From the 18th – 21st of October this Year, the Chichester Festival Theatre car park at Northgate will be closed for Chichester’s annual Sloe Fair, representing a tradition that has lasted for over 900 years
It is the longest-running, and last surviving of five ancient fairs in the city, as the right to hold the Sloe Fair was granted in 1107 by King Henry I to the Bishop of Chichester, Ralph de Luffa (1091-1125). In the Royal charter, Henry I gave permission for a fair but it was up to Bishop de Luffa when and where it was held. He decided it should be held at Canon gate, and fall on the feast day of St Faith the Virgin (6th October) and last for eight days until the feats of St Edward. The Fair was subsequently moved to its present location and called the Sloe fair because of a sloe tree that once grew on the site. Due to the establishment of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 the fair changed dates to 20th October to avoid confusion with the Michaelmas Fair (Michaelmas falls on 29th September) it is thought that at this time the fair was reduced to one day.
The advantage of the Sloe fair being granted allowed Bishop Luffa to create a Court of Pie Powder, allowing him to administer justice at feast days, when courts would normally cease. The Court of Pie Powder was so called because of the dusty footed merchants and travellers who often attended the fairs, and thus the courts, and often dealt with offences connected with trading, coming from pieds poudrés (dusty feet) in French.
The image of the fair being a hotbed of bad behaviour has always been accepted as fact, and possibly the reason for the setup of the Court of Pie Powder. In the Chichester Observer, 17th October 1996, Joyce Eccleston seems to suggest that local magistrates were resigned to outbreaks of disorder and drunkenness and contemporary accounts give some beautiful testimonials of intoxicated souls. Including one PC Constable Philips, who in the mid-1800s, had to apologise for being drunk whilst on duty at the fair.
Over the past 900 hundred years the fair has evolved from a livestock show to what has been described as a pure piece of jollification. In the journal of the Chichester Local History Society (Chichester History no.23), Ruth Bagnall described the fair in the 20th century as ‘a couple of days of real enjoyment for young people with roundabouts, swings, coconut shires, the big dipper, shooting ranges and hoop-la’s’. But who wouldn’t want to be there in the late 1800s with conjurers, peep shows, and acrobats or even in the early 19th century with lion tamers, tiger cubs, fortune tellers and escapologists? One well-known attraction in 1904 was the steam-driven Switchback Railway that was electrically illuminated at night. Chichester still had gas lamps at the time, so electricity was a major attraction.
The Town Officials and other members of the community disliked the event with its mayhem, noise, disruption and the increase
in breaches of the peace, which happened during the Fair, and several attempts have been made throughout the years to abolish it. In 1904 a campaign for its abolition reached its peak with the Board Of Guardians wishing to extend their Workhouse on adjacent land that was Sloe Fair field. The Town Council supported the Guardians’ scheme, and the Fair of that year was expected to be the last and even the Salvation Army maintained a vigil near North Wales on Fair Day to warn people of the immorality of the proceedings. However, the population of Chichester felt that to do away with the fair would be a cruel shame and, it was even defended by Superintendent Ellis, who helped justify its ongoing existence by remarking that it was not a ‘particular drain on Police resources’. Thankfully, due to its popularity with the people of Chichester, the Sloe fair saved itself! In the event it was one of the best ever held with thousands of people attending that year and the next, and the event has now continued into the 21st century.
Imogen Russell, Searchroom Assistant