Book Review: The English Fair (by David Kerr Cameron) : BH

8/12/2001 • British Heritage Book Reviews

The English Fair, by David Kerr Cameron, is published by Sutton Publishing, Ltd., and distributed by Books International, Washington, D.C. Tel: 703-661-1500, $44.95, hardback, 1998.

Rural life in England has always been hard. From the earliest days of Old England, the people who worked the land lived a cyclical existence, subsisting–sometimes just barely–from planting to harvest to planting again. But for just a few days a year, something magical occurred to temporarily suspend the humdrum routine–the fair.

In his impressive study of the subject, The English Fair, David Kerr Cameron explores the colourful history of this rich tradition. He traces the fair’s development from its ancient beginnings to its growth in the middle ages, spurred by the support of both the Church and the Crown.

The economic impact of fairs on the English economy is an often overlooked topic that Cameron explores fully. Over the years, regional fairs gradually evolved into livestock and specialist events where animals and crops were traded. These annual markets attracted dealers and buyers from around the world. English merchants traded wool, their main commodity, for iron from Spain, spices from the East, and cloth from the Rhineland.

Thousands of people from all over the area flocked to these annual events, some of which lasted for two weeks. Many would stay for the duration of the event, the better-off filling up the local inns, the peasant folk setting up makeshift camps or sleeping rough in the woods.

The scene can only be imagined. Charles Dickens attempts to describe it in his Sketches by Boz by asking his readers to imagine themselves in an extremely dense crowd, which swings you to and from, and in and out, and every way but the right one, add to this the screams of women, the shouts of boys, the clanging of gongs, the firing of pistols, the ringing of bells, the bellowings of speaking trumpets, the squeaking of penny dittos, the noise of a dozen bands, with three drums each, all playing different tunes at the same time, the hallooing of showmen, and an occasional roar from the wild beast shows; and you are in the very centre and heart of the fair.

He concludes his description by observing that the fair was “a three days’ fever which cools the blood for six months afterward.”

Cameron does his best to provide the factual background to support Dickens’ romantic recollections. He sites local sources, museum and library archives, as well as extensive interviews with farmers and livestock dealers. These facts are supplemented by a host of illustrative colour prints, etchings, and, from later years, black and white and colour photographs.

Kerr’s study offers an informative and entertaining glimpse of an often overlooked aspect of rural English history. For those with an interest in social history, it provides–like the fair itself–a microcosm of English culture.

Leigh Ann Berry