Yeovil's fairs

Yeovil's fairs

From Charter Fairs to Pleasure Fairs


Many charter fairs date back to the Middle Ages, with their heyday occurring during the 13th century. Originally, most charter fairs started as street markets and this was most likely the case with Yeovil. In medieval times Yeovil had two annual charter fairs, originally held on St Bartholomew’s Day (28 June) and St Leonard’s Day (17 November).

A charter fair was a street fair or market which was established by Royal Charter. Both of Yeovil’s fairs were confirmed in a charter by Henry V (1386–1422) to Elizabeth, Abbess of the Convent of Syon, Middlesex, who at that time held the lordship of the borough, it having been transferred from the Rector. That they were ‘confirmed’ by Henry V implies that they were already taking place.

St Bartholomew’s Day was a traditional time to have fairs in England, the first known being held as early as 1133 at Smithfield in London. The St Leonard’s Fair, later becoming primarily for selling rother cattle, was held in the ‘field called Huishe in Hendford’. As a sidenote; the word 'rother' is an old Anglo-Saxon word for cattle. The rother cattle were long-horned, fleshy beasts prized for their meat, milk, hide and horn (see photo below).

In the 16th century Holinshead, in reference to Yeovil’s fairs, wrote “little else was bought and sold in them more than good drink, pies and some pedlarie trash”. By 1785, the Traveller’s Pocket Book noted the two annual fairs were held at Yeovil on the last Friday in June and the third Friday in November for “the sale of horses, bullocks, sheep, lambs, hogs and wool”. Collinson, writing in 1791 said "There are two fairs of two days each ; one held on the sixteenth of November; the other the twenty-eighth of June; both for cattle of all kinds, narrow cloths, and pedlary ware." In 1797 Billingsley, in a ‘List of Fairs to which the Somerset Graziers resort to buy Lean Stock’, also listed Yeovil's fairs as 28 June and 17 November.

"Wednesday was committed to Ivelchester gaol by E Phelips Esq. Thomas Goodfellow, a hawker and pedlar, having been detected in picking a man's pocket of a purse, containing three guineas and some silver, at Yeovil Fair."  Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, 8 July 1790.

In 1819 the Portreeve's Accounts record "Paid the Constables for their activity at the Fair and for taking up pickpockets - £1.0.0."

The fairs continued, and in the middle of the 19th century Lewis stated “Fairs are held on June 28th and November 17th, for horses, cattle, and pedlery; each continuing for two days”. While in 1856 Vickery wrote “There are two fairs for cattle, held in June and November. At the fair held in June, 1855, 4000 sheep were penned and 600 beasts; and in November, 6000 sheep and 700 beasts. There is generally a good show of horses. A pleasure fair is also held in High Street and Silver Street, which generally continues for the remainder of the week, from the day the fair commences.”

One correspondent to the Western Gazette recalled "... booths were set up in the Borough and Silver Street, swings were set up at the bottom of Silver Street, and merry-go-rounds and side shows of all sorts in the Cattle Market (today's Princes Street). In the late 1880s, two preposterous quacks, appear to have toured the larger towns of the West Country. One of them came to Yeovil, and after due advertisement in processions throughout the town, gave nightly exhibitions before large crowds, of his 'miraculous' powers of healing, in an open carriage in the Cattle Market. This display was given at the expense of various rheumatic cripples, with a band blaring away to drown their cries. He must have made pots of money by the sale of various nostrums to the credulous, and apparently he got away with it."


From the diary of Louisa Harris ....

"27 June 1890:  Half-yearly fair. This afternoon went to see the round-a-bouts, and hear Rheumak, a medicine man from America who is here for two or three weeks. Every day, in the Cattle Market he addresses the crowd, extracts teeth, sells medicine, gives away some, and professes to cure cases of deafness and rheumatism after all the doctors have failed. He wears a buckskin coat, cowboy hat etc., rides in a gilded chariot and is attended by a brass band."


In the 1890’s it was proposed moving the fairs to Wyndham Fields to avoid the disruption to trade caused by the fairs, however this came to nothing.

In 1903 the Western Chronicle published recollections of the fair by J Edwards "Yeovil Fair used to be a great day in Yeovil - the principle day of the year for business. In those romantic days, every boy was given a horn and at four o'clock in the morning of 17 November they would meet on top of Wyndham Hill and by blowing it travellers were guided to Yeovil. The custom was kept up long after the Engineering of roads rendered the horn blowing a necessity and it was ultimately suppressed as a nuisance. This seems to have been the first grandmotherly bye-law in Yeovil. The fair ground stretched from Stuckey's Bank to the Duke of York."

Around the turn of the century the Corporation purchased Fairfield, Huish. Fairfield, originally roughly between Wellington Street and Richmond Road, is now occupied by part of Wellington Flats, Queensway and the Royal Mail sorting office.

In 1906 the Western Gazette rendered a good description of the fair as follows - "This ancient institution, a two day fixture, which opened on Friday, brought in huge numbers of people from the surrounding country. On Friday, the weather being fine, there was a very large influx.... The business section of the fair proved very satisfactory; Messrs Palmer had some 5,000 sheep penned and 320 cattle also came on offer. Everything was sold at good prices. There were quite an average number of stands in the Borough and High Street, these being in the occupation of various stallholders and 'professors', ranging from the ubiquitous purveyor of gingerbread and 'rock' to raucous-voiced vendors of merchandise embracing cheap jewellery, canaries, horse cloths, alarum clocks, and absolute cures for all the evils mortal flesh is heir to. Silver Street was a pandemonium of shouting 'copers' (a coper was a horse dealer, especially a dishonest one), fluttering flags, and plunging horses, and considerable agility was demanded of passers-by to get through the press without damage.... The "pleasure" fair at Huish was well attended in the afternoon, but received less support than is usually the case, householders in the vicinity getting much-needed relief by 10.30pm. On Saturday afternoon large numbers visited the field, but in the evening a rain, which turned the surface into a quagmire, seriously affected the business of the showmen."

The following description is from the Western Gazette's report of the following year "Many stalls were erected in High Street and the Borough according to custom and itinerant tradesmen and 'professors' disposed of quack medicines, second hand clothes, sweetstuffs and gingerbread, whilst an ungrammatical phrenologist discoursed more or less learnedly on  'bumps' and spiritualism. In Silver Street the Irish and other horse dealers had the usual busy time, and disposed of many excellent animals, and the "showing off" of the horses, which were trotted up and down, and the methods of the men themselves made Silver Street anything but a pleasant place of residence. The "pleasure fair" was the largest seen for some years and attracted many people. Here the continual grinding of about half a dozen mechanical organs, the blowing of steam whistles, the raucous shouts of showmen inviting all and sundry to "walk up", springing rattles and ringing bells, produced the pandemonium inseparable from the "fun of the fair". Notwithstanding the crowds which blocked Middle Street, the Borough and High Street, no accident of any serious nature occurred, and excellent order was kept by the police." 

The twice-annual fairs continued there until the 1970’s although by this time the character had changed to become the modern fair seen in the photograph below.



An illustration of a medieval fair.


.... and just in case you wanted to know what the dying breed of "rother cattle" looked like.

The word 'rother' is an old Anglo-Saxon word for cattle. The rother cattle were long-horned, fleshy beasts prized for their meat, milk, hide and horn.


This item, from the 25 November 1892 edition of the Western Gazette, gives a good listing of the attractions offered at the fair that year.


The modern idea of a fair on Fairfield in a colourised photograph of the mid-1960's.


The caravans of the fairground workers are parked in the Fairfield while the fair is set up in the 1960s.


An unusual photograph of 1972 showing Fairfield with the Post Office sorting office being constructed in the foreground and the fair set up in the background.


Also photographed (colourised) in 1972, the new Post Office sorting office (seen scaffolded at left) reduced the amount of space for the fair. The fair would soon move to occupy Old Town Station car park for several years during the 1970s and early 1980s.