No one knows where Goose Fair got its name. Legend has it that it comes from the hundreds of geese which were at one time driven from Lincolnshire and Norfolk to be sold in Nottingham. This may seem far fetched but it could well be true because the fair is held at the time of year when geese are in their prime and roast goose was for centuries a traditional Michaelmas treat.
Goose Fair was first mentioned in the Nottingham Borough Records of 1541. There, in the Chamberlain’s accounts, is a reference to an allowance of 1s 10d for 22 stalls taken by the city’s two Sheriffs on Goose Fair Day.
In the following year, the Steward of The Willoughby family at nearby Wollaton entered in his books an item of eight pence for the purchase of two pairs of traces at Goose Fair.
No one knows how many centuries the fair existed before these references were made. The Charter of King Edward I, the first charter to refer to the city fairs, makes it clear that a fair on the Feast of St. Matthew was already established in Nottingham in 1284. It is possible this occasion has come down through the ages to be today’s Goose Fair particularly as, until 1752, it was always held on St. Matthew’s Day (September 21).
The Danes had a settlement in Nottingham and it is very likely they established a market. As markets and fairs are known to have common origins, they may well have also held a fair. So, it is just possible that Goose Fair could have its roots in an event which occurred more than a thousand years ago.
When the calendar was revised in 1752, omitting 11 days from September, the date of Goose Fair was switched to October 2 and this remained the starting date until 1875.
The year of the calendar change was one of the few occasions Goose Fair was not held. The plague caused another cancellation in 1646 and it was put on ice during the two World Wars this century.
Like all other fairs, the original purpose of Nottingham’s autumn fair was trade and for many years it enjoyed a reputation for, of all things, its cheese! However, every fair contained some element of merry‑making and it is very likely that from a very early date there were shows to amuse the crowds.
During the nineteenth century, the character of Goose Fair changed considerably. With the coming of the railways, transport became easier and people no longer had to stock up with goods in the autumn against the risk of isolation during the dark days of winter.
Distribution and retailing also improved with shops stocking items all the year round which previously had only been available once a year from travelling merchants at fairs.
Gradually, more and more Nottingham folk began to look upon Goose Fair as just an excuse for a good time. However, Merry‑Go‑Rounds, referred to in a description of Bartholomew Fair in 1729, did not make an appearance in Nottingham until a hundred years later when they were promptly banned by the Town Council!
Some people also began to question the need to continue Goose Fair, they considered in particular that eight days was much too long for what had become a largely pleasure festival. So, in 1876 it was reduced to five days and, four years later, to three.
However, these changes coincided with the introduction of more sophisticated roundabouts and amusement devices. Steam and later on electricity played an enormous part in their development.
By the turn of the century Goose Fair was already well on its way to becoming something of a national institution.
For centuries, Goose Fair was held in the heart of the city on the Great Market Place in front of the Exchange. It gradually spread to other streets in the vicinity and, with the growth of traffic, there were complaints about congestion and disruption to the day to day life of the city.
However, all suggestions that it should be restricted even further or moved to a new site were rejected until the 1920s when the City Council decided to replace the Exchange and the Shambles to the rear with a new civic building, the Council House, and shops.
More important, at least so far as the future of the fair was concerned, the civic authorities also thought the existing market place provided an inappropriate setting for such a grand new building.
So, the area was re designed and in the new scheme of things there was no place for Goose Fair. Despite a public outcry, the Council stood firm and a new site was found.
Further Information (click the title to go to the page)
A description of Goose Fair in the Old Market Square in 1896, taken from the memoirs of Mr G. C. A. Austin, Nottingham’s Clerk of the Markets from 1907 to 1944.
These dates are all taken from my ‘Events and dates in Nottingham’s history’ pages.