If you were a regular at Whitstable’s Duke’s Folk, or at Oyster Ceilidh Band dances in the seventies, you’ll almost certainly remember this song, as it was an oft-performed favourite in the repertoire of top local band Fiddler’s Dram. It was the final track on their debut LP To See the Play, and I’ve a feeling it had also been one of the band’s contributions to the Duke’s Folk cassette (although that was a little before my time). If you only know Fiddler’s Dram from their 1979 hit single ‘Daytrip to Bangor’ then do yourself a favour and check out their pre-Top of the Pops recordings – pretty much their entire recorded repertoire has recently become available as a download, and that first album in particular has a number of great songs and arrangements which have really stood the test of time.
I had the words of this song from Roy Palmer’s classic book A Touch on the Times, and I assume that’s also where Cathy Lesurf and the band had got it from. Roy doesn’t give a source for the tune, so I wonder if it was actually made up by his wife Pat. In the book it’s given in 4/4, whereas Fiddler’s Dram played it in 6/8. Whether that was deliberate or an accident I don’t know, but I think it benefits greatly from the change.
In my student days I used to sing this with Caroline Jackson-Houlston. She sang the tune, and I sang John Jones’ harmony part from the record pretty much note for note. I’m not sure I could improve on it and would most likely end up doing exactly the same were I to attempt a harmony now.
Although I’ve not sung the song often since those days, it’s never been too far from my mind. So when I visited Nick and Lizzie Passmore earlier this year, this seemed like an obvious one to try together. Mind you, I think Nick had been expecting to play it on guitar, so was somewhat wrong-footed by my suggestion that he should give it a melodeon accompaniment. Needless to say, he rose to the challenge and obliged. This is the last of the four songs we recorded that weekend – must be time to plan another trip to Llandrindod Wells.
Another ballad with the Fair as a setting is ‘The unconscionable batchelors of Darby: or, The young lasses pawn’d by their sweethearts, for a large reckning, at Nottingham goosefair; where poor Susan was forced to pay the shot’, which Early English Books Online dates to between 1687 and 1695. It’s not an especially entertaining song, but no doubt it pleased the good people of Nottingham by providing them with another example of just how untrustworthy young men from Derby can be. Meanwhile ‘The Country Squire’, included in Bentley’s Miscellany, Volume 9 (1842) purports to tell “An Ancient Legend, Showing How The Fair Held Every October At Nottingham Was First Called Nottingham Goose Fair”. It’s nonsense of course and, again, not particularly amusing.
You’ll find plenty of information online about the history of Nottingham Goose Fair, however. The fair dates back to the granting of a charter by Edward I in 1284, and it’s still going strong to this day – in fact it’s on right now (although you’re unlikely to spot any geese).
George Austin, who was Chief Inspector of Weights and Measures and Clerk of the Markets in Nottingham from 1907 till 1944, had responsibility for the Goose Fair during those years. In his memoirs he gives a description of the Goose Fair in Nottingham’s Old Market Square in 1896
My strongest impression is of the surging crowds moving ceaselessly round the fair. It was impossible to change direction once one was in the stream. Gangs of young people, and some older ones, formed “crocodiles”. Linked together by arms on the shoulders, or round the waist of the person in front, they forced a passage through the crowd.
There are a couple of Pathe newsreels of the Fair which you can view online, from 1935 and 1947. In the earlier of these, you see a dignitary, presumably the Lord Mayor of Nottingham, pronouncing the fair open. He concludes “Get you straight away, and thoroughly enjoy yourselves”. This echoes the sentiment of the song. Although, perhaps unwisely, he neglects to repeat the song’s warnings “in moderation pleasure take” and “keep an eye upon your purse”.
Nottingham Goose Fair
Andy Turner – vocal
Nick Passmore – G/D melodeon