Hiring Fairs

...so we came to Lullingford and found the Hiring Fair just beginning.

The long row of young folks, and some not so young, who were there to be hired, began near our stall. Each one carried the sign of his trade or hers. A cook had a big wooden spoon, and if the young fellows were too gallus she'd smack them over the head with the flat of it. Men that went with teams had whips, hedgers a brummock, gardeners a spade. Cowmen carried a bright tin pail, thatchers a bundle of straw. A blacksmith wore a horseshoe in his hat, and there were a tuthree of them, for a few big farms would club together and hire a blacksmith by the year. Shepherds had a crook and bailiffs a lanthorn, to show how late they'd be out and about after robbers...

There were tailors and weavers, wool carders and cobblers, too, for the farmers clubbed together for them also. The carders had a hank of coloured wool, and tailors made a great game running up and down the line of young women and threatening to cut their petticoats short.

Jancis laughed with the rest, but I could see she'd been crying. She looked a real picture in her print gown and bonnet, with the dairymaid's milking stool. They were a tidy set of young women, the housemaids with broom on shoulder, the laundrymaids with dollies...

--Precious Bane by Mary Webb, Book Three, Chapter One "The Hiring Fair"

Mary Webb's description of a hiring fair certainly presents a far more lively and immediate selection of workers than the impersonal type of a newspaper classified ad. Hiring fairs occurred twice a year in the spring and fall and were the main source of workers. In fact, in Pride and Prejudice Mr. Bingley arrives at Netherfield by Michaelmas. He has come for the hunting season, but why did he wait until September when grouse season began on August 12th? The most likely answer is that it would be easy for him to obtain extra servants at the Hiring Fairs held at Michaelmas. The fall Hiring Fairs were such a well know fact of daily life when Jane Austen wrote her novels that she does not offer any explanation for the timing of the arrival.

The workers participating in a Hiring Fair stood in a row wearing or holding a symbol of their trade. When they were selected by an employer, an agreement was reached and papers binding the worker for a specific period of time and spelled out the terms of the agreement were signed. The term of employment varied from six months to three years. Wages varied with the skill, gender, and age of the servant.

The novels Precious Bane by Mary Webb and Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy both contain descriptions of a Hiring Fair.

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