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The Somborne & District Society

The History of the Weyhill Fairground

THE HISTORY OF WEYHILL FAIRGROUND The Weyhill Fair was once the largest and most important sheep fair in the country. As well as sheep, there were sales of horses, pigs and cattle; hops and cheese. The Fair was also the place for annual hiring of farm workers and there was even a . pleasure fair, where purveyors of all manner of goods and entertainment set out their stalls. Weyhill lies at the crossroads of eight ancient trackways and roads including Harrow Way, used for moving tin from Cornwall to the Kentish ports, and the Gold Road which was a system of tracks over which gold was transported from Ireland via the south coast to the Continent. These routes were used even before the middle ages and it seems that since time immemorial people have driven their animals along these tracks and droves, carrying whatever else they had to sell, before gathering at this important crossroads to trade. The first written record of the Weyhill Fair dates from 1225 At this time the Fair was known as Fair of Le We. So important was the site that in 1246 there was a duel fought in Blissimore Hall Acre over its ownership, William de Devenys losing both the land and his life to William Cotele. Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400), author of 'The Canterbury Tales', owned nearby Ramridge Manor and part of his land was used for the Fair. It is quite possible that he heard some of his famous tales from people that passed through the Weyhill Fair. Harrow Way is thought to be the on the route by which pilgrims travelled to Canterbury. A letter written by Princess Elizabeth in 1554 to Sir William Cecil, mentions that there had been a Fair at Weyhill, or 'Wacehill', for 400 years. Elizabeth was patron of Ramridge Manor which had by this time become Almshouses for thirteen poor men. The Fair in the Middle Ages would have been an extremely lively place; as well as the sales of animals there would have been jousting and sword fighting, dog-baiting, bear-baiting and cockfighting with strolling minstrels moving amongst the crowds. There were also Mystery Plays and mummers to watch. By the sixteenth century the Fair had grown to be such a huge event that it even had its own court on site to settle disputes and deal with any lawlessness that was bound to occur at such a large gathering. This was known as the Court of Pie Powder, the name coming from the French 'pieds poudres' or dusty feet. The Fair continued to grow until the 19th Century, with huge numbers of animals being traded; up to 100,000 sheep in a single day. At the thriving horse fair, horses from Ireland were 'charged up and down, and over hurdles', to show them off and causing danger to everyone! There was a substantial cheese fair during the 1800s, with cheese from Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Hampshire being sold and an enclosed cheese market  was built with booths on each of its four sides. On Blissimore Hall Acre, where the craft centre now stands, booths were erected in the 19th century for the sale of hops. The hops came from Farnham in Surrey and the booths were known as Farnham Row. A report from 1865 states that there were 7000 pockets of hops pitched 'which quite filled the Farnham Row'. In Thomas Hardy's novel 'The Mayor of Casterbridge', written in 1886, Hardy describes how Michael Henchard, after becoming drunk at the Weyhill Fair (called Weydon Priors in the book), sold his wife to a sailor for five guineas. Apparently the story was based on fact. The Annual Register of the Weyhill Fair for 1832 records that a farmer named Joseph Thomson offered his wife of three years for sale at the price of 50 shillings.Offers were thin on the ground, but he eventually accepted one from a man named Henry' Mears of 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog in part exchange. The Annual Register concluded that all parties were quite content with the arrangement. The Weyhill Fair began to decline in the latter part of the 19th century and although still being described in 1865 as the chief annual fair of the South of England by 1867 it was reported that the quality of the shows etc. appeared to deteriorate every year. By October 1889 it is reported that in the hop booths 1000 pockets had been pitched, the attendance was down and only one cheese merchant occupied the cheese fair. Most people still got to the Fair by walking, sometimes many miles. Farm hands traditionally changed their jobs at Michaelmas, and to advertise that they were for hire men would wear favours in their hats, such as a piece of wool if they were a shepherd. If a farmer saw a suitable man, he would hire him on the spot. The sheep and cattle fair continued to decline in the years before and after the Second World War with only 1,400 sheep being offered for sale in 1948, although the pleasure fair continued to thrive. Improved communications, the introduction of turnpike roads and transport on the railways gradually removed the need for such large gatherings for the sale of animals. It would have taken a drover up to three weeks to get his flock to the fairground, but with the introduction of the telephone and motor transport animals are now sold before they leave the farm and arrive at their destination within a day or two. The last sheep and cattle auction at Weyhill was held by Woolley and Wallis of Salisbury in 1957, with so few animals being offered for sale that it was not economic for them to continue. After the fairs ceased the site was bought by Dunnings Associates, a building and contracting company. The booths were used as storage sheds and sometimes farm animals were penned in them. When Dunnings went into receivership in 1991 the site was left to fall into disrepair. Test Valley Borough Council planners later declared the whole 16 acre area an industrial site, but the Parish Council and the local community managed to change this policy to be part small industrial, part housing and part heritage site. The Parish Council then developed this one acre heritage site, resulting in the Fairground Craft and Design Centre which is now run by a Community Interest Company   

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