11 November: Martinmas


‘It is the day of Martlemas
Cupps of ale should freely pass
What though the winter has begun
To push down the summer sun.
To our fire we can betake
And enjoy the crackling brake
Never heeding the winter’s face
On the day of Martlemas’

Traditional Song

Martinmas is the feast of St Martin of Tours – just a little fact about him – as a Roman Soldier he gave half his cloak to a beggar and later dreamt that Jesus had claimed ‘He hath clad Me’. The cloak became a famous mediaeval relic and in its latin translation of ‘capella’ gives rise to both the words ‘chaplain’ and ‘chapel’.

In the agricultural year there were a number of dates – varying from region to region, when hiring fairs were held and Martinmas was one of these dates, particularly in the East and North Ridings of Yorkshire. It’s not a good time of year to be travelling, but there is a hiatus in the farming calendar after sowing so it is a good time to be changing ones situation.


‘Those servants who are hired under this system are bound legally to their masters for one year. When the farmer engages a servant he gives him what is variously called his fest, Gods-penny, or arles, which is a small sum of money varying from about two to ten shillings; if the fest be returned before the appointed day the servant is freed from the engagement, but if the money is retained the agreement is then binding. These statute hirings were, and still are, held at the same time of the year in all the principal market towns…..’

(from ‘Yorkshire Folk Talk’ by Marmaduke C.F. Morris 1892)

You may remember the scene in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ where Gabriel Oak having lost his herd of sheep has to hire himself out at a hiring fair. Servants identified their trades by a symbol such as a mop or a wisp of straw in their buttonhole and stood in the street waiting to have an employer approach them. It must have been very difficult especially as most farm servants at least up to the middle of the nineteenth century lived in. Imagine being a gauche youngster and wondering whether to take the first offer that came along or waiting for a better one later in the day. At least the system of fest money mentioned above gave you some scope for withdrawing, if a better place - or ‘spot’ as they were called in Yorkshire, came along.


The hiring fairs (the photo is of Burford) were a time when lots of young people had money in their pockets – most of them would have just been paid their annual salary all in one go. So hiring fairs offered lots of scope for spending and having fun. Here’s the rather disapproving Rev. Morris again:

‘Boys and girls, lads and lasses, men and women were crowded together in the parlours and passages of the inns in a state of wild excitement, uproar, and confusion. Music, if such it could be called, and dancing went on merrily; coarse jests were freely indulged in…. It was like pandemonium let loose. All this naturally tended to demoralise the young people, and the results can be better imagined than described. It was only to be expected indeed that after a year's work and drudgery there should be some relaxation…and it was right that these hard-working farm-servants should have their enjoyment like anyone else; the only melancholy part about it was that it did not take a less debasing form.

Oh dear.

The farmers who hired these servants would also be well off financially at this time of year – harvest has been gathered in and sold and beasts have also gone to slaughter, so there is a lot of meat about in November and at Martinmas it's beef that is traditional. The inns and alehouses around the hiring fairs would have offered hearty meaty food as well as drink, so I’ve made a joint of spiced beef. You can make this with a dry marinade and keep it it for up to a week– or you can do a quick wet three day version as I did. It’s a delicious way of cooking one of the cheaper cuts such as brisket or topside.

Martinmas Spiced Beef

About 3lb of rolled brisket
A spice mix of ginger, mace, nutmeg, cloves and pepper – I made up a generous tablespoonful, a bayleaf.
½ pint dry white wine
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Marinade the beef in the rest of the ingredients. A freezer bag is really useful for this sort of thing. I marinaded mine for 3 days. Then put everything in a heavy lidded pan and season. Seal the pan well with an extra layer of foil under the lid.

Cook at 140c for 3-4 hours. Leave to rest. I reduced the sauce, tasted it and added a spoonful of thyme jelly – it’s quite a sharp sauce so something sweet is good. This was lovely hot and even better cold when the gentle spiciness really comes through.

'I went down to the hiring fair for to sell my labour,
And I noticed a maid in the very next row and I hoped she'd be my neighbour.
Imagine then my delight when the farmer picked us both.
I spoke not a word in the cart to the farm, but my heart beat in my throat.'

'The Girl from the Hiring Fair' by Ralph McTell b 1944

NB For those who are wondering, the new picture at the top is 'Guns firing on Metemma' by Edward Bawden (1903-1989)

3 comments:

thingshelenlikes said...

I was just reading about the Carlisle hiring fairs in that book about the Carr family, and wondered if you'd mention them!

Choclette said...

Now when, I wonder, did the hiring fair's stop?

Liz said...

I think in the 1920s, changes in employment legislation made them unnecessary and I guess like lots of things WW1 played a part...