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A history of Marlborough Mop Fair
By Daniel Garrett
BBC Wiltshire

Marborough Mop in the 1900s
A fair in Marlborough High Street has been an annual autumn tradition for over 800 years

'Mop' fairs have been an annual tradition in many English towns for hundreds of years.

They are generally held on or around Old Michaelmas Day in October, and coincide with the harvest.

Wiltshire's sole Mop fair is held in Marlborough high street every year.

The tradition stretches back over 800 years to when the 1204 charter, overseen by King John, granted the borough an annual eight day fair, as well as a weekly market.

St Peter's fair was held on the eve of St Peter, and the three days following.

Until the 19th century there was open country to the south of St Peter's church and it seems likely this area was used for this event.

The third fair was held for seven days over the Feast of Assumption; its location is not known.

In addition to these the annual sheep fair was held on the Green until transferred to the Common in 1893. It continued on until the 1970s and is now no more.

Marlborough 'Mop', the annual fair that continues to this day takes place on the Saturday before and after Old Michaelmas Day on 11 October. If the 11 October is a Saturday, they are held two weeks apart

Hiring fair

The term 'Mop Fair' originates from the early hiring fairs which were primarily used by local landowners to find prospective employees to work on their estates.

A would-be housekeeper for example would carry a mop or brush head to signify what her given skills were.

A shepherd would wear a tuft of wool, and a farm labourer might fix an ear of corn to his lapel and carry a scythe to promote the fact that he worked out in the fields.

Once the landowner and prospective employee had met and agreed terms, a small down payment of money would change hands and the employee would remove the item signifying their trade, and adorn a bright ribbon to indicate they had been hired.

This would take place at the first 'Little Mop' fair, and if in their or their employer's opinion after the first week were not suited to the job, they could each visit the 'Big Mop' fair the following Saturday to try again.

This tradition continued for many years but during the 19th century its original function as a hiring fair was progressively hijacked by the entertainment and food-vending industries, and was soured by the amount of alcohol which was readily available from the many taverns that lined the High Street.

'Attended with much immorality'

Several articles in the Marlborough Times of that period refer to various incidents of anti-social behaviour at the event. One report observed that the fair was 'attended with much immorality'.

Since the Showmen's Guild took over the running of the event in the late 1950s, Marlborough Mop has grown into a safe and friendly event for all the family, with all manner of fairground rides and attractions to enjoy.

Its popularity is such that even members of the Royal Family have even been known to pay a visit from time to time.

There are occasional pleas to move the fair from its location on Marlborough High Street to the Common, but this is unlikely to happen as due to the town's ancient charter, it would take an act of Parliament to sanction it.

Marlborough Mop takes place this year on Saturday 10 and Saturday 17 October.

Thanks to Michael Gray of the Merchant's House, Marlborough, and Billy Whiteleg of The Showmen's Guild for their help in researching this article.

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