You can also listen to Jim Gilbert talking about the Fairs

These two articles were written by Michael Brooks for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and are reproduced here with permission.

The Amersham Cattle Fair

 “Cattle Fair day and early morn,
between the fields of unripe corn,
the cattle slowly wend their way.
“I’ll sell them at the Fair today”
the farmer said and drove them faster
so as to show he was their master.
“When sold, to Duffats Meadow stride
where merry makers seek a bride.
For there sweet Mary I shall see
and she, I know, will dance with me
and we shall make as blythe a pair
as any couple at the Fair.
Yet there is something I must say
I’m almost sure she won’t say nay,
so hasten cattle – do not tarry,
methinks ’tis time a man should marry”.

Amersham Fair in 1905 (PHO9006)
Amersham Fair in 1905 (PHO9006)

Discovery of this charming poem written in 1904, has inspired me to write the history of Amersham’s now long-gone Cattle Fair. From the earliest years cattle and other livestock were traded in the town, the needs of the population being met by drovers and farmers bringing their cattle and sheep to the fleshers (butchers) in the shambles where they were slaughtered before sale.  This was mainly on market day which, from the days of the original Royal Charters by which King John granted a Fair and Market to the Earl of Essex and his heirs in 1200 and 1201, was Friday.  By these charters an annual fair was established on the days of the vigil and Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Mary (i.e. September 7th &  8th) and livestock was also traded.

Cattle & sheep in Market Square 1890 (PHO9015)
Cattle & sheep in Market Square 1890 (PHO9015)

When Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and heir to the Earl of Essex, was beheaded at Salisbury in 1483, the rights to the fair and market reverted to the Crown. His son, Edward, recovered the rights in 1520 but he too was executed for treason in 1521.  The rights thereafter were disputed, though the fair and market continued on a   prescriptive basis. The citizens of the town petitioned James I in 1613 requesting that the market day be changed.  A new Royal Charter was then granted to the Duke of Bedford, his heirs and successors, under the terms of which market day was changed to Tuesday, the September Fair was confirmed and an additional fair was granted to be held on the Monday and Tuesday of Pentecost (Whit Monday and Tuesday).  There is no mention of cattle in any of the grants but the Whitsun Fair became associated with the sale of cattle and sheep and known as the Cattle Fair.

Though originally a two-day fair, at some point in the 18th Century, probably following the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, which effectively changed the Autumn Fair dates to September 18th and 19th, the Cattle Fair became a one-day event. This is confirmed by a List of Tolls and Fairs of 1768:-

May 27  For stalls at the Fair this day being Whit Monday           £1-19-00
For Shew Pennies                                                          0- 2- 2
For Flying Horses                                                         0- 1– 0
For Hawking and Turnrounds                                             0- 2- 8
For the Toll of sheep sold @ 4d the score                                 0- 6-10
For the Toll of cows sold @ 2d per head                                  0- 1-10
For the Toll of Hoggs sold @ 1d per head                                 0- 0-10

……………………………………………………………………………………   £ 2-14- 4

Deduct: Pd to Wm Smith & John Bates for keeping the sheep
cow and horse Fairs and bringing in the stalls on the Fair Day
and taking down and laying up the same the day after and
also for beer 2s 6d together                                                0-10- 6

……………………………………………………………………………………..    £ 2- 3-10

Turnrounds were an early form of roundabout powered by a hand crank.  Hoggs were young sheep before their first shearing — not to be confused with hogs (pigs) though pigs, goats and poultry were also traded.  Tolls for the use of cattle pens are also recorded from 1768. Entertainments and fun were part of both Whitsun and Autumn fairs at this time and much enjoyed by all, particularly the school children who had a day off school.  They enjoyed not only the sights and smells but also helping to round up straying sheep.

Amersham Directories from 1792 confirm that the Cattle Fair was a one-day affair on Whit Monday.  Thomas Dugdale’s Curiosities of Great Britain of 1840 recorded “Amersham, Borough, Market Town and Parish. Population 2,612.  Market Tuesdays.  Fairs Whit Monday for horned cattle and September for cattle and statute“.

The Whitsun Fair was reported in 1853 as stretching from Duffat’s (Dovecotes) meadow to the top of the High Street. “The shew (sic) of stock was very fair indeed…Business on the whole was brisk and prices well maintained. …No small quantity of stock exchanged hands…“ However by the end of the 19th Century, the Whitsun cattle fair was definitely in decline. In 1906 the Bucks Herald reported “A considerable quantity of sheep and cattle were brought into town on Monday. but there was a marked falling off in the patronage paid to the providers of amusement in the shape of roundabouts etc.”  In his book “Reflections of Buckinghamshire 1595-1970”, R.J.Mason stated that “the Whitsun Cattle Fair faded out with World War I. …There were no stalls, booths or amusements. …It all took place in the morning.”  The fair was however to continue, getting smaller and smaller, up to the second World War.

As shown in the Domesday survey the Amersham area had long been a prosperous agricultural community growing mainly wheat and barley with the rearing of cattle, sheep and pigs, especially on Amersham Common and Wycombe Heath.  With the enclosures, animal husbandry was concentrated more on farms and estates. Livestock still had to be driven into town for sale.

PHO2709The advent of vehicles capable of carrying the animals and better roads meant that farmers were able to access other markets and fairs. Once Aylesbury had established a weekly cattle fair it was more beneficial to take beasts there as soon as they were mature enough, rather than wait for the annual Amersham cattle fair. When in 1941 farmer John W. Cope of Holmer Green brought his cattle to the Whitsun Fair there was only one buyer – John Roberts of Shenley. In 1942 John Cope, then 66 years old, decided to call it a day and declined to attend the Cattle Fair which then ceased to exist.  All that remains are a few metal rings in the kerbstones outside No 39 in the High Street to which cattle used to be tethered. The sounds and smells of the fair have been replaced by diesel and petrol fumes, and the cowpats by oil deposits.

The Charter Fair

See the 1934 picture of the Fair.

In 2004 the annual fair took place on Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th of September. As far as I have been able to ascertain this was the first time that it has been held on a Sunday since the year 1200, when the first Royal Charter for a fair and market at Agmodesham was granted by King John to Geoffrey fitzPiers at Bordeaux on 18th July. This first charter was confirmed by a re-grant at Marlborough on 9th April 1201.

In 1483 the rights to the fair and market reverted to the Crown when Henry Stafford, heir to the Earl of Essex, was beheaded for treason. The rights were then granted to a citizen of Amersham, Thomas Fowler, “for life”.  The fair and market continued on a prescriptive basis. Henry Stafford’s son, Edward, tried to recover the rights in 1520, but he too was executed for treason in 1523. The rights then passed to another citizen of Amersham, Alice Carter, and then back to the Russell family in 1526. However Edward Russell had also taken part in the Essex rebellion for which he was very heavily fined, so he was forced to dispose of many local Manors and estates including Shardeloes and Amersham Woodrowe.  William Tothill, the wealthy printer and publisher, purchased these properties but Frances Lord Russell, son of Edward Russell, retained the Manors of Amersham, Chesham and Chenies.  The rights to Amersham market and fair were disputed by the Russells and the inhabitants of the town, who eventually petitioned King James for a ruling.

In 1613 a new Royal Charter was granted to the Russell family. Under the terms of this charter Edward, Earl of Bedford, was granted a weekly market on a Tuesday and two annual fairs, one to be held on the Monday and Tuesday of Whitsun and the other on the eve and day of the Nativity of the Blessed Mary (7th and 8th September), all within the Manor of Amersham. The Charter also states: “We also grant a court of pie-powder to be held there at the time of the market and fairs and festival, and all liberties and free customs – tollage, stallage, picage, fines, amercements and all other profits, conveniences. advantages and benefits whatsoever appertaining to, emerging from, arising from, befalling or in any way belonging to such markets, fairs and festivals and courts of pie-powder”.

William Drake acquired Shardeloes House and its Manor in 1626 on the death of his Father-in-law, William Tothill, and in 1637 he purchased the Manor of Amersham from Frances, Earl of Bedford. The conveyance had the effect of transferring the rights to the market and fairs, together with the court of pie-powder, to the Drake family as an apertinent to the Manor but there was no Royal Charter to the Drakes. A Royal Charter was a personal grant to a family by the Sovereign.

The Feast on the day of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was held on 8th September until 1752, but when the Gregorian Calendar was adopted in that year that date was one of the lost eleven days. Calendars for that year show that the Feast was moved to the 19th September for that year, reverting to the original date from 1753.   The Fair was held on 18th and 19th September in 1752 on the days of the Vigil and the Feast but the Fair dates did not revert in 1753 and the link of the Fair with our Patron Saint was lost for good.

The Fair continued to be held on September 18th and 19th for some 200 years except where one of those dates was a Sunday when it would be moved forwards or backwards for a day.  It became a proper two-day event in 1956 and for some undetermined reason was held on September 18th, 19th and 20th in 1957.  Following protests it was decided that it should be a two-day event again from 1958 and it has been held on September 19th and 20th since then except for changes when a Sunday was involved (as above).

In 1752 at the time of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the dates 8th and 9th September fell within the lost eleven days so it was decided to hold the Vigil and Feast of the Blessed Mary on September 18th and 19th in that year. Thereafter the fair continued to be held on those dates even though the Church reverted to celebrating the Vigil and Feast on the 8th and 9th from 1753.

As the weekly market and retail shops began to supply more and more of the community’s needs, the fairs became less an outlet for the sale of goods and more of an occasion for merrymaking and social enjoyment. Though the charters specify a two-day fair, the fair took a day to set up and it ‘had to close at sunset on the actual fair day, so they were in effect one-day events from 1200, though the fair was to become a proper two day event from 1956. The Whitsun fair became mainly for the sale of livestock, but it lapsed after 1941 when the last cattle were brought here for sale.  Hiring of labour was never a strong feature of the Amersham fairs.

Changing patterns of agriculture, two world wars and the huge differences in the world since 1613, especially the advent of the motor car, make the terms of the Charter of that year impossible to adhere to. William Tyrwhitt-Drake, the current Lord of the Manor of Amersham, still holds the rights to the fair and the market. He tries hard to stick to the spirit of the charter with the Shardeloes Estate.  The weekly Tuesday market gradually faded out in the Old Town and it was moved first to the car park in Amersham on the Hill and then to Sycamore Road.  Both these locations were strictly speaking outside the Manor of Amersham. The Market Hall, built by his family for the town in 1682, was transferred to the Amersham Rural District Council in 1974 and then passed to the Amersham Town Council.  The few stalls which still occupy the old Hall on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays are a far cry from the position in 1788 when the Shardeloes Papers record an agreement between James Norwood and William Nobbs of Amersham for a stall rent of £6.00 for 69 trestles for one year.

William Tyrwhitt-Drake has a legal obligation to hold the September fair and he and the Shardeloes Estate work with the Showmen’s Guild to make the necessary arrangements with regard to Health and Safety, policing and highway restrictions, fire precautions and so on. The financial responsibility for policing and implementation of highway restrictions and environmental safety is borne by the Shardeloes Estate. Chiltern District Council helps to organise the necessary road closures and issue permits for residents to enter the Old Town during the fair.

I have researched the background history following the holding of the fair on a Sunday in 2004. Whilst in early Christian times the population were encouraged to celebrate festivities in and around churches on Saints’ Days and other holidays, yet Sundays themselves were reserved for worship. Under the Sunday Fairs Act of 1448 it was ruled that if either the day of the Vigil or the Feast of the Virgin was a Sunday then the fair could be moved forwards or backwards by one day. Generally accepted rules for all fairs stated: “No person within the Fair is to presume to break the Lord’s Day by buying or selling. No sitting, tippling or drinking in any tavern, alehouse or cook’s house, nor do anything to break the peace thereof”.

The Sunday Fairs Act was repealed in 1971 but without retrospective effect. Certainly it has always been the custom in Amersham that the fair should not be held on a Sunday. A letter from the Drake’s local agent, the late John Milbourne, dated 31st March 1992 stated “The Fair dates have always been the 19th and 20th September except when one of these dates was on a Sunday when the fair would be put back a day”.  A report of the Chiltern District Council Environmental Services Committee dated 12th October 1993 stated “The above annual event held on 19th and 20th September each year, except when the dates fall on a Sunday, operates under a Charter issued by King John in 1200 and is currently held by Captain F.J.Tyrwhitt-Drake of the Shardeloes Estates, who no longer resides in the area”. This was not correct, as King John’s Charter had long lapsed and as stated previously, the Drakes acquired the rights, but not the Charter, from the Duke of Bedford in 1637!  Amersham Fair could now be regarded as a prescriptive rather than a charter fair.

The decision to hold the fair on a Sunday in 2004 proved to be controversial.  William Tyrwhitt-Drake states that he took soundings from the Rector before making the decision but does not appear to have consulted further.  As a result Church and Chapel services had to be curtailed or were seriously affected due to parking problems and the noise generated by the fair.  In my opinion the views of the Amersham Society, the Amersham Old Town and the District Residents Associations, the Old Amersham Business Association and other interested parties should be taken into account before any future decision is made.

Another article about the Charter Fair was written by Nicholas Salmon and printed in the January 1992 Amersham Society News

The origins of the Amersham Fair can be traced back to 18th July 1200 when King John presented Geoffrey Fitz Piers, Earl of Essex, with a charter granting him the right to hold an annual fair and weekly Friday market.  On 9th April 1201, a second charter was issued which carried a marginal note cancelling the original grant and confirming both the market and the fair.  The only other early document I have been able to locate is an appraisal dated 1336 which recorded that the fair was then considered to have an annual value of 30shillings (£1.50).

Although it has been stated on a number of occasions that these charters are the authority on which the fair is held, my research indicates that this is not in fact the case.  The 1201 charter granted the right to hold the market and fair to the Earl of Essex and his heirs, not to the Lord of the Manor of Amersham.  The last of the heirs of the Earl of Essex to hold Amersham was Henry Stafford who was beheaded in front of Richard III at Salisbury on 2nd November 1483.  From that date the fair was held on a prescriptive basis until 1613.

The crucial document is in fact a third charter granted to Edward, Earl of Bedford in 1613.  Apparently the citizens of Amersham drew up a petition which they presented to James I requesting that the market day be changed from Friday to Tuesday ‘… for the public good and emolument of the inhabitants of Agmondesham’.  When this matter was looked into it was discovered that the original charter which had given the authority for the market along with the September fair and an additional cattle market to be held on the Monday and Tuesday of Pentecost week.  Unfortunately the only copy of this charter I have been able to locate is in medieval Latin and I do not feel qualified to offer a translation!  The original of this charter passed into the possession of the Drakes when they purchased the Manor of Amersham from the Russell family in 1637.

At some point in the late Eighteenth Century – possibly following the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 – it was decided to hold the cattle market on Whit Monday and the Fair on 19th September.  Every directory on the town from 1792 to 1939 confirms that the fair was only held on this single day and not on two days as it is at present.  The reason for this was that two day grants were made in order to facilitate the arrival and departure of the traders within the forty-eight hour period, ie. the whole fair had to be in and out of the town within the two days specified in the charter.

In the 1940s, when the fair was greatly restricted in size as a result of the black-out restrictions, it was suggested that it would lapse if it failed to be held.  A letter was sent to Charles Drew at the Public Record Office on this matter and his reply (dated 12th August 1944) maintained that none of the charters contained any such provision.  However, there seems to be some confusion on this point.  For a number of years, the Whitsun Cattle Market was kept going by the regular appearance of a single buyer (Mr John H Robarts) and a single seller (Mr John W Cope). In 1942 Mr Cope – who was by then 66 – decided to call it a day. It was reported at the time that the original charter had stated that the sale of ‘the Cattle of the Landes’ should cease if ever the market ‘not be holden’.

Pilgrimage to the Fair

This was printed in the Amersham Society Newssheet of September 1987 and written by Jim Olney.  It is printed here with permission.

It’s forty years ago this year that I made my first pilgrimage to Amersham Fair.  I was a passenger then, the newest member of our family, for Amersham Fair all those years ago was still a family event and indeed an event that all the town involved itself in.  These were the days before Amersham had dissolved.

What was it like as a young child?  Well I could never understand why a thing so wonderful, so glittering, so joyous, came only once a year.  Why couldn’t it come say once a week?

This social event had many facets, some obvious, some more subtle, some that exist even to this day.  Like the small groups of people that gather at various points, insignificant you may think.  But not so, because these are the returning émigrés meeting old friends or childhood acquaintances, for this is the only time of the year that you can do this.  They will huddle together and talk about times past and depart with the assurance to meet again next year.  This has been part of the Fair’s history for generations.

I have seen the ritual many times over and as a child I saw old men with white hair, caps that were touched at the peak on meeting a lady, waistcoats adorned with watch and chain, follow the same procedure, they huddle and talk, then in for an ale at some place or other.  I wonder what the conversations were about for these men of the Great War, the Boer War and beyond!

A large lady in a white overall with white hair tied in a bun and red rosy cheeks threw vast quantities of resinous cream-coloured candy over a shiny metal hook, blending a sweet that was plaited and cut before your very eyes.  DELICIOUS!

The galloping horses had portraits of eminent men adorning the whole apparatus – Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and Kitchener with his piercing blue eyes.  There were masses of polished brass and the music worked by cardboard with holes punched in it, changing every few minutes.

A fortune teller claiming descent from Gypsy Rose Lee proclaimed her ability to read tea leaves.  UGH!  A man with a monkey and a camera offered to take your photograph.  A man outside a huge tent extolled the excellence of his boxing champion.  Who would take him on?  Ten shillings was the offer to go one round, £5 to beat him inside three rounds.  This was the main event and people crowded in to support the local lad.

There were coconut shies with coconuts that had a certain reluctance to fall out.  The swing boats outside Butlers in Market Square always seemed to be in the same place.  In the background sounded the deeply melodic throb of the powerful Gardiner engine, powering and lighting the whole show.  Everywhere were chalk dogs, chalk dolls, china cups and plants, handfuls of them.

Fair folks are traditionalists too, not many come or go.  Each year the same families – Irvins, Bakers, Pettigroves, Smiths, Lees – return.  I remember one young baby boy with brown eyes and jet black hair playing under the hoop-la stall.  He’s been on the same stall for about 35 years.  He will be there this year but his hair is starting to go white at the sides.

Ah memories!  I couldn’t finish without mentioning Mrs Rance’s fish and chips – the finale to the evening.  Thank you Mrs Rance.  I can still taste them to this day.

Plan Your Visit

Opening hours:

Wednesday to Sunday, and Bank Holiday Mondays, 12noon to 4:30pm

49 High Street
Old Amersham

01494 723700
[email protected]


“Enjoyed our visit to this wonderful interactive museum where you are positively encouraged to touch things!”

“Visited Amersham museum yesterday – lovely place, provides many details on the history of the place. Plenty of cute cafes, pubs and shops around also… not difficult to find free parking nearby. ”

“A well-run, informative and interesting small museum on the main street. It’s mostly volunteer-run and they do a great job in keeping it and making you feel welcome…Check out the herb garden too.”

“Enjoyable film and television location guided walk around Amersham hosted by Amersham Museum – here are the Sun Houses on Highover Park and further up the hill is High & Over.”

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