The Nottingham Goose Fair was such a disappointment. Instead of meeting ancestral ghosts among flocks of dusty geese, I gazed at plastic toys and creepy joy rides.
In 1893, William Stevenson also bemoaned the passing of the fair’s original character which “is lost in the obscurity of time.” The Goose Fair was first mentioned in 1284, says Stevenson in his Bygone Nottinghamshire. Since then, the feet of itinerant peddlers have become echoes heard only in court proceedings against one or other petty crime. In 1764, a riot broke out at the fair over the high price of cheese.
A cheese riot would have been fun to witness. I wanted to see the fair as my Nottinghamshire ancestors had, with all the squalor and cacophony of hundreds of geese force-marched to the town for sale. I wanted to feel the excitement of farm boys who anticipated the end-of-summer diversion for weeks before they herded the geese to fair. The only leftover memory from those days, that I could see, were the dishes of mushy peas clutched in the chilly hands of fairgoers who ambled among the sanitized stalls.
Bygone Nottinghamshire was written a decade after my great grandfather emigrated. William Stevenson knew that he had to capture what was left of the region’s memories, and hurriedly, before my generation stood empty-handed at the fair, filled with the sense of things lost.
Stevenson wanted to show that Nottinghamshire was rich in ancient lore, and he wanted to leave behind a record of what was “beyond the reach of the ordinary student, in the dark recesses of our local history.” His passion to prove a point takes his readers from the creation of the shire to the intimacy of its people.
Henry de Whitby of Nottingham murdered his wife then sought sanctuary with the Whitefriars. John Towneshend, a mercer who lived in Redford-in-the-Clay, murdered Richard Wright and sought sanctuary among the monks at Beverley. Joan Phillips and Edward Bracey were not as lucky. They were executed in 1685 for highway robbery.
Stevenson’s book names the victims of pandemics, including the child of Robert and Jane Rotherham who were taken to court for resisting the removal of the corpse. He weaves his tale into the founding of New England then returns to Nottinghamshire to end with stories of its ancient inns and taverns, and the memory of forgotten ancestors.