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Brent Fair Again

Brent Fair Again – why having already covered this traditional fair do it again? What follows is another glimpse back in time which provides a window into the South Brent Fair which can never physically be experienced today. It gives a flavour of the sights and sounds of busy days over a hundred years ago and I make no apologies for quoting it ad verbatim as the author’s words enhances the true essence of the times.

“The good people of South Brent appear to be more determined than ever that the reputation of their quaint little Dartmoor town and annual pony fair shall be adequately sustained, an evidence upon this point being the recent completion of the only lamp-post of which the place can boast, which the latest architectural beauties of Brent owes its existence to the fact that Her Majesty celebrated her Jubilee last June twelvemonths ago. The finishing touches were administered to the lamp last week, and proved a most impressive ceremony, and now it stands in the centre of the town in a most admirable position to be run into by vehicles on a dark night; whilst by day it serves as a welcome support to the populace to lounge about and contemplate the glories of the “The Anchor” across the way. Unfortunately, however, it is impossible to report favourably or otherwise on the illuminating power of the Brent Jubilee Lamp, as, owing to the fact that the moon shines brightly each evening, it has not been lighted during the week, and, besides this, there are other reasons to account for its deferred brilliancy, one of which is that there happens to be no gas. However, there exists a glazed receptacle at its summit, and it is confidently asserted that an oil lamp will be lighted in this before Christmas, from which it will at once be seen that events succeed each other with quite startling rapidity in Brent, whilst meanwhile the lamp post exists as a joy for ever to the inhabitants, and the envy of the surrounding towns.
Whilst eulogising the glories of the Diamond Jubilee Lamp, one is, however, unfortunately disposed to underestimate the importance of  Brent Pony Fair, which has for generations past been the means of causing the usually sleepy little town to be included in the category of places to be visited by men of horsey proclivities; and which beyond all doubt brings much money into the place. For days before the great event occurs the inhabitants to a man and a woman commence their preparations, whilst their conversation, which usually consists of ponies, degenerates into simply nothing else. The end of the week before the fair is likewise a very unhealthy season for the local geese, as from time immemorial these succulent fowl have held place of honour at the “Anchor” ordinary; and indeed, without their presence upon the occasion, the fair would be shorn of a great portion of its attractions. Moreover, as the South Devonian capacity for disposing of the flesh of geese is bordering upon an average of two men to a bird, on the understanding that such trifles as corned beef and boiled mutton are in addition unstintingly supplied, it will at once be apparent that Host Goodman’s larder at the “Anchor” presents a curious sight on the Sunday before the fair, as upon the great day he ministers to the creature comforts of many scores of hungry mortals. It may be added, too, that never has the little town be known to be so crowded as it has been this year, the large attendance yesterday being distinctly attributable to the glorious harvest which has gladdened the hearts and replenished the pockets of the Devon farmers.
It must not be imagined that the dispensers of creature comforts are the only inhabitants of Brent who are compelled by reason of their avocations in life to prepare for their annual festival. The week before the fair is a very busy period for the moormen, whose duty it is to assist the owners of ponies and cattle running on the adjacent Dartmoor to bring the animals in so that the foals which are to be retained are to be ear-marked, and the lots for the fair selected. The process of driving the ponies is a most interesting one to watch, for the little horses being for the most part absolutely wild, are impatient of control, and use their best efforts to break through the lines of beaters and their assistant dogs, but the result is invariably the same, as the ponies discover to their sorrow. After having been driven inside the wooden barriers erected on the edge of the moor, the various “drifts” of ponies are sorted out, each owner drives off the lot he intendeds to offer for disposal at the fair to a securely fenced-in meadow, where they remain until the eventful day; whilst their more fortunate companions betake themselves once more to their native hills. The strong herds of Devonshire cattle which share with the ponies the liberties of Dartmoor are similarly treated, the earlier portion of fair day being devoted to their disposal, and also that of the Dartmoor sheep, which muster pretty strongly, though this year the pens which have usually been erected in the high street for the reception of the lambs are conspicuous by their absence, it being considered derogatory to the dignity of the new lamp post that sheep hurdles should decorate its vicinity by their presence.
The function commenced as usual this year on Monday morning with an affair of outposts between early arrivals in the shape of travelling showmen and the authorities, for several of the former, conveniently ignoring the experiences of former shows, made valiant attempts to take up strong strategical positions under the very shadow of the lamp, but defenders assembled in force, and drove them off with some loss though later on in the day an armistice was affected, the steam merry-go-rounds and swings, not to mention the purveyors of the royal game of coconuts, being permitted to occupy some neutral territory in an adjacent field, whence the sounds of high revelry were proceeding until a late hour of the night. The morning of the fair was ushered in auspiciously to the appropriate harmony of much bellowing from unhappy calves, and strong language from their drovers, whilst variety was introduced into the proceedings by sounds indicative of a difference of opinion between local dogs and those belonging to the early arrivals. It may here be mentioned that everybody at Brent seems to keep a dog, whilst, to judge from the number of miscellaneous animals that are to be seen hanging about the streets, it appears probable that every Brent dog is permitted by his owner to take in a lodger; so that these, in addition to the foxhound and harrier puppies which many of the local hunts bring up the canine population of the place to quite a formidable total. It may consequently be easily imagined that an united attack by the Brent dogs upon their visitors would produce the effect of banishing sleep, and so the whole township was out of doors betimes.

Brent Fair

From the earliest hour it was agreed on all sides that the attendance at the fair – human, equine, and bovine – was likely to prove a record, and so the event proved, as by nine o’clock the admirably appointed trains of the Great Western Company commenced landing shoals of customers at the little roadside station at the top of town. The Devonshire cattle, which arrived still earlier on the scene, were, moreover, a grand lot of beasts, as Dartmoor rarely knows a drought, and consequently the condition of the animals compared most favourably with those  existing in burnt-up districts elsewhere, whilst the fact that purchasers possessed plenty of money to spend caused prices to run high.  Preceding the arrival of the beasts, the residents in the High-street had taken the precaution to barricade their doors and windows, for the pavement is the favourite lounge of the cattle waiting to be disposed of, and under the shadow of the glove which is suspended from the side of the market-house as a token that the fair is in progress, and that all bargains, therefore, are doubly sacred, the crowd of beasts was considerable. It was after dinner, however, that the town and those present awoke thoroughly to the fact that the occasion was an important one. The geese were all disposed of, libations of cider had been quaffed, and the public sallied forth to do business with the ponies which had replaced the fair red cattle in the highways and byways of the town. In the High-street, and away down the narrow leafy hill which leads to Wrangaton and umbragious Ivy Bridge the mass of ponies blocked the way, the unkempt, shaggy little bays and browns; and chestnuts too, for there were chestnuts present, although this colour is taboo among the out-and-out supporters of the true local Dartmoor, all standing huddled together in groups, with their heads towards each other, and their heels towards their tormentors, patiently awaiting their destinies, but with a look of defiance in their eyes. A prospective purchaser appears, the owner of the ponies stirs them up with a stick, not harshly, but as though he loves them. The victim is pointed out, a dive is made into the centre of the herd, a wild struggle results, and the selected pony is triumphantly dragged out with his owner’s arms around his neck for inspection and possible purchase. The bargain concluded, a hearty slap of palm to palm between buyer and seller proclaims the fact to admiring spectators. A pair of scissors is produced, and the new owner marks his pony by cutting hieroglyphics on his coat near the quarters, and the animal is either driven off or is returned to his companions to be collected at a later hour. Some ponies find new masters among residents in the district, and may therefore be fortunate enough to find their way back to their much-loved moor, but the majority are purchased by peripatetic dealers and colliery owners for work underground, as the low stature of the Dartmoor – about twelve hands and a half – renders him very useful for labour in the mines. His extreme docility and iron constitution also make a most valuable pony where privations have to be endured. But poor little Dartmoor, what a direful change from unrestricted freedom to the unutterable gloom and miseries of a coal pit! The visitors to Brent Fair, however, do not permit the pleasure to be interfered with by the probable fate of the ponies, and the destination of the prime mover of twenty shillings value or the puny sucker at thirty shillings, are alike matter of unconcern to them. They betake themselves to the region o’ershadowed by the lamp, and beguile their time away listening and often alas! falling victims to the blandishments of the generous minded ladies and gentlemen who dispose of valuable gold and silver ornaments at prices which must be heard to be believed; or they may fall victim to the eloquence and persuasive power of the philanthropist who sells them a purse containing three half-crowns for two-and-sixpence, purse included; whilst the merchant retailing shirts and other articles of underlinen from a box standing on end infront of the post-office, has evidently no cause for regretting his being there. The rising population meanwhile enjoy the unwonton gratification of indulging their liking for good things by expending their pennies in the purchase of gaudy-coloured rock and other sweetstuff of questionable age at the many stalls, meanwhile their seniors indulge in the somewhat risky luxury of eating platefuls of bilious shellfish from the baskets of amphibious looking females who have taken up their positions at the portals of the “Anchor”. In short, Brent Fair exists now as it existed a century or more ago; the result being that it may be accepted as being a remarkable link between the present and the past; and, as such is entitled to be regarded with feelings of veneration and interest by the modern Englishman.” – The Totnes Weekly Times, Saturday 8th of October, 1898.
It’s amusing to see how ‘The Lamp’ which has no illumination plays such a focus in this account and how proud the residents of South Brent were of it. If you ever read old newspaper reports of local assize courts you often come across men charged with stealing money by means of the purse trick. As noted above the fraudster will invite people to by a purse a purse containing various high value coins for what appears to be a bargain price. As the transaction takes place the ‘valuable’ purse is often surreptitiously swapped for one of the same weight but containing coins of a much lesser value. Often the purchaser would complain on realising the purse’ contents but in may cases would be threatened with violence or ridiculed and then the trickster would move on to another pitch. However, if he chose the wrong victim he found himself infront of the magistrates who invariably imposed a high fine or prison sentence

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

One comment

  1. Georgina Sanders

    Great article! But heart breaking to think of those wonderful ponies having to go down the mines. Interesting to read that chestnut was not a popular colour and I think it’s not common today.
    Wonder what the old boys back then would think of the small multi coloured ponies on the moor today

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