Look Back With Little: Banbury Fair survivor helps to keep memories alive

Alf Ball's Lyceum advertising seating accommodation for all classes NNL-171013-135059001
Alf Ball's Lyceum advertising seating accommodation for all classes NNL-171013-135059001

A never to be neglected source of information about Banbury’s past is Alfred Beesley’s History, which was published early in the 19 th century. In particular his footnotes deserve special attention.

This is my starting point for reminding my readers that mid-October is Banbury Fair time.

Beesley draws attention to relevant written comments made by a Dr Plot in 1677 who refers to Bloxham as well as Banbury as places where it was the custom, at set times of the year, for young people to meet to be hired as servants.

An occasion of this kind was known at Banbury as a Mop, and at Bloxham as a Statute. The different occupational groups gathered in specific places especially at Old Michaelmas (mid-October).

Shortly afterwards at the end of the month on Old St Luke’s day, there was what was known as a Runaway Fair attended by those unhappy with their first situation.

Towns where this happened sometimes kept up this old tradition by welcoming back a few amusements and rides a week after the Mop. Abingdon does this but curiously not Banbury.

Does anyone know why?

Times for holding Fairs were revised in 1836 and the practice of collecting tolls was discontinued. Rusher’s List &Directory lists 11 fairs throughout the years starting with the Horse Fair on January 23 and concluding with the second Thursday before Christmas for the sale of cattle, cheese and hops.

Today, boards positioned along roads into the town permit Cherwell District and Banbury Town Council to welcome the sole survivor, the Michaelmas Fair.

Despite the diminution in numbers, this three day event is still an occasion to revive memories of times past.

In 1958 the Oxford Mail featured a column called County Diary.

The October 16 edition was devoted to Banbury District and focussed on Jack Leach, 65, who had a shop in Town Hall buildings, which he had opened in 1929.

The outcome of the interview was numerous memories of fairs gone by. He recalled stalls where cups of coffee were a halfpenny each.

It was the occasion of a fair that he first saw a film show. This was in a booth close by the Crown Hotel in Bridge Street. Jack added he was conscious of a decline in the number of sideshows.

Taking these overall he was aware of how electric lights had replaced pressure lanterns and Naphtha flames as the source of illumination.

Arthur Jones of East Close, Grimsbury was also a shrewd observer of the show scene. In ‘Remember When’ for the Banbury Cake he wrote about boxing at the Fair.

He recalled Elliot’s booth, which was opposite the Fox Inn in the Market Place.

This turned into Jack Gage’s boxing show where the professionals did not lack challengers who, if they survived three rounds, were better off to the tuneof 5s. (25p).

Banbury Boxing Club had many good fighters such as world champion Johnny Boyles who were too good for the Fair contestants.

Michael Bennett of the Wine Vaults in Parsons Street was able to recall the halcyon days of the Edwardian era. In particular he talked about the Alf Ball Lyceum, a forerunner of the cinema. Admission was 3d for adults and 2d for children.

Banbury Fair has gone through many periods of change. The Banbury Guardian dated October 12, 1939 looked back 50 years to a report on the fair in 1889. This concerned the traditional hiring of the servants aspect.

In the opinion of the newspaper Banbury Fair was losing ‘the characteristics of an Alexandrian slave market’.

Registry offices were gradually taking the place of public hiring; Cadbury Memorial Hall in Bridge Street was a popular location. Facilities like it increased ‘the self-respect of young men and women’.

As for the pleasure aspect of the Fair in 1889, there were not so many attractions as in previous years. In addition the Cow Fair though lively had a din created by the music.

The paper regretted the lack of novelties, the only exception being a switch-back trapeze.