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Weyhill Fair

Anne-Marie Ford    -    6 October 2013

At the petty sessions at Abingdon in February 1873 William Frankham, George Frankham and Mary Ann Frankham were charged “with having goods in their possession believed to have been stolen.” Police Constable Seagrove met the prisoners, “who had the appearance of Gypsies,” on the Highworth Road . . . Observing that each one was wrapped in a valuable horse-rug he accosted them, when they stated they had come from Swindon and had purchased the horse-rugs at Weyhill Fair . . . Not being satisfied with this explanation, Seagrove took possession of the rugs and brought the prisoners to the police station . . . No further evidence being forthcoming the prisoners were discharged. (The Frankhams were indeed Gypsies and perhaps this same William and Mary AnnFrankum (sic) are the Gypsy hawkers found in Winchester prison in the 1881 census, both claiming to come from Wiltshire.)

Weyhill Fair itself was a particularly famous fair, dating back to at least the 1300s and is referenced in several historical texts. William Langland mentions it in Piers Plowman, “to Weyhill and Winchester I went to the fair,” and a letter from Queen Elizabeth I, then Princess Elizabeth, to Henry Cecil in 1554 refers tothe fair, remarking that it is already 400 years’ old. The principal fair at Weyhill, a little village west of Andover, took place during October, although there were also fairs there during April and July. In October the sale of animals, hops, cheeses and leather vied for attention with fancy goods, exotic sideshows and boxing booths, swings and roundabouts.

In the October of 1870 the Salisbury and Winchester Journal made reference to the fair’s historical importance, reminding readers that “This long-established and well-known fair . . . which commences on the 10th of October was, till the reign of Queen Elizabeth, no more than a revel,” adding that “in the year 1599 Her Majesty granted a charter to the bailiff and corporation of Andover in which she conferred on them the right of holding this fair.” For good measure the paper includes a quotation taken from the Magna Britannica, published in 1720, which states that “this fair is reckoned as large as anyone in England for many commodities, and for sheep indisputably the biggest.”

Newspapers also carried several advertisements around the time of the fair in which local produce was promoted and ease of transport advertised. The Reading Mercury of 4th October 1884 announced that “On Friday October 10th a special train will run to Weyhill, leaving Reading at 4.25 am,” and a malster in Devon promoted his goods by declaring “that he has returned from Weyhill Hop Fair and, having made extensive purchases direct from the growers, he is able to offer the best article on very advantageous terms.”

Weyhill’s hop fair was held on 12th October and all the hops from Farnham and Alton were taken there in wagons and carts. Its location, so close to hopping centres where many Gypsies obtained casual work, was enticing, so it is hardly surprising that the fair attracted many Gypsies and Travellers, providing them with a source of income. They ran boxing booths, made sweets and cakes, sold baskets and made merry and it was also an opportunity for Gypsy horse dealers to strike a bargain, as well as a chance to meet up with family and friends.

Local parish records for Weyhill from as early as 1685indicate the presence of travelling people around the time of the fairs, sometimes over-wintering in the location: on 20th December that year Sarah, daughter of John and Elizabeth Early, strangers, was baptised; on 2nd November the following year Frances, daughter of Sam Pollard “of the forest,” was christened; two years afterward, on 26th November, a son of Mary, a stranger, was baptised; “stranger and vagrant” John Elliott baptised his son, James, at Weyhill on 28th July 1705.

Later in the eighteenth century, travellers Edward and Mary Cooper were to baptise their daughter Ruth at Weyhill on 18th October 1775 and at the beginning of the next century William and Jane Pimm, travellers, baptised a daughter Sarah on 18th October 1801, William and Kezia Rawlins, recorded as “travellers at the fair,” christened a son James on 16th October 1803 and Abraham and Esther Thoroughgood, travelling people, baptised Harriet on 17th November 1811, their tardiness after the fair being explained by Harriet’s arrival on 9th November, which probably necessitated the family remaining in the location just prior to the birth, as with other winter baptisms.

The local newspaper also ponders the significant Gypsy presence in Weyhill and, as late as the beginning of the twentieth century, in its ‘Notes by the Way’ column of the 29th September 1900 edition, it records:

Gypsy baptismal names are provoking quite an animated correspondence. A search of the parish register of Weyhill, in the diocese of Winchester, has disclosed ‘Neptune,’ which is common enough, ‘Lombard’ and ‘Monday’ explain themelves,‘Loveyarnai,’ which is probably Lovinia. What ‘Venloo,’ which recurs several times, may be is difficult to guess. The oddest story is that of a Gypsy girl at Rockingham known by an unintelligible Christian name, which turned out to be ‘Reservoir’ Smith, so called her parents explained, because she was born in the neighbourhood of a reservoir. It got corrupted to Reservy in school use.

There were indeed a number of Neptunes in the area, a name that was popular with Gypsies, but it was also used amongst the gorjer population at the time; ‘Lombard’ may, of course, be Lambert, but surely ‘Venloo’ is Vandelo/w, a forename found in the Stanleys and Barneys, among others, whilst Reservoir is frequently used amongst Gypsy and Traveller families, especially the Smiths.

One of the most interesting stories emanating from these famous Weyhill gatherings was reported in the Hampshire Advertiser of 19th October 1861, that of an elopement of two young Gypsies:

A Gypsy girl named Clark, attending with her friends at Weyhill Fair this week became enamoured with a young man of the tribe named Burton, who made proposals which did not meet with her father’s approval, and subsequently an arrangement was made to elope the same evening. A fly was procured at the hill, and they had not proceeded far on their way to Andover railway station when the disagreeable intelligence was conveyed to the father of the female, who immediately ordered a fly and went after them, an exciting and amusing chase ensuing. The would-be-bride and her companion, however, arrived just in time to take the train from Andover to Salisbury, the father and his friends coming up about two minutes after the train had started. The use of the telegraph was sought, but the unhappy father was informed that it would be of no avail and he returned disconsolate to Weyhill. The affair has caused much excitement at Weyhill as such a scene, we are assured, has not been witnessed since the fair has been established. We are informed that the happy couple were united in the bonds of matrimony at Salisbury, and returned in triumph to Weyhill the following day!

Copyright © 2013 Anne-Marie Ford