Situated on the West Cumbrian coast, only a few miles from the western fringe of the Lake District National Park, is the small market town of Egremont. Every year the townsfolk of Egremont hold an annual celebration after harvest time, known as The Crab Fair. The events held are traditional and do not involve the mechanised swings and roundabouts which became part of so many fairs from the late nineteenth century. The modern-day fair is held on the third Saturday in September and is eagerly awaited by the whole community.
The Crab Fair was first held in 1267. It is believed that the traditional fair has been held continuously since this time, except for unavoidable interruptions during the War years. The Lord of Egremont started a tradition of giving away crab apples, from where the fair gets its name. The tradition continues to this day with the Parade of the Apple Cart, where apples are thrown to the crowds which throng the Main Street. The modern day fair commences with a number of sporting events. Cumberland wrestling, an ancient and traditional lakeland sport, features prominently. The rest of the day's amusements include the celebrated World Gurning Championship where contestants pull ugly faces through a horse collar or 'braffin', a pipe smoking event and the singing of hunting songs.
History of the Crab Fair
In Medieval times centuries ago, after harvesting time which usually ended in September, serfs to the Manor of Egremont gathered wild fruits (plentiful in South Cumberland), and with their vegetables, corn and animals went to pay their dues to the Lord of the Manor. From this sudden congregation of serfs, the opportunity was taken to celebrate the completion of harvesting for yet another year and to forget their poverty and tribulations by taking part in a series of crude but arousing and sporting games.
In 1267 King Henry III granted a Royal Charter to Thomas de Multon (1247-1294), Lord of the Barony of Egremont, for a weekly market on Wednesdays and an annual fair to be held on the 7th, 8th and 9th of September. A modern translation of the original Charter is as follows:
"One market every week, upon Wednesday, with one fair every year by three days enduring the eve, the day of, and the morrow after the Nativity of St. Mary the Virgin, and to be quite free from suit of the County Courts and the Hundred Courts, and from all fines and americiaments there, and the tolls within the seignory of Copeland of ancient custom."
The original Charter is held in the British Museum in London. The granting of a Royal Charter, which freed the Barony from local fines and taxes, was one way by which the King could raise money. It also gave the town some degree of self-government and attracted people from the neighbouring countryside.
A religious festival was originally held on the three days mentioned in the 1267 Charter. The feast of the Nativity of St. Mary the blessed virgin, held on September 8, was observed as Lady day in harvest. Therefore the 7th, 8th and 9th of September mark "the eve, the day of, and the morrow after" the Nativity. However as time progressed, the actual date of the Crab Fair has changed. In 1752 a new Calendar was officially introduced into the United Kingdom which corrected an error of eleven days in the previous, centuries old Calendar. Parliament enacted that September 3 1752 should be reckoned as September 14. The three days of the fair then became the 18th, 19th and 20th of September. During the three days of festivities the burgesses of Egremont were allowed to sell ale without a license.
As time progressed the fair was reduced to a one day event held on the 19th September. This was probably necessary because of the industrialisation of Egremont which meant that the townspeople had less leisure time. In 1800 the town was thriving. Tanneries, corn mills, sailcloth mills, flint mills and flax mills had all been built alongside the river Ehen, from which they obtained their motive power.
In 1889 the date of the fair was changed again to September 18th. According to a local newspaper the change was due to the organisers wanting to hold the fair on the same day as the local cattle market. This is supported by a number of other sources which describe the sale of cattle and other animals at the fair as being immensely profitable both to the town and to the neighbouring farmers who would rent out their land for grazing.
Nowadays, with many people working a five day week and the weekend being their time of leisure, the fair is held on a Saturday. It has become traditional to hold the fair on the third Saturday of September.
Crab Fair Events
Little is known about the events of the Crab Fair until the nineteenth century. Cock fighting and bull baiting, nasty but popular lakeland sports, were popular attractions at the local fairs, especially in medieval times. People were less squeamish then - it could be said more brutal. Both sports continued until 1835 when they were prohibited by law.
A typical Crab Fair in the nineteenth century would begin at dawn with the erection of the greasy pole "at the fish stone by the Market Cross". The pole was thirty foot tall and greased with lard. The objective was to climb to the top and retrieve the prize. Originally the prize was a hat, probably a top hat. The winner, normally an agile youth, paraded around the town wearing his prize. In 1852 the prize became a side of mutton which, if not won by the end of the day, was cut up and divided amongst the poor. The tradition continues to this day, and in addition to the main prize, ribbons are now attached to the pole which can be grabbed from lower levels and exchanged for gifts in the town.
The next event of the day was the cattle market. The cattle were allowed to stand in the Market Place, keeping them to the sidewalks thus leaving the centre of the road open to the public. The cattle were not tied up but were attended by drovers, whilst the sheep were penned. The pens were always to be found in front of the public houses frequented by the flock tenders. Any damage done to the sides of the street was repaired by the Borough Sergeant. Tolls were of course extracted by the officers of the Borough Court on behalf of the Lord of the Borough.
In the afternoon of 'Fair Day' the town relaxed with a succession of sporting activities, some being ancient and traditional. The Sports always commenced after the "scattering of apples" at Midday, now known as the Parade of the Apple Cart. This event has always caused great merriment amongst the spectators, with youngsters scrambling for the apples. In earlier years cakes were also scattered. It is not known when this spectacle originated, but it is thought that it was a celebration of the completion of the harvest when crab apples and other wild fruits were gathered and used by the serfs to help pay their dues to the Manor of Egremont. The story goes that the Lord of the Manor would scatter crab apples amongst the juveniles of the town. Crab apples are too sour for the modern taste, therefore sweeter varieties of apple are used these days. A cart or wagon loaded with apples is driven along the Main Street with several men on the back throwing apples into the crowd.
Typical sports of the nineteenth century are described below. Some of these events survive to this day.
The street racing followed the scattering of apples. Races were held on the Main Street between the Kings Arms and the Blue Bell Inn. Prizes included money, loaves and other commodities.
The origins of this unusual type of wrestling are obscure, but it is reputed to have been introduced in the 10th century by Norse-Irish settlers. Each wrestler locks his hands behind his opponent's back - this is called takin' hod (taking hold). The object is to lift your opponent up, then throw him to the ground so that he lands face upwards. Costumes worn by the wrestlers are richly embroidered and prizes may be awarded for the best outfit.
Quoiting and Snap Pitching
In the middle of each public house back yard was a peg called a hob. This was used for the quoiting events which were similar to modern day quoits.
Snap pitching, which was also known as Brass pitchin', also used the hob. Each pitcher had his own pair of solid brassies which were like upturned saucers and were thrown at the hob from a distance of 7 yards. The nearest pitcher each time was awarded a point. The number of points required to win is not clear. The prizes for these events were substantial, for example a longwall clock and a silver tea urn. Heavy bets were also wagered on these competitions.
This was a horse race where the horses had to canter around a course. Horse and pony racing was very popular in the early nineteenth century, with a number of flat and hurdle races being documented. However the racing of horses slowly faded during the late nineteenth century, perhaps with the introduction of the motor car or the popularity of cycling.
These were introduced in the late nineteenth century. Races were held over one and a half miles and two miles.
Hound Dog Trials
This sport continues to be very popular throughout the Lake District. It is a dog race where the hounds have to follow a trail of aniseed scent across the fells.
Several other events are documented but are no longer held, such as quoiting, sack racing, the hat race (where men ran after a hat) and the egg race. After the merriment of the afternoon came the evening events, many of which survive to this day:
Each competitor is given a clay pipe filled with black twist tobacco and a lighted candle or taper. The person who smokes his tobacco in the quickest time is the winner.
Eating Biskeys and Treacle
This was a popular competition a hundred years ago but the event is no longer held. Biskeys are teacakes, and these were soaked in treacle. The winner was the first competitor to whistle a tune as soon as he had gobbled up the biskey and treacle. On one occasion, when the excitement was at its height, an exuberant spectator grabbed the large bowl of treacle and turned it upside down over the head of one of the officials, covering him from head to foot with treacle. One can only speculate as to whether this is the reason that the event is no longer held.
This involves singing hunting, comic or sentimental songs in the local West Cumbrian dialect.
To gurn means to 'snarl like a dog, look savage, distort the countenance'. This competition is extremely popular and is the highlight of the whole Crab Fair for most people. Contestants have to pull a grotesque face through a horse collar, known as a braffin.
Through the centuries the event has been reported by newspapers under various titles. In 1852 it was described as Grinn for tobacco, in 1884 it was more colloquially known as Grinning for 'bacca. In the twentieth century it became Gurning through a braffin and is now known as the World Gurning Competition.
The origin of gurning is obscure. It is reported to have originated from the mockery of the village idiot - the townsfolk would throw a horse's collar over him and make him pull funny faces in exchange for a few pints of ale. How much truth lies in this story is questionable. Another stories include when a drunken farmer arrived home to find a most discontented wife, he shouted "stop gurning, woman!" and thrust a horse collar over her head. At this her facial expressions, to say nothing of the language, became even worse!
The use of tobacco became common in the 17th century, and was either chewed or powdered and inhaled as snuff. It is probable that Grinning for 'bacca originated from these times - certainly it was described as an ancient tradition by the Cumberland Paquet in 1852.
The evening amusements, along with much singing and dancing until the small hours of the morning, brought the Crab Fair to an end for another year.
In the Crab Fair programme of 1884 we learn that the fair was recognised as a charitable institution. Tea, bread, etc. were distributed amongst the poor and the war widows of the town. In these times it was common for donations of hats, ties, toys, etc. to be given by local tradesmen to be used as prizes for the various events.