Mop Fairs and Michaelmas Day
by Laurie Alice Eakes
Michaelmas Day was one of the four quarter days in the British system, a day in which rents and wages were due. Michaelmas Day, or the Feast of St. Michael, the Archangel, is now the 29th of September. Under the old calendar, it was celebrated on 10th or 11th of October (sources are inconsistent on which day), which coincided with the annual hiring of laborers and household servants.
These fairs were called mop fairs for the fact that those needing work gathered with the tools of their trade in hand. A shepherd carried a crook, a cook carried a ladle and wore a red ribbon, and a maid wore a blue ribbon and carried a mop. Those with no particular skill also carried mops.
Those needing to hire someone interviewed potential employees (during the Regency, the word was employé, as employee wasn’t used until the 1850s) as to their skills and experienced. When the employer chose someone, money exchanged hands, and the hiree donned a ribbon to signify she or he had been hired. They were then free to spend their token of employment at the local taverns or other establishments set up with games and goods.
Michaelmas Day was appropriate for this practice because the harvest was usually finished or nearing completion; thus farmers could either acquire more laborers or, having rid himself of these extras, left them needing employment elsewhere. The day being a quarter day, wages were settled up.
Michaelmas Day was also celebrated with some other traditions such as eating a goose for dinner. The goose tradition probably stemmed from tenants bringing a goose to the landlord to soften him up, geese being at their prime at this time from dining on the stubble from the fields. In 1709, the following verse appeared in The British Apollo:
Yet my wife would persuade me (as I am a sinner)
To have a fat goose on St. Michael for dinner:
And then all the year round, I pray you would mind it,
I shall not want money—oh, grant I may find it!
Many mop fairs continued well into the nineteenth century and on to the twentieth. Some of them were discontinued due to the drunken debauchery that became associated with the fairs; however, in the past couple of decades, these fairs have been revived with carnival rides and other festive entertainments. The fair at Marlborough, celebrated in October on the old Michaelmas Day, has talked of moving the fair from the High Street to the commons; however, because of their charter for the fair, moving it would take an act of Parliament. This symbolizes how important these fairs are to British history.