Retro: When hiring and firing was all the fun of the fair

Rain water spout on a house on Southgate Eckington''reveal pic
Rain water spout on a house on Southgate Eckington''reveal pic

I’m still exploring what were the outlying villages that are scattered around Sheffield in this week’s column.

Today’s subject is actually in Derbyshire but that’s no drawback to a man like myself who’s visited Everest – and other Indian restaurants.

Mr Dawon on the left and Mr Sorsby on the right at a Mop Fair,'Eckington

Mr Dawon on the left and Mr Sorsby on the right at a Mop Fair,'Eckington

The rain water spout in the clue picture can be found on a house on Southgate, Eckington.

It is one of three on the house and these stone spouts do give a clue to their great age as all three carved items each have a coat of arms on them.

If they were placed here at some time in the past, just where did they come from?

They appear to be medieval and to have a family’s armorial on them means they came from some important building in the area that’s been lost.

This little township has a plethora of 17th, 18th and 19th century buildings, with timber lintels still showing.

In December 2008, 10 Roman coins were found near Eckington Cemetery.

These few coins give a clue that there was a Roman settlement in the area.

They date from Emperor Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian – and this settlement may have been the birth of the Eckington we know today.

In the reign of King Ethelred (865-871), the Manor of Eckington was given by Wulfric Sprott to Burton Abbey.

Wulfric Road on the Manor Estate was named after the generous benefactor.

In 1086, Eckington is recorded in the Domesday Book as “Echintune” – a manor gifted to Ralph Fitzhubert.

The parish church of St Peter and St Paul is a typical country church and parts of it go back to 1100.

Once again, the Sitwell family are connected to Eckington. George Sitwell, son of George and Mary, was baptised in Eckington in 1601.

George’s father died while he was a child but as an adult he acquired the freehold of land in Eckington and exploited it by mining iron ore.

In 1625, he built Renishaw Hall which is now owned by Sir Reresby Sitwell’s daughter, Alexandra and her family.

Sitwell exploited the minerals beneath his estate, chiefly iron and built a blast furnace at Plumbley a mile north west of Eckington in the 1630s with his mother’s second husband, Henry Wigfall.

In 1652, Sitwell built a furnace at Foxbrooke, close to Renishaw, which became the core of the largest ironworks in Derbyshire.

Sitwell made saws at Pleasley and in 1656, installed a rolling and slitting mill at Renishaw to supply the rod iron used by numerous local nailmakers.

During the Industrial Revolution, coal and iron ore were mined and local streams, such as the Moss Brook, were harnessed to provide power for factories.

The Sitwells built a large foundry and ironworks.

Scythes, sickles and nails were made in the town for local use and for export.

The Moss Brook was dammed to provide water power at eight sites including Chapel Wheel, Carlton Wheel and Fields Wheel, to grind the blades.

The remains of an old forge and drift mines exist in the valley.

Eckington had a coal mine in the eastern part of the township.

Around the Ridings of Yorkshire and Derbyshire, annual hiring fairs were held during Martinmas week at the end of November.

These were in the market towns of Yorkshire in places like Beverley, Bridlington, Driffield, Hedon, Hornsea, Howden, Hull, Malton, Patrington, Pocklington and York.

Both male and female agricultural servants would gather in order to bargain with prospective employers and hopefully secure a position for the coming year.

Hiring fairs were also called statute, or mop fairs.

They date from the time of Edward III, and his attempt to regulate the labour market by the Statute of Labourers in 1351 at a time of a serious national shortage of labour after the Black Death.

Subsequent legislation, in particular the Statute of Apprentices of 1563, legislated for a particular day when the high constables of the shire would proclaim the stipulated rates of pay and conditions of employment for the following year.

Because so many people gathered at a fair, it quickly turned into the major place for matching workers and employers.

The yearly hiring included board and lodging for single employees for the whole year with wages being paid at the end of the year’s service.

These fairs attracted all the other trappings of a fair, and they turned into major feasts in their own right, and attracted poor reputations for the drunkenness and immorality involved.

Later, when wage rates and conditions were no longer officially set, the hiring fair remained a useful institution, especially as much employment in rural areas was by annual agreement.

Prospective workers would gather in the street or market place, often sporting some sort of badge or tool to denote their speciality.

Shepherds held a crook or a tuft of wool, cowmen brought wisps of straw, dairy-maids carried a milking stool or pail and housemaids held brooms or mops – this is why some hiring fairs were known as mop fairs.

Employers would look them over and, if they were thought fit, hire them for the coming year, handing over a shilling to seal the arrangement.

My two mop head friends Mr Dawson and Mr Sorsby always wore a string of turnips around their necks – they didn’t always gain employment but the turnips did.

These Mop Fairs continued into the 20th century but by the onset of WW1 they eventually ceased.

They are still held in certain parts of the country – but only as a reminder of what was in some cases a humiliating experience.

If you ever get the chance, watch Brother To The Ox. Its the life of a teenage Yorkshire farm boy who had to go to work at 13 and a harrowing tale of what children had to endure.