Defoe on Stourbridge Fair



Stourbridge Fair was once one of the biggest in Europe and had been going over 700 years. It's recently been restarted on a much smaller scale

Daniel Defoe wrote of a visit there in 1724. This is an extract from the relevant potion in  A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain Volume 1 Letter 1, Part 3: Norfolk and Cambridgeshire

I now draw near to Cambridge, to which I fansy I look as if I was afraid to come, having made so many circumlocutions beforehand; but I must yet make another digression before I enter the town; (for in my way, and as I came in from New Market, about the beginning of September;) I cannot omit, that I came necessarily through Sturbridge Fair, which was then in its height.

If it is a diversion worthy a book to treat of trifles, such as the gayety of Bury Fair, it cannot be very unpleasant, especially to the trading part of the world, to say something of this fair, which is not only the greatest in the whole nation, but in the world; nor, if I may believe those who have seen them all, is the fair at Leipsick in Saxony, the mart at Frankfort on the Main, or the fairs at Neuremberg, or Augsburg, any way to compare to this fair at Sturbridge.

It is kept in a large corn-field, near Casterton, extending from the side of the River Cam, towards the road, for about half a mile square.

If the husbandmen who rent the land, do not get their corn off before a certain day in August, the fair-keepers may trample it under foot and spoil it to build their booths, or tents; for all the fair is kept in tents, and booths: On the other hand, to ballance that severity, if the fair-keepers have not done their business of the fair, and remov'd and clear'd the field by another certain day in September, the plowmen may come in again, with plow and cart, and overthrow all and trample it into the dirt; and as for the filth, dung, straw, &c. necessarily left by the fair-keepers, the quantity of which is very great, it is the farmers fees, and makes them full amends for the trampling, riding, and carting upon, and hardening the ground.

It is impossible to describe all the parts and circumstances of this fair exactly; the shops are placed in rows like streets, whereof one is call'd Cheapside; and here, as in several other streets, are all sorts of trades, who sell by retale, and who come principally from London with their goods; scarce any trades are omitted, goldsmiths, toyshops, brasiers, turners, milleners, haberdashers, hatters, mercers, drapers, pewtrers, china-warehouses, and in a word all trades that can be named in London; with coffee-houses, taverns, brandy-shops, and eating-houses, innumerable, and all in tents, and booths, as above.

This great street reaches from the road, which as I said goes from Cambridge to New-Market, turning short out of it to the right towards the river, and holds in a line near half a mile quite down to the river-side: In another street parallel with the road are like rows of booths, but larger, and more intermingled with wholesale dealers, and one side, passing out of this last street to the left hand, is a formal great square, form'd by the largest booths, built in that form, and which they call the Duddery; whence the name is deriv'd, and what its signification is, I could never yet learn, tho' I made all possible search into it. The area of this square is about 80 to a 100 yards, where the dealers have room before every booth to take down, and open their packs, and to bring in waggons to load and unload.

This place is separated, and peculiar to the wholesale dealers in the woollen manufacture. Here the Booths, or tents, are of a vast extent, have different apartments, and the quantities of goods they bring are so great, that the insides of them look like another Blackwell-Hall, being as vast ware-houses pil'd up with goods to the top. In this Duddery, as I have been inform'd, there have been sold one hundred thousand pounds worth of woollen manufactures in less than a week's time, besides the prodigious trade carry'd on here, by wholesale-men, from London, and all parts of England, who transact their business wholly in their pocket-books, and meeting their chapmen from all parts, make up their accounts, receive money chiefly in bills, and take orders: These they say exceed by far the sales of goods actually brought to the fair, and deliver'd in kind; it being frequent for the London wholesale men to carry back orders from their dealers for ten thousand pounds worth of goods a man, and some much more. This especially respects those people, who deal in heavy goods, as wholesale grocers, salters, brasiers, iron-merchants, wine-merchants, and the like; but does not exclude the dealers in woollen manufactures, and especially in mercery goods of all sorts, the dealers in which generally manage their business in this manner.

Here are clothiers from Hallifax, Leeds, Wakefield and Huthersfield in Yorkshire, and from Rochdale, Bury, &c. in Lancashire, with vast quantities of Yorkshire cloths, kerseyes, pennistons, cottons, &c. with all sorts of Manchester ware, fustians, and things made of cotton wool; of which the quantity is so great, that they told me there were near a thousand horse-packs of such goods from that side of the country, and these took up a side and half of the Duddery at least; also a part of a street of booths were taken up with upholsterer's ware, such as tickings, sackings, Kidderminster stuffs, blankets rugs, quilts, &c.

In the Duddery I saw one ware-house, or booth, with six apartments in it, all belonging to a dealer in Norwich stuffs only, and who they said had there above twenty thousand pounds value, in those goods, and no other.

Western goods had their share here also, and several booths were fill'd as full with serges, du-roys, druggets, shalloons, cantaloons, Devonshire kersies, &c. from Exeter, Taunton, Bristol, and other parts west, and some from London also.

But all this is still outdone, at least in show, by two articles, which are the peculiars of this fair, and do not begin till the other part of the fair, that is to say for the woollen manufacture, begins to draw to a close: These are the WOOLL, and the HOPS, as for the hops, there is scarce any price fix'd for hops in England, till they know how they sell at Sturbridge Fair; the quantity that appears in the fair is indeed prodigious, and they, as it were, possess a large part of the field on which the fair is kept, to themselves; they are brought directly from Chelmsford in Essex, from CanterburyMaidstone in Kent, and from Farnham in Surrey, besides what are brought from London, the growth of those, and other places.

Enquiring why this fair should be thus, of all other places in England, the center of that trade; and so great a quantity of so bulky a commodity be carryed thither so far: I was answer'd by one thoroughly acquainted with that matter thus: The hops, said he, for this part of England, grow principally in the two counties of Surrey and Kent, with an exception only to the town of Chelmsford in Essex, and there are very few planted any where else.

There are indeed in the west of England some quantities growing; as at Wilton, near Salisbury; at Hereford and Broomsgrove, near Wales, and the like; but the quantity is inconsiderable, and the places remote, so that none of them come to London.

As to the north of England they formerly used but few hops there, their drink being chiefly pale smooth ale, which required no hops, and consequently they planted no hops in all that part of England, north of Trent; nor did I ever see one acre of hop-ground planted beyond Trent, in my observations; but as for some years past, they not only brew great quantities of beer in the north; but also use hops in the brewing then-ale much more than they did before; so they all come south of Trent to buy their hops; and here being vast quantities bought, 'tis great part of their back carriage into Yorkshire, and Northamptonshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, and all those counties; nay, of late, since the Union, even to Scotland it self; for I must not omit here also to mention, that the river Grant, or Cam, which runs close by the N.W. side of the fair in its way from Cambridge to Ely, is navigable, and that by this means, all heavy goods are brought even to the fair-field, by water carriage from London, and other parts; first to the port of Lynn, and then in barges up the Ouse, from the Ouse into the Cam, and so, as I say, to the very edge of the fair.

In like manner great quantities of heavy goods, and the hops among the rest, are sent from the fair to Lynn by water, and shipped there for the Humber, to Hull, York, &c. and for New-Castle upon Tyne, and by New-Castle, even to Scotland itself. Now as there is still no planting of hops in the north, tho' a great consumption, and the consumption increasing daily, this, says my friend, is one reason why at Sturbridge Fair there is so great a demand for the hops: he added, that besides this, there were very few hops, if any worth naming, growing in all the counties even on this side Trent, which were above forty miles from London; those counties depending on Sturbridge Fair for their supply, so the counties of Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Northampton, Lincoln, Leicester, Rutland, and even to Stafford, Warwick and Worcestershire, bought most if not all of their hops at Sturbridge Fair.

These are the reasons why so great a quantity of hops are seen at this fair, as that it is incredible, considering too, how remote from this fair the growth of them is, as above.

This is likewise a testimony of the prodigious resort of the trading people of all parts of England to this fair; the quantity of hops that have been sold at one of these fairs is diversly reported, and some affirm it to be so great, that I dare not copy after them; but without doubt it is a surprising account, especially in a cheap year.

The next article brought hither, is wool, and this of several sorts, but principally fleece wool, out of Lincolnshire, where the longest staple is found; the sheep of those countries being of the largest breed.

The buyers of this wool, are chiefly indeed the manufacturers of Norfolk and Suffolk, and Essex, and it is a prodigious quantity they buy.

Here I saw what I have not observ'd in any other country of England, namely, a pocket of wool. This seems to be first called, so in mockery, this pocket being so big, that it loads a whole waggon, and reaches beyond the most extream parts of it, hanging over both before, and behind, and these ordinarily weigh a ton or 25 hundred weight of wool, all in one bag.

The quantity of wool only, which has been sold at this place at one fair, has been said to amount to fifty or sixty thousand, pounds in value, some say a great deal more.

By these articles a stranger may make some guess, at the immense trade carry'd on at this place; what prodigious quantities of goods are bought, and sold here, and what a, confluence of people are seen here from all parts of England.

I might go on here to speak of several other sorts of English, manufactures, which are brought hither to be sold; as all sorts of wrought iron, and brass ware from Birmingham; edg'd tools, knives, &c. from Sheffield; glass ware, and stockings, from Nottingham, and Leicester; and an infinite throng of other things of smaller value, every morning.

To attend this fair, and the prodigious conflux of people, which come to it, there are sometimes no less than fifty hackney coaches, which come from London, and ply night and morning to carry the people to and from Cambridge; for there the gross of the people lodge; nay, which is still more strange, there are wherries brought from London on waggons to plye upon the little river Cam, and to row people up and down from the town, and from the fair as occasion presents.

It is not to be wondered at, if the town of Cambridge cannot receive, or entertain the numbers of people that come to this fair; not Cambridge only, but all the towns round are full; nay, the very barns, and stables are turn'd into inns, and made as fit as they can to lodge the meaner sort of people: As for the people in the fair, they all universally eat, drink, and sleep in their booths, and tents; and the said booths are so intermingled with taverns, coffee-houses, drinking-houses, eating-houses, cooks-shops, &c. and all in tents too; and so many butchers, and higglers from all the neighbouring counties come into the fair every morning, with beef, mutton, fowls, butter, bread, cheese, eggs, and such things; and go with them from tent to tent, from door to door, that there's no want of any provisions of any kind, either dress'd, or undress'd.

In a word, the fair is like a well fortify'd city, and there is the least disorder and confusion (I believe) that can be seen any where, with so great a concourse of people.

Towards the latter end of the fair, and when the great hurry of wholesale business begins to be over, the gentry come in, from all parts of the county round; and tho' they come for their diversion; yet 'tis not a little money they lay out; which generally falls to the share of the retailers, such as toy-shops, goldsmiths, brasiers, ironmongers, turners, milleners, mercers, &c. and some loose coins, they reserve for the puppet-shows, drolls, rope-dancers, and such like; of which there is no want, though not considerable like the rest: The last day of the fair is the horse-fair where the whole is clos'd with both horse and foot-races, to divert the meaner sort of people only, for nothing considerable is offer'd of that kind: Thus ends the whole fair and in less than a week more there is scarce any sign left that there has been such a thing there: except by the heaps of dung and straw; and other rubbish which is left behind, trod into the earth, and which is as good as a summer's fallow for dunging to the land; and as I have said above, pays the husbandmen well for the use of it.

I should have mention'd, that here is a court of justice always open, and held every day in a shed built on purpose in the fair; this is for keeping the peace, and deciding controversies in matters deriving from the business of the fair: The magistrates of the town of Cambridge are judges in this court, as being in their jurisdiction, or they holding it by special priviledge: Here they determine matters in a summary way, as is practis'd in those we call Pye-Powder Courts in other places, or as a court of conscience; and they have a final authority without appeal.


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