A Shirburnian’s eye view of the Pack Monday Fair – in poetry, prose and pictures.

Traditionally, the Pack Monday Fair is held in Sherborne on the first Monday after old Michaelmas Day (11 October).  The origins of the fair have been lost in the passage of time, but it probably began as a Michaelmas Fair when farmers came to town to hire or to make ‘pacts’ with farm hands at what was the beginning of the agricultural year.  In his novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (published in 1874), Thomas Hardy described a similar scene when Gabriel Oak stands ‘for hire’ at Casterbridge (Dorchester) fair.  The night before the Pack Monday Fair, ‘Teddy Roe’s Band’ process through the streets blowing horns and banging drums.  It is believed that this commemorates the completion of the Abbey nave by Abbot Ramsam (c.1490) when the workmen marched around the streets banging their tools.

Sherborne Abbey by John Buckler, c.1803.

Pack Monday Fair has long held a fascination for boys at Sherborne School.  In 1904, Geoffrey Lunt (School House 1899-1905, and later Bishop of Salisbury) described the fair as ‘the very spark of light to sleepy Sherborne’.  The earliest reference to boys from the School attending the fair is found in a diary written in 1794 by Richard Bellamy.  Bellamy had attended Sherborne School and in 1792 was articled to Peter Batson, a Sherborne solicitor and for many years a Governor of the School.  In his diary, Bellamy describes attending an evening performance at the Swan during the Pack Monday Fair:

‘In the evening about 7 o’clock I went to the Swan and saw Sieur Richards the Showman [Sieur Richard’s Company of Performers] perform all sorts of conjuration – a great number of people attended this grand exhibition, a large number of gentlemen and ladies, and all Mr Cutler’s schoolboys [John Cutler was Headmaster of Sherborne School 1790-1823].  This Richards performed all sorts of conjuration with the Cards, Cups and Balls and other different things which he did quite clever; he also imitated different kinds of birds.  And at the same place we saw a little double jointed woman, being about 3 feet tall and remarkably strong, this was an American woman.  This exhibition lasted about two hours in the whole, and we saw all of it for 6d each, which was very well worth the money.’

The horse fair on The Green, viewed from The Old Green, n.d.

Attendance at the fair was not then frowned upon by the School authorities, and by the early 1800s, the boys were actually granted three days holiday to attend the fair.  In November 1859, a poem by ‘F.E.’ celebrating the fair was published in The Shirburnian:

‘You must run, you must go, if you’re fond of fun and foolery,
All the world and cousins are sure to be there,
Never stop, quickly-hop, a pin for prudish schoolery,
Such a centre of attraction is “Pack-Monday” Fair.’

‘F.E.’ goes on to describe the town during the fair: Cheap Street is crowded with country people; the Parade set up with stalls selling firecrackers, gingerbread and walnuts; and in Half Moon Street fairground attractions, including ‘The Fat Woman from Yorkshire’, ‘The Pig with Two Heads’ and ‘The Smallest Man in the World’, with swings and stalls, and a ‘Quack’ selling pills and powders with which he claims to have cured many people in the town of various diseases; and at the top of town a small horse fair, though he is doubtful that any of the horses ‘would so far tickle the fancy of a Lincolnshire breeder as to induce him even to ask the price’.

Pack Monday in 1869 (11 October) saw the official opening of the Digby Hotel in the newly constructed Digby Road.  The hotel and stables were built by George Digby Wingfield Digby, founder of the Blackmore Vale Hunt, to cater for passengers arriving on the newly-opened railway (1860) and visiting huntsmen.  It features as ‘The Earl of Wessex’ in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887), as ‘The Lovelace Hotel’ in John Cowper Powys’s Wolf Solent (1929) and ‘The Sawley Arms’ in John le Carré’s A Murder of Quality (1962).  The hotel closed in June 1962 and the freehold was purchased by Sherborne School who converted it into a school boarding house and reopened it on 10 October 1964 as The Digby.

Digby Hotel luggage label.

In a short-lived local newspaper, The Abbot of Sherborne, a master at Sherborne School wrote in October 1886 an amusing account of the Pack Monday Fair from the viewpoint of an intelligent stranger who had arrived at the town knowing nothing about the fair.  Having settled down for a quiet night’s sleep in his room overlooking the Parade, our stranger is woken in the middle of the night by the sound of ‘horns, bells, whistles, strange cries, moans, and the tramp of feet’.  He leaps from his bed to view from his window the ‘ghastly crowd of nondescript figures’ assembled on the Parade: ‘one man leads the horrible procession, walking backwards, and in a grotesque manner beating a kind of time; his followers bang kettles, trays, frying pans, anything that will make a noise, some have bells which they gangle erratically, and all blow those dismal horns.  Yes, and there are women amongst them, horrible formless creatures dancing along with a rhythmic swing unspeakably terrifying.  And in their midst, solemn and impassive, a majestic policeman strides with the regulation tramp’.  Finally, the stranger gets back to sleep but is woken again, this time by the sound of hammering and voices outside his window, followed by the gallop of horses, the roaring of bulls and the patter of millions of sheep.  He comes down to breakfast the next morning ‘a haggard unshaven corpse-eyed ghost of his former self.  His fat host smilingly hands him a gigantic helping of bacon and eggs, and his hostess, beamingly passing him a cup of coffee which is all grounds, hopes the noise did not disturb him!’

Original dust jacket design for The Loom of Youth (1917).

By the 1900s it had become an offence for boys from Sherborne School to attend the fair, with the result that some disregarded the rules and stole out of School.  In October 1913, the fifteen-year-old Alec Waugh, then a pupil at Sherborne School (School House 1911-1915), sneaked out of School in the night to attend the fair.  Alec’s account of this episode appeared in his first novel, The Loom of Youthwhich he later described as his ‘love letter to Sherborne’.  However, when the novel was published by Grant Richards on 19 July 1917 it caused a great controversy at Sherborne School, with the result that Alec and his father resigned from the Old Shirburnian Society (they were not reinstated until 1933) and Alec’s brother Evelyn Waugh was sent to Lancing College rather than Sherborne School.  The book was banned at Sherborne and at many other schools, although when John Le Mesurier arrived at Sherborne School in 1926 he noted that everyone seemed to have a copy.  In the chapter ‘Carnival’ in The Loom of Youth, Alec describes attending the fair:

‘They stole down the silent cloisters, echoing shadows leered at them.  The wall of the V.A. green rose dark and sinister.  At last breathless among the tombstones by the Abbey they slipped on their boots, turned up coat collars and drew their caps over their eyes.  A minute later the glaring lights of the booths in Cheap Street engulfed them.  They were jostled in the crowd.  It was, after all, only Hampstead Heath on a small scale… Gordon and Rudd did not stop long in Cheap Street.  The real business was in the fair fields by Roger’s house [The Green].  This was only the outskirts.  The next hour passed in a dream.  Lights flared, rifles snapped at fugitive ping-pong balls leaping on cascades of water, swing-boats rose heavenwards, merry-go-rounds banged out rag-time choruses.  Gordon let himself go. He and Rudd tried everything.  After wasting half-a-crown on the cocoanuts, Rudd captured first go at the darts a wonderful vase decorated with the gilt legend, “A Present from Fernhurst,” and Gordon at the rifle range won a beautiful china shepherdess which held for days the admiration of the School House.’

The Fair Field on the corner of the Bristol Road and Coldharbour, viewed from The Old Green, n.d.

It is hardly surprising that having read Alec Waugh’s description of the Pack Monday Fair in The Loom of Youth, that in the late 1920s John Le Mesurier (Lyon House 1926-1930, later played Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army) crept out of his dormitory at Lyon House to attend the fair.  He recalled in 1975 that this was one of his happy memories of Sherborne, but that his adventure had ended unhappily when on his return to house he was ‘whacked’ by the housemaster.

John Le Mesurier at Sherborne School in 1928.

For many generations of boys at Sherborne School the Pack Monday Fair has been viewed as a day of excitement and danger.  The impact it had on the boys’ imaginations is revealed in a poem written in 1944 by Robert Dalzell Dillon Thomas (1922-1944) while stationed with the Grenadier Guards in Italy.  Robert had been a pupil at Sherborne School (Abbey House) from 1936 to 1941 and was the son of Meredith and Rachel Thomas who lived at the Manor House, Newland, Sherborne (now the offices of the Town Council). Robert was killed in action near the River Arno in Tuscany in August 1944 and later his parents privately published his poems in The Notebook of a Lieutenant in the Italian Campaign.  Included in the collection is Robert’s poem ‘Pack Monday Fair’ written in a vineyard in the Arno Valley, Tuscany:

Robert Thomas (1922-1944).

‘Come Hallowmas when trees are bare
With one accord the folks repair
To see the sights of pack-Monday fair
Over to Sherborne town.

Hawkers, hucksters, gypsies, quacks
Bowed by the weight of their bulging packs
Riding nags and bony hacks
Flock to the town for the fair.

There be plenty of money about to-day
For them as know, the tricks to play
And crooked or straight they’ll find a way
Their purses to fill at the fair.

There are gas-lit stalls in the narrow streets
Where a penny can buy the rarest treats
Candy and nougat and sickly sweets
To tempt the kids at the fair.

There are merry-go-rounds with their dazzling light
And music playing half the night
And brawling for them as wants a fight
And plenty of drink in the pubs.

Here the horse thief’s fortune’s made
Here pedlars of every grade
Ply a brisk and roaring trade
Selling their wares at the fair.

Three nights and days the gypsies stay
Then they quietly fade away
Whither going, who can say?
And silence comes to the town.’

In 1965-1966, David Hardiman, a pupil at Sherborne School, made an amateur film of a year at Sherborne School that includes footage of the Pack Monday Fair in October 1965: ‘A Year at Sherborne, 1965-1966’ (YouTube).

Rachel Hassall
School Archivist

For further information:
John Fowler, Mediaeval Sherborne (1951)
J.H.P. Gibb, The Book of Sherborne (1981)
Gerald Pitman, Sherborne Observed (1983)
Rodney Legg, Sherborne & Castleton: Abbey, Town and School (2004)
Sherborne Museum

For further information about the Sherborne School Archives please contact the School Archivist.

Return to the School Archives homepage.