly wary of what I would experience. To be fair to the fair, I did not experience the traditional proclamation – which the book did not mention, and it was this I was particularly interested in experiencing!
Staying overnight within the village is to be recommended because then you can appreciate the rather surreal nature of being enclosed with a fair village. One of the traditions of the custom is the setting up of the barriers, the tolls, which are then covered with flowers. For 2022 these were set up in three places and decorated with foliage and children’s artwork. Being within the boundary of course also meant no toll!
Fairs like their proclamations and they are always colourful but I would say that Corby’s proclamation is one of the most interesting starting as it does at dawn with the chiming of the bells of St John the Baptist Church in Corby Old Village to gather all the village folk to hear it. I could not hear the bells but fortunately my alarm had got me up early enough and I made my way to the church following the then obvious chimes. There a fair sized congregation had assembled; many of which were press. At the foot of the church steps were three wooden sedan chairs as part of the tradition is the chairing of the proclamation party between the sites. This party consists of the vicar, the Mayor and the oldest resident of the village. Soon the bells stopped and a small choir appeared and started to sing; their sound magically swirling around in the air as the vicar read out the proclamation. Then Rev Paul Frost was given the honour of reading the Charter granted to the village in 1585 by Queen Elizabeth I. After it was read for the first time in public for 20 years of course; the three walked down and settled themselves into their chairs ready to be carried. There was a considerable amount of laughter and nervousness from all involved, as well as considerable press interest, as the volunteers grabbed each corner of the chairs and one by one, they lifted their charges up – first the oldest resident, an overjoyed June Thompson, then the vicar and lastly the mayor, Tafadwa Chikoto.
The crowd parted and off they paraded down the street to the next proclamation point – a local pub, the White Hart, located at another entrance. Here standing on a wall the proclamation was again read and the party moved back to their chairs…noticing the lack of volunteers I opted to help. Well, it would be another 20 year until I have the next chance and I do not honestly think I’d be able to carry the vicar. Plus I noticed it was downhill from here and surprisingly it was quite easy…and I hoped that it put a good word in for me ‘upstairs’. At the final pub, the Jamb, it had been moved to accommodate the radio show, the chairs were lowered for a final time and the proclamation read for the final time. Then it was time for another Pole fair tradition, missed last time also – the free breakfast! Rather surreally attended by Vikings, knights and ordinary people…
T. F. Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1875 British Popular customs present and past notes that:
“Why it is held every 20 years has never been discovered, nor why it is called a pole fair. But one theory suggests that when the Danes settled in the area, naming Corby village ‘The BY of Kori’, they brought many customs and punishments with them.
One such punishment, which lends itself to the theory, was ‘riding the stang’.
This involved men who had committed minor offences being carried astride an ash pole or stang. Insults and missiles where then thrown at the punished as they were carried through the town or village.”
Further ‘The Rutland Appendix to Almanacks for 1826’ states
“They went on to describe the demands for tolls from every person who passed through Corby that day with non-payers being made to ride through the town to jeers and shouts from the locals as penance, followed by a period of time spent in the stocks.”
This was one of the aspects I had missed in 2002 and despite seeing the stocks there was no-one in them and at the point of entry I was half minded not to pay so that that I would have to be carried ‘riding the stang’…but I don’t think that was the done thing or not! Photos of the custom show up – including in 1982!
Twenty years on and there were new stocks at Stock’s Lane and plenty of people queuing up to be put inside them for their amusing photo. But would there be a stang? Then by chance I was standing by the stocks when three people arrived two carrying a pole between their shoulders…and then as modern electro soundtrack blasted out the entered into a fluid dance, weaving in and out of each other and the pole in an interpretative dance the aim to avoid the stang! Then after much toing and froing one of them was captured onto the stang and was raised into the air and carried to the stocks. It was certainly a very interesting way of keeping the tradition alive and one which was certainly an improvement from 2002 (I could not be sure that they did this then to be honest)
There was also the traditional procession with large figures of important Corby people, including Queen Elizabeth of course and a colourful interjection of Romanian folk dancers – who indeed added a delightfully unique experience at one of the stages. Later in the afternoon was the pageant, and after a technical issue, was a splendid re-telling of the Elizabeth charter giving in wonderful custom.
There were other traditions associated with the custom which continued – the ox roast and the greasy pole – however, unlike 2002, the dreaded health and safety had prevented anyone attempting it and it was replaced by a photo opportunity…shame but also I thought I was glad that the healthy and safety brigade had not stopped the sedan chair carrying.
The agreed account is that Elizabeth gave the fair but needless to say that no such charter can be found, but Charles II did confirm the fair in 1682, Furthermore, there is evidence of fairs in 1226. Henry III granted the right to hold two annual fairs and markets. Of the Pole fair first documented account is written in Latin which is said to be the charter authorising the event, which states the last time it was celebrated was the 11th of June 1821. Furthermore, The Mercury Herald of November 6, 1936 has an article recalling the memories of a Miss Collier recalls attending five Pole Fairs, the earliest being 1842, 21 years later!1862 appears to be the possible date when after which the 20 years was introduced…but why is unclear! Perhaps it was a cost thing? However, the pole fair is a real boost to the local economy and a joyful experience and as by Laura Malpas in an article for Northamptonshire surprise notes:
“The last five Pole Fairs have come at a time when the people of Corby most needed to be cheered and to celebrate life. In 1922, the effects of the Great War were still evident as the village had lost forty-one men, and the fragility of the peace in Europe was still a concern. In 1942, the country was still in the grip of the Second World War and so the Pole fair was delayed until 1947, when the celebration was sweet indeed. 1962 saw the growth of the new town and an increased population as Corby was strong economically, but the following fair in 1982 was very different. Corby had suffered dreadfully from hardship following the decision by British Steel to close the steelworks and let the blast furnaces go out. However, there was still steel inside the hearts of the people of Corby to survive and thrive. The 1982 Pole Fair was a much-needed boost to the locals, and in 2002, the most recent fair held was a great celebration by the newly revitalised town which even today is still experiencing spectacular growth.”
And one could add 2022 with the cost of living crisis and Ukraine conflict. With the fantastic Viking camp, jousting knights, Morris dancers and all the fun of the fair…2022 was one of those rare things for me; much much better than last time! See you in 2042!