The Story of Diss Fair

The following is reproduced from the booklet  “The Story of Diss Fair”, written in 1982 by Ray Bloomfield. It is a fascinating picture of life in and around Fair Green in the past.
Cautionary note:
The descriptions of cock fighting and bull baiting towards the middle are not for the faint-hearted!

When you hear the Fair is coming, what comes into your mind? Nowadays, perhaps, dodgem cars, bingo stalls, flashing lights, and pop music coming over loudspeakers. Our grandparents would have thought of merry-go-rounds, steam organs and coconut shies.  Earlier still, thoughts might have turned to wrestling matches, hurdy-gurdies and dancing bears. So the old saying, “all the fun of the fair,” meant very different things to different generations.  But all through the centuries during which fairs have been a part of the life of England, one thing stayed the same: all manner of goods were for sale.  There are hints of this in some of our very oldest nursery rhymes: it was a pie man on his way to a fair, for example, whom Simple Simon met; and Johnny, who worried his sweetheart by being so long at the fair, had gone there to buy her a bunch of blue ribbons.

This was how fairs started.  They came into being as important temporary markets, where buyers and sellers could gather from far and wide. Wandering merchants came with their wares, and craftsmen set up their stalls to demonstrate their skills and sell their products. It was natural to hold them at times when people were likely in any case to congregate; and it was customary to choose a holy day (a holiday), usually a saint’s feast-day. A feast, a festival, a fete – all the same words; and the Latin for a feast was a feria, or fair.

Fairs were only allowed, however, when they were held by the lord of the manor, and he had first to obtain the king’s consent. Why should a fair need royal permission? To answer that question properly, we would need to dig deeply into the feudal system by which for so many centuries our country was run, as well as into the origins of trade.  Suffice it to say that the king was ultimately the lord of every acre throughout the realm, and the lords of the manors were his chief tenants. An important part of their job was to collect the royal revenue, and they in turn collected rents and other payments from their own tenants. But to raise funds from holding fairs and markets, they had to have the king’s authority! This was because fairs and markets drew people from far around, not merely from the lord’s own domain. So as not to conflict with fairs held by other lords of manors, the royal charter laid down specific dates, usually around Saint’s-days in the late autumn or early winter, at the start of the farming year.

How long ago did Diss first have a Fair? We cannot know for certain, but the evidence points to 1185 as having been the year when permission for a fair in Diss was first granted, by royal charter, to the then lord of the manor. In 1185 the lord of the manor of Diss was Sir Walter Fitz-Robert, whose grandfather had come over from Normandy with William the Conqueror. He was sometimes, rather confusingly for us, known as Robert Fitz-Walter! He was in fact the first of a line of Fitz-Walters, lords of the manor of Diss for the next 250 years. [It was his son, Robert FitzWalter, who led the barons who rose against King John and who obtained Magna Carta; and it was his great-grandson who built St Mary’s Church in Diss.]

The origins of Diss Fair were set down five and a half centuries later, in 1736, when the great Norfolk historian Francis Blomefield published his researches. Blomefield had a very special interest in Diss; he was rector of nearby Fersfield, and he had been at school in Diss. Sir Walter Fitz-Robert, he tells us, “obtained a Charter for a fair on the even, day and morrow after the feast of SS. Simon and Jude, and three days following.”  There is now no trace, alas, of this Charter, but what we do know is that 115 years later, in the year 1300, Sir Walter’s great grandson Sir Robert (our church builder) obtained what Francis Blomefield calls “a charter of confirmation” of the fair. What is more, the record of this can still be seen in the Public Record Office in London. The Latin text records, on November 10th 1300:

“Grant to Robert son of Walter, and his heirs, of a yearly fair at his manor of DISCE, County of Norfolk, on the vigil, the feast and the morrow of SS Simon and Jude and the three days following.”

So here was Diss Fair, well and truly established twice over, eight centuries ago, and then again one hundred years later, as taking place annually between October 27th (the eve or vigil of SS Simon and Jude) and November 1st. When did it come to Fair Green (or Cock-Street Green, as it was originally called)? We cannot know precisely; but it could not have been before the mid-15th Century, because it lay outside the manor of Diss. The Cock Street area was a very small separate manor, once known as Watton’s.  Some time after 1430, it was bought by the Fitz-Walters and added to Diss Manor, and soon after that it came to be called Cock-Street in Disce. We can conjecture that, wherever the fair had previously been held, Cock-Street Green was its home from then onwards.

For another 200 years we lose sight of the fair; and then in 1636 a Court of Survey held an enquiry into the Customs of the Manor of Diss, and it was pronounced that:

“…the lord hath a market every Friday, and one fair yearly kept upon the feast day of Simon and Jude, when his bailiff takes 2d for every tilted stall, and 1d for every one untilted, and no more …but all that sell any manner of victualls pay nothing.” 

A “tilt” was an awning.

What else went on at Diss Fair on Cock-Street Green, year after year? The records are sketchy, with long gaps; but historical guesswork, and comparisons with what is known of other town and country fairs, are unlikely to be far wrong. We cannot do better than quote the late Eric Pursehouse, the well known Diss schoolmaster and local historian:

“Nets, baskets, clogs, leather goods, harness, produce of the joiners’ and blacksmiths’ crafts, eels and fish from Waveney and Mere, were on sale. So, too, were eggs and fruit, and the peasants trundled in their small lots of wool, hemp and flax fibre to sell to the merchants and master weavers.” 

Naturally, too, there was a stock section, for the sale of horses, ponies, donkeys, cattle, sheep and poultry. With the growth of the yeoman class, and small squires and farmers, this became of increasing importance; in fact, by the 19th century, our Fair was known as a cattle fair; the Diss Express report of 1870, only two years before the abolition, is headed “Diss Stock Fair”.

What of entertainments? Again, we can only guess at what went on in the early days.  There would always have been clowns and mountebanks, sparring and wrestling; and without doubt bear and bull baiting, and not least cockfighting, went on for centuries.  Luckily for us, a brilliant account by an anonymous writer has survived of these ferocious sports, written in the year 1817, not long before they were banned; and we can be sure that what was described then was much as it had been for centuries.

The story begins by telling how gamesters, sportsmen and spectators, coming from all over Norfolk and Suffolk, used to arrive by stage-coach and assemble at the Scole Inn.  In 1817, this was on November 6 (the Fair seems to have moved on a few days from its medieval dates).

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 6, 1817. Arrived at Scole Inn by coach this afternoon. The place all alive on account of Diss Fair. The Norwich coach arrived bringing with it several coves I met last year. We drank success to the fair, and just then the landlord came in, and we asked him what frolics there were for next week’s fair… “They tell me the cocking begins on Sunday night,” said the landlord. But one of our number interrupted and said, “I thought the constables threatened to put down Sunday cocking.” “I don’t think the constables’ll interfere, but some of they Methodys might, Tom Lee, their preacher for instance.” “Not if they value their limbs,” said another, “but he’s a stiff little fellow and heeds not a thump or two.” Then the landlord of the inn reminded us of the old song:

“Here in the jovial days of yore
The mad bull welter’d in his gore,
The gamesters trembled at his roar,
In the old days of Diss.”

“A cock, a bull, a surly bear,
A cur toss’d yelping in the air –
These were the frolics of the fair,
In the old days of Diss.”

SUNDAY. To-day had a walk over to Diss with two characters from Norwich… Preparations were in hand on Fair Green by the show men and others, there being a fine stock of merry-go-rounds, swing boats, sideshows, and booths, for provisions and beer. There was no ‘cocking’ on account of there being but a few entries.

MONDAY. This morning I went to Diss at an early hour. The day had fully broken and there was promise of fair weather. The green was already full of holiday folk waiting for the sport to commence, and all were decked in Sunday gear. There were people from all parts, and I should judge that there were already over 1,000 assembled – men, women and children – and the tide was swelling fast. A set of mountebanks with painted cheeks were tossing and tumbling. A clown in grotesque attire was haranguing some of the crowd with plenteous wit; dancing girls with tambourines and showmen standing outside the sideshows calling, ‘Walk up, walk up.’ One such show had a pair of giant bloomers flying at the top of a tall pole, and showmen were shouting and beating a drum. ‘Walk up, walk up, come and see your Aunt Susan’s thighs, the biggest thighs on the fair.’ All this being greeted by loud laughter and coarse jokes by the peasantry.

“Turning me round, I saw presently a rush towards the cock-pit, which had been put up for the occasion by some few ‘cockers’, who met at the Cock Inn, and so following the crowd I saw a gamester, Ben Moseley, carrying in his arms the famous ‘Red Cap’, a bird of such splendid plumage as I never saw equalled. He was of great size, and had his comb clipped, and his claws steeled ready for the battle. The owners handled their birds as tenderly as if they had been small children.

“On going to the pit I found it already full.  Inside the place was crowded to suffocation, and having no windows, it was lighted with torches, which shone on the people’s faces with a sickly glare. After one more short fight, it became the ‘Red Cap’s’ turn to tussle with the ‘Champion’, a mighty fine bird from Kenninghall. This was the great event of the morning, and many guineas depended on this fight.

“There was a rush towards the centre of the pit, and a cry of ‘Make way for the birds’.  After a pause, the birds were pitted against each other, and amid breathless silence the fight began. At first ‘Red Cap’ fought shy, and got punished badly by the ‘Champion’, which was indeed a noble bird, but presently ‘Red Cap’ struck his steel into his antagonist, and there was immediately raised a cry of ‘First blood’, and then ‘Red Cap’ for ever!’

“Then the struggle became intense indeed.  Like fiends the two birds rushed together, tearing each other, and screeching such horrid notes of vengeance as I was quite loath to hear, though I had seen scores of fights in my time. First ‘Champion’ would seem to have the mastery, then in his turn the ‘Red Cap’ would triumph, but they were so well matched, that for ten or fifteen minutes, it was hard to say which would win, until at length ‘Champion’ made one desperate plunge, which laid ‘Red Cap’ panting on the floor.

“What a change in so short a time. Poor bird! His feathers were clotted with blood, one eye was literally dragged out of its socket, and hung by a tendril as low down as his beak; his tail was robbed of its graceful plumage, and he was a perfect wreck of his former glory. I turned to go, thoroughly sickened by the savagery of this contest.

“The settling of the bets occasioned great confusion and uproar, in the midst of which I took my leave. On the Green, I found some engaged in bear baiting and drawing the badger. I paused for a few minutes to gaze upon a surly old bear on a chain, dancing to a tune played by his keeper on a concertina… Then to the bear-baiting, where a savage-looking bear was setting its eyes on a bull-pup…

“For some purpose unknown to me, the bull-baiting this year took place on Fair Green… and was due to start just after midday, so I took me into a booth where sausages on a round of toast were in great demand at sixpence. The place was full of rough fellows, dealers and others, carrying whip stalks, ready for defending themselves if the occasion arose. It was soon shown that a man must keep a tight hold on his sausages and toast once he had them in his grasp… Thinking discretion the better part of valour, I made my way out of the tent, foregoing the merits or demerits of this homely meal.

Before describing bull baiting, our author begins by quoting a contemporary ballad:

“Sir Roderic’s come – the Thetford Bull, –
The biggest ‘er was seen,
But well I know they’ll lay him low
On famous Cock Street Green.
Ned Padley’s hound will grip his nose,
And make him shut his e’en;
Bob Biddle’s pup will knock him up,
On famous Cock Street Green.”

The narrative continues:

“When I went early in the afternoon I found stakes driven, a fence circle formed to keep off the crowd, and every preparation for the sport. Presently there was a ringing cheer set up by the whole multitude as the bull, led by two burly fellows, made his appearance, followed by several men leading their dogs. The bull was soon tethered to the stake, and evidently aware of what was to follow, began to look around for the enemy.

“He was indeed a noble, well-built, muscular animal. Now the first dog was set down and the fight commenced. Glancing slyly at first the dog seemed almost to fear the attack, but at a word from its owner it rushed towards the enormous foe and was as speedily repulsed. Again and again the dog sprang at the bull’s nose, but dexterously the bull evaded his attacks, and at length placing one horn under his opponent, he flung the yelping cur into the air, and over and over it turned and fell among the crowd. One after another, not less than eight dogs were brought into the arena, and with more or less success, the Thetford Bull despatched them all, though not without some loss of blood in the tussle, his nose and mouth dripping with gore. When the last dog was brought, the bull showed signs of languor, and seemed careless to defend himself from further injury, whereupon an inhuman wretch quietly approached the animal and sprinkled on the open wounds a small handful of cayenne pepper, the effect of which was, of course, instantaneous. Lashing his side with his tail, leaping in the air, and roaring in an awful agony, he seemed the picture of a tormented fiend. The last dog had, it was said, been fed on prime joints of mutton and port wine for the last two weeks, and was in readiness for the affray.

“Goaded to madness, the bull tore up the earth and roared so loudly that the sound could be heard full a mile distant. The excitement was intense. Loud cries rent the air. Betters quarrelled, women screamed, and amid the uproar and confusion the music of the timbrel girls rose with a discordant sound. The encounter commenced, the bull plunging in his mad fury at the dog, and the latter rushed as eagerly at his enormous foe. After much dodging and manoeuvring, the dog fastened the bull by the nose, and there hung while the animal tried vainly to shake him off. The bull’s agony became intense, a fresh stream of blood flowed upon the greensward, and it was not until the owner of the dog placed that animal’s tail between his teeth (as is the custom), and bit it nearly through, that the bull was released from its grasp. After a short pause the dog was again thrown down to the writhing and bleeding bull. The latter grew more infuriated than ever, and making one mad, desperate plunge he broke the tether and dashed wildly among the people.

“I shall never forget the scene. The bravest men turned pale, and the terror of the women and children was dreadful to behold. The mob scampered in all directions like an army put to flight, and the Green was in a moment the scene of utter confusion – apple-stalls lay over-turned upon their owners; the tymbesters and mountebanks threw down their instruments and fled for their lives; and to crown all a fearful thunderstorm, which had been threatening since noon, burst over the scene. The rain fell in torrents, with vivid lightning, and the thunder crashed like falling mountain crags, giving the scene a most terrible aspect. I shall never forget the scene, it has been one of the most eventful of my life, and I should not care to see another like it.”

Small wonder that it was not long before these sports, beloved by our ancestors for centuries, were banned by the Victorians! Meanwhile, when Diss Common and other neighbouring commons were being enclosed in 1815, much jubilation must have been caused by the announcement that:

“…a fine open piece of green called Cock-Street Green was then awarded …and in trust for the inhabitants. A cattle fair has been held there from time immemorial.”

A few more glimpses from the last century:

A Dissian, recalling his boyhood days in the 1850s, said:

“All the cottages on Cock-Street Green displayed oak branches from their bedroom windows to show that ale was sold within during the fair week … I well remember the herrings that were sold at 50 for a shilling.  They were cooked on a flag and faggot fire on the Green and sold with hot potatoes and bread.”

Then in 1863, when the future King Edward VII was married to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, a great renaming of streets in Diss took place. Cock Street itself became Denmark Street, but on March 10th, “the rector proclaimed that the large green now known as Cock Street Green should be henceforth called ‘the Fair Green’, which occasioned an outburst of applause and prolonged cheering.”

Lastly, two brief reports from the Diss Express of the Fair in 1868 and 1870, which were to be amongst its closing years:

The Diss Express and Norfolk and Suffolk Journal, Friday, November 13th, 1868.

DISS NOVEMBER FAIR.  …This fair was held on Fair Green, on Monday and Tuesday last.  A large number of gipseys arrived and pitched their tents several days before, and on the fair days they mustered stronger than has been known for many years; the shows and booths were also more numerous than on former occasions, and the proprietors of the former, in one or two instances, had to enter into partnerships, as the standing room was not sufficient.  There was a fair supply of horses and beasts on Monday.  Although the weather was unfavourable, there was a large attendance, and business was pretty brisk.  Through the exertions of the police, under Sergeant Sewter, everything passed off quietly.”

The Diss Express and Norfolk and Suffolk Journal, Friday November 11th, 1870.

DISS STOCK FAIR.  … This fair was held on the Fair Green, on Tuesday and Wednesday last; and the extreme fineness of the season brought a very considerable number of people to our town.  There was a large show of horses and beasts, the former realising very high prices, but it does not appear much business was done.  The show of agricultural machines, &c., was very good from the manufactories of Messrs. Murton and Turner, Kenninghall; W. Swootman, sen. and jun., Diss; Collins, Eye.  The shows and stalls were as numerous as ever, and the various vendors of their goods and chattels had a fair run of patronage.  With the exception of a few drunken freaks all passed off quietly.”

Both these reports hint at some uneasiness about the Fair; on both occasions there was clearly relief that “everything passed off quietly”!  And then, in 1872, the Justices of the Diss Division, in their high-minded Victorian manner, submitted to the Home Office a petition that it would be “for the convenience and advantage of the public, that the fair should be abolished.”  The Home Secretary then ordered that, “the Diss Cock-Street Fair (Nov 9) shall be abolished as from April 16, 1872.”

And so, after nearly 700 years of annual fairs, and perhaps over 400 years on Fair Green, Diss Fair came to an end.

Happily for us, Fair Green remains “a fine open piece of green.” Diss people can still come to the commercial fun fairs, which arrive two or three times every year. And the residents of the Green hope, every so often, to hold some form of a fair, fete or festival.  It may be only a tiny replica of what once brought thousands to the Green, day after day, for a week of buying, selling, feasting and merrymaking. But it will continue to be for the enjoyment of all who live in Diss and beyond.

Originally published by Fair Green Neighbourhood Association

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