Princetown Fair, Markets, and Carnival
It's difficult for us now, in the days of supermarkets that will take your order over the Internet and deliver your groceries direct to your door, to understand how important markets and fairs were to our ancestors. These events were vital both economically and socially for a community that was isolated in ways that we cannot begin to imagine nowadays. Over the centuries there have been a several fairs and markets in the Princetown area. The earliest one of which we are aware of was the so-called plague market. At the time when plague was sweeping through the Tavistock area in the 17th century, goods were left on the stones of the ancient settlements at Merrivale by the inhabitants of the scattered moorland farms, with the townspeople leaving money in return. However, as with so much else of Princetown's history, it was with the arrival of the Prisoner of War prison that markets really became established. The arrival of several thousand prisoners opened up what was literally a captive market for local tradespeople. The weekly market being held within the walls of the prison itself allowed the exchange of local goods in return for handicrafts manufactured by the prisoners out of the only materials they had at hand such as discarded animal bones and straw. It is interesting to think that the magnificent examples of handmade models of French men-of-war seen now in museums were probable traded in return for everyday goods at these markets. There was some disquiet at some points from local tradespeople such as hatmakers, who were less than happy to see the large numbers of straw bonnets produced by the prisoners being sold at prices that they could not possibly hope to match. As Princetown continued to grow with arrival of more prisoners and guards to look after them, another market was started outside the prison for the civilian population. This was held on the site of what is now the Family Centre in Tor Royal lane. The last remnants of this market were swept away when the site was re-developed as Princetown Wesleyan Chapel in 1880. No records have come down to us as to whether there was a dedicated, once a year, fair event during this period. It does, however, seem unlikely that there was no annual celebration and holiday being celebrated during the early part of the 19th century.
The earliest definite records of a dedicated fair happening come from the middle part of the 19th century. At this time, Princetown was coming back into life after a long period of decline. After the end of the wars between Britain, France, and America, Dartmoor Prison ceased to be a major economic force in the area. Apart from a brief boom of quarrying in the 1840s in the Walkhampton Common quarries, there was relatively little activity in Princetown of any kind. The population that had swelled the markets earlier in the century had dwindled away to very low numbers. With the period of transportation of convicted prisoners coming to an end it was decided to re-open Dartmoor Prison as a convict prison. Princetown's population started to grow and become a thriving community. With this growth an annual fair became a viable proposition.
Princetown did not have a monopoly on fairs in the area. As early as 1850 it is recorded that Two Bridges had it's own fair as well, taking place on the first Thursday after the 2nd of August, a couple of weeks before Princetown's Fair on the 23rd. Two Bridges Fair included events such as horse races making it likely that it was held between the Two Bridges Hotel (then known as the Saracen's Head) and Prince Hall. By 1880 the fair at Two Bridges was reported to be much in decline, and though it was still noted as taking place as late as 1890, it's unlikely that it continued much beyond this date. In all likelihood Two Bridges fair declined because of the success of the fair at Princetown which had received a boost once again from the Prison, in particular from the Prison Farm.
Though the fairs at Princetown and Two Bridges were days set aside for entertainment, the farming community took advantage of them to sell their cattle and produce at the same event. From the earliest days of Dartmoor Prison being re-opened, it was always intended that the Prison should be to a certain extent self-sufficient. With the help of convict labour the area around the prison was developed into a farm, and an annual sale was started. It made obvious economic sense to combine the annual sale of Prison cattle and Princetown's own fair and market. By 1882, even before the opening of the Princetown railway branch line, the annual sale of cattle and produce was proving to be a big draw to the village. The cattle sale held at the Prison that year on the 6th of September drew a crowd of a thousand people. Among the items for sale, Mr. Chowen (of the Tavistock firm of auctioneers Ward and Chowen) sold 2,400 lbs of wool at 7d. ( about 3 ½p!) a pound. Dartmoor rams, which along with ponies were a speciality of Princetown fairs, cost between £4 and £6 5s. 6d (£6.27). In addition to the sheep, discriminating buyers could also purchase cattle, pigs, horses and ponies.
In 1883 Princetown's branch railway line was opened up from Horrabridge and it was hoped that Princetown would be looking forward to a bright future. A newspaper reporter at Princetown's fair of 1884, held on September the 3rd, seems somewhat less than overwhelmed with the fair that year though. After arriving on a train with 280 other people - “ Those who had never before been initiated into the mysteries of Princetown fair probably anticipated a rather more animated sight than that which presented itself. There was a marked absence of such sources of amusement as steam circuses, swinging boats, and even shooting galleries. A few stalls at which miscellaneous wares were vended, secured a fair amount of patronage among the young people” The animals for sale seemed not to be to the writers liking either - “ It was the subject of general comment, however, that none of the rams came up to what had been shown on many similar occasions. The prices ranged from 50s. to £7 a head. A great many of the unfortunate creatures were purchased by butchers. Whether they will make particularly tender dishes we should not like to say.” Of course, Princetowns' climate lived up to its usual reputation with the rain coming down in torrents just after the main sale commenced. To cap off what seems to have been a pretty miserable day for the attendees another dispiriting event took place when they returned to Horrabridge - “Those who returned by the 6.15 train from Princetown for Tavistock, and they were not a few, had to wait on the up platform for more than an hour, for the arrival of the next South-Western train, the Great Western executive having, with that consideration for the comfort of the public for which they are so conspicuous, allowed their train to proceed to Tavistock without waiting for the Princetown train. It was no fun, after standing on the wet grass all the afternoon, to have to loiter about a railway platform for such a length of time on a wet, chilly evening, and much indignation was expressed at the delay.”
In the following years the fair and market continued to go from strength to strength. By 1898 it was reported that 1,200 people had booked train train tickets for Princetown Fair which was to be held on the 7th of August. It was estimated that roughly the same number had travelled by other means to get to the village as well. A re-opening of the Welsh coal-mines had recently taken place and there was a strong demand for hardy Dartmoor ponies. Local businesses such as Bolt's and the Princetown Co-operative Society were paying between 35s. (£1.75) and 44s. 6d. (£2.23) for locally bred sheep (it's evident why the concept of “food miles” wasn't really much of a concern in those days). Horses tended to travel a much greater distance once sold, one being purchased by Mr. Duke of Cuckfield in Surrey for 21 ½ guineas (£22.58) and another going to Reading at a price of 20 ½ guineas (£21.52).
Princetown's fair would continue to be held for another fifty-odd years, until the closure of the railway line in 1956. It remained, up until the end, more of a working fair than a day of revelry and excitement. Perhaps the fact that during the 19th century the date of the fair changed from year to year indicated that it was held more out for necessity than out of any sense of tradition.
Nowadays the railway line that brought buyers to the village and took their purchases away is slipping into distant memory. The site of the cattle pens adjacent to the railway station has disappeared under the foundations of Princetown's brewery. However, after a period of discontinuation it is hoped that Princetown Carnival will once again take place in the years from 2018 onwards.