The origins of the fair at Preston Green are unknown. The Victorian History of Hertfordshire
gives a detailed breakdown of when, and by whom, the fair at Hitchin was granted
but makes only a brief reference to Preston Fair stating that, ‘There are also two
fairs at Preston held on 1 May and 23 October (in 1816) and later on the first Wednesday
in May and on the Wednesday before 29 October’.
Preston’s fair was probably not held between 900 and 1516 AD as it is not included
in the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales for that period. A letter
from Ralph Radcliffe of Hitchin Priory to his brother, Edward, dated 17 October 1734
is the first historical allusion to the fair at Preston:
The letter reads in part: “I was yesterday at Preston Fair where few sheep (?) were
sold. I disposed of seven score of my Welbury flock at 15 shillings a head - a poor
price considering they cost me almost 14 shillings laid in....For my Hitchin flock
I was offered nothing.”
Further information about Preston’s fair is provided by Owen’s New Book of Fairs
which in 1816 identifies Preston’s as a sheep fair.
To put the fair at Preston into its local context, there were thirty fairs held in
the whole of Hertfordshire in the early nineteenth century - but only six sheep fairs.
These included one at Hitchin - which was held on Easter Tuesday and Whit Tuesday
but in 1834, it changed from a sheep fair to a wool fair - and another at Pirton
which is about seven miles north-west of Preston. The Pirton fair was held on the
fourth Thursday after 5 April and on the fourth Thursday after 10 October - thus,
both of Pirton’s fairs followed Preston’s fair by a few days.
Sheep fairs at Preston were held twice a year until at least 1864 as they were still
being advertised in local newspapers. But by 1873, from the evidence of comments
in the Preston School log book, it was no longer a sheep fair but a fun fair - and
held only once a year, in October. The last Preston fun fair was held in the autumn
Sheep farming on the Chilterns and at Preston
The small cluster of sheep fairs around Hitchin indicates that sheep farming was
an important form of agriculture in North Hertfordshire. Nigel Agar in Behind the
Plough writes of the high chalk of the Chilterns, ‘the vast wind-blown fields were
less likely to be cultivated for arable crops than they are today. Much of the hill
country was reserved for sheep that grazed on the short cropped downland where shepherds
lived a lonely life tending their flocks....after sheep had been folded on the land
to feed directly on the root crops, barley was sown in the spring.’
The first extant historical reference to shepherds around Preston is of my greatx2
grandfather, Joseph Currell (1800 - 1863). During a dispute about the parish in which
he and his family should be settled, Joseph stated that in 1825 he ‘let’ himself
to George Roberts at Kings Walden Lodge, lodged at his master’s house, served him
for six years and received wages of ‘five shillings a week and five pounds’
The censuses of the nineteenth century provide snapshots of Preston farms and their
shepherds as follows:
This information is not comprehensive. Newspaper reports tell us that Benjamin Hill
at Pond Farm had a shepherd boy in 1843 and that Mr Wright of Preston Hill Farm had
a shepherd in 1842.
What can be said from this evidence is that in the nineteenth century, at least five
farms at Preston had enough sheep to warrant a shepherd.
As well as local sheep, those brought to Preston Fair could have been augmented by
flocks from a radius of up to twenty-five miles. The Oxford Companion to Local and
Family History observes, ‘For the great majority of fairs vendors rarely travelled
more than twenty to twenty-five miles. Most of the rural fairs were modest in scale.’
It may be surprising that sheep might be driven such distances to a fair, but it
should be remembered that a fourteen-year-old boy drove nineteen of Rose Beckford’s
sheep around thirty miles from Offley Holes to London in 1799! The only hint from
newspapers of the distances travelled to attend Preston fair is that in 1850 a farmer
from Knebworth travelled around seven and a half miles to the village.
So twice a year, Preston was invaded by shepherds, their sheep dogs and hundreds,
or more likely, thousands of sheep - ‘their numbers creating a singular and remarkable
appearance’. The local lanes would be have been clogged with flocks; the air would
have been filled with their plaintive bleating and everywhere - on its roads, its
verges and its Green - sheep droppings would pollute and foul the village. In wet
weather, the highways and byways would be awash with an offensive, stinking olive-green
1851 -Thomas Smith (Temple Farm); Thomas Cotton (Home Farm, on the Hitchin Road);
Joseph Currell (farm not known)
1861 - John Shaw (Poynders End Farm?), John Jenkins (Preston Hill Farm); Joseph Currell
1871 - John Shaw; William Freeman (farm not known)
1881 - John Shaw; Thomas Fairey (Preston Hill Farm)
1891 - Thomas and son, George, Fairey
1901 - Henry Young, Arthur Ayres and Robert Crawley. (Farms not known)
1911 - no shepherds noted in census.
In around 1870, the Preston Fair evolved into an annual funfair. The village children
were allowed an afternoon’s holiday from school. It was an highlight of their year
for which they saved for weeks. Rather than attending school, they gathered acorns
which were sold as pig fodder to have some pennies in their pockets.
We have no descriptions of the fair at Preston so perhaps a detailed report by Edwin
Grey of the fair at the nearby village of Harpenden will paint a picture of festivities.
The fair was eagerly anticipated especially by the children and young people, not
only of the village but also the folk living in the surrounding countryside. All
local residents, cottagers and the well-to-do made a point of attending at some point.
There was much rollicking – innocent fun – into which everyone seemed to join. Youngsters
began saving their ha’pence for a long time in advance and were content with sixpence
or even four pence in their fists.
The stalls featured roundabouts, swings, shooting galleries, show booths which were
the most popular attractions especially if bespangled young ladies danced on a platform
outside or a clown or two acting their tomfoolery. The roundabout was pulled by a
horse – and a bell sounded to end the ride. The shows were well patronised. Crude
drawings and pictures enticed people to gawp at astounding freaks of nature and if
the show didn’t quite live up to the hype, it was all part of the fun. There were
performing ponies, birds, mice and even fleas. The ‘Baked Pear Vendor’ was a popular
stall – a neat, little old lady in a black dress, poke bonnet, spotlessly white apron
and little shawl over her shoulders who doled out saucers full of stewed pears. In
the evening in 1873, a gypsy fiddler was playing for dancers in the Red Lion, Preston.
After enjoying ‘all the fun of the fair’, the children were over-excited and overtired
. One Preston School log book entry from 1898 comments ‘Many stayed out so late that
they were too tired to come (to school) the next day’.
After 1914, the only evidence of Preston’s sheep fair history were the wide paths
that criss-crossed Preston Green - visible in so many photographs (see below) - which
were ‘said to have started as sheep tracks’.’ These paths were “filled in” around
the time that new saplings were planted on the Green in the early 1950s.
Perhaps some of the flavour of Preston’s sheep fair is captured in Thomas Hardy’s
poem, A Sheep Fair:
The day arrives of the autumn fair,
And torrents fall,
Though sheep in throngs are gathered there,
Ten thousand all,
Sodden, with hurdles round them reared:
And, lot by lot, the pens are cleared,
And the auctioneer wrings out his beard,
And wipes his book, bedrenched and smeared,
And takes the rain from his face with the edge of his hand,
As torrents fall.
The wool of the ewes is like a sponge
With the daylong rain:
Jammed tight, to turn, or lie, or lunge,
They strive in vain.
Their horns are soft as finger-nails,
Their shepherds reek against the rails,
The tied dogs soak with tucked-in tails,
The buyers’ hat-brims fill like pails,
Which spill small cascades when they shift their stand
‘Shepherd in melting snow with Offley Holes in the distance’ by Samuel Lucas
Why did the sheep fairs at Preston cease being held? Probably because in common with
many other fairs, the supply of local sheep dwindled. An unexpected likely reason
for this at Preston was the emergence of the railway - in 1851, the Royston and Hitchin
line was opened. Among the “good’s” that could now be transported the thirty miles
from London was the by-product of the capital’s many stables - manure. This could
be spread on the infertile fields of the Chilterns and so crops now could be grown
that were more lucrative for farmers than grazing sheep.
A village fair (from Illustrated London News 1843)