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The History of Nottingham's Goose Fair

10 October 20 words: Emily Thursfield
illustrations: Agnes Papp
photos: Fabrice Gagos

If 2020 hadn’t been enough of a stinker, this year’s Goose Fair has officially been cancelled for only the third time in its long history. In recent years, nearly half a million of us have flocked down to Forest Rec for both peas and prizes, and while both a reduced capacity or a longer ten-day run were considered, it was not meant to be. While we mourn the fate of all the pennies we could have wasted on the Waltzers, we did some investigating into the fair’s colourful history, and discovered twelve things you didn’t know about Goose Fair… 

It’s one of the longest British fairs in history… although nobody is actually sure when it started
Most historians can agree that the Goose Fair began just after 1282, as a charter from King Edward referred to city fairs in Nottingham taking place at that time. The event was originally held on September 21 as a celebration of St Matthew’s Day – the patron saint of... tax collectors. The earliest reference to this “St Matthew’s Day” market comes from Anglo Saxon times – it’s common knowledge that the Danes had a settlement in Nottingham, so it’s not out of the realms of possibility that their market included a fair too.

We’re not exactly certain on the origins of the name, either… 
At some point in time, the fair lost its St Matt’s moniker and became known to locals as Goosey. The first reference to a ‘Goose Fair’ can be found in the Nottingham Borough records of 1541, in an account by John Truswell, steward of Wollaton Hall (this being the old hall by the church, not the present day building we know as Batman's Gaff). On that particular ‘Goose Fair Day’, John had managed to purchase a pair of breaches for 1s10d. 

We’re pretty sure that the reference to the fowl is down to the fact that up to 20,000 geese were driven fifty miles or so to the fair from Lincoln, Cambridge and Norfolk to be sold and stuffed for a traditional Michaelmas dish, celebrated in late September. The poor bird's feet were coated in a mixture of tar and sand for the journey, and the geese were driven up through Hockley along Goose Gate to the Market Square, home to the fair at the time. 

There was a tense rivalry between Goosey and the Lenton Fair… 
In 1164, a charter by King Henry II granted Lenton Priory permission to hold an annual Martinmas Fair beginning on 11 November, which would take priority over and forbid any other fair to take place in the Nottingham district. This rule was overturned by King Edward I a century later, when he authorised the St Matthew’s Day event to run from the eve of the feast of St Edmund and twelve days following. 

So how did Goosey end up in October? This move came in 1572 due to a revision of the British calendar – finally ready to adopt the Gregorian calendar and align with the rest of Western Europe, eleven days were omitted from the month of September, pushing the fair later into the Autumn. 

The first cancellation came in 1646 with the outbreak of the bubonic plague, and celebrations were again postponed during the entirety of WWI

Before this year, Goose Fair has only been cancelled twice…The first cancellation came in 1646 with the outbreak of the bubonic plague, and celebrations were again postponed during the entirety of WWI. However, though ‘officially’ cancelled during the duration of WWII, the fair was held for a week during daylight hours in July 1943 and again in August 1944, as the event was of incredible economical importance to the city. 

Originally for the trading of goods, fairground rides slowly began to take over… 
As transport links to the city began to improve, there became less of a need for an autumnal fair in which townsfolk could stock up on produce from travelling merchants before the winter. But residents still enjoyed a jaunt around the stalls and the eccentricity of it all. By the end of the 19th century, the fair had grown exponentially and now included various gondola rides and gallopers, switchback horses, bikes, yachts, a tunnel railway and animal side shows. The development of steam power then gave the go-head for even bigger attractions to pitch up, such as the helter skelter, the Big Wheel, roundabouts and motor cars. The Theatre Royal scheduled special performances to attract fairgoers, and the local railways put on extra services to deal with the crowds. 

By this point, Goose Fair had garnered a reputation as an excuse for a good time, something the town’s people weren’t all chuffed about. In 1877, members of the Nottingham Town and Social Guild rallied together and held an unofficial inquiry into the “moral, social, sanitary and commercial effects” of the fair, arguing its eight-day run was far too much for something which had become largely a pleasure festival. The group – made up of individuals with no authority or power – argued that the working class were being most affected, and criticised it as being dirty, noisy and full of pickpockets, beggars and prostitutes. The Council’s response? Basically to jog on – no matter the state of affairs, it made the city over 702.11d in rent, something they could not pass up. 

The fairground has seen some sights over the years… 
While the garish lights and booming music still don’t quite scream ‘understated’, our modern day Goosey seems to be tame in comparison to accounts of the fair’s history. Possibly the most outlandish of these comes in October 1888 when, as part of the year’s attractions, it is rumoured that the aeronaut, pioneer balloonist and U.S. Army major Professor Thomas Scott Baldwin made the first parachute jump in Nottingham from a balloon hovering over Wollaton Park, to a crowd of thrilled spectators below. Five years later, Professor England’s Royal Exhibition of Performing Fleas, pitched up for the first time. 

Taken from the memoirs of Mr G. C. A. Austin – Nottingham’s Clerk of the Markets from 1907 to 1944 – a description of Goose Fair includes a passage about tiny brushes known as ‘ticklers’ and rubber balls which squired water, which both became popular accessories to those in the crowds, adding so much excitement to the point where they were banned for becoming such a nuisance. Austin’s favourite attractions, however, were the ‘Emma’s’ – rows of grotesque figures which were to be knocked backwards using a wooden ball – and the dancing girls, clowns and jugglers who gave free entertainment to the punters.

It was also known to be a host of certain ‘oddities’...
From freak animals – a five-footed sheep and a two-headed horse – to freak shows – including babies in bottles, armless women and Polly O’Gracious, the fat woman show – the Goose Fair attractions we know and love today are a far cry from what you’d find just over a century ago. One of the most popular was Wombwell’s Menageries, which took over a sizeable portion of the Market Square with over 7,000 birds and animals, and 53 employees to keep everything in order, and it’s even rumoured that the legendary Madame Tussaud herself arrived to showcase her wax sculptures in both 1819 and 1829. But perhaps one of the most dangerous and bizarre acts was the Globe (or Wall) of Death, where it wasn’t unusual to see a lion be taken onto the wall in the sidecar of a motorbike. 

The other slightly disturbing rumour is that wife-selling could have taken place at Goose Fair during the late eighteenth century. As divorce was only obtainable by private Act of Parliament until 1857, ordinary men could only afford to ‘sell’ their other half. After parading her around with a halter on her neck, arm, or waist, the husband would auction her to the highest bidder. This tradition was a regular occurrence in Weyhill Fair in Wessex, and there is record of at least one Nottingham man selling both his wife and children in the Market Place in 1779 for the sum of 27/6. 

One of the most dangerous and bizarre acts was the Globe of Death, where it wasn’t unusual to see a lion be taken onto the wall in the sidecar of a motorbike

Goose Fair also had a reputation for its cheese...
After Goose-stuffing had finally petered out, the fair gained a reputation for its high quality cheeses, with people travelling far and wide to grab a wheel of what historians liken to Red Leicester. In 1766, Notts had just been through a building boom, and more people had moved to the city to find work. Unfortunately for them, food prices had also risen sharply due to a poor harvest. 

On the evening of 18 October, a fight broke out between a trader and some Lincolnshire lads, who had purchased a large wheel of cheese and were intending to sell it in their home county. Because of the food shortage, folk were anxious that foodstuffs be kept in their local area, so a group of ‘rude lads’ demanded the cheese to be shared out to the Notts populace instead. Violence soon broke out, and so began the infamous Nottingham Cheese Riot – shop windows were broken, hundreds of wheels of cheese were rolled through the city and multiple rioters were injured, with one apparent death too. But perhaps the most amusing part of this whole story is the moment the Mayor tried to restore peace, only to be knocked down by a great wheel of the stinky stuff. 

Each year, the fair is opened by a ceremonial ringing of a pair of silver bells by the Lord Mayor of Nottingham…
When he wasn’t being bowled over with brie, the Mayor, Sheriff and Aldermen were all asked to formally attend and read out a proclamation for the beginning of the fair, a tradition which began in 1634. The silver bells in question – which are still used today – were created by Tom ‘The Silver King’ Normal, a ‘talent’ manager for acts such as The Balloon Headed Baby, Mary Anne Bevan (The World’s Ugliest Woman) and Leonine the Lion-Faced Lady. Once the ceremony concluded, the Sheriff then reserved the right to have first dibs on whatever he pleased from the stalls.

Goose Fair moved from the Market Square to Forest Recreation Ground in 1928... but people weren’t happy about it… 
In what was regarded as a highly controversial decision at the time, during the 1920s the City Council had plans to develop the Market Square area, but had not considered how these changes would affect the beloved Goose Fair. On the Sunday evening before the final fair in the marketplace, 12,000 people gathered to protest the proposed move to the Forest Recreation Ground, with speakers including Pat Collins, President of the Showman’s Guide. Despite the noise, the Council stood its ground and went ahead with the move. Soon after, people’s mindset shifted when they realised that the relocation now meant the fair could get even bigger and better… 

It’s one of three fairs in the country to carry the name… 
The others being the smaller Goose Fair in Tavistock, Devon, and the even smaller Michaelmas Goose Fair in Colyford, East Devon. 

Goosey has made appearances in popular arts and culture… 
Even D.H. Lawrence wasn’t opposed to a ride on the Waltzers. While living in London between 1908 and 1912, the writer would return home each year just to visit the fair, even penning a short story named Goose Fair in 1910. A few decades later, Goose Fair would again be the subject of a written account in English Journey by J. B. Priestley, a book chronicling the author’s travels around England. Priestly had a slightly more scathing opinion of our beloved bonanza, describing it as a “crushing mass of gaping and sweating humanity… contrived to attract the largest number of pennies in the shortest possible time.” 

Can’t say we disagree with you there, Priestley. But will we continue emptying our pockets with its (hopeful) return in 2021? Of course we will.

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