Historic annual mop fair returns to Cirencester market place

Cirencester mop fair, 1944Image copyright Robert Heaven
Image caption Nichols Amusements is celebrating its centenary of running the event, seen here in 1944

The annual mop fair returns to Cirencester market place and Forum on Monday evening, and this year marks a special anniversary.

The fair is a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages and involved farm workers, labourers and servants.

Cirencester Town Council said more recently, the event has become a funfair for the community to enjoy.

This year, Nichols Amusements of the Showmen’s Guild is celebrating its centenary of running the event.

This special anniversary will be announced by Cirencester’s newly-appointed town crier John Lawrence to herald the opening of the week-long fair.

Image copyright Robert Heaven
Image caption This photo from 1987 shows the mop fair in the Forum car park

Local historian Dr Robert Heaven said: “For me, the arrival of the mop in Ciren always heralds the onset of Autumn. With nights drawing in and the air crisp with a slight chill.

“It cheers my heart to see the bright lights and to hear the sound of heavy machinery overlaid with the voices of excited revellers on the streets of our old town.”

Image copyright Robert Heaven
Image caption This night-time photo from 1967 shows the bright lights of the ferris wheel

Dr Heaven said mop fairs date from the time of Edward III, and his attempt to regulate the labour market in 1351.

After the Black Death pandemic decimated the workforce, hiring fairs introduced prospective employers to agricultural labourers and servants who would gather in the street and the market place, sporting a badge or tool to signify their skill.

Image copyright Robert Heaven
Image caption This photo from the mid-1970s shows the market square packed with fairgoers

Shepherds held a crook or a tuft of wool, cowmen brought wisps of straw, dairymaids carried a milking stool or pail and housemaids held brooms or mops, hence the name “mop fair”.

Employers would move amongst the workers touting for work – discussing experience and terms, and once agreement was reached the employer would give the employee a small token of money, known as the “fasten-penny”, usually a shilling, which “fastened” the contract for a year.

Image copyright Robert Heaven
Image caption Historian Dr Robert Heaven said tales about the mop, seen here in 1975, would be exchanged in the playground when he was a child

The employee would then remove the item signifying their trade and wear bright ribbons to indicate they had been hired.

The stalls selling food and drink and offering games to play would tempt the employee to spend their token money.

The event became a major festival and eventually was condemned for encouraging drunkenness and immorality.

Dr Heaven said: “My earliest memories of the mop are watching its arrival on October Sunday afternoons and feeling a build-up of anticipation and excitement as each lorry and trailer pulled into the Forum.

Image copyright Robert Heaven
Image caption This photo from the 1940s shows the mop has always been popular with townsfolk

“I remember next morning at school, when various tales, legends and apocryphal stories about the mop would be exchanged in the playground as we looked forward to late afternoon and the magic that had transformed our market place and the Forum.

“‘Fun fair was a major feature from the outset, and records and early newspapers have many accounts of drunkenness and debauchery from the outset.

“I never experienced any trouble at the mop, other than a belly-ache from an excess of toffee apples and sticky pink candy floss.”

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