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Chichester's Sloe Fair

by Pat Saunders

By Pat Saunders Volunteer The Novium Museum

At one time Chichester had five ancient fairs, however only one survives to this day - Chichester's Sloe Fair. The Sloe Fair is held annually in what is now Northgate carpark. The fair was originally located in a field just outside the city's North Gate (the current site of Northgate carpark), within which a Sloe tree grew, which is where the name of the fair originates. The right to hold this fair was granted in a charter from Henry I to Ralph de Luffa in 1107. Initially it was held for eight days from 6 October and was intended to celebrate the feast of St Faith the Virgin, a Gallo-Romano Christian who was martyred by the romans in Agen, Aquitaine after being tortured with a red-hot brazier until she died for refusing to make Pagan sacrifice in around 290 AD. During the 12th century she'd become the focus of a popular cult. Her name is still remembered in Chichester at St Faith's House in The Close, previously St Faith's Chapel, a 13th century building converted into a house in Elizabethan times.

From medieval times the Sloe Fair Field, as it was known, was part of land owned by the Bishops of Chichester and as such the Bishop received all the tolls from the fair. The traders who managed the fair however were generally itinerant merchants.

By the reign of Edward I (1274-1307) the statute of Winton was passed to check the custom of holding a fair near a place of worship. A Court of Piepowders, a special tribunal organised by a borough on the occasion of a fair or market, was held in a room above Canon's Gate in South Street throughout the duration of the fair. This court had unlimited jurisdiction over personal actions for events taking place in the market, including disputes between merchants, thefts and acts of violence. The Bishop presided over the court of summary jurisdiction and dealt with any disputes and questions that arose while the fair was in operation. At this time the fair was held between the feast of St Faith and the Eve of St Edward the Confessor (12th October).

By the early 19th century the date of the fair had altered to the 20th October. Joe Matthews Gallopers was one entertainment to appear at the fair in the 1890s and in Edwardian times there were switchback rides and swings.

Over the years the fair evolved and the commercial aspects of trade, as well as the hiring of labourers gave way to pleasure activities, some involving drink. On Sloe Fair night in 1880, Constable Phillips PC4 was found drunk while on duty. This hadn't been the first occasion he'd been found the worse for wear through drink. He wrote a letter of apology to the Watch Committee; however it is not recorded if or how he was punished.

Although a full-scale fair was not present for the duration of the Second World War, as many of the showmen were away at war, to ensure the right to hold the fair did not lapse either an empty caravan was parked in the field or a single stall was set up by Harry Stroud. To commemorate his tenacity a tree was planted in 1998 by the City Council. The tree unfortunately died, but a replacement Sloe tree was planted at the entrance to Northgate car park in 2012 by the then Mayor, Anne Scicluna.

Part of the experience of the Sloe fair was its notorious muddiness. This all changed in 1961 when the field was tarmacked for use as a carpark for the Chichester Festival Theatre. The Sloe Fair these days is organised by The Showman's Guild of Great Britain.