The Society met in Tebay to hear a lively talk from Andy Connell, a former Mayor of Appleby, on the subject of the Appleby Horse Fair, one of the largest gatherings of travelling people that now takes place in this country, early in June each year.
The origins of the fair are obscure. The Borough of Appleby was chartered in the late 12th century by King Henry II, and this gave the right to hold an annual fair, which took place in April, till it died out through lack of use in the 1880’s. At about the same time, an annual fair that took place on Gallows Hill, outside the borough boundary, and also outside its control, was growing in importance, aided largely by the coming of the railways, the Eden Valley line in 1861 and the Settle & Carlisle line in 1875, and their use for the transportation of farm animals rather than the old method of droving, with its cumbersomeness and wastage.
It was in the late nineteenth century that attendance at the fair became more and more dominated by travelling gypsies, many of whom dealt in horses, which did not take so well to rail travel as did cattle and sheep, which by then were being taken straight to the big markets in the big cities, leading to the decline of local fairs for that prupose. Horses were different, and so the traditional ways continued. Indeed, the huge demand for horses from the military, both in the Boer War and World War I brought about a significant increase in the fair, so that it began to cause problems in the town.
In 1911, the first Lord Hothfield, a descendant through marriage of Lady Anne Clifford through the Tufton family who were the Earls of Thanet, and who was the main owner of the fair field (which was held in undivided corporate ownership), and who allowed the fair to take place each year, persuaded the other owners to gift the field to the Borough of Appleby, thereby avoiding having to deal with the increasing problems that the fair was beginning to cause, (along with other financial benefits to the town.)
From that day to the present time, the fair has taken place under the umbrella of Appleby Council. Once or twice in the past century an attempt has been made to bring it to an end, but as its origins are so obscure no legal way of achieving this has been found, For the last fifteen years or so an ad hoc committee of local authorities, representatives of the travelling community, the police, the RSPCA and other similar bodies have been able to create a structure within which the fair has been able to take place.
Opinion about the fair in Appleby remain sharply divided: for some businesses, notably fast food sellers and public houses, the fair brings a huge boost to annual takings: others gain little, and there is inevitably a significant cost to the public purse which is not easily recoverable from participants. But for many of those who do come each year, it has become a very special event which captures something of ancient custom and a lost age which would otherwise disappear entirely.