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Goosey Fair

Goosey Fair

One old tradition that still lingers on in the modern age is the ‘Goosey Fair’ which is held in Tavistock every year.  In 1105, Henry I authorised the monks of Tavistock Abbey to hold a weekly Friday market. In 1116 the king issued a writ confirming the market-grant and adding a three day fair which was to be held on the eve, day, and morrow of St. Rumon’s principal feast which was from the 29th to the 31st of August. The market-grant in old law actually made Tavistock a ‘port’ which is a term borrowed by the kings of Wessex which meant a ‘trading centre’. It was later that the word port came to have its maritime connotations.  Having become a port, the abbot then appointed a port-gerefa or port-reeve to oversee the markets and fairs. In later years the fair was moved to Michaelmas Day (September 29th), the calendar change of 1752 then moved the fair to its current date of the second Wednesday in October.

It is thought that at the time many of the tenants of the abbey would pay their rents in ‘geese’. These geese would then be gathered up and sold at a special market, hence the ‘Goosey’ or ‘Geese’ origin for the fair’s name. This in effect gave people the chance to buy their Christmas goose and then fatten it up for the festive dinner – “Christmas is a coming and the goose is getting fat…”

Goosey Fair

Goosey Fair – 1907 Postcard

It was a later tradition that virtually all the inns in Tavistock would serve roast goose dinners and the meal became firmly associated with the fair. It has been thought that some unscrupulous people would take a day’s lease on a vacant shop and serve ‘cheap’ roast goose which was in fact rabbit dipped in goose fat. The atmosphere of the old fair must have been amazing, it is said that on the night before the fair the moor would be dotted with glowing lanterns as the drovers brought their flock and herds down to the town. The night air would be full of the sounds of barking dogs, bleating sheep, and lowing cattle as the drovers hurried them on in order to get to the market and claim the most prominent pens. Flocks of geese were driven across the moor from the numerous farms who throughout the year grazed them on the commons. In later years the geese were transported in carts and apparently it was nothing to see a queue of sixty carts all waiting to unload their cackling and honking geese. On this night, dressed geese would be taken to the pannier market to be sold to the town’s innkeepers and hoteliers in order to supply the next day’s roast dinners. During the mid 1900’s the auctioneers would treat all their farmers to a free goose dinner which sometimes would amount to 200 meals. Here is some good Devonshire advice from 1880 on how to choose a perfect goose for cooking; “Choose a young goose which is more easy said than done, as geese are frequently offered for sale when they are much too old to be eaten. The beast should be plump. the skin white, and the feet pliable and yellow. If the last are red or stiff, the bird is old or stale. Although Michaelmas is the time for geese, they are perfect in June; after Christmas the flesh is tough. A goose aught not to be eaten after it is a year old.”

The fair was also a time when copious amounts of alcohol was consumed and drunkenness was rife. It became a custom that sailors from Plymouth would come to the fair and end up in the White Hart where eventually the night would end in a massive brawl with the locals. This became an annual event and in the end the landlord took to removing the inn’s door in order for his ‘bouncers’ to eject the troublemakers easier.

A newspaper report from 1925 commented on the demise of the fair:

 “Us used to cook as many as 30 geese, and now us doesn’t do nothing to it. It do be dying out. ‘Tes pity, but there ‘tes.” No one now remembers the old “Jan’s Vair” and Joan’s Vair,” of Tavistock, and, before long, “Goosey Vair,” into which the two have long been merged, will also be forgotten. In past years droves of geese invaded the town on the second Tuesday in October, to be sold and slain in their hundreds for Joan’s holiday the following day. Early in the morning sheep and rough moorland cattle and shaggy ponies flocked down the steep hills into the town. Toll which, until 1738, went to swell the schoolmaster’s purse was paid at the gates, and the monks exacted a toll of their own, swearing every merry maker not to curse and cheat, to lie or steal during the fair.

The civil authorities sceptical even in those days, instituted special courts to deal with those who forgot their oaths, “Pie Powder,” “Dustyfoot” was the name of these tribunals, which administered swift justice to dusty-footed pedlars, vagabonds, and other wanderers from town to town, from fair to fair, with no other possession in the land than the dust which covered their shoes.

Those were the days of the open house, before there were inns enough to shelter all comers, and householders were warned against harbouring any stranger for more than one night, on pain of being held responsible for his acts. The hospitable monastery was filled to overflowing, and even those who were obliged to sleep in the open among the booths always had their fill of ale and their share of the bird that was “too much for one and not enough for two.A ll that is changed now. As roads and means of communication generally improved, other times and means for sale and purchase were found, and new forms of amusement became popular, drawing away from the old, simple fun, class after class and filling the young people with an intolerant distaste for the amusements of their grandfathers.

At Goosey Fair, goose is no longer eaten. No toll, material or spiritual, is demanded from the hundreds who pour into town by charabanc, car, and train. Cattle are driven up to the market-place now and no longer tied to the churchyard wall, and the farmers are mostly wise men of the world, though here and there, like strangers in another country, stand little groups of cattlemen and shepherds from the heart of the moor – men with quaint hats, velveteen breeches, and full skirted coats of a bygone fashion; men whose hair is long and bushy, and whose brilliant, unaccustomed eyes survey the scene with a slightly quizzical, wholly detached air of interest.”

It was the laws on fowl pest that finally put a stop to the tradition of selling geese at the Goosey Fair, when live poultry were forbidden to be sold at markets. This was in light of a serious outbreak of Newcastle disease in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s which wreaked havoc amongst the poultry industry.

Goosey Fair

There is a well known folk song called Goosey Fair which some consider to date back centuries, others however say that it originated in 1920’s when the song was written for a pantomime that was being held at Plymouth. I have now been informed that the song was written in 1912 by C. J. Trythall as a token of his love for Devon and was originally composed for vocals and piano.


Goosey Fair

 Tis just a month come Friday next, Bill Champerdown and me,
Us traipsed across old Darty Moor the Goosey Fair to see,
Us made ourselves quite fiddy, us greased and oiled our hair,
Then off us goes in our Sunday clothes behind old Bill’s grey mare.
Us smelled thic sage and onion ‘alf a mile from Whitchurch Down,
And didn’t us ‘ave a blow out when us come into the town,
And there us met Ned Hannoford, Jan Steer and Nicky Square,
And it seemed to we all Devon must be to Tavistock Goosey Fair,

And its oh, and where be a-going,
And what be a-doing of there,
Heave down your prong and stamp along,
To Tavistock Goosey Fair.

Us went to see the ‘osses and the ‘effers and the yaws,
Us went on all them roundabouts and into all the shows,
And then it started raining and blowing in our face,
So off us goes down to the Rose to ‘ave a dish of tay.
And then us had a sing song and the folks kept dropping in,
And what with one an’ t’other, well, us had a drop of gin,
And what with one an’ t’other, us didn’t seem to care,
Whether us was to Bellever Tor or Tavistock Goosey Fair.

And its oh, and where be a-going,
And what be a-doing of there,
Heave down your prong and stamp along,
To Tavistock Goosey Fair.

‘Twere raining streams and dark as pitch when us trotted ‘ome that night,
An’ when us got past Merrivale Bridge, our mare, ‘er took a fright,
Says I to Bill, “Be careful, you’ll ‘ave us in them drains,”
Says ‘e to me, “Cor bugger,” says ‘e, “why ‘aven’t you got the reins,”
Just then the mare ran slap against a whacking gurt big stone,
‘Er kicked the trap to flibbits and ‘er trotted off alone,
And when it come to reckoning, ’tweren’t no use standing there,
Us ‘ad to traipse ‘ome thirteen mile from Tavistock Goosey Fair.

The Tavistock Goosey fair was commemorated by the Royal Mail in 1983 on a hideous 31p stamp of a set celebrating the 850th anniversary of St.Bartholomew’s Fair. There was a special ‘Goosie Fair’ first day commemorative issue for Tavistock – lick that if you can!

Goosey Fair

There was an old saying; “If deer rise up dry and lie down dry on St. Bullions day which was the 4th of July then there was a good goose harvest to look forward to.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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