Goose Fair by Margaret Harrison & Denise Amos

Overview


Goose Fair, 1908.

The Nottingham Goose Fair goes back some 1000 years. It is one of the biggest and the most well known fairs. Its origins are not, contrary to belief, based on geese but was a Goods Fair held to stock up before the onset of winter. Henry II granted a charter in the 1160s with a right to hold a fair for eight days starting on the feast day of St Matthew on 21st September and was granted to the Priory of Lenton, who were a very powerful landlord at that time.

In 1230, Henry III added four more days to the Lenton Fair which gave more revenue to the Church and Lenton Church was more important than Nottingham at this time. Nottingham’s Fair took second place to the Lenton fair and there were many disputes between the Church and the Nottingham Corporation over the importance of the two fairs as Nottingham was a borough of some importance with a large trading centre.

During the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) various charters were granted and increasing the size and status of the Fair. In 1284 a charter was granted which mentioned the existing St Matthew’s fair and granted a new one to be held over 15 days beginning on the eve of St Edmund’s day on 20th November, who was the patron saint of England before St George. A charter granted to the town of Nottingham in 1290 refers to the fair which then continued over 21 days.

The Lenton Fair, during this time, was very much for re-stocking of goods, as well as the sale of local produce. Goods such as gold, leather, fish and fine clothes were recorded by the Lenton Priory in 1538.

In 1541 the fair now became known as Goose Fair. The first mention of the fair as such is in the account of John Truswell, steward of Wollaton Hall (the old Hall by the church not the present day building), where he purchased a pair of breeches for 1s10d. During the middle of the 16th century some people thought only geese were sold at the fair! The geese were walked great distances to the fair, some 20,000 from the Lincolnshire fens and would have their feet tarred to make the walk easier! It would appear that by this time the original Lenton Fair had been moved into Nottingham and in 1579 the Mickleton Jury (the jury of court leets) requested that wooden stalls to be erected around the Market Square, which was cobbled, to bring in more revenue.

In 1634 a resolution was passed for the Mayor, Sheriff and Aldermen to formally attend and read out the proclamation to and to ring bells officially open the fair. The Sheriff had a right to choose what he wanted from the stalls.

The fair was still held on 21st September whenever possible, but there were occasions when it had to be changed: during 1300-1400 when leprosy came to England; during 1346 when the Black Death was particularly virulent and again when the plague struck in 1646. Strangely enough during the English Civil War the fair continued but was held in Lenton.

In 1752 there was a change of calendar. The Gregorian calendar was not fully adopted in Great Britain until then because of religious differences. Where the Roman Catholic countries were quick to adopt the new calendar, it was initially rejected by Protestant states. The fair was still held but moved to begin on 2nd October to fit in with the Sessions Court and lasted for one week until 1875.

During the 1760s great numbers of cattle and horses were recorded as being sold at the fair. It would seem that geese were not as popular as believed and in fact cheese was more important in the diet of the population. A riot occurred in 1766 over the high cost of cheese and constables had to patrol the fair.

By the end of 18th century the Goods Fair had changed and was no longer one of solely buying and selling produce. New attractions were to be seen including Madame Tussaud; wild animals; theatricals including dwarfs, fat ladies and gypsy singers. Nevertheless the idea of the sale of goods still continued with four stalls being erected at the front of the Exchange Building selling locally produced goods including lace and hosiery, willow baskets, whipcords and liquorice.

The fair was still held in the Old Market Square but in 1876 it was reduced from 8 to 5 days beginning on the first Thursday of October and then in 1880 it was cut again to two and half days, beginning at 12 noon on the Thursday. However, it was coming under severe criticism as being dirty, noisy as well as increasing intemperance. There were accusations of large number of pick pockets, beggars and prostitutes being attracted by the fair. In 1877 a resolution was passed by the Goose Fair Inquiry Committee, Town and Social Guild, to collect and tabulate evidence as to the moral, social, sanitary and commercial effect of the fair on the town. The Council’s answer was that it made a lot of money for them; £702.11d in rent! By 1977 this had risen to £3036, 00.

Whilst the fair was held in the Market Square many of the adjacent roads were taken over by travelling people all eager to sell their wares. The Theatre Royal also put on  performances to attract fair goers. The local railways put on special excursions to deal with the crowds.

Goose Fair at night, 1910
Goose Fair at night, 1910. Photograph courtesy of National Fairground Archive Image Database, University of Sheffield.

Over the years since the nineteenth century the number and disparity of attractions has changed considerably. During this time performing fleas, Wombwells wild animals and Contrells swimming show was all part of the attractions. However, steam power gave the go-ahead for an invasion of bigger rides. In 1906 the first helter skelter, Big Wheel and roundabouts with motor cars were seen at the fair. The following year the cake-walk first made its appearance (so named after an African dance – the Cacka).

1927 was the last year the fair was held on the Old Market Square and it was also the last year that livestock was sold. At the end of the fair the Square was formally landscaped and the following year the fair was moved to the Forest – much to the annoyance of over 12000 people who protested about the move.

During the two world wars, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 no fairs were held. Today the fair is visited by thousands of people during the first full weekend of October each year. The fair is opened at midday on Thursday by the City dignitaries and closes at midnight on the Saturday. There are over 500 rides and 70 sideshows and over the years has attracted many famous artistes such as Madame Tussaud and Richard Chipperfield. The fair has featured every ride and amusement which has ever taken to the road.

Cartographic

Nottinghamshire Archives

Graphic

Photographic

Picture the Past is a joint project by the local authorities of Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, Derby and Derbyshire, to conserve and make publicly accessible the photographic heritage of the North East Midlands. It has a large selection of  photographs of Goose Fair:


Goose Fair in 1914. Photograph courtesy of National Fairground Archive Image Database, University of Sheffield.

The National Fairground Archive, based at the University of Sheffield, holds a large number of photographs depicting Goose Fair:

Film and video

The Nottinghamshire Local Studies Library at the Central Library in Nottingham has a large number of videos and DVDs depicting Goose Fair. Search the online library catalogue with the term "goose fair":

Artistic

Nottinghamshire Archives:

Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Archival/written

Nottinghamshire Archives:

Printed


Goose Fair flier, 1929.

Primary

Nottingham Local Studies Library, Central Library, Nottingham

Nottinghamshire Archives

Museum of Nottingham Life

Secondary