Fair exchange – token of cash for a job
Grace Weller, Community Learning Officer at Chiltern Open Air Museum, enlightens us about some of the history of Michaelmas, Mop Fairs and Harvest Festival
THE last day of the harvest and the beginning of autumn has traditionally been celebrated on Michaelmas Day, or the Feast of St Michael the Archangel. Before the calendar reform of 1752, it fell on October 10 or 11 but these days it is marked on September 29 and is more frequently celebrated as a Harvest Festival.
There are many traditions associated with Michaelmas, such as the ‘stubble goose’ – a goose fattened on the crop stubble left in the fields after harvesting. It was eaten at harvest suppers to protect against financial hardships during the following year.
Michaelmas also had strong links to finance and employment. As a Quarter Day, close to the solstices and equinoxes that mark the seasons, it was a time when rent was due and bills were to be paid.
The custom of eating geese may even have stemmed from the gift of a goose, presented to landlords as a way of gaining favour if there was going to be a delay in payment!
Hiring fairs, or ‘mop fairs’, were another common event around Michaelmas and into October. Servants and farm labourers were typically employed from October to October, to tie in with the harvest year.
Wearing their best clothes, they gathered in towns to meet potential employers. Signs and symbols signifying their skills or trade were carried or worn in buttonholes, so shepherds might have wool or a crook, blacksmiths a horseshoe, or cooks a wooden spoon. General maids would carry a mop, giving the hiring fairs their name.
Landowners wandered the fairs, speaking with potential workers. If they reached an agreement, they handed over a small token of money, and the new employee swapped their sign with brightly coloured ribbons to show they were no longer available for hire.
This agreement didn’t always work out, so many places held another fair the following week, for those who either had not been taken on the first time around, or whose employment had fallen through, for whatever reason.
During the Victorian era, there were concerns about morality at such fairs. Workers were celebrating having brought in the harvest, they had just received their wages and would be spending them, as well as their tokens of new employment, at stalls packed with food, drink and games. Some towns began to separate the hiring of men and women, with the latter frequently moved to indoor locations.
However, hiring fairs still continued into the 20th century. Many market towns in Buckinghamshire held them, including Buckingham, Great Missenden and Wing.
The First World War signalled their end in many places, but in High Wycombe the practice continued and in 1925 was described as a pleasure fair, with funfair rides and attractions.
For more information about the traditional Harvest Festival Weekend at Chiltern Open Air Museum, visit www.coam.org.uk.
Recreation of a hiring fair – or mop fair as it was sometimes called – at Chiltern Open Air Museum Two men at a hiring fair in about 1900, hoping for an offer of work from local landowners; right, shepherds were another group of land workers who would be searching for work for the coming year at the hiring fair