Goldcroft Common and the May Fairs
Part 1
© Copyright Bob Trett August 2006

Editor's note

Bob Trett has kindly granted us permission to publish here his research into the history of the fairs on Goldcroft Common. Part 1 covers the years from the earliest references in the thirteenth century to the start of the twentieth century. Bob is currently researching Part 2 which will bring his account up to present times. Already new material has come to light for inclusion in Part 1 - for example information about the horse fairs which seem to predate the fun fairs. We will be publishing Part 2 and an update of Part 1 in the near future.

If you have any pictures of the fairs before the 1970s which could be included here please contact us. In particular we would be most interested in photos of the horse fairs.

The commons of today have evolved from the mediaeval system of agriculture whereby land was divided into common fields for arable, meadow and pasture. Many common fields were used for crop rotation, followed by a fallow period to allow the land to recover. These fields normally surrounded a village and beyond them was often wasteland or forest. Rights existed on waste land and in forests, and these could include the right for local people to take wood and for pannage and herbage - the right for pigs to be taken into woods to feed on mast or for animals to graze.

Thus there were various types of common lands and different rights and conditions relating to their use Most common fields disappeared in the enclosure movement, particularly in the 18th and 19th century - although many commons survived because there were regarded as village greens.

Goldcroft Common was one of nine commons in Caerleon listed in a survey of the town undertaken in 1622 for the Earl of Pembroke and other owners.

The survey states:

"There is a common called Gould Craft containing 3 acres lying within the town and borough of Carlion, and also these other commons: The Broad Way, 3 acres ; Com'in Nant couch, ½ acre ; Comyn dan yr veline vach, ½ acre ; a common adjoining to Morva Geviley, 1 acre ; Comyn y velin ban, ½ acre ; another common lying beyond the bridge called the Ward Vach, ¼ acre ; a common beyond the bridge between the great elm and pont Midow, ½ acre ; all which said commons do lie within the town and borough of Carlion and do belong to the tenants and inhabitants of the said town and borough and are commonable at all times of the year.

There are six cottages, dwelling house and six gardens lying in the Gould Craft late in the tenure of William Watkin Griffith, Howell Price, cobbler, John Thomas, boatman, Robert William & Alexander Lewis, and which one Walter Rumsey esqr., holdeth by lease dated 25 Maij of 6 Jac. for 99 years or for the life of himself, Matthew his son, or Sicill his daughter."

The survey also states:

"We find three fairs in Carlion and the market on the Thursday."(1)

The first known reference to a fair in Caerleon is in an inquisition dated 27th January 1296 into the lands of Gilbert de Clare, made after his death (and whose lordships included Caerleon).

Caerleon is described as:

"A Castle, two carucates of land, 50 acres meadow, two mills, 102s. rent of the borough and of cottars, 10s. rent of free foreign tenants, 40s. prise of ale in the borough, 5s. toll of the market and fair and a fishery and weir, held of the king in chief, service unknown, and charged with £10 7s 4d. yearly to the abbot of Neth [i.e. Neath]." (2)

Caerleon Fair appears to have been a 'prescriptive' fair - that is one held by custom but not by charter.

Further inquisitions refer to fairs. One dated 1370 mentions the castle and town had a market every Thursday, and two fairs a year, on All Saints Day (November 1st) and on the Tuesday after Holy Trinity (which was fixed to the first Sunday after Whit Sunday in 1334). (3) These fairs were confirmed in an inquisition after the death of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, who died in 1381. (4)

There is no reference as to where the fairs were held, or if more than one site was involved or whether or not there were fixed sites. However the fairs are likely to have been held on common land or close to the castle (the probable administrative centre of the medieval town).

The site of the market is known, as the 1622 survey mentions that:

"Philip Hughes of Carlion, merchant, holdeth by lease all that slip or landing place in Carlion adjoining his house [now the Hanbury Arms] between high and low water mark and …. all profits, pitchings, landings and toll of corn and cattle at fairs and markets ….and land near the Cross of Caerleon for building a hansume and convenient market house where the said Philip Hughes shall think fit."

Early maps (1752 & 1800) show the market house standing in the centre of Cross Street, close to the present Bull Hotel, and a drawing in Newport Museum and Art Gallery also shows it standing there. In 1801 Archdeacon Coxe states "the four columns of freestone which support the market-house, probably belonged to some Roman structure". (5) The building was still standing in 1847 but was demolished by 1850. The stone columns were used to support the floor of the new Museum of Antiquities (now rebuilt as the National Roman Legion Museum) (6) . The columns remain in sections in the Museum garden. Whether they are Roman is debateable.

The Universal Directory for 1791 mentions that Caerleon had a weekly market on Thursday and a small market on a Saturday for butchers' meat. The town had three fairs a year, on May 1st, July 21st, and September 20th. It also had a cattle and pig market on the second Monday in every month. The markets would have been held in and around the market house in Cross Street where the road widens out.

Pigot's Directory for 1844 shows a partial variation in these arrangements. "The weekly market is on Thursday, and another is held every alternate Monday, for cattle, sheep, horses, pigs etc., Fairs, the second Monday in February, May 1st, July 20th, and September 21st."

Slater's Directory of Monmouthshire in 1858 refers to "A market held on the second Monday of each month and the fairs on the second Monday in February, May 1st, July 20th, and September 21st."

John's directories for Caerleon cover the second half of the 19th century and continue into the 20th century. Although they do not mention the fairs it is interesting to note that the first reference to the 'Drover's Arms' or the 'Goldcroft Inn' is in 1885. These are therefore not early inns associated with historic drovers' trails, but Victorian enterprises taken advantage of the traditional fairs.

Kelly's Directory for 1901 refers to "Fairs held on the third Wednesday in February and on May 1st, July 20th and September 21st."

The evolution of fairs from gatherings for the hiring of workers, or from trade fairs with sideshows for entertainment, into the modern funfairs was a gradual process. In the 19th century improvements in travel with the new railways, and the mass production of many goods with modern means of sale, led to a decline in the tradition fairs. The introduction of steam power in the 19th century allowed fairground rides to become larger and more spectacular until the traditional fairs were replaced with the fairs we know today.

The control of commons and of fairs would have been in the hands of a manorial court or borough officers. Caerleon is known to have had a reeve called Gilbert Huclet or Huclot in 1293-4. Amongst other duties he was responsible for collecting manorial rents. Simon Wyngham was reeve in 1410-1411, and was later referred to as mayor. Other Caerleon mayors are known in the 15th and 16th centuries. (7) These posts appear to have lapsed and their duties transferred to other bodies, possibly to the vestry (i.e. a meeting of the ratepayers of a parish).

An Act of 1773 entrusted the management of common fields to a meeting of proprietors, in which a three-fourths' majority in number and monetary value was required to make decisions, but in practice this Act was often ignored. (8)

The Caerleon Local Board was established in 1872 and among its duties took on the responsibility for the management of the fairs.

On August 25th 1873 the Board resolved "that no stalls, pews, shows, cattle or other obstruction be permitted to stand in the public highways of the town, but that all Fairs be held on Goldcroft Common."

On April 27th 1874 the Board again resolved "that the Fair be held on Goldcroft Common and that 100 handbills be printed and posted about the district stating that no stalls, pews, shows, cattle or other obstructions would be permitted to stand in the Public Highways of the Town." They also resolved "that the disposal of the ground for the erection of the various stalls and booths be left to the Surveyor assisted by Sergeant Povall."

On April 26th 1875 a similar resolution was made and the Sergeant of Police and the Surveyor were requested "to adopt the same rules as they did last May Fair for the disposal of the ground for the erection of the various stalls and booths."

The 1880's saw a considerable amount of hostility across the country towards the new entrepreneurial travelling showmen and in 1889 the United Kingdom Van Dwellers Protection Association was set up. This was later re-constituted as the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain. This was active in ensuring the continuation of travelling fairs and in allocating pitches and organising the movement of showmen from fair to fair.

In Caerleon the Local Board was replaced by the Caerleon Urban District Council in 1894. The Urban District Council had to deal with a number of complaints regarding the May Fair.

On September 3rd 1895 a letter was read out to the Council from Mr.W.Gething complaining of the nuisance caused by fairs being held on Goldcroft Common.
After a long discussion it was suggested that a field elsewhere should be obtained for the fair. The question of whether the Council had sufficient legal powers to arrange the transfer was deferred to the next meeting and the Clerk was requested to check the position.

On October 1st the Clerk reported that he had conferred with the Clerk to the County Council with reference to the best means of preventing the nuisance arising from shows on the Goldcroft Common at fairtimes and the County Council had Byelaws relating to the subject of which the following are copies.

Street Music
A person shall not sound or play upon any musical or noisy instrument or sing in any street within one hundred yards of any dwelling house after being required by any constable or by an inmate of such house, personally or by his servant to depart from the neighbourhood of such house.

Shooting Galleries and Roundabouts
A person shall not to the annoyance or disturbance of the inhabitants of the house in any street keep or manage a shooting gallery, swing, booth, roundabout or any like thing in any street or on land adjoining or near such street, provided always that this byelaw shall not apply to any fair lawfully held.

Every person who shall offend against any of the foregoing byelaws shall be liable for every such offence to a fine not exceeding forty shillings.

The Council decided that "a notice of these byelaws should be placed at each end of the common and that the matter should remain in abeyance in order to see the effect of the same."

On June 2nd 1903 the Council received a petition from the inhabitants of Goldcroft Common calling attention "to the nuisance arising through the holding of the May Fair on the Common and asking the Council to take steps to prevent a repetition of the nuisance complained of."

The Council resolved that "immediate steps be taken by the Council to prevent the Fair being held on Goldcroft Common or on the public highways and that the Clerk report at the next meeting as to what steps should be taken to carry this resolution into effect."

They also resolved "that the Clerk be requested to report to the next meeting what were the necessary steps to be taken in order to enclose the Goldcroft Common and lay the same out for recreational purposes."

On the 7th July the Clerk submitted a draft case and was instructed to obtain Counsel's opinion as soon as possible.

On October 6th 1903 the Clerk read the opinion of Mr F.N. Keen to the Council.
Mr Keen advised that "The Common was not a 'common' in the strict technical sense of the term but a town green and in connection with the May Fair the Showfolk had a legal right arising from custom to place their shows on the ground occupied by the Fair and he could see no really satisfactory method of carrying out the objects sought to be obtained by the Council except by private Act of Parliament. As the land was a 'town green' it could not be subject of a scheme for inclosure or regulation under the Inclosure Act 1845 and the Commons Act 1876 but a regulation scheme however could be promoted under the Commons Act 1899 but that such scheme could not authorise the permanent inclosure of the Common or the prohibition of the booths and shows."

After hearing this the Council resolved "That the efforts of the Council should be directed towards limiting the duration of the Fairs to the statutory day and the preservation of order and decency during Fair times and that the Clerk be requested to report to the next meeting what steps should be taken to carry this resolution into effect."

On November 3rd the Clerk reported back suggesting the County Council should be asked to pass a special byelaw "with a view to dealing with the matters complained of." A motion was passed approving of this course of action.

However on June 7th 1904 a letter was received from the Clerk to the County Council enclosing a copy of a letter from the Secretary of State at the Home Department stating that "the proper authority to deal with the matter was the Urban District Council." A letter was sent back to the County Council thanking them for their efforts and regretting that the Urban District Council "could not see their way to pay the expenses incurred by them."

On April 9th 1907 the Urban District Council resolved that "the Surveyor inform all showmen and others of the effect of the County Council Byelaws and that copies of the same be printed and distributed."

On May 7th the Surveyor reported that "the effect of the notice and copy byelaws ordered to be distributed to the showmen had had good effect, and that all shows with the exception of two had come and gone a reasonable time before and after the Fair Day."
Byelaws relating to Goldcroft Common made by the Urban District Council were made on February 5th 1918. On January 27th 1926 these were repealed and replaced.

The new byelaws stated:

Item 2. A person shall not erect or permit to remain on the Common without consent in writing of the Council, signed by the Clerk to the Council, or other lawful authority, any building, shed, tent, fence, post, railing, or other structure.

It shall be lawful for an officer of the Council to remove from the Common any structure erected thereon in contravention of this byelaw.

Item 3. A person shall not except as hereinafter provided place on the Common any photographic cart, booth, show, exhibition, swing, round-about, shooting gallery, stand or other like thing.

Provided that the byelaw shall not apply so as to prohibit a person placing on the Common any photographic cart, booth, show, exhibition, swing, round-about, shooting gallery, or other like thing on any day during a period extending from twenty-four hours before to forty-eight hours after the day on which a fair is lawfully held or on any other day or days and during such other or further period or periods as the Council may by written authority under the hand of their Clerk direct, subject to the following condition:-

Where, by a notice or notices which shall be affixed or set up in some conspicuous position on the Common, the Council may set apart for the placing of any such photographic cart, booth, shows, exhibition, swing, round-about, shooting gallery, or other like thing as may be specified in the notice or notices, such space or spaces on the Common as shall be defined or described in the notice or notices, such person shall place such photographic cart, booth, show, exhibition, swing, round-about, shooting gallery, or other like thing on such space or spaces.

It shall be lawful for an Officer of the Council to remove from the Common anything placed upon the Common in contravention of this byelaw.

(1) A full transcript is included in Sir Joseph Bradney The Hundred of Usk (Part 2), published 1923, pages 191-194. This forms part of Bradney's A History of Monmouthshire. The original survey is in the Gwent Record Office Misc. Mss. 1453.
(2) The Inquisition Post Mortem of Gilbert de Clare is referred to in Eija Kennerley Mediaeval Caerleon-1 in Gwent Local History No. 45, published 1978, page 15. The original is listed in Calendar of Inquisitions Vol.III. page 371.
(3) See Eija Kennerley Caerleon Market Hall in Presenting Monmouthshire, No. 37, Spring 1974, page 22. Also Calendar of Inquisitions, Vol. XII, Edward III, page 332.
(4) Calendar of Inquisitions, Vol. XV, Richard II, page 558.
(5) William Coxe An Historical Tour in Monmouthshire 1801. page 86.
(6) E.I.P.Bowen's Presidential Address in Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol. CXX (1971) page 3.
(7) Eija Kennerley Mediaeval Caerleon in Gwent Local History No. 45. 1978. page 21.
(8) 13 George III. Cap.81 (1772-3)

Caerleon Net

Drawing of the Market Hall 1814
Pictures of the Fair on Goldcroft Common

Articles from Gwent Local History relating to Caerleon
The Universal Directory 1791 (and links to other directories)
1752 plan of Caerleon
1800 plan of Caerleon
Coxe's History of Monmouthshire

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