The Mop Fair is in town at the moment, so Stratford town centre is currently overrun with fairground rides. I had never heard of a mop fair until I moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, when I discovered that hey are held in a number of towns around here, including Banbury, Warwick and Tewkesbury. The Mop Fair in its present form is just like virtually ever other funfair: noisy, garish, crowded. But its origins are much more interesting.
They date right back to the 14th century, to a time when the Black Death had resulted in a huge shortage of labour. Farm workers, labourers, craftsmen and servants would work for an employer from October to October, and at the end of the employment year would go to the hiring fair dressed in their Sunday best clothes, and carrying an item signifying their skill; a shepherd carried his crook, for example. Those who had no skills carried a mop – hence the term “mop fair”. The idea was to match employer with employee, so the workers would bargain with potential employers to secure work. Thomas Hardy describes something similar in Far from the Madding Crowd. From the Stratford council website:
Employers would move amongst them discussing experience and terms, once agreement was reached the employer would give the employee a small token of money and the employee would remove the item signifying their trade and wear bright ribbons to indicate they had been hired. They would then spend the token amongst the stalls set-up at the fair which would be selling food and drink and offering games to play.
Perhaps most interesting (and telling) of all is the existence of the “Runaway Mop”, which takes place a couple of weeks after the main Mop. These days this is a slightly smaller funfair. In days gone by, this would have given those whose employment hadn’t worked out in the first couple of weeks – who’d “run away” – the chance to have a second go at finding a suitable employer. It also meant that employers didn’t have to commit to a full year’s work with the first person they’d hired until they’d had a chance to see what their work was like.
These fairs continued to be held until well into the 20th century, and some still survive in the form of modern-day funfairs and all the vulgarity and noise that those entail these days.
We try to get down to the one in Stratford, though we missed it last year because we were in Florida. We went on Sunday night and had a go on this thing. You sit together strapped to a chair and you’re launched skywards to the Star Wars music. Then you’re swung round and round for a couple of minutes before coming back down again. It was more gentle than I’ve made it sound there though! Lee was terrified. I thought it was quite fun, provided you don’t look down or think about what would happen if the bar holding you in place were to come off!
This is much more my sort of thing.
For me, the Mop Fair will now always remind me of my first evening of freedom. After completing my last day in my old job two years ago, I came home and Lee and I went to the Stratford mop, where I revelled in my new-found freedom and the thought that I’d never have to do that commute again, or answer to someone else again. That was two years ago last Sunday, and still not a day goes by when I don’t thank myself for taking the plunge. It’s just ironic that I celebrated my freedom from employment by going to a fair that was once all about finding employment!