hiring fairs

   Also called statute, or mop fairs, the ultimate origin of the hiring fair dates from the time of Edward III, with his attempt to regulate the labour market at a time of acute national shortage. Successive legislation (in particular the Statute of Apprentices of 1563) provided for a particular day when the high constables of the shire would proclaim the stipulated rates of pay and conditions of employment for the coming year. As so many people, employers and employees alike, gathered at this event, it quickly turned into the major place for matching workers and bosses. Even when rates and conditions were no longer officially set, the hiring fair was too useful an institution to be allowed to lapse, especially as much employment in rural areas was by the year. Prospective employees would gather in the street or square, often with some sort of badge or tool to denote their speciality - and employers would look them over and, if all was well, strike a bargain for the coming year, handing over a shilling (variously called earnest money, fest, God's penny, arles) to seal it.
   Obviously, such gatherings attracted all the other trappings and attractions of a real fair, and they turned into major festivals in their own right, and also attracted condemnation for the drunkenness and immorality involved. In some places, a few weeks after the hiring fair, there would be a smaller gathering or 'runaway mop' to sort out any anomalies. Hiring fairs continued in some places well into the 20th century, and even up to the Second World War (Murfin, 1990: 47-8). Hone, 1827: 86-9, 102; Stone, 1906: 10-11.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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