Today nearly half a million people go to Nottingham Goose Fair, making it one of the biggest funfairs in Europe – but its early origins have as much to do with cheese fights and trouser sellers as Geese. In this 2016 article, Chris Breese dug through the archives to uncover its weird and wonderful history.
‘Goosey’ as some people affectionately call it, can actually be traced back 1,000 years to the arrival of the fair of the Feast of St Matthew, which later became the Goose Fair when livestock sales became its main theme.
But the fair used to be famous for being the place where you could buy just about any form of pre-industrial revolution nibble or fashion accessory.
Horse sales were the fair’s biggest draw in part of the middle ages and cheese was also sold by the ton for decades. This led to no less than a full scale ‘Cheese Riot’ in 1766.
An account of the disorder, reproduced in a guide by the long-defunct Nottingham Information Department in the 1950s, describes the moment fun turned to fromage fury: “Cheeses were picked up and hurled at stall holders.
“This started a riot in which stalls were overturned and cheeses bowled along the ground. The mayor himself was knocked over by a flying cheese, and finally the magistrates had to call out the Dragoons [mounted soldiers], Nottingham then being a military centre.”
The phrase ‘Goose Fair’ first appears in 1542 in one official record about the purchase of a pair of trousers at the ‘Goose Fair Nottingham’, by John Trussell, a steward of the Willoughby family from Wollaton.
“It was actually a very small event at one time,” says David Cross, who runs historical walking tours of Nottingham.
“When it first became widely known there was already a big fair at Lenton Priory which was larger. The fair as we know it today is absolutely massive compared with what it once was.
“When farming was done by hand a lot of the crops would get left on the ground and wasted. Unless you let birds like geese go into the field and eat the grain to fatten up. This is the practice which first led to the current name emerging in the 16th Century.”
The fair’s current home on the Forest Rec is also a relatively new development in the course of its history. Prior to 1937 it was always held on Old Market Square, before it completely outgrew the site.
Rumour has it when the council house was being built on the square in the mid-1930s local officials became nervous about the increasingly rowdy and noisy fair leading to damage of the new building. So they shunted it up the road to keep the rabble out of the way.
The first rides appeared in the latter part of the 18th century, starting with roundabouts operated by hand, and by the 19th century the fair’s status as a trading point had diminished as it became more an event of pleasure rather than business.
Since then it has gradually grown to now attract more than 400,000 people over the five days. Livestock sales have long gone but dozens of decades-old traditions remain – including the Cockrell-on-a-stick lollipops and mint sauce and mushy peas.
“One of my favourite stories is the year when 22,000 geese came through the fair,” added David.
“I’ve worked out this meant 60 Geese a minute were sold that year at the fair.
“There have only been odd interruptions. The Plague stopped it 1646 and there were pauses during both world wars. But it’s now one of the biggest events of its type throughout Europe and is known across Britain. It’s really gone on to put Nottingham on the map.”