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

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - PEOPLE AND PLACES -

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

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