The Mop Fair was a ‘hiring fair’ event held twice a year in Thornbury, in March and September. The original intention was to bring people looking for work together with people looking for workers.
The term ‘Mop’ derives from the fact that each person was supposed to be carrying an implement to indicate the trade for which they were seeking employment and the mop was used by general domestic servants. A large number of people came from far and wide to take part and this encouraged another large group of people hoping to ply their services to the assembled crowds by entertaining them, feeding them and selling their produce.
In browsing the newspapers of the nineteenth century we discovered a number of interesting articles about the Mop, most of which appeared in the Bristol Mercury. We have assumed that the Mop was an ‘ancient’ tradition in the Town, but we found that a report dated 1880 which suggested that the Mop had only been running in the Town for 35 years. We have listed below those articles, or extractions from them, which show how the Mop changed during the period.
The first article dated 19th September 1857 shows that there was already a growing resistance to having the Mop in the town:
The Mop – During the past week a handbill has been posted about the town announcing that the Mop would be held as usual. We regret that such a decided step should have been taken by any one person without having authority to do so as we are informed that it is the wish of the magistrates, gentry, guardians of the poor, the inhabitants of the town and farmers of the neighbourhood, with but few exceptions, that the mop should be discontinued, believing that it tends to injure the morals of those whom it was originally intended to benefit, viz. the farm servants. A register office having been established in the town for the convenience of the masters and servant who have been in the habit of hiring at mop, a more respectable and certain way of obtaining their desires is presented to them, open to access at any time. It is to be hoped that the masters will not attend at the Thornbury or Sodbury mops, but seek their servants from the register office.
On 20th March 1858, the following report was published:
The Mop was held on Friday last, and by the unthinking crowd would be, and indeed was , called a good one, as a number of persons attended, but the ordinary observer could hardly fail to notice the almost entire absence of the more respectable of the farmers and their wives, as well as respectable servants – a large number of whom, we are informed, in Sodbury and Berkeley, as well as in Thornbury, have availed themselves of the intervention of the Register Office. The townsmen will feel that an incubus is removed when these obnoxious meetings are discontinued.
In March 1862 a report was published described a great detail appears in the Bristol Mercury which describes the Mop of March 18th:
The arrival, as early as Sunday, one of these curious vehicles, in which it is contrived to huddle not only monstrosities for exhibition, but the exhibitors themselves, and often that adjunct little corps, of whom Hood said ‘The charge of infantry was most terrific’, indicated that the coming event of the Mop had cast its shadow before. Monday brought many other of these dingy indescribables into town; and it was painful to see the proprietors, under heavy rain, and amidst most tenacious mud, dovetailing their extraordinary machinery, and industriously preparing for the noise and glitter of the morrow. Whatever feelings were entertained years ago respecting rough wayfarers on the world’s highway, they now thanks to the humanising pen of Dickens, are frequently contemplated with interest and sympathy. He has taught us that even these rude caterers for appetites as rude have hearts in their bosoms, after beating with affectionate anxieties, and warned by general instincts.
Notwithstanding that the fore part of Tuesday was dull, raw and drizzling, there was a great influx of visitors and candidates for situations, some holding aloof from places ‘not high enough for them’ their own expression, and ambition in this grade is becoming a marked feature), others taking the earnest money with grateful readiness, then away to those magazines of marvels, opposite to which stand crowds with open mouths and distended eyes.
‘The smallest man in the world’ is, by way , one supposes, of striking contrast, to be found in the next show to ‘the man mountain to be seen alive’. Making ghastly what before, in spite of the maniacal accompaniment of gong and metallic clatter, was merely grotesque, a newly-printed placard appeared on the former, saying ‘Just arrived! The scene of awful calamity at the Hartley Colliery’. But in much more refined places , and on more respectable occasions, calamity has been coarsely turned to pecuniary account. There was a cow with six legs, all warranted ‘genuine’; and the exhibitor descanted on the points of the animal with a skill which evidently interested his public. There was ‘the shooting gallery’ with its formidable tube, occupying its old position near the Swan, at which (the gallery, not the hotel), for ‘a penny a shot’, rival marksmen might back themselves against each other for pounds, if they pleased. There were boxes of impossible jewellery, and watchguards of unquestionable silver offered at a shilling each. There was ‘William Harrison’s United States Portrait Gallery’ plastered all over with specimens of artistic ability – sour, sorrowful, sickly – sentimental, savage – as if all are most aggrieved by the existing differences between North and South had rushed to this establishment for their ‘counterfeit presentments’. We overheard a little haggling between a young lady-attendant of the gallery and a rustic customer, whom she assured that as any other photographic institution the charge would have been a shilling! There was ‘Cheap Jack’ …..
There was a little theatrical tent, with a long narrow, naked plank issuing from it, and poles at the end, whereon to hang the cracked and ear-crackling drum, the clown of which performed his task drearily enough, and only contrived to inform his curious audience that ‘he stood five feet two in stockings – with his heels out’. But the Prima-donna (poor little shivering girl!) was energetic enough, and half-dressed in Scotch plaid, banged away on a huge metal plate; but best of all (and the funniest thing in the whole fair) there was a little black curly dog at her feet , who ever and anon rose, and walking to and fro the platform, seemed to be kissing his paw to the multitude below. A poor woman named Savery, had her pocket picked of 5 shillings; and there was a boy kicked all down the street for stealing a bit of gingerbread from one of the stalls. These were the only thefts one heard of; and the ‘professionals’ who came with their industrious views and loose notions of ‘meum and tuum’ were overheard exchanging condolences on the barrenness of the field (thanks to the numerous and vigilant police) to which they had brought their talents. The penny shows were plentiful; the travelling carts of all descriptions abundant, perhaps more so than ever; the lads and lasses commingled lovingly as is their wont, and hearty hand-shakings of long parted friends were pleasantly witnessed; edibles and drinkables had, of course, full justice done to them; and ‘The Lion’ wagged his tail with unusual satisfaction over a crowded doorway. Certainly, to judge by the experience of Tuesday, the efforts to ‘put down’ (as Sir Peter Laurie used to phrase it) the Thornbury Mop, seem likely to be as effectual as the mop of Mrs Partington to drive back the ocean.
On 13th March 1880 the following article shows that the resistance to the Mop was getting organised:
Some time ago the inhabitants of the town of Thornbury memorialised the Court of Quarter Session to give directions to the officers of the county to prosecute all persons who may in future erect any stall or standing in the public streets of Thornbury on Thornbury mop day, and in answer to their memorial the magistrates declined to give instructions asked for. This the memorialists considered a great hardship, especially as the police officers of the county were constantly prosecuting persons for offences against the Highway Act, and several of the inhabitants thereupon determined to take the matter up and prosecute any person who may be offending on Thornbury Mop day, the 16th inst. Notices to this effect have therefore been freely posted all round the neighbourhood and in the large towns of this and the adjoining counties. Considerable interest is being taken in the matter as the Mop Day approaches. The result of the action of the committee, who are determined to get rid of the intolerable nuisance, is anxiously looked forward to by other towns in the county.
Four days later, on 17th March 1880, the following report of the mop was published:
Yesterday this mop was held at Thornbury but never since it became popular with the working classes was it so tame and quiet. A few shows came into the town the previous day and put up at the Royal George, but they were afraid to venture into the streets, dreading the threatened prosecution of any person who pitched in the street, and consequently there was no shows for the amusement of the innocent rustics; no music to make the day more pleasant. only three persons volunteered to stand the consequences of a prosecution, two of these being ginger-bread stalls and the other a bacon stall, the proprietor of which was offering his goods at 3d per lb. Both servants and employers were numerous, and a fair amount of business was transacted. Wages were lower than last year on account of the depressed state of agriculture. we understand the offending parties were served with summonses to appear at the Thornbury Police court tomorrow for obstructing the highway.
On 19th March 1880 an article showed that Elizabeth Matthews and Elizabeth Haman, confectioners of Bristol were both charged with obstructing the free passage of a public footway in the High Street. The prosecutor, Henry Hume Lloyd, said that ‘it was of great importance to the toll collector, as it affected his right to receive toll on Thornbury Mop days and also of the large number of showman and stall keepers who had been in the habit for the last 35 years of attending the Mop and placing canvas and stalls in front the windows of the rate-paying inhabitants. The noise caused by the beating of the drums and the grinding of barrel organs by the proprietors of these standings had for some years past become unbearable, and as an inhabitant, and one who felt these things to be a nuisance, he had taken the matter up, in conjunction with others. In order that the stall keepers attending the mop should be made acquainted with their determination to prosecute any who offended, he freely posted the neighbourhood with notices warning any who erected stands in the streets as heretofore that proceedings would be taken against them. It had also been advertised in the Birmingham and Bristol newspapers, and notices had been posted in many of the towns of the county and other places, and this was done in order that defendants should not come before the magistrates today and say they were taken by surprise’. Henry Hume Lloyd pointed out that the Lord of the Manor had been granted a right by the Crown to hold three fairs a year and three markets and on every Saturday and that if the mops had been held on these days then no-one could stop the stalls being put up. He added that the Mop was a modern institution, being established only 35 years ago. He pointed out that the obstruction was only of a minor form and he did not seek a heavy sentence.
Mrs Matthews said in her defence that her cake stall was on the footpath in front of Olds shop near the Swan. She had the consent of the owner of the house opposite where she stood and had paid Joseph Prewett, the toll collector 6s for standing. She said she had been in the habit of attending the Thornbury Mop for the last 25 years and regularly paid the toll. The Magistrates considered the case proved and convicted the defendant the sum of 6s and 6s 6d costs, which the prosecutor promised to pay for the defendant on her promise not to repeat the offence. The case against Elizabeth Haman was withdrawn.
Mrs Matthews criminal career did not end there. In 1891 on March 27th there was a report of Elizabeth Matthews and Abraham Matthews were each fined 10s and 8s 6d costs for obstructing the highway on the 17th March during the Mop Fair. Apparently they had left their “house vans” in Gloucester Road for about 30 hours in addition to which they erected sweet stalls in the street.
On 25th September 1880 the following article was published which shows that things had changed :
The usual half-yearly mop or statute fair was held on Tuesday. A good number of masters attended, but servants were scarce. Wage ruled about the same as at the last mop. Dairymaids, £10 to £12; general farm servants, £8 to £11;carters, £10 to £13; all found. The mop was divested of all attractions in the shape of shows, stalls, and standings, and all the town towards the middle of the day wore its usual aspect. Several shows and other attractions came into town on the morning of the mop, and long consultations took place among proprietors as to the advisability of pitching in the streets, prosecutions against every one offending against the law being threatened by Mr H. H. Loyd, solicitor. Ultimately the whole of them marched out of town, determining never again to enter it.
On 24th September 1881 the following article was published which shows the Mop was still thriving. but it had changed in its character.
The half-yearly mop, or statute fair, which has existed for a number of years past, and has hitherto been looked forward to by village rustics with a great deal of pleasure, was held on Tuesday. The attendance was good, and the hiring went on with some briskness for about a couple of hours, the wages generally ruling about the same as last year, notwithstanding the agricultural depression. Carters in the house £12 to £13 per annum; dairymaids £10 to £15; other servants £5 to £11. No stands were allowed in the streets.
On 17th November 1883 the following article was published which shows resistance to the mop was getting organised.
On Thursday evening a discussion took place at Thornbury Castle on ‘How best to discourage the excessive drinking that takes place on the occasion of mop fairs and fete days, and how best to encourage healthy amusement amongst the country people’. There was a fair attendance and much interest was manifested in the proceedings. Mr E.,S. Howard M.P. was in the chair and spoke at considerable length, and a paper on the subject by Mr Jenner was read in his absence. A resolution condemning the continuance of hiring fairs was moved by the vicar, and was opposed by Mr Thurston and Mr Sturge. It was however carried by a large majority. Mr J. H. Raper moved another resolution condemning the holding of club meetings at public houses, which was seconded by Mr Crossman and carried. Capt. Salmon moved that arrangements should be made for holding popular entertainments during the winter and for the revival of the flower show, and this was carried unanimously. It was finally resolved to ask the co-operation of the Friendly Societies for the holding of a large fete yearly.
On 19th March 1890 the following article was published showing that the mop was carrying on, just:
Yesterday the half-yearly mop, or statute fair, was held here. Several farmers in the Vale of the Severn came early to secure hands for the coming summer. The attendance of servant lads and girls was very scanty, and shows the declining popularity of the mop at Thornbury as a means of securing situations. Wages ruled about the same as at previous fairs, a few contracts only being made.
On 2nd April 1890 the following article was published:
A Somerset farmer complains of the difficulty now experienced in finding either farm lads as labourer or young girls suitable for farmhouse servants. He says that both of these classes are being drafted more and more into the large cities , and even extra wages will not tempt them to remain in the country. His neighbours tell him that nearly 70 Somerset farmers visited Thornbury Mop to try to hire labour of this kind, and nearly all of them were unsuccessful. Scarcely any labourers, especially those required to live indoors at a farm could be obtained, and in the few instances where farmers were successful they had to pay high wages. The ‘mops’ or hiring fairs themselves appear to be going out of fashion, but they are still attended by farmers who, in the present dearth of farmhouse servants, are attending all the Gloucestershire fairs in the effort to supply their wants in this respect. By and by they will have to try the surplus labour of the cities.
On 18th March 1891 the following article appeared:
Yesterday the half yearly mop or statute fair was held here. There was a large attendance of employers, but the servants were conspicuous by their absence. Only a few of the latter came in to be hired, and wages on the whole ruled a trifle higher than on former occasions. The present mode of hiring at mops seems to be rapidly falling into disrepute, especially at Thornbury, where every year it gets less, and seems doomed in the near future to collapse completely.
On 21st September 1892 the following article was published:
Yesterday the half-yearly mop or statute fair was held. The institution, which at one time was a most flourishing one,, will soon become a thing of the past, as but few servants now avail themselves of this mode of hiring. Yesterday the attendance was very small, and but few contracts were entered into. Wages ruled about the same as last year.
We are not sure when the last Mop was held as a hiring fair. The Mop, as a general fair with stalls and street entertainment, without the hiring connection, was revived in June 1953 to coincide with Coronation festivities. It was opened by Mr R.A. Leakey, local sportsman and personality, who arrived by train, the first passenger to use Thornbury Station for many years. We are not sure if this was a one-off event for one held for several years, but it was revived again in 1976 by the Thornbury Arts Festival Committee. It was a very popular event held in Castle Street, much more subdued and well controlled as compared with the Mops held in Victorian times. It continued there for about 25 years, and as it declined it was moved to St Mary’s Centre before it was discontinued in 2000.