An­cient Fair

For four cen­turies Fair Green in Diss hosted a re­mark­able event; PA­TRI­CIA STAMMERS traces the his­tory of this oc­ca­sion­ally rowdy fair

EDP Norfolk - - Inside -

A look back at the his­tory of the oc­ca­sion­ally ri­otous Diss Fair

IT is Oc­to­ber 26, 1185, and there’s a com­mo­tion in the Cock Green area on the out­skirts of Diss, or Disce as the town was then known. Shout­ing, bleat­ing, bel­low­ing, cluck­ing, hiss­ing, crow­ing fills the air as peo­ple and their stock ar­rive from all cor­ners of Suf­folk and Nor­folk for the fair and horses’ hooves and wagon wheels churn up the grass.

Some folk have trav­elled on foot, push­ing hand­carts full of pro­duce; oth­ers ar­rive on horse­back. Quite soon there’s the scent of wood smoke and her­rings will be fried, stalls erected, an­i­mals and poul­try penned. Cir­cus mem­bers are al­ready prac­tis­ing som­er­saults and warm­ing up in time for their first per­for­mance.

Doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence is scarce but Sir William FitzRobert, Lord of the Manor of Diss, is thought to have been re­spon­si­ble for the pro­ceed­ings since he had ob­tained per­mis­sion for the fair from the king, pos­si­bly Richard I. Sir William charged the stall-hold­ers two pence and the money was col­lected by his bailiff. Traders rent­ing a ‘tilted’ stall, that is one with an awning, paid a higher fee but food sell­ers were not charged.

Sir William may have kept an ac­count of the pro­ceed­ings but if so it has yet to be found. Seem­ingly, he had bought Cock Street and Cock Street Green from the owner of a smaller manor for the pur­pose. Any­way the fair was to be an an­nual event held on the Feast of saints Si­mon and Jude. Any­one and ev­ery­one was al­lowed to par­tic­i­pate and the fair was par­tic­u­larly wel­comed by peo­ple who had no shop from which to sell their goods.

When stalls were set, tents erected, live­stock se­cured and the fair open for busi­ness what else would you be likely to have found?

‘Nets, bas­kets, clogs, leather goods, har­ness, car­pen­try, iron­ware, pottery fish, eggs, fruit, wool and flax fi­bre,’ ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Eric Purse­house (Waveney Val­ley

Stud­ies, Diss Pub­lish­ing, 1966). If none of those ap­pealed you could watch the clowns, renowned for wit as well as crazy clothes, and danc­ing girls with tam­bourines. You would be most likely to meet weavers, mer­chants of the cloth trade and plough men among the crowd gath­ered to watch a wrestling match. Thirsty work, but find­ing re­fresh­ment was not a prob­lem be­cause if there was an oak branch hang­ing from the upper win­dow of a nearby cot­tage that meant the oc­cu­pants had brewed some beer.

Ap­par­ently, a cer­tain group of vis­i­tors, gamesters, trav­elled to Scole Inn where they stayed while wait­ing for the fair to be­gin. The main ob­ject of their attendance at Disce Fair was to place a bet on a cock­erel or dog which they thought most likely to win a fight. So while the merry-gor­ound whirled and clowns cheeked the crowd pun­ters made for the cock-pit or the bull-ring.

How­ever, in the cock-pit Red Cap, a flam­boy­ant bird of ex­cep­tional size, wasn’t in the mood for fight­ing and ig­nored his op­po­nent’s at­tacks for a while. The Ken­ning­hall Champ’s of­fen­sive even­tu­ally up­set him, though, and the scream­ing birds fought for 15 min­utes un­til Red Cap was floored. Up­roar fol­lowed in the crowd and the suc­cess­ful pun­ters were paid.

Bull bait­ing was even worse but Sir Rod­er­ick, the magnificent Thet­ford bull, stood for no non­sense. When or­dered by his mas­ter, a dog at­tacked Sir Rod­er­ick, who had been chained to a stake and en­closed within a fence. In­fu­ri­ated by a bite on the nose Sir Rod­er­ick low­ered his horns, scooped up the dog and tossed it into the crowd. An­other dog was brought for­ward and or­dered to an­noy the bull. This time Rod­er­ick, with bit­ten and bleed­ing nose, didn’t bother at­tack­ing the dog so mus­tard was sprin­kled on his wounds as por­ten­tous grey clouds gath­ered. In­fu­ri­ated by pain the bull pulled the stake to which he was chained out of the ground, charged through the fence and scat­tered the crowd. A thun­der­storm broke but un­for­tu­nately the chron­i­cle doesn’t in­clude an ac­count of what hap­pened next. Pre­sum­ably he was caught and his owner would have thought twice be­fore putting him in the bull bait­ing con­test again.

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