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Stratford-upon-Avon mop: fun for all ages, through the ages

To mark the Stratford mop, Sofia Wood explores its colourful history.

Sofia Wood
Mop fair, 1911
Mop fair, 1911 (DR 641/1/8)

As an outsider to Stratford-upon-Avon (and this local area in general) I had little idea of what a Mop would be. The first thing that struck me when I began researching the Mop is that it is an annual funfair, with rides and a variety of stalls sprawling out through the streets of the town. This year it is being held on the 11 and 12 of October.

On further reading, though, I discovered exactly what the Mop is, and why and when it began. Traditionally, a Mop Fair was a lot like a jobs fair rather than simply a funfair. Their purpose was to allow workers to meet employers at the end of their working year (which was October to October) in order to secure employment for the next year. These prospective employees would attend a Mop Fair in their best clothes and carrying an item which would signify their trade. If a person happened to have no particular trade skills, though, such as a servant, they would carry a mop - hence came the phrase ‘Mop Fair’. If a person successfully found work, the employer would give their new employee a small token of money, which they could then spend at the fair, buying food with it or playing one of the many games offered at the stalls. The employee would also then remove their symbol of their trade and replace it with a brightly coloured ribbon to show that they had found work. Anyone that was unsuccessful could attend the Runaway Mop a week later, and try to find employment there.

The dates on which a Mop is held are also subject to tradition, as rather than being tied to the calendar, the fair instead is connected to the seasons and the harvest. It was customarily held on Michaelmas Day (the end of the harvest) on 29 September, however once the Gregorian Calendar was adopted in 1752 and 11 days dropped from the year, events associated with the end of the harvest moved 11 days later to around 10 October. This is now, and since 1752, when Mop Fairs are held.

Although Mops were at one point countrywide and quite commonplace, the Stratford-upon-Avon Mop was started in the reign of Edward III (14th Century King), and was first granted a royal charter by Edward VI in 1553, with further charters granted by James I in 1611 and Charles II in 1676. The latter of these provided that Mop Fairs should be held “…within and through all places, streets, lanes, alleys and fields in the said Borough (Stratford-upon-Avon).”

As it is such an old affair to hold the Mop in this town, it is only natural that much change has come to the Stratford Mop, it being more of a funfair than a jobs fair these days. However, some things have remained…

Mop fair, circa 1905 (SC 67/13)
Ox Roast, Rother Market, 1905 (SC67/13)

A well-known feature of the Stratford Mop is the amazing roasts that occur in the streets across the town, of both pig and ox, this delicious tradition can be seen in the photo above.

Mop fair, 1933 (DR 641/1/59)
A woman enjoying the Carousel, 1933 (DR641/1/59)

The fun part of the fair has been continual too, the picture above shows the people of Stratford enjoying this classic funfair favourite over the decades.

Change is also a constant at this fair. Although the Stratford Mop has stayed loyal to the old classics, new, innovative rides were gracing the streets of Stratford. The below photo shows this with a roundabout of racing cars rather than the horses of a traditional carousel. 

Mop fair, racing cars, 1920 (DR 641/1/30)
Mop fair, racing cars, 1920 (DR 641/1/3)

Even though the main objective of the Mop in Stratford is really to be a funfair now, with many other Mops across England having died out, to me it seems like a wonderful way for the community (and visitors) to get together and celebrate the town’s heritage in a way that isn’t Shakespeare (as great as he is). This strikes me as special that we are able to be part of something that stretched so far back in time and has been enjoyed by so many people.

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