In 1832 J. Britton wrote the following of the Okehampton Giglet Fair:
“On the Saturday before Christmas a great cattle market is held here; and on the Saturday after Christmas, is a great holiday-fair, called a ‘Giglet,’ or ‘Giglet Market’; that is, a wife market; at which the most rustic swain, if weary of his bachelorship, is privileged with self-introduction to any disengaged fair one who may attract his particular fancy.”
A “giglet or giglot” is a giddy young woman or a wanton woman hence the name of the fair. The Giglet fair was never chartered but occurred on the first Saturday after Christmas. There were several old custom associated with the fair, firstly it was used for ‘hirings’ which meant that prospective employers and employees could meet and arrange terms and contracts. Secondly, it was the ancient custom that the young farmhands who were lucky enough to have be given the day off could drink ale at the local inns and taverns at their masters expense. Finally and probably more importantly to the men of the area was the tradition that they could claim as kiss from any girl that caught their eye. Also any girl could introduce herself to any man that she wished without fear of appearing ‘forward’. During the rest of the year this would have been deeply frowned upon and the girl branded a ‘wanton’ woman. There would be various stalls selling trinkets, fairings and produce. Later in the evening a dance would be held in an old barn with a fiddler to provide the music. As with any fair the evening usually ended with drunken brawling and maybe one or two of the ‘maids’ going a bit further than they should thus ending up with an unexpected reminder of the fair.
It is just possible that another commodity sold at the fair was ‘wives’. Tradition said that if a man purchased a wife at a fair and then led her home by a halter which was not taken off until they reached the house then the couple were deemed man and wife. Baring Gould notes one example which occurred in his parish, Henry Frise was known as a local poet and one day he went to Okehampton Fair, sadly Baring Gould does not say which of the Okehampton fairs it was but it may have been the Giglet Fair. Here he bought a ‘wife’ for half a crown and duely led her the twelve miles back to his house by a halter around her neck. Word got out that Henry was bringing home a new wife and by the time they reached their destination village the whole village had turned out to watch the spectacle. It did not take long for the local squire and vicar to intercede on the matter. When questioned Frise firmly held his belief that not only had he bought her at the market, but had led her home, with the halter in his hand, and he’d take his bible oath that he never took the halter off her till she had crossed his doorstep and he had shut the door. The squire and the vicar tried to convince the man that what he had done was both immoral and illegal to which Frise replied: “I don’t care, her’s my wife, as sure as if we was spliced at the altar, for and because I paid half a crown, and never took off the halter till her was in my house; lor’ bless yer honours, you may ask anyone if that ain’t marriage, good, sound and Christian and every one will tell you ’tis.” This instance is by no means the only wife sale on Dartmoor and indeed Devon, there are several other examples such as at Chagford.