In 1788, the dates of the annual fair at Chipping Hill were set on the 4th and 5th June. This was to celebrate the recovery of King George III from madness (4th June was his birthday). Previously the fair had been held on other dates “since time out of mind”.
We have a reminiscence of the fair as it was in about 1860. It says “Twice a year, the travelling fairs came to Witham, one of them on the Hill leading to the Parish Church. These were really delightful occasions – there were Roundabouts and Horses and Carriages … and very wonderful to the children of those days. Swing boats, stalls with their cakes, and Fair Gingerbread, made in the shape of cats with currants for eyes – peel for nose and mouth. The greatest attraction was the Merry go round, worked by a horse, which walked sedately to the accompaniment of crude music.”
But not everyone thought the fair was delightful. At about the same time, twenty-four residents of Chipping Hill, headed by the vicar, John Bramston, petitioned the lord of the manor, saying “We request you to withhold your consent to having booths and stalls erected at Chipping Hill. Chipping Hill Fair has long been a nuisance to the respectable inhabitants, as interrupting their regular business, obstructing the highway and bringing together at night the worst characters of the neighbourhood, both male and female. Moreover the little green, where many of the stalls are pitched, is in every way ill adapted to the purpose in as much as the entrance to the Church yard is thereby completely blocked up”
In 1891 there was another complaint, which related to the fairs at both Newland Street and Chipping Hill. The Chairman of the magistrates “remarked upon the dangerous nature of the fairs and the accidents caused by the frightening of the horses at the noise”. And although the police had encountered no trouble during the previous five years, Police Superintendent Allen said that “The most objectionable results are the obstructions caused by shooting galleries, swinging boats, and cocoa nut shies, all of which are very dangerous, and they are generally attended by gipsies. The inhabitants have frequently complained of the nuisance they cause”. The Home Secretary agreed and abolished both the Witham fairs.
I think that basically the “respectable” people despised the “worst characters” and the “gipsies”, and that was why they got the fairs closed. The children and others who enjoyed the fairs were caught in the cross-fire.
When the people at St Nicolas church launched an annual Medieval fair in 1978, they wisely arranged for it to be run by respectable people. Even most of us customers are quite respectable, and it has flourished ever since. The photo shows the first of these fairs, and the tossing of straw bales on the green.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham TImes in July 2013