West Sussex Unwrapped II: Month 6 – Ancient Fairs

What separates a fair from a market? The two terms can be used interchangeably. For the purposes of this blog, markets are a monthly, weekly, or in some larger cities a daily event, dealing in fresh produce from the local area. On the other hand, fairs are traditionally cyclical and annual and tended to target a more ‘upmarket’ demographic: spices, cloth, wool and pottery and ceramics. The term ‘fair’ it is believed, comes from the French feroie, which is also where the word festival could originate. They can also be horrendously complicated to get to grips with.

West Sussex Fairs on Film

Click the gif to watch the film!

Snippet from the film St Lawrence Fair at Hurstpierpoint, by Screen Archive South East, part of the series for West Sussex Unwrapped.

Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.

West Sussex Fairs in the Archives

AM 1507/8 – Merry-go-round at Sloe Fair, Chichester in the 1930s

The earliest recorded fair in West Sussex occurred in Arundel in 1071. Over the centuries, it has been a long and slow transition from its mediaeval heyday. As with many things, the Reformation is partly to blame. Charter Fairs were tightly bound to the Church, occurring on Feast Days and religious holidays, and were often hosted on Church property, or made contributions towards the Church in order to be held.

These religious connections were severed by the Reformation, and, with that, a slow decline of the trading aspect of many fairs began. This was further exacerbated by commercialisation of the 1800s. As it became easier to produce and distribute goods through warehouses and railways, it made the trip to the local fair seem downright provincial. As the centuries moved on, the side shows of entertainment (and food) that accompanied the fairs became the main attraction.

Centuries ago, when the hurly-burly of trading predominated, gloomy melodrama, performances of outrageous daring, macabre exhibitions and cheerful trickery were merely the entertainment backcloth. In the 1800s, when mass production exploded the consumer market, the merchants elevated themselves from the melee of barter, creating wholesale warehouses and using railways for distribution. But fairs that had been established by prescription and ancient charter were perpetuated by the itinerant showman…

David Braithwaite, Travelling Fairs, 1975
Sepia cartoon showing church spire, donkeys and dogs and carriages, and people at market stalls

There are four types of fairs: Charter (granted by a royal charter); Prescriptive (established by custom); Statutory (also known as Hiring or Mop Fairs) and Auction. There is some debate over the legitimacy of whether Auction Fairs qualify! Below we look at Findon (auction); Chichester (charter) and Petworth (prescriptive) as examples of the different types of fairs, as well as some smaller or defunct ones dotted around the county.

Findon Sheep Fair

Garland N18700 – Filming at Findon Fair in September 1939

Findon’s fair is, in the grand scheme of things, a relatively young event. A fair or a market (sources differ) in Findon may have been occurring since c1261 under the de Clifford family. However, after a lull in activity, a Sheep Fair was founded in 1785 by George Holford. Originally hosted on Nepcote Green within Findon itself, the fair’s location and date has migrated throughout the years. The date soon became fixed to around the 14th of September. The fair has only been cancelled three times in its 200+ year history; once in 2001 due to the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak and then again the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

There was an ongoing dispute over who exactly was owed the toll fees – the lord of the Manor? The parish? George Holden’s family? Accounts varied wildly, with the Lord of the Manor arguing that sufficient evidence did not exist, with one letter by a solicitor claiming that they:

…have looked through the Rolls of the manor of Findon and I cannot find any record of any grant of rights of management having been created in 1790 to Mr. George Holford

Add Mss 452

Two bundles of documents, Add Mss 452 and Par 84/11/1 detail this dispute through many, many, many, letters to solicitors, churchwardens and other parties.

Outisde of this, the fair has not always been without incident. The saddest example is by far the death of a fairground employee in September 1908.

Worthing Gazette, 30th September 1908, detailing the story of a Findon Fair worker who lost their life.

Chichester’s Five Fairs

an orderly orgy of hurdy-gurdies, ferocious lions, fat women, ‘rides of death’ and all the familiar manifestations of noisy, childish excitements comprised in the expression ‘the fun of the fair’… No man who does not joyfully attend Sloe Fair can possibly be a true Cicestrian.

MP 2038, describing the fair in 1935
ChiCity/AS/1 f 6 – Plan of lands featuring the Sloe Fair Field, c1783
ChiCity/AG/3 – Notebook of accounts, including Sloe Fair tolls in 1860

At one point or another, Chichester was running five different fairs across the city. However, only the Sloe Fair remains to this day.

St George’s fair was held on the 23 April and was large enough to qualify for a pie powder court (check out what that is over in one of our earlier blogs here), but was abolished in 1873.

Whit Monday fair was moveable due to the date of Easter that year, and as far as we know was not a charter fair. It too was abolished in the 19th century.

St James’s fair was established by Edward I in 1289 to out-do the Earl Of Arundel and was hosted on the 25 July. It used to be held in a field near the hospital of St James in St Pancras. It was famous for its toys, gingerbread and donkeys, but was definitively ended by 1889 or perhaps earlier in the 1870s.

The Michaelmas fair was claimed by the Earl of Cornwall in 1289, originally held on the 10 October before the changing calendar shifted it to September. It was held in a field which is now the area around St Richard’s Hospital and Melbourne Road. It was described as “a large fair for cattle, corn, cheese and hops. It was a great day for country people. Now at this fair was a rare place for the young to buy their whips… and new ribbons for their sweethearts bonnets.” It also folded in the 19th century.

POL/CH/7/4/6 – Conduct report by Superintendent Pratt on conduct of PC Joseph Phillips for having been drunk on the night of the Sloe Fair, 1884

The sole survivor is the Sloe Fair. The earliest record we have of this fair within Chichester comes from Henry I’s charter, dating from 1107, although it is likely that some form of fair in Chichester predates this. Henry’s charter allowed an eight-day fair to be held, with the date chosen to be in October by the Bishop. It was described as having been there “since before memory exists – its beginnings are ‘wropt in mistry’.”

The exact day of the Sloe Fair shimmied around the month, before settling on its current date. The Sloe Fair, as it came to be known, is a topic we have written on once or twice (check out our blogs on the fair and its piepowder court here, here, and here respectively), so we won’t go into too much depth, however it is noteworthy that the Sloe Fair has never not gone ahead. Technically. In order to maintain the right to hold a fair, even in times like the World War Two and the Covid-19 pandemic, one stall or caravan would be placed on the site in the Northgate car park to ensure that the right to hold the fair was valid until the following year.

The Sloe Fair has seen some interesting events over its 900-year history, including brawling and drunk policeman getting a bit too rowdy whilst on duty.

PH 32234 – Fairground at Sloe Fair in Chichester, 1955


Petworth’s fair is amongst the oldest in the county and is held on 20 November. It is held through prescriptive rights and can be traced back to 1189 or earlier. The title is held by Earl Egremont, on whose behalf the Petworth Society would collect the tolls. We know in 1273 it was held at Egdean in what is still to this day called Fair Field. By 1275, members of the Percy family (who were the landowners of Petworth) refused to apply for a charter on the grounds that the prescriptive rights were already ‘beyond the memory of man’.

Add Mss 54787 – Silver Cup awarded to Mr H Colgate in 1796 for the best bull at Petworth Fair

On the day of the fair on the 12 November in 1830, a letter was found by on the porch of a local banker –

Gentleman, take care of your cattle and yourselves for when we begin we are resolved to burn down the house of Mr S and perhaps the whole of Petworth for when we begin God knows what the end may be, for we think Petworth have had it rain long enough, so prepare yourselves for we certainly are coming before the same week is at an end, so prepare yourself

QR/W758 f161

The day after the letter was found, there was a riot in the Workhouse. The fair and the banker’s property were subsequent victims of an arson attack, but it was a small smouldering one that was easily put out. The perpetrator, a young girl called Sarah Mitchell, had been paid to write the letter and set the fire. She was punished with twelve months hard labour. It was during the time when the Swing Riots were in full force, and is detailed in QR/W758 – a quarter sessions roll for January 1831. To learn more about the Swing Riots, check out an earlier blog here for what happened over at Goodwood the same year.

Defunct Fairs

PP/WSL/P002640 – Crawley High Street during the Fair, 1914. Photograph belongs to West Sussex County Council Library Service
PP/WSL/P002643 – Crawley High Street during the Fair, 1905. Photograph belongs to West Sussex County Council Library Service
PP/WSL/P003527 – Crawley High Street during the Fair, 1914. Photograph belongs to West Sussex County Council Library Service

There were and still are a variety of fairs and markets throughout the county, though many have now folded. Possibly the least popular in the early 20th Century was Bognor’s fair. Its beginnings can be found in 1327 as a church feast day on the 10 July, before evolving to span two days on the 5 and 6 July. However, it was loathed by the 19th century. Opinions given in the West Sussex Gazette gave such scathing reviews as “this is a utilitarian age… that which is useless, or prejudicial, or inimical to the interests of society must be sacrificed… there is nothing sensible about the fair. It is a stupid vestige of the dead past, without the slightest claim to patronage or indulgence…”.

It wasn’t just the public who loathed it; the local council were also keen to end the fair, but it seemed akin to a rash that would not go away. One report from the Clerk read “as far as he could see, there did not appear to be any chance of getting rid of the fair as long as a man could be found to provide a field for the purpose.” And so it staggered on until 1931, whereupon a new type of fairground made its way to the seafront – the first of Billy Butlin’s businesses in Bognor.

Crawley fair was founded during the reign of King John. Until the 1920s, it was held in the high street of old Crawley town twice a year; once in May and once in September. It ended in the 1920s, when its location became more of a hinderance than a benefit to the town.

Steyning potentially had a fair dating before the Norman conquest. In 1279 there was a fair on the 8 September and again on Michaelmas. A third fair would be added in late May by the 19th century.  The three fairs survived in the early 19th century, but only the Michaelmas fair was still held in 1855. With the closure of the railway in 1966, both the town’s market and remaining fair suffered. The market closed in 1974, and the fair, which was still described as ‘considerable’ in 1938, had ceased a few years prior.

These were not the only fairs in West Sussex, indeed many other existed at one point or another. During the 13th Century, over 2,000 royal charters were issued throughout the country to give towns and rural areas the rights to hold fairs. One estimate has it that around 2,400 places in England and Wales had held least one market and/or fair by 1516. By the late 1700s, fairs were less commodity-orientated, and they had developed an unsavoury reputation that, one by one, would see many fail to make it to the twentieth century, their trading aspect vanished in favour of the fairground. Whilst the numbers are no longer at their peak, fairs and markets still occupy a special place in today’s world.

Next month, we’ll be looking at Shoreham Harbour for Industrial Sussex!

Look out for Episode 7 on Tuesday 10th of August!

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2 thoughts on “West Sussex Unwrapped II: Month 6 – Ancient Fairs

  1. You have 3 photographs of Petworth Fair and the middle one is of Arch Knight the town crier and master of the market tolls. He is incorrectly described as a fair worker when in fact the fair was not held during the war years but Mr Knight would erect a trestle as a gesture on each November 20th. This is something that my daughter and I did last year and we will do again until the fair is reinstated after the pandemic.


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