Chorley Historical and Archaeological Society

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Apr 2016

Tue 12 Apr 2016
Stephen Caunce – Hiring Fairs – Business and Pleasure Combined


Stephen opened by explaining that hiring fairs were the absolute highlight of the year for rural folk up until the first half of the 20th century. The hiring of rural folk for rural jobs was an ancient custom of northern England.

It is the general view of historians that hiring fairs were a feature of rural oppression. In fact, in northern England it was nothing like that. Above a line drawn roughly from the Mersey to the Wash rural wages were much higher than those to the south and wages were paid all year round.

Stephen Caunce

Farmers had to pay a good wage to ensure somebody would work for them. The industrialisation of the north created a market for farmers’ goods.

The key date in the calendar for when fairs were held was Martinmas, St Martin’s Day, on 11 November. Crops had been brought in, livestock killed for the winter and workers would seek new employment. Workers would get a week off between contracts. This was the time of the hiring fair, a great festival.

Huge crowds gathered at these fairs, not just farm workers seeking employment and not just men. People sought work in the police and army and on the coast, hotels sought staff.

Rural workers sold their time to farmers for a fixed sum. If the worker left that employment before end of term then they received nothing. The farmer, too, had obligations. Once a farmer agreed to hire a worker and that worker agreed to work for a farmer, a fastening penny was given to the worker. It formed a legally binding contract and the farmer could not sack the worker. Disputes were handled by magistrates.

The Horeslands of East Yorkshire

Stephen described the wider social impact hiring fairs throughout many parts of northern England. It was a time to spend hard earned money and a time of revelry. Some, mainly the clergy, took a dim view of these events but it was not the general view. For many country towns these events were the most important time for income for their businesses.

Stephen’s enlightening talk, clearly explained the importance of hiring fairs in our history and how, for the most part, they are now forgotten.

Peter Robinson