Peter Millington

Paper presented to the Annual Conference of the Folk Life Society, University of Nottingham, September 1992, and repeated at the International Conference on Traditional Drama, University of Sheffield, March 1998.

Home   Part 1   Part 2   Part 3



[Return to Contents]

Nottinghamshire is well known for its folk plays - in particular its Plough Monday plays - thanks largely to the pioneering work of the late Prof. Maurice Barley (1953). Apart from Barley's collection housed in the University of Nottingham Library, there is also a wealth of published and unpublished material in Nottingham Central Library, the Nottinghamshire Archives Office and elsewhere (see P.T.Millington, 1980).

However, with the spotlight on folk plays, other non-play Plough Monday customs have tended to be ignored, or misinterpreted as relics of plays. I have therefore taken these customs under my wing, and the main thrust of my paper concerns the history and nature of just such customs within the present boundaries of the City of Nottingham.

The story of Plough Monday in Nottingham in fact runs along two tracks.  On the first was the Plough Day Fair - primarily a livestock trading fair - and on the second track were the popular festivities of Plough Monday itself.  These aspects diverged fairly early on in our historical record, and are sufficiently distinct for me to deal with them separately.  However, it is useful to start by understanding the changes that took place in Nottingham during the history of these customs.

The Historical Context

[Return to Contents]

Nottingham has grown continually over the past three centuries - as Map 1 shows - particularly from the start of the industrial revolution. However, the growth of the city proper was severely impeded until the Municipal Reform Act of 1835.  Until then, the Freemen and Burgesses jealously preserved their grazing privileges in the pastures and meadows that then surrounded the city centre, and blocked any enclosure or development.  In addition, the Duke of Devonshire similarly controlled The Park, an area south west of the town centre.

Map 1 - Growth of the Borough and City of
Map 1 - Growth of the Borough and City of Nottingham

Between 1750 and 1850, the population grew six-fold with no increase in residential area (D.Gray, 1953, p.70).  As a result, Nottingham changed from a spacious market town to an overcrowded health hazard.

Understandably, the population overspilled into the surrounding townships.  This overspill particularly affected the townward sides of the villages to the west of the Borough, along the River Lean.  Apart from being located next to a handy source of water for the mills, these villages were also close to the coalfield.  They may have retained a few agricultural workers, but these villages became more and more industrialised, with frame knitting for the hosiery trade and lace manufacture being most prominent.

Although the Lean-side villages were separated by pasture from the town centre, this physical separation had little social meaning. These villages increasingly shared common industries, a "community of interests" and a common culture with the city proper (G.Oldfield, 1990).

Meanwhile, in the City itself, moves were afoot to sweep away the ancient restrictions and improve the city's notorious conditions. The Municipal Reform Act of 1835 forced the burgesses to relinquish their rights to the Council in exchange for monetary compensation.  This paved the way for the enclosure of the common lands with the 1845 Enclosure Act and its main Award in 1865.  The pastures and Meadows thus released were rapidly developed with extensive areas of terraced housing, such that by the time the City boundary was extended in 1877, much of the freed land had already been built on.

Extensions since 1877 have mainly become residential suburbs, including several large Council estates, but new industries have also been established, including Raleigh bicycles, Player's tobacco and Boots the Chemists (D.Gray, 1953).

Plough Monday in Nottingham

[Return to Contents]

The earliest references to Plough Monday in Nottingham come from the beginning of the eighteenth century.  However, most meaningful descriptions are later, coming from a hundred-year period stretching from the 1820s to the 1920s.  In tracing the history of Plough Monday through this period, we therefore see the customs moving from a rural to an urban - if not inner city - setting.  However, as we shall see, the nature of the traditions altered surprisingly little during this changeover, highlighting the common culture shared between the old town and its environs.

Map 2 shows the locations discussed in this paper.  I have chosen to concentrate on Plough Monday within the 1877 boundary, but as it happens there is almost no information available about Plough Monday traditions in the other districts covered by the map. Wollaton, outside the 1877 boundary, is included because people from this village are recorded as having travelled to Nottingham with their Plough Monday celebrations. Ruddington is included for comparison.

Map 2 - Nottingham Plough Monday
    locations discussed in this paper
Map 2 - Nottingham Plough Monday locations discussed in this paper

The dates of these records are evenly mixed relative to geographic location, so one does not see, for instance, a gradual retreat of the custom away from the city centre.

Birth of the Plough Day Fair

[Return to Contents]

The earliest record we have relating to Plough Monday in Nottingham comes from the Minutes of the Common Council of the City Corporation, dated the 16th January 1709-10 (page numbers below refer to E.L.Guilford, 1914).

The minutes read;

"Grant of two fairs.  - Ordered That this Corporacions Members of Parliament be wrote to about getting a Grant for two Faires more in the Yeare within this Town and to know the Charge and Difficulty  And 'tis ordered That if the said Faires be obtained The one of them shall be on the Friday before Plow Monday and ye other on Friday before Easter." (Vol.VI, pp.47-48)

Typically, these minutes only record the Corporation's decisions, and not the discussions leading up to the decisions.  We therefore have no firm information as to why the Corporation wanted the two new fairs.  I shall come back to this later.

Nearly two years later, on the 28th December 1711 it was decided to actually make an application for the new fairs (Vol.VI, p.53). However, there was evidently some concern that the time specified for the January fair was potentially confusing, so on the 7th March 1711-12 it was decided to describe the time more or less as given in the Charter;

"Fairs - Memorandum this day Itt was agreed That the Faire which was appointed to be held on the Fryday before Plow-Monday be Described for more certainty to be kept on the Fryday imediately preceding the Tuesday next after Epiphany And that both the Faires be held on the dayes agreed on by this and the former order and for 8 dayes after." [my italics] (Vol.VI, p.54)

The arguments supporting the need for "more certainty" are not given. However, in more recent times, definitions of Plough Monday have varied from place to place, so it would have made more commercial sense to base the date around a fixed festival, in this case Epiphany.

The charter used the amended definition, when it was finally granted by Queen Anne on the 30th August 1712.  The charter is written in Latin, but is translated in the published Records (Vol.VI, pp.2-7).

In later records, when it is referred to by name, the fair is usually called either the Plough Day Fair or the Epiphany Fair.

The Fair Changes its Date

[Return to Contents]

The Corporation's precise definition of the timing of the fair might have pleased lawyers, but is not easily memorable.  There was plenty of scope for confusion, because some years the fair would have occurred before Epiphany, and sometimes afterwards. Also, I suspect many people would still have thought of it as starting the Friday before Plough Monday, or even the Friday before Plough Tuesday [my term].  However, the most common definition of Plough Monday I have encountered has been the first Monday after Epiphany.  If this was the case, they would have calculated wrongly approximately one year in seven.

J.Owen (1720) in his "Brittania Depicta" listed the fair with its original definition.  However, perhaps because of the potential for confusion, it was decided at some juncture to change to a simpler definition of the time, occurring later in the month.

The "Records of the Borough of Nottingham" (D.Gray & V.W.Walker, 1947, Vol.VII, p.50) list accounts for two adverts at 3s 6d each which were placed in Cresswell's Nottingham Journal.  The adverts, which appeared on the 24th and 31st December 1763, both read;

Nottingham, Dec.23, 1763
NOTICE is hereby given,

THAT the next FAIR for this Town, called the EPIPHANY- FAIR will be held upon Friday the Twentieth Day of January next, the same Fair being every Year held on Friday next after the Thirteenth Day of January."

I believe this to be notification that the date of the fair had just been changed. Although the notice does not explicitly state this, I would not expect an advert such as this to give details of dates in future years if it was only a routine notice. Furthermore, this is the only advert for the fair mentioned in the Borough Records. Hence I infer that the change of date probably took place in January 1764.

Table 1 shows all the possible dates for these events depending on which day of the week Epiphany occurred.

TABLE 1 - Dates for Epiphany, Plough Monday and the Plough Day Fair

Day of week                     Dates in January                          
for Epiphany  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21
------------ --------------------------------------------------------------

      Monday  .  .  F  .  .  P  .  .  .  .  .  .  M  .  .  .  .  .  .  . .

     Tuesday  .  .  .  .  .  E  .  .  F  .  .  P  .  .  .  R  .  .  .  .  .

   Wednesday  .  .  .  .  .  E  .  F  .  .  P  .  .  .  R  .  .  .  .  .  .

    Thursday  .  .  .  .  .  E  F  .  .  P  .  .  .  R  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

      Friday  .  .  .  .  .  F  .  .  P  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  R  .

    Saturday  .  .  .  .  F  E  .  P  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  R  .  .

      Sunday  .  .  .  F  .  E  P  .  .  .  .  .  .  2  .  .  .  R  .  .  .

------------ --------------------------------------------------------------

Key: E - Epiphany
  F - Plough Day Fair - Original 1712 definition
  R - Plough Day Fair - Revised 1763 definition
  P - Plough Monday - First Monday after Twelfth Night (defined as evening before Epiphany)
- plus other Plough Monday dates where definitions do not conflict.
  M - Plough Monday - First Monday after Epiphany/Twelfth Night (defined as the evening of Epiphany)
  2 - Plough Monday - Second Monday in January.

It is interesting that the Corporation brought Tuesday into their calculation rather than the Monday. Superficially, the only effect was to move one of the dates for the fair in its approximately seven year cycle from the 11th January to the 3rd January - whenever Epiphany was on a Monday. However, it may indicate what was officially regarded as the definition of Plough Monday. If the "Friday before Plow Monday" and the "Friday immediately preceding the Tuesday next after Epiphany" were to be the same day, then the only definition for Plough Monday that would fit would be the first Monday after Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night in this case would be the evening before Epiphany - 5th January - the definition of Twelfth Night itself being a bone of contention.

The Business of the Fair

[Return to Contents]

The Charter specified that the purpose of the fair was;

"...for the buying and selling in those fairs of cattle and sheep and of all and all manner of goods, merceries, and merchandize whatsoever commonly bought and sold in fairs, together with a Court of Piepowder in the time of the fair aforesaid..."

At this period, one would expect the fair to have been held in the Market Place, and this is confirmed by J.Blackner (1815).

I have so far found three business reports on trading at the Plough Day Fair in copies of local newspapers for 1820 and 1822 (Nottingham Review) and for 1879 (Nottingham Evening Post).  These give a flavour of what went on.  For example, the Nottingham Review reported the 1822 Fair as follows;

"Our plow-day fair, on Friday, was the thinnest of stock we ever saw; there was not a sufficient supply of stores, and fat beasts were sold at better prices. Pigs also experienced an advance. Real good horses sold well, but inferior ones, and especially those calculated for agricultural purposes, hung very heavily on hand, and could not be sold at any price."

This is typical, and from these reports we can see that in the Nineteenth Century, the Plough Day fair was mainly a trading fair, in conformity with the Charter. None of the reports give any indication of pleasure activities, nor do they even hint at any link with the festivities of Plough Monday per se. Such pleasure activities as there may have been had probably become the prerogative of the still famous Goose Fair held in October.  The other thing to notice is that the duration of the fair appears to have diminished from the original eight days to but one day.

A Court of Piepowder was a common adjunct to an English fair, and it dealt with any petty disputes or misdemeanours that occurred during the fair. An item in the Corporation Records dated 22nd January 1770 appears to refer to this;

"Sr. pay to Mr. John Hood the sum of ten shillings for the constables in attendence at Ploughday sessions..." (D.Gray & V.W.Walker, 1947, Vol.VII, p.93)

Unfortunately, the Records do not include details of the proceedings.

The Fair's Demise

[Return to Contents]

The fair does not seem to have come to a tidy end. References to it in local directories gradually peter out towards the end of the Nineteenth Century.

Kelly's Directory for Nottinghamshire 1864 (pp.500) lists Nottingham's fairs, one being on "Friday after January 13th, for cattle". Later editions from 1881 to 1936 only give the date for "the principal fair" - Goose Fair.  Editions from 1941 onwards mention Goose Fair alone.

"Allen's Nottingham Red Book", an annual book of civic information, continued to list the fair until its last edition in 1914. Its successor, the "Nottingham Journal Ready Reference and Date Book", starting in 1925 did not mention the fair, only Goose Fair.

Parliament enacted two Fairs Acts in 1871 and 1873, which empowered the Secretary of State to abolish fairs and to specify the days on which they were held. The aim was to rationalise the number of fairs nationwide, as many fairs had become unnecessary and conducive to immorality.  It was largely as result of this that the City of Nottingham decided in 1879 to reduce the duration of Goose Fair to three days (J.H.Bailey, 1971).

Maybe the Plough Day Fair was also affected by these reforms. However, I think the first sentence of the 1879 press report in the Nottingham Evening Post gives a clue to what may really have happened. It talks of "the annual Plough-Day Fair" being held "in connection with the Nottingham Cattle Market".  I suspect that the two institutions simply merged into one another with time. This would have been accelerated between the two World Wars, as more farms became mechanised, and the trade in agricultural horses declined.  Incidentally, the Nottingham Cattle Market was itself closed down as recently as January 1993.

The Need for the Fair and its Regional Context

[Return to Contents]

As already stated, the Borough minutes do not record the reasons why the fair was requested. It is possible that the Corporation was merely seeking to increase the status of the Borough, but this is unlikely in view of the trouble and cost involved. It is more likely that the new fair was intended to fulfil a real trading need.

"Allen's Nottingham Red Book" for 1914 lists all the fairs in the East Midlands.  Apart from Nottingham's fair, there was no other January fair in the whole of Notts., and they were sparse in neighbouring counties.  Assuming a similar situation pertained to the early Eighteenth Century, there would clearly have been a gap in the trading calendar in January. As it is likely that provisions would become low over Christmas, there may have been a particular need for a fair.

Neighbouring counties may have provided the model for Nottingham.  Allen lists the following January fairs;

TABLE 2 - January Fairs in the East Midlands
(Taken from: "Allen's Nottingham Red Book", 1914)
Notts. Nottingham Friday after 13th January
Derbys. Chesterfield 27th January
  Crich 1st Monday in January
Leics. Hinkley 2nd Monday in January
  Melton Mowbray Tuesday after 17th January
Lincs. Sleaford Plough Monday
  Stamford 4th January

It is interesting to see that the Sleaford fair explicitly took place on Plough Monday. It was occasionally reported in the Nottinghamshire papers (e.g. Retford & Gainsborough Times, 1892).

Hinkley's date was also Plough Monday, although I do not know whether or not the fair's name reflected this.  Melton Mowbray's fair on the other hand definitely was called a Plough Day Fair. There are reports of this fair in the Nottingham Guardian for 1888 and 1889. The rather strange definition of its time of occurrence relative to Plough Monday indicates that a similar change of date may have happened at Melton Mowbray as at Nottingham.

In summary, four of the seven January fairs in the East Midlands appear to have had associations with Plough Monday, and there may be scope for comparing these fairs at some future date.  On the face of it, the dates of the other fairs have no relationship to Plough Monday, but further investigation may prove rewarding.

Home   Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

© Copyright 1998, Peter Millington ( Last updated: 03-May-2016