Stagshaw Bank Fair c1850
(Written in 1881 by Robert Forster)
Stagshaw Bank Common is located just south of the Roman Wall and west of the A68 road. For centuries it was the scene of two great annual fairs held on the day before Whit Sunday and on July 4th. From 1820 a third annual fair was held on November 24th. The fairs gradually died out during the last half of the 19th century. The following description is of a July 4th fair around 1850.
This fair, which was one of business as well as pleasure, was the largest held in England for one day and for business people came to it from all parts of the United Kingdom. Besides horses, sheep, cattle, and swine, various articles of merchandise were offered for sale, consisting of men's hats, boots and shoes, these articles generally filled several stalls, the former being mostly from Hexham, and a considerable quantity of the latter from Corbridge. Jewellery and hardware stalls were prominent; saddlery and farming goods, such as hay rakes, forks, &c., were always plentiful; and always a large supply of cooperage goods, such as tubs, barrel churns, &c. Webs of cloth coarse and fine were shown to advantage on the green carpet by the side of the pond. The far-famed gloves, known as the "Hexham Tans", suitable for all purposes and for all classes, always formed noticeable articles of sale. Care was always taken by some thoughtful business man to make provision for the better part of man's nature. A great variety of useful books were shown, suitable for the most profound thinker as well as useful for the general reader. On the south side of the Horse Fair, in the distance you saw a strong made man somewhat elevated, with a crowd around him offering articles for sale; on approaching, we observe that it is Mr. C..... from the once famous Dog Bank, Newcastle, selling watches by auction, being for the most part forfeited pledges, the auctioneer assuring the public that each watch he offered was far superior to the one just sold, as once belonging to some squire or gentleman whose name was well known in the neighbourhood This man regularly attended the fair for many years and had his share of business. Amidst all this whirl of busy life, the "little busy bee" was not forgotten, for there was always a good supply of "bee skeps," to meet the wants of those whose were after the sweetness of honey in the comb. In all the articles named and others not named, the day being favourable, a good trade was done, in fact this was almost the only opportunity during the whole year that numbers of persons, especially from the outlying districts, had of obtaining them.
The stomach, that important part of humanity was never once overlooked or forgotten; for the supply of immediate wants (outside the tents) there was an abundance. From a long row gingerbread and orange stalls could be heard some dame crying out lustily "boole up and buy a way," others were shouting at the top of their voice "London Spice twopence a package," while others displayed along the length of their arm twenty-four squares of gingerbread offered at a shilling the lot; oranges, cherries, Barcelona nuts, &c.,were plentiful.The vendors of all those articles whose names were many, each striving to make as good a day's work as possible, used all their skill to attract the attention of the public to the superior quality of their goods, "crack and try before you buy," with a measure half-filled with the bottom, was the ditty of the nut mongers, making the fair with other clatter, often mingled with the roar of Wombwell's lion's, almost a Babel. It is stated by one who took notes on these occasions, that tons of gingerbread and ship loads of oranges were devoured on that day. In addition to what was consumed in the fair, immense quantities were carried home, for it was the custom for almost everyone to do so, carrying it in their pockets or handkerchiefs (for there were no bags in those days), and this was called "their fair". The usual kind of drink was ale of which a considerable quantity was used; as this was long before the days of teetotalism, few had any scruple to take as much at least as to quench their thirst, in fact no other beverage was thought of or provided; notwithstanding this, the writer is persuaded, all things considered, there was less intemperance than at the present time amongst similar gatherings.
To the thoughtless and giddy, this fair held out many temptations, all the little gambling arts which were then in use were in full swing; two of the most notable in this class, we notice. -That well-known character, the famous showman of the North "Billy Purvis", a man of many parts, attended regularly for nearly a generation. He had a booth, inside of which it is said he performed wonderful sleight-of-hand tricks, without the aid of apparatus. From the stage outside his booth, could be heard at a considerable distance, his stentorian voice shouting "come this way and see wor show", which at once let you know the whereabouts of "Billy," who with his painted face and gaudy dress, with his witticisms, drollery and gestures, always attracted great attention; poor Billy has long since ceased to walk on a broader stage than that of his booth, having laid down his load of life in Hartlepool, and this place knows him no more. Another well-known character, a queer little hunchback fellow, who was known by the cognomen of "wallop-a-way" attended equally with "Billy," his vocation always appeared to be a simple way of getting a few pence, and could hardly come within the range of gambling. He was a noisy little fellow; shouting all day long "a penny a throw, a penny a throw, miss my pegs and hit my legs." He always had a good number of onlookers, and did a good share of business principally amongst the juveniles; poor fellow, he has long since followed in the wake of "Billy" and his voice is heard no more. Many shows were there of different sorts, the most attractive being that of Wombwell's collection of wild beasts, &c. The writer well recollects when a youth his first look at this wonderful exhibition as being a grand sight, and recollects also a little incident which occurred at the time. A woman who was walking too near the side of the cages, of which in an upper apartment were kept a number of monkeys was eyed by one of them, which quietly pushing his long leg through betwixt the bars of the cage, and with his paw unceremoniously pulled off the crown of her bonnet, to the no little dismay of the good lady. At one time there were besides Wombwell's two other large collections owned by persons of the names of "Pit Cock" and "Polito," these exhibitions invariably secured a large attendance. Now to return to Corbridge from which we have somewhat (we trust not uninterestingly) wandered. On the afternoon of that day it used to be said that Corbridge could be easily taken. For business, persons attended the fair in the forenoon and those for pleasure in the afternoon; those who had been doing business returning again in the afternoons when few only were left, as the old and infirm, the sick, and mere children, and a few others whose home duties necessitated their remaining. The exodus homewards commenced about five o'clock which increased to about seven when it became general; by eight o'clock, the great proportion of pleasure seekers as well as those of business were wending their way home which many of them could not reach before morning; such is brief outline of the doings of the busy multitudes on that once great day, as Corbridge was the thoroughfare for nearly all who came from the south.
It is difficult to visualize the bustle of this great fair when you visit today the lonely spot where this immense gathering took place.