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