Hiring fairs also called mop fairs or statue fairs took place throughout England in the 19th century and although by the end of this period they were on the wane, they still provided an important means to employ regular farm workers or farm servants.
These hiring fairs were for the hiring of farm servants who were different than general agricultural labourers. Farm servants were hired for a fixed period, often six months or a year and were paid at the end of this period. They lived on the farm itself and received bed and board as part of the package. This meant that farm servants and therefore those attending the hiring fair, were young and unmarried.
At the old mops the occupations of the agricultural labourers and the domestic servants were indicated by badges:[i]
Carter – a piece of whipcord
Cowman- a lock of cow hair
Those employed in the fields- flowers
Shepherds – a crook
Farmers would approach the worker that they liked the look of and enquire about their skills and experience. Negotiations over pay would follow and when an agreement was made a fest or fastening penny was given by the employer to seal the bargain.[ii]
This was seen as legally binding although in some places it was a convention that if the fest was returned up to a fortnight after then the worker was free to find another job.[iii] If the worker left his employer during the period of six months or whatever had been agreed then it was up to the employer whether they were paid anything at all. [iv]
Problems with the system
At hiring fairs the two sides of the bargain were often strangers to each other and no written character or reference was required. This led to abuses on both sides. It was said that servants of bad character could rob his or her employer and run off before the employer realised that they had taken on someone who had no intention of working.
Some servants would take the deposit from a potential employer and not show up for work. Others collected deposits from more than one employer and not turn up for any of them.
Some Masters adopted a system where they asked potential servants to give them a certain sum as surety for their appearance. This did give the Master more security but at the same time made the servant more vulnerable. An example was given in 1861.[v] of a “Master” who obtained 5 shillings from a potential servant and then took him into a public house to treat him. Some gambling was going on and the Master regretted that after hiring his servants he didn’t have enough money in his pocket to join in. The servant, thinking that it would get him in the Masters good books lent him the £3 he had of last year’s wages. The Master was then never seen again.
A talk given to the Wenlock Farmers’ club by the Reverend Edward Jacson of Thruxton and Kingstone in January 1861 was reflective of the general mood of some farmers and “upstanding” members of society that hiring fairs or “mops” gave rise to many moral evils as well as being out of touch with modern ways of doing business.
Some servants remained drinking and enjoying themselves for several days and were summoned in front of the Magistrate by their masters in neglect of work. If the Master agreed then the servant would need to pay costs out of their wages. However, if the Master so wished then the “the fun of the fair ends on the treadmill”.[vi]
Mr Davies of Webton court in Herefordshire “Why, on the 1st May , all servantdom is let loose on the world and they refuse to enter upon a fresh contract until the 19th to the great inconvenience of the employer who is quite at their mercy and is often compelled to do the work himself if he gets it done at all.”[vii]
It was argued that by 1861 domestic servants were mainly employed through word of mouth/ references or employment agencies and therefore farm servants should be engaged in the same way. Mr Nash Stephenson in his talk on Statute fairs in a meeting at Liverpool in 1858 even likened hiring fairs to American slave markets saying that “The character of the servant does not enter the bargain but that it is decided by the strength of the body”.[viii]
The registration system would work with a central office in the large town of the neighbourhood and have a resident manager. It would open perhaps once or twice a week including market and fair days and there would be branch offices in some of the main surrounding villages.
The registration scheme did take off in certain areas such as Worcestershire[ix] but in 1878 the President of the Breconshire Chamber of Agriculture was “sorry to inform the Chamber that the register scheme had proved a failure as they could induce neither employers or servants to go to them..”[x]
There was a charge for using the registration offices and servants at the Presteigne office were charged one shilling whether they were hired or not. This was thought to be the main reason they didn’t take off but a Mr Morriss of Talgarth had opened a registration office with no fees and still had little uptake. [xi]
The Herefordshire Domestic and Farm Servants’ Registration Society, of which J.H. Arkwright was secretary and treasurer, was founded in 1867 under the title of the Herefordshire Domestic and General Farm Servants’ Registration Society.[xii] However like schemes elsewhere this seems to have been poorly recieved and stopped operating by 1869.
As the majority of hiring fairs or statue fairs were also combined with attractions and funfairs, in the minds of some they led to dangers of both the physical and moral kind. Tales abounded of inexperienced workers with their pay newly in their pockets being lured into public houses where “even the very devils in hell would delight and be satisfied with the orgies and revels that follow” [xiii]
Mr Humphries, Superintendent of Police in Kings Heath said in 1861 that “I have seen married and single conducting themselves with the greatest impropriety and young girls or rather children stopping all night dancing and drinking and allowing most indecent liberties to be taken.”[xiv]
Mr James Isaac, Chief Constable of Warwickshire in whose district in the 1860s 27 statute fairs were held, “on female servants they have a most baleful effect: many cases of bastardy resulted from improper intimacies at or returning from Statutes”.[xv]
It was also said that on the following morning after the Mop that the police courts were full of people either answering charges of disorder and drunkenness or appearing penniless with their pockets emptied and sometimes even the shirt off their backs.[xvi] Some men were described as being “ pot valiant” in that in the throes of drink they signed up for the army. In the morning, when sober, they needed to use the previous year’s wages to buy themselves out of their commitment. [xvii]
Although these comments and attitudes on hiring fairs did contain some genuine concern for those involved, it is hard not to see their attitude as rather patronising. With the time around the hiring fairs being the only time in the year when farm servants had a proper holiday, it seems harsh to begrudge them time to let off steam before a new year of hard work will begin.
Over time, many hiring fairs became less about hiring servants and more about attractions and having fun.
By 1903 the Leominster May Fair had moved from primarily being a hiring one to a pleasure one. The first rides for the children of the National British Schools was paid for by the Mayor and attractions included:[xviii]
- Coconut alley
- Biddall’s menageries
- Shooting galleries
- Giant Lady
- Zara the witch and her thought reading
In Broad Street Hereford in 1862: “Adjoining the swing boats was Leon’s Circus where ladies.. made themselves conspicuous to our country cousins by their not over refined contortions”[xix]
Broad street also had[xx] :
- Photographic studios
- A talking pig
- Performing canaries
- Fortune telling horses
High Town had attractions including:[xxi]
- Peep shows
- Cabinets of curiosities
- Wombwell’s famed menagerie with a Burmese elephant and a lion tamer.
As the 19th century progressed the hiring fair was in decline for a number of reasons.
The agricultural depression of the 1870s onwards meant the farmers were reducing the number of regular workers they hired, relying more on casual, seasonal workers around times such as harvest. Rural depopulation was also an issue as travel links improved attracting rural workers to the cities and industrial conurbations. The decline however was not evenly spread and some hiring fairs were still happening after WW1, despite being on a much smaller scale.
In 1878 the Presteigne hiring fair “has of late years very much deteriorated and this year the number offering themselves for hire was exceedingly scanty.”[xxii]
As was noted before, by 1908 Leominster was now predominantly a pleasure fair. In article of the time, it was said the there was a time when the hiring fair was the day of the year for the local Savings Bank, there being a steady stream of all kinds of servants who had received their wages and wished to deposit some to be saved. By 1908, the business on the day of the hiring fair was the same as any other day.[xxiii]
A noticeable trend at the beginning of the 20th century was the reluctance of female servants to re- engage for service at farmhouses. It was said that they found domestic service in an urban or suburban setting to be more attractive as well as having more to entertain them in their rationed free time. [xxiv] In 1910 at the Sleaford May fair, one of the largest hiring fairs in England “not one girl in a hundred who accepted a situation in a farm houses would undertake duties of milking and the men will have to do their work.” [xxv]
Many farmers were also increasingly reluctant to employ regular male labour owing to the high wages demanded. This is again because young men were finding work in urban and industrial districts to be better paid and more attractive.[xxvi]]
In a telling aside on the decline of the Mops, an article in 1903 said “it was stated in last week’s issue that there was no evidence of the old hiring fair but we understand a farmer form Malvern visited the t town and was successful in hiring a servant.“ [xxvii]
Records of some hiring fairs are also available in local record offices. For example, Chippenham Hiring Fair records at Swindon History Centre include a register of persons hired, where born, ages, duties, wages, last employer, and other details. Some fairs have more detailed records than others depending in the how efficient the market clerk was.
[i] Hereford Times. 13 May 1911. P. 05. Col. 7
[ii] CAUNCE, Stephen. (Autumn 1975) East Riding Fairs. Oral History. Vol. 03. Volume 02. P 46.
[iii] CAUNCE, Stephen. (Autumn 1975) East Riding Fairs. Oral History. Vol. 03. Volume 02. P 46.
[iv] CAUNCE, Stephen. (Autumn 1975) East Riding Fairs. Oral History. Vol. 03. Volume 02. P 46.
[v] Hereford Journal. 30 January 1861. Hiring Fairs. P.3. Col.2
[vi] Hereford Journal. 30 January 1861. Hiring Fairs. P.3. Col.2
[vii] Hereford Journal. 30 January 1861. Hiring Fairs. P.3. Col.2
[viii] Hereford Journal. 30 January 1861. Hiring Fairs. P.3. Col.1
[ix] Hereford Times. 12 Oct 1867. Gloucester: Statute Fairs. Page 10. Col. 4
[x] Gratis double supplement to the Hereford Times. 23 Nov 1878. Breconshire Chamber of Agriculture: Hiring at Fairs. Page 19. Col.6
[xi] Gratis double supplement to the Hereford Times. 23 Nov 1878. Breconshire Chamber of Agriculture: Hiring at Fairs. Page 19. Col.6
[xii] National Archives. Herefordshire domestic and farm servants’ registration society.
[xiii] Hereford Journal. 30 January 1861. Hiring Fairs. P.3. Col.1
[xiv] Hereford Journal. 30 January 1861. Hiring Fairs. P.3. Col.1
[xv] Hereford Journal. 30 January 1861. Hiring Fairs. P.3. Col.1
[xvi] Hereford Journal. 30 January 1861. Hiring Fairs. P.3. Col.2
[xvii] Hereford Journal. 30 January 1861. Hiring Fairs. P.3. Col.2
[xviii] Leominster News and Northwest Herefordshire and Radnorshire Advertiser. 08 May 1903. Leominster May Fair. Page 08. Col 03.
[xix] Hereford Journal. 24 May 1862. The Hiring Fair. P 5. Col 1.
[xx] Hereford Journal. 24 May 1862. The Hiring Fair. P 5. Col 1.
[xxi] Hereford Journal. 24 May 1862. The Hiring Fair. P 5. Col 1.
[xxii] Hereford Journal. 18 may 1878. Presteign May Fair. Page 08. Col. 4
[xxiii] Leominster news and North West Herefordshire and Radnorshire Advertiser. 08 May 1908. Leominster may Fair. P. 08. Col. 4
[xxiv] Hereford Journal. 01 June 1907. Hay: Decline of Hiring fair. Page 06. Col 4.
[xxv] Hereford Journal. 28 may 1910. P. 02. Col. 7
[xxvi] Hereford Journal. 01 June 1907. Hay: Decline of Hiring fair. Page 06. Col 4.
[xxvii] Bromyard news. 02 April 1903. P. 05. Col. 2