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"This annual debauchery": the history of Goose Fair

Updated: Jan 19, 2019

This piece was written by the late Gerry Woodcock and published in volume 8 of Tavistock's Yesterdays. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of Norma Woodcock.

The best point at which to begin the search for the origins of Tavistock Goose Fair is 1552. In that year the Earl of Bedford, who had been granted the lands of the recently­dissolved abbey, declared that he would grant the proceeds of three of the town's annual fairs to the newly-restored Grammar School. The profits from the other two he would keep for himself. There were, then, at that time, five fairs. The first of the year, held in January, had been called after St. Rumon, but under the Bedfords this name, of the patron of the now-to-be-forgotten abbey, was to disappear, and the occasion was to be known as Epiphany Fair. In April came St. Mark's Fair. Then there were, in August and September, the commemorations of St. John and Michaelmas. And finally, St. Andrew's Fair was celebrated in November. Of the five, little is known about those in April and November honouring St Mark and St. Andrew. They appear not to have existed in 1501, at least not in the form to justify official recognition. The likelihood is that they were launched in the first half of the sixteenth century. They featured in the local calendar up to the nineteenth century, as providing something extra to the regular market occasions, but thereafter they became absorbed in the pattern of cattle markets, and lost any distinctive features that they had hitherto had. The January fair was founded by a royal grant to the abbot in 1501, and enjoyed a similar fate. Of the other two, the late summer festivals, St. John's Fair in August has its origins in a grant of 1116, and was, throughout most of the middle ages, the only fair in the town, held to celebrate the principal feast of St. Rumon. It is the Michaelmas Fair, held in September, that was the fore-runner of the modem Goose Fair. It had been held at Brentor for some years before being transferred to Tavistock some time between 1535 and 1552. To differentiate it from the St. John's Fair, that was held in the previous month, it became popularly known for some time as “St. Joan's Fair”, perhaps to indicate that, unlike its antecessor, which was seen as a purely business event for the men, it provided social opportunities also for wives and daugh­ters. The association of Michaelmas with geese is a natural one, and is reflected in the only other surviving Goose Fair in the country, at Nottingham. The modem name was well established in the eighteenth century. If the town should wish to mark the 500th anniversary of its most popular annual institution it will need to choose a date to do it between 2035 and 2052.

The feast day of St. Michael is September 29th, and that was the date on which the Michaelmas, or St. Joan's, or Goose, Fair, was originally held. When the new calendar was introduced in September 1752, resulting in the “loss” of eleven days, the date was switched to October 10th. The present practice of holding the fair on the second Wednesday in October was adopted in 1822.

The Michaelmas goose proved a particular attraction to potential visitors to the fair. Many local people had to pay their rent bills at that time of year, and the sale of their geese would help to raise the money. Other livestock which suffered a similar fate could well have wondered why their sacrifice was not similarly recorded. The goose it was that was honoured. City fathers no doubt encouraged the distinctive name as a means of achieving more publicity; in so doing they showed an appreciation of one major advertising technique. The fair was always an occasion for general trading, conducted at a time of year when the corn was in and the animals at their best, the character of the day developing because of the healthy, natural, and proper instinct to combine business with pleasure. But this could be said of similar occasions in hundreds of other places. There were lots of Michaelmas fairs up and down the country. Only two came to identify themselves in name with the long-necked honker traditionally associated with the Michaelmas season.

There are a number of accounts of nineteenth century Goose Fairs. Written, in the main, by middle-aged and elderly men, they are usually sad pieces depicting a declining institution that cannot measure up to the memories of occasions half a century earlier. Like cricket, morality, and the weather, Tavistock Goose Fair has never been what it was. In 1869 “before many years are past the fair will have vanished altogether”, in 1874 it was “approaching extinction”, and in 1878 it stood “on tottering legs which are yearly growing weaker”. And this at a time when the newly opened railway was bringing floods of visitors in from Plymouth and beyond. No doubt during the 1640s a generation of Tavistock children would have learned at their grandparents' knees that the old fair had enjoyed its golden age during the reign of the Good Queen Bess.

In the early nineteenth century the Goose Fair was a two-day affair. Its support came largely, in this pre-railway age, from the town and its surrounding villages, an area that provided a significant number of potential customers and revellers. In 1831, for example, the parishes of Dunterton, Bradstone, Milton Abbot, Kelly, and Lifton, alone contained a population of no less than 3359. Thousands of farm workers flocked in from these and other communities, as did the miners from Gunnislake and the Bere peninsular. Their day was the Wednesday, the second day. The first day had seen the more leisurely and fashionable visits of their masters and mistresses. Animals were bought and sold in the open spaces round the churchyard railings, as well as in the cattle and sheep markets that then occupied Guildhall Square. The average fat bullock sold for £3 a hundredweight, while geese, in an average year, fetched between six and seven shillings each. Bedford Square was the scene of the booths and stalls that offered peep­shows, conjurers, the enactment of murders by groups of players, games of chance, mermaids and other physical freaks, and a variety of street vendors offering pills, tablets, ginger-bread, and sweets. “Cheap Jacks”, a term already in use, were stationed next to evangelists selling bibles and saving souls. For two young men in the 1850s it was the ladies who left the greatest impression. One later recalled “sparecely dressed women giving performances of their skill on the light fantastic”. The other chuckled over the memory of the pickled cockles that he had bought from “corpulent ladies from Saltash”. The inns, of course, were very busy. Many of them employed a violinist to help with the singing and dancing. The more staid inhabitants retreated behind locked doors to protect themselves and their families from the drunken behaviour that ended the day, but rarely posed a problem beyond midnight.

The beginning of the collapse of the local mining industry in the 1860s, followed by the agricultural depression, led to a long period of declining population. The effects of the fair were, to some degree, offset by the coming of the railway in 1859. Through the 1860s it is reckoned that some 2000 came in to the event by rail from Plymouth alone. This, of course, provided us with the opportunity to blame all the excesses of the day on visitors from the city, whose “morals were not of the highest order”, and whose “rude obscene jests made the ears tingle”. In spite of this influx, the fair contracted in the 1860s. Following the re-development of the central area, and the construction of the Town Hall and Pannier Marker, the booths and side-shows were moved to the new Market Road. There you could stroll the length of the road and enjoy endless devices for getting pennies out of pockets. Here was the inevitable lady of immense proportions and here also such traditional dispensers of violence as Mr Punch and the boxers whose flattened features caused one by-stander to decide that “Mr Darwin is right”. It was, of course, left to the intelligentsia of the town to either scoff at, or patronise, ordinary people in pursuit of their innocent pleasures. In 1875 one such reported that “the delighted faces of the rustics as they look at what to them is a brilliant display of acting, is a treat to behold, if you happen to feel interested in witnessing the simple pleasures of unsophisticated people.”

Law and order problems in the middle of the nineteenth century were, in spite of the large numbers, normally limited to a few examples of pickpocketing, or to an occasional drink-induced dust-up. Thus in 1877, in the middle of the afternoon, two men, stripped to the waist, fought for fifteen minutes in the street outside the Golden Lion in Brook Street, before the police arrived to arrest the one that didn't get away. In 1875 Hetty Tucker, described in court as “a young woman of questionable reputation”, happened upon seventy-five years old William Down in the Commercial Inn. When he went out of the back, she followed. He later realised that ten shillings was missing from his trouser pocket. Hetty was picked up by the police later in the Golden Lion with the money on her. This was the period when the Crown Inn in Barley Market Street was requiring the attentions of the police and the court. On Goose Fair Day 1873 its proprietor, Samuel Stanton, had, the magistrates decided, on the evidence of three local constables, permitted his inn to be the resort of prostitutes. The bench could have imposed a fine of £20, but since this had been the first complaint made of this particular house for a whole six months, the decision was that £10 and another warning would be adequate.

By the end of the century the fair, while still occupying Market Road, had spilled out into the square. Hancock's Fair had arrived, to be taken over some years later by Whiteleggs. There were swings and roundabouts, the latter in both hand-driven and steam-driven forms. There were photography booths. And there were chips. During the 1890s the opening of a second railway station swelled the number of visitors to an estimate 6000 to 7000. Perhaps half of them came on the train. Others arrived in four-wheelers, in traps, and in wagonettes, some decorated for the day with flags and flowers. It was of this period that Thomas Davey was to write, fifty years later, describing a Gunnislake childhood that, sharing the experience of so many of his contemporaries born in this area at that time, was followed by an adult life in America. He recalled “standing in front of the house where we lived in Delaware Road, and looking across the valley of the Tamar. It was Goose Fair night, and we were watching the lights of the traps, carriages, and gingles, as their occupants, happy laughing people, drove or were driven towards their homes. The lights first appeared at Gunnislake and remained in full view until New Road crossed Old Hill, and then could be seen intermittently for about 200 yards, to disappear entirely as the road led down to Gunnislake New Bridge. There seemed no end to the procession of returning fun-seekers, for, as the lights of one vehicle disappeared, those of another one came around the turn at Gulworthy. To me it was marvellous”. The following year, 1897, Thomas was nine, and old enough to go to the fair. “About 11 a.m. a stream of conveyances of every kind began to pour into the town, and in a little while the streets were filled with jostling, boisterous, hilarious crowds. Before my eyes was the whole world: soldiers and sailors galore, gypsies, cheap jacks, street singers, girls danc­ing to the music of a barrel-organ, a dancing bear, a boxing kangaroo, a tattooed man, and, for the first time in my life, I saw a black man. I was the happiest boy in all England”. Not everyone was happy. Mr George Moon of Vigar's Hall was shocked. He wrote to the Town Council in January 1900: “I take the liberty of asking your honourable council if your influence can be exerted towards the suppression of some of the many evils connected with the present keeping of Goose Fair in Tavistock. To me, as a recent resident, it seems like the retention of old barbarous customs that there should be such scenes on this day, and that the vilest women from Plymouth and Devonport should be allowed to act as they do. I am informed that the worst cases of bastardy are attributed to this annual debauchery”. It is not clear who Mr Moon held responsible for the best cases of bastardy.

Drunkenness and associated problems on Goose Fair days caused a good deal of concern in the town in the early years of the century. In 1915 Richard Tucker informed his fellow councillors that the troops temporarily housed on Whitchurch Down had returned early in the day to their camp “sickened and ashamed of the sights that were witnessed”, that the Meadows and the railway stations had presented scenes of debauchery, and that a visit to some of the inns had left a friend of his “surfeited and nauseated by scenes of degradation and depravity”. There were demands for the police to be more active, as there were for tighter control of some of the exhibits. On the latter, the council resolved, in 1920, to ban “exhibitions of freaks, and females scantily attired, and performances of an immodest nature”. On the former, the return of peacetime conditions, the passing of a restrictive Licensing Act in 1921, and a higher police profile, brought about an improvement in which the old punning epigram was revived that “those who partake too freely of the Goose Fair may in the end have trouble with the beak”.

By this time the fair had taken on more of the form of the modern event. Stalls remained in Market Road, while Guildhall Square and Bedford Square had been given over to sales pitches, shooting galleries, and the Salvation Army. Hancock's Steam Roundabouts operated, at the beginning of the century, in the Mine Field, near the junction of Plymouth Road and Pixon Lane, a site used at other times for visiting entertainments. It was in 1913 that the wharf was first used for the roundabouts, the swings, and the mighty steam-driven organ. In 1919 Hancock's were first given permission to take over a part of the Meadows for the duration of the fair, and a wider opening was made at the western entrance to allow the steam engine to get in.

Goose Fair in 1962

The spread of motor transport in the twentieth century has affected the fair in a number of obvious ways. The stock is no longer driven through the streets in great tidal waves in the early hours of the morning. More and more visitors come to the town by motor car, creating a need for ever more ingenious traffic plans. What is, perhaps, surprising, is not so much the degree of change that has overtaken the festival, as the fact that the atmosphere remains extraordinarily constant. Two questions still have to be faced each goose fair morning. One is philosophical: why can't it be like the first one that I tenderly remember from all those years ago? The second is severely practical: since the sun was shining ten minutes ago, and it is now pouring with rain, what on earth shall I wear?


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