History of the fair

A brief history of the old fair

Origins

The origins of the fair aren't especially ancient, nor were the originators intent on starting the crowded, bawdy spectacle into which it developed. In fact, the three Wesleyian Methodists who were the fathers of the fair wanted to escape from the rowdiness of the Witney Feast, and it began as more of a picnic than a fair. That was in 1796 and the three were Mr Payne of Fawler Mill, Mr Bolton of Finstock and Mr Early of Witney.

John Wesley himself, the founder of Methodism, often preached in the area and said of Finstock in October, 1775:

'I preached at Finstock. How many days should I spend here if I was to do my own will!' Historical and Other Notes on Charlbury, Kibble 1927

The chosen site for these picnics was Newell (Newhill) Plain on the edge of the Cornbury Estate (then known as Blandford Park) near Charlbury. It was held on Wednesday and Thursday in the third week in September, following the St Giles Fair in Oxford and the Witney Feast. It quickly developed a momentum of its own and by 1819 Jackson's Oxford Journal reported:

'The annual Fair of Wychwood Forest was holden on Wednesday last. The unclouded and brilliant and sunny morning attracted a vast concourse of persons.'

Historical and Other notes on Wychwood Forest and Many of its Border Places, Kibble 1928

The darker side of the fair

As the fair's reputation grew, the crowds got bigger and it attracted a sizeable lawless element. Villagers from the surrounding area often blamed incomers for any trouble, but because the Forest was extra-parochial, and therefore outside the jurisdication of the parish constables, the fair was known by locals as the place to settle scores, with fights a regular occurrence in the darkening evening light.

The fair was also taking its toll on the Forest. On September 4th 1830, C.R. Henderson, Deputy Ranger of the Forest, placed this notice in Jackson's Oxford Journal.

Newspaper clipping from 1830

'Fair to take place on Newhill Plain on Tuesday, not Wednesday. Instruction not to injure growing Timber, Underwood, Mounds or Forest Gates.'

The same edition also contained a notice placed by local Magistrates warning against 'Games of Chance.'

Clearly the populace didn't heed the Mr Henderson's warning because after the fair he placed this notice:

'in consequence of … not having attended to the regulations laid down … not having left the ground at the time appointed, and great damage and injury having been done to the mounds, gates, roads, underwood and other property within the Forest… such Fair has been the means of bringing the neighbourhood vast numbers of idle and disorderly characters, the Ranger has directed that the Fair … shall be DISCONTINUED'. Jackson's Oxford Journal, September 25th 1830.

The fair was subsequently banned in 1831, 1832, 1833, 1843 and 1845.

Evidently an entrepreneurial inhabitant of Charlbury wanted to offer the town as replacement home for the fair, because in 1831 a handbill was printed to that effect. It brought a quick response from some of his fellow townsfolk, that such a fair would be

'entirely disapproved (and) discountenanced by many of it's (Charlbury's) inhabitants, as tending to bring a number of idle and disorderly persons into the neighbourhood.'

Jackson's Oxford Journal, September 10th 1831

In the years when the fair did go ahead, Newell Plain became a vast pleasure park, with entertainments and refreshments of all kinds. Regular favourites were Wombwell's menagerie of exotic beasts, the Vauxhall Dancing School and freak shows. The Yeomanry Band would march and play and the crowds would be further amused by parades of the local gentry, including the Dukes and Duchess of Marlborough. All in all, it must have been a riot of colour and noise, and welcome escape from the restrictions of everyday life.

The final years

The old fair's demise was at least hastened by two factors. Firstly, in 1853 the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton railway line was opened, with a station at nearby Charlbury. During the line's construction there would have been large numbers of navvies in the neighbourhood, for whom the fair would have been a tempting release from the rigours of the day.

'The sub contractors on the OWW railway in this neighbourhood took a lively interest in suppressing gambling tables two years ago, and should these nuisances make their appearance upon this occasion, their owners may reckon on a ducking in Newhill pond.'

Jackson's Oxford Journal, September 15th 1852

Not only did the railway add to the lawlessness, it also allowed more people to get to the fair, and it was during this period that the fair reached the height of its appeal; a popularity that was to be part of its undoing.

The second factor which caused the end of the fair was the Parliamentary Act of Disafforestation (1853), whereby the 10 sq. miles of Wychwood remaining as Royal Forest was taken out of Forest Law. This resulted in the land on which the fair was held, Newell Plain, being transferred into the ownership of Lord Churchill, ranger and owner of Cornbury. He probably regarded this as an excellent opportunity to rid himself of an event that had become an annual nuisance, especially at a time when much of remaining Forest was being stripped of its trees and converted to farmland.

The last of the old fairs was held in 1856 and whilst it has always been reckoned that the huge crowds it attracted and the consequent lawlessness were the primary reasons for its demise, this may not be so, judging by these reports in Jackson's Oxford Journal of that year.

Witney, Feast and Forest Fair

'Our quiet town has been alive, from the influx of visitors and pleasure seekers. On Monday we were visited by Wombwell's collection of animals, etc., which was well supported… on Tuesday they began stirring towards the Forest Plain, and continued to do so the whole day. On Wednesday, at daybreak, our townspeople commenced preparations for the day, every vehicle being soon in requisition; nearly the whole of the shops were closed, and dwelling houses secured, thus giving masters and servants an opportunity of sharing in the pleasures of the day. Towards eleven o'clock the town was left to look after itself.

The Fair was attended by an immense number of people, and we are glad to hear that no accident occurred, either to the inhabitants of the town or neighbourhood, to mar the happiness of the day. Our fair, on Thursday, was but thinly attended…'

Jackson's Oxford Journal, September 20th 1856

Milton under Wychwood

'… a great proportion of our population were enabled to enjoy a trip to the Forest Fair, which this year offered unprecedented inducements, and parties sustained no disappointment on this occasion, for which we are chiefly indebted to the prudent forethought of the divisional Benches of Magistrates who directed the attendance of their superintending Constables on the Plain to prevent theft, and to promote order, and with such unremitting vigilance was carried out, that not a single case of delinquency has been officially reported…

'It is understood that his Lordship will allow the fair, under certain restrictions, to be held another year, although the spot is now assigned as private property.

Jackson's Oxford Journal, September 27th 1856

But unfortunately, that was not to be...

This brief outline of the old fair's history was compiled by Graham Nelson a Friend of Wychwood. If it contains any inaccuracies, firstly I apologise, and secondly, please do let me know by emailing me at webmaster. Should you have any other details of the fair that I have omitted, please contact him via the project office.