On the Monday after Old Michaelmas Day, 10th October, Sherborne holds its annual Pack Monday Fair, once the Pact or hiring fair. At around midnight on the eve of the fair, the Teddy Roes Band process through the town creating rough music, blowing horns and banging saucepans. This cacophony commemorates the completion of 15th Century repairs on the town’s Abbey under a foreman named Teddy Roe. Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal mentioned about the traditions of the Pack Monday Fair in his book ‘Dorsetshire Folklore’ published in 1922:
Hutchins (iv.209), speaking of the annual fairs held in the town of Sherborne:
“The first on St. Thomas a Becket’s Day, O.S., upon the green near the site of St. Thomas a Becket’s chapel; the second in St. Swithin’s Street on St. Swithin’s day, O.S ; the third, outside the Abbey Close, on the first Monday after the feast of St. Michael, O.S. This last is the most considerable, and is a great holiday for the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood. It is ushered in by the ringing of the great bell at 4 a.m., and by the boys and young men perambulating the streets with cows’ horns at a still earlier hour, to the no small annoyance of their less wakeful neighbours. It has been an immemorial custom in Sherborne for the boys to blow horns in the evenings, in the streets, for some weeks before the fair. It is commonly known as Pack Monday Fair, and there is a tradition that Abbot Peter Ramsam and his workmen completed the nave of the abbey and kept a holiday on that day in 1490, and that the name was derived from the men packing up their tools. These fairs are chiefly for cattle, horses, and sheep. At the last woollen cloths and all sorts of commodities are sold. The tolls of St. Swithin’s belong to the Vicar ; those of the others to the lord of the Manor”
In September, 1826, a resident in Sherborne sent to Hone’s Every-Day Book (ii, 654) the following very full description of what goes on at Pack Monday Fair. He says :
“This fair is usually held on the first Monday after the 10th of October, and is a mart for the sale of horses, cows, fat and lean oxen, sheep, lambs, and pigs, cloth, earthenware, onions, wall and hazel nuts, apples, fruit trees, and the usual nick nacks for children, toys, ginger-bread, sweetmeats, sugar plums etc. etc. with drapery, hats, bonnets, caps, ribands, etc. for the country belles, of whom, when the weather is favourable, a great number is drawn together from the neighbouring villages. Tradition relates that this fair originated at the termination of the building of the church, when the people who had been employed about it packed up their tools, and held a fair or wake in the churchyard, blowing cows’ horns in their rejoicing, which at that time was perhaps the most common music in use. ..
The fair has been removed from the churchyard about six or seven years, and is now held on a spacious parade in a street not far from the church. . .
To the present time Pack Monday fair is annually announced three or four weeks previous by all the little urchins who can procure and blow a cow’s horn parading the streets in the evenings, and sending forth the different tones of their horny bugles, sometimes beating an old sauce-pan for a drum, to render the sweet sound more delicious, and not infrequently a whistle-pipe or a fife is added to the band.
The clock’s striking twelve on the Sunday night previous is the summons for ushering in the fair, when the boys assemble with their horns and parade the town with a noisy shout, and prepare to forage for fuel to light a bonfire, generally of straw obtained from some of the neighbouring farmyards, which are sure to be plundered, without respect to the owners, if they have not been fortunate enough to secure the material in some safe part of their premises.
In this way the youths enjoy themselves in boisterous triumph, to the annoyance of the sleeping part of the inhabitants, many of whom deplore, whilst others, who entertain respect for old customs, delight in the deafening mirth. At four o’clock the great bell is rang for a quarter of an hour. From this time the bustle commences by the preparation for the coming scene : stalls erecting, windows cleaning and decorating, shepherds and drovers going forth for their flocks and herds, which are depastured for the night in the neighbouring fields, and every individual seems on the alert. The business in the sheep and cattle fairs (which are held in different fields, nearly in the centre of the town, and well attended by the gentlemen farmers of Dorset, Somerset and Devon) takes precedence, and is generally concluded by twelve o’clock, when what is called the in-fair begins to wear the appearance of business-like activity, and from this time till three or four o’clock more business is transacted in the shop, counting-house, parlour, hall and kitchen than at any other time of the day, it being a custom of the tradespeople to have their yearly accounts settled about this time, and scarcely a draper, grocer, hatter, ironmonger, bookseller, or other respectable tradesman but is provided with an ample store of beef and home-brewed October, for the welcome of their numerous customers, few of whom depart without taking quantum suff: of the old English fare placed before them.”
“Now,” Hone’s correspondent goes on to say,—” is the town alive.” And he tells us of the usual merry sights of a country fair—the giant, the learned pig, the giantess and dwarf, the conjuror, the managerie of wild beasts, the merry-go-round, the lucky bag, the Sheffield hardwareman with his wonderful display of cheap cutlery, the inevitable Cheap Jack offering everything for next-to-nothing—for fuller details of which I would refer my readers to his account. And he concludes with the following remarks :—
“This is Pack Monday fair, till evening throws on her dark veil, when the visitors, in taking their farewell, stroll through the rows of ginger-bread stalls … By this time the country folks are for jogging home, and vehicles and horses of every description on the move, and the bustle nearly over, with the exception of what is to be met with at the inns, where the lads and lasses so disposed, on the light fantastic toe, assisted by the merry scraping of the fiddle, finish the fun, frolic, and pastime of Pack Monday fair.”
Some sixty years later Mr. E. Archdall Ffooks – the present clerk of the peace for the county of Dorset, and then a resident in the neighbourhood of Sherborne — at my request for information as to the modern proportions of the fair, wrote me a letter in which he says :
“The old custom of horn blowing has now, through the aid of the police, been reduced to reasonable limits. A few years ago small boys blew horns at all hours of the day and night until their bed-time for more than a month before Pack Monday Fair. Then the inhabitants complained of the nuisance, and the police were instructed to prevent it and to take away the horns, with the result that now only a few occasional horns are heard for about a week beforehand. On Sunday evening about 10 p.m. on October 12th (1884) a few horns in different parts, calling together those who were to take part in the march round, were heard ; and these gradually increased in number and became mingled with an occasional tin tray etc. until 12 o’clock, when the whole body of about 300 assembled at the Antelope Hotel moved off in no particular order and marched once all over the town, starting down Cheap Street and then passing through as many as possible until all the most important had been visited, keeping up an incessant din the whole time with horns, bugles, and all sorts of tin trays etc. that would make a noise. About 2 a.m. the town is allowed to go to sleep.This is what is left of the old custom, and seems likely to last in about its same proportions until something puts an end to Pack Monday Fair itself.”
- Sherborne Museum is currently exhibiting a Dorset Folklore exhibition in conjunction with Dorset County Museum until 17th December 2015. For more information visit www.sherbornemuseum.co.uk