My earliest memories of the fair is when I was about six years old in 1927. I was sitting in my grandma’s house on New Road and I was watching them coming up, in those days there was quite a lot of stuff came in with horses, horse-drawn, and I can remember that particularly year it snowed when they were bringing the fair stuff in and I can remember seeing sacking on the horses’ hooves and I probably asked my grandma why and she said well, stop the horses from slipping.
Sat in the classroom on a Friday waiting for twelve o’clock to come because you knew at 12 o’clock everything used to come into the High Street. It was shut down until the following Sunday morning and of course as soon as we came out of school everybody was away up the High Street to see what had arrived, because it was different at different times and it all came in with great big steam engines then, a wonderful sight. And the music used to be wonderful. Chipperfields circus started there outside of the Post Office, they used to bring lions in a cage into the High Street.
The Edwardses, I can remember them before they came into the High Street on the Friday they used to come into Marlborough say about the Wednesday or the Thursday and they used to park up their amusements behind the Roebuck pub on the London Road, that was in between London Road and Elcot Lane, there were fields there then, no houses. Billy Edwards and Jack Edwards used to come down to St Peters School for about two weeks I think it was when they sort of hung about Marlborough.
I can remember when the fairs come in before the war when I was a child, they were waiting for twelve o’clock to strike and they’d be all queued up in Kingsbury Street, the traction engines and they used to have horses then you see pulling along the stuff.
I’m always fascinated by the way they put the fair up, you know with the blocks of wood that go underneath the beer crates, the ammunition boxes, and then they just sort of level it up with another bit of ply wood or something because they got that slope on the High Street to contend with.
The fairs were first mentioned in the Charter of King John, 1204, when they were held in and around the churchyard. In those days of course they would be trading fairs. These eventually moved from the churchyard and gradually over the centuries came into the High Street where they became hiring fairs. Marlborough’s in a predominantly farming area and farm labourers used to change hands and farmers used to change employees at Harvest time, so the fairs are situated either side of October 11th on the Saturday before and after. Farmers used to come to the first one and could pick out their staff for the following year and vice versa the employees would look for a new employer. They’d go off then and if they weren’t satisfied they could come back to Marlborough again for a second go. Mop fairs now are truly pleasure fairs and one interesting thing, I said they come on the Saturday before and after 11th October, if the 11th comes on a Saturday, you got a fortnight between them.
The Mop Fairs were the old hiring fairs, the men used to go and get their fresh jobs at harvest time, Michaelmas time. They put in their caps an emblem, if they were a shepherd they’d put some wool in the cap, if they wanted to be a farm labourer they’d have a bit of horse’s hair, and the girls used to go and get their fresh jobs for the new year and they’d wear mop caps.
Henry James, wonderful Wales they used to call him, he used to open on a Friday night and all the takings were given to Savernake Hospital, the reason being his wife became ill and she was treated in Savernake Hospital and he makes this contribution in appreciation of what they did for his wife.
The first mop was always the most important one, and we were entertained by the Showman’s Guild, they always had a reception before the fair in those days. When I was Mayor, it was held in the Ailesbury Arms Hotel and we paraded, the Mayor was robed and had the mace bearers, then we’d have a formal opening of the fair, and after I had opened the fair, I mean this was the same every year every Mayor did it every year, we were then taken all round the fair and given rides, it was a great celebration.
They had a special train up from Swindon to come to Marlborough fair, ‘cos that helped to make more crowds than ever and it was almost impossible to even walk down there without bumping into somebody. That was a big occasion.
In those days they had the caravans parked on the side and it was most interesting to see inside one of the caravans. You’d see all the glassware and the brass and the copper kettles, those people were absolutely spotlessly clean, those fair people.
At the fair we had the confetti battle when the boys and girls used to run after each other putting confetti down your neck, anywhere they could get it, and it was real fun.
They had what they called the boxing booth, a bit of a stage on the front and they’d have two or three of their boxers and they used to shout, “any of you think you can go three rounds with one of my boys?” – used to draw a big crowd and I got an idea the prize was £5 and that was a lot of money. I can remember there were two boys that worked in the stables at Ogbourne, Danny Godfrey and Billy Croxton and they were good boxers and I can remember for three or four fairs that they always got up and had a go, they always won. It was a crowd drawer because you know, local lads boxing.
Chipperfields used to have a circus and they had lions. A man who was called Mr Gillet, he had a special medal given to him because he went into the lion’s den with the trainer and shaved the trainer, and they both got out alive.
We used to have what they called the Wall of Death. They used to ride motorbikes round and round this wall and of course the speed kept them up and then they’d ask for volunteers, if they wanted to sit on the back of a motorbike.
There was Taylors and Dooners, they had the magic lantern in them days, see, to show the pictures. And they had the girl outside dancing on the platform to entertain you, lovely.
I can remember seeing a lady on one of the stalls making the humbugs. She had prepared the actual sugar and get it just so as it was pliable and they had a big metal hook at the side of the stall and she’d stretch it and chuck it over this hook, I think she went through the motions of spitting on her hand and then she’d throw it up and stretch it and keep doing that until it was I should think about four or five foot long and then she’d lay it on the counter, either chop it off or she had big scissors and cut it off but before she cut it she used to twist it and that was the humbugs.
It can only be held over the High Street by Act of Parliament, I did know this but I came across it in the Marlborough Times, back in the 1880’s there were a lot of complaints about these fairs so the council said right we’ll get rid of them but they found that because it was granted by Royal Charter it can only go out by an Act of Parliament and the bother with that would have been much more than leaving the fairs alone and the fairs stayed.
All through the war, to make sure that we didn’t lose our right to the market or the fairs, a stall was put in the High Street every Wednesday and Saturday to make sure that the market was there and the same thing with the fairs so that we never lost the right to hold the mop fairs.
Years ago it was most certainly a meeting place for relations and friends, probably didn’t see each other since the last mop twelve month ago. Every year they would meet up, “See you next Marlborough fair”, that’s an old cry you know but I think even so in these days there are people still that meet, I think that is what makes Marlborough Mop what it is.
We meet people in the Marlborough Fair, you know, that you haven’t seen all year, wonderful Marlborough Fairs I wouldn’t have them out of the High Street for all the tea in China.