Ilsley remote amid the Berkshire Downs,
Claims three distinctions o’er her sister towns,
Far famed for sheep and wool, tho’ not for spinners,
For sportsmen, doctors, publicans and sinners.
This rhyme, apparently dating back to the seventeenth century, relates to East Ilsley – formerly known also as Market Ilsley or Chipping Ilsley – a village which you’ll see signposted just off the A34 as you drive North towards Oxford from Newbury. The rhyme was quoted in a 1924 History of the County of Berkshire, where the authors append the comment “The village still maintains its reputation with regard to sportsmen and publicans”.
The history continues
Though the training of racehorses is still one of the principal occupations of the inhabitants, East Ilsley is chiefly noted for its sheep fair, which is one of the largest in England. Almeric de St. Amand, lord of the manor in the reigns of Henry III and Edward I, set up a market here on Tuesdays, which he claimed under a charter of Henry III. It was said to be injurious to the king’s market at Wallingford. (fn. 7) Sir Francis Moore in his digest of his title to the manor, compiled in the reign of James I, states ‘that the Tuesday market for corn was discontinued, but that a sheep market was held every Wednesday from Hocktide to St. James’ tide, and a yearly fair at the Feast of the Assumption.’ Sir Francis obtained a charter confirming his right to a market for corn and grain and all other merchandise, and ‘to take such toll as the Borough of Reading doth,’ also a grant of piccage and stallage and a court of pie-powder with all the fines, forfeitures and amerciaments thereof. Under the charter it was forbidden to have sales at Cuckhamsley, where they had previously been held, under pain of the king’s displeasure, the new site for the market being an inclosed square which has since been planted and is now known as the Warren. The markets are held by arrangement once or twice a month on Wednesdays from January to September. They increased rapidly until the middle of the 18th century, no less than 80,000 sheep being penned in one day and 55,000 sold, the yearly average amounting to 400,000.(fn. 8) In addition to the markets there are numerous fairs, the two largest being on 1 August and 26 August, while those at Easter, Whitsuntide, in September, October and at Hallowtide (on Wednesday after 12 November) draw dealers and graziers from all parts of the county. There is also a hiring fare in October. The wool fair has increased in importance and has been much encouraged by the annual presentation of two silver cups given by the Marquess of Downshire and other landowners to be competed for by the wool staplers and farmers. At one of the agricultural meetings formerly held at Ilsley the chairman wore a coat made from fleeces shorn in the morning, made into cloth at Newbury, and fashioned into a coat before the evening.
‘Parishes: East Ilsley’, in A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 4, ed. William Page and P H Ditchfield (London, 1924), pp. 24-31 via British History Online.
David Nash Ford’s Royal Berkshire History Website tells us that
The last proper fair was held in 1934, but it was semi-revived as a village fete in 1975. A plaque in the centre of the village records this. Being famous for its sheep farming, it is not surprising that Berkshire was one of the many counties to have developed its own breed of sheep: the Berkshire Nott Wether. Sadly, it is now extinct, but the Hampshire Down is a direct descendant.
There are some wonderfully evocative photos of a late nineteenth century sheep fair at Ilsley taken by the photographer Henry Taunt, which you can view on the English Heritage ViewFinder site.
This song was collected by Cecil Sharp from Shadrack “Shepherd” Hayden (or Haden) at Bampton in Oxfordshire, on 6th September 1909. Shepherd Hayden had been born at Lyford, Berkshire in 1826, and he shepherded at Hatford near Faringdon before moving to Bampton in 1891. I don’t know if he ever did any shepherding on the Downs near Ilsley, but no doubt he met men who had, and learned this song (surely a local composition?) from one of them. Alfred Williams also noted down three verses of the song from Shepherd Hayden, under the title ‘On Compton Downs’, and noted “An old shepherd song, local to the Berkshire Downs between Wantage and Streatley, and one of the very few that were obviously written by rustics”.
Actually the Roud Index shows that Hayden’s is not the only version to have been collected – there’s also one clearly related fragment (where the location is given as Marlborough) collected by George Gardiner in Hampshire.
I learned the song from the copies of Sharp’s notebooks in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library – now of course all available online – and we recorded it on the Magpie Lane CD Six for Gold in 2002. This is a live recording taken direct from the mixing desk at the Banbury Folk Festival in October 2007.
O Once I was a Shepherd Boy
Magpie Lane, recorded at the Banbury Folk Festival, October 14th 2007.
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Ian Giles – vocal
Sophie Thurman – cello
Jon Fletcher – guitar
Mat Green – fiddle