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East Ilsley Sheep Fair



The sheep fairs & markets held at East Ilsley on the Berkshire Downs (SU 493892) were not “second only to Smithfield” in size and importance, as the small information plaque on the old Oxford to Chichester Road boasts1.  (See #1,2). 


However, a quarter of a million sheep changed hands annually there in the first half of the 19th Century.  The village was known as “Chipping Ilsley” in the Middle Ages, then as “Market Ilsley” in the mid-17th Century.  (Chipping from Anglo-Saxon cheap = buy, so a market place-name.)

 

The markets were held twice monthly, from April to October from 1620 till 1934 (#3), the sheep being held in pens all the way up the High Street, on both sides, from the Crown & Horns to St. Mary’s Church.  The sales were held in the field on the right in #1, where the two cars are parked.   At the market’s peak there were 12 pubs in the village.

 

At this point it may be useful to discuss the differences between Markets & Fairs.  Fairs were less frequent – there are seven plus a hiring fair2 advertised in the picture, but most towns had three or four a year; markets, however, were weekly or fortnightly. 

Also, Fairs were bigger & had more variety, entertainment and were much longer – some fairs lasted for two weeks, or until the last beasts were sold.  And at fairs, the buyer, not the seller – as was usual in markets – paid the charges and the auctioneer’s commission.  Drovers would have approved of this! 

 

According to Mr George Woodage, who remembers helping his father at the sales, two Scottish drovers used to start from (the Lowlands?) with 50 sheep; by the time they had reached East Ilsley, they had between two and three thousand.3 

 

And whither the wether after being bought at East Ilsley?  Their wool was made into cloth at Winchester & Newbury, but most of the animals were bought, according to Pigot’s Directory (1830), by graziers from Hertfordshire & Buckinghamshire, to fatten for the London market. 

 

The fairs were not interrupted by the advent of the railways: special trains arrived, 30-40 wagons long, at Compton, and the beasts were walked less than 2 miles to Ilsley.  It was road transport that killed the fair, in 1934.

 


1
  At Weyhill Fair near Andover a hundred thousand sheep could be traded in a single day.

(You can see the road on John Ogilby’s 1675 map of Britain’s roads.  The best way is via Dr Chris Mullen’s marvellous website www.fulltable.com  Click M on the homepage, click on ‘Maps Menu’, and Ogilby’s Britannia in 4th on the list.  Go to Plate 81 and you need the second strip from the left to find East Ilsley, described on the map as A great sheep market.) 

(In the left-hand strip on the same plate, 3 miles south of Abingdon, there is an Extraordinary durty lane.  It must have been like the Augean Stables to warrant that description in 1675.)

 

2 Where employers and would-be employees could meet.  

 

3 My thanks to Nigel Wardell for his splendid booklet “Far Famed for Sheep & Wool” for much of this information.  It is published by Sigma Books for the East Ilsley Local History Society, ISBN 1-905291-10-8.  The society’s website is www.eastilsleyhistory.com

East Ilsley Sheep Fair image 1
Old Oxford-Chichester Rd.
East Ilsley Sheep Fair image 2
Milestone opposite Fair
East Ilsley Sheep Fair image 3
Market & Fair Dates
East Ilsley Sheep Fair image 4
The Swan today
East Ilsley Sheep Fair image 5
Market Site