Charlton and The Horn Fair

Charlton was originally known as Ceorletone , i.e. the town of husbandmen; ceorl in Saxon meaning a “husbandman” or “churl” as it was termed in Old English. Also it was referred to as “Charlton near Greenwich” to distinguish it from another parish of the same name near Dover.

After the Conquest, these lands were granted by William I to his half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux. The entry in the Domesday Book reads:

William Fitzoger holds of the bishop (of Baieus) Cerletone. It was taxed at one suling. The arable land is 5 carucates. In demesne there is 1 carucate and 13 villeins having 3 carucates. There are 2 servants and 8 acres of meadow. There is wood for the pannage of 5 hogs. In the time of King Edward the Confessor, and afterwards, it was, and now is worth 7 pounds. Two brothers, Goduin and Alward, held this land of the king for two manors.

Edward Hasted wrote in 1797 that Charlton was a well-built village with many fine houses interspersed throughout it. Bounding the north-west at the extremity of this parish were marshes (the Thames). The village was situated on the upland, almost in the in the centre of it, with the church at the east end. Just beyond was the coppice known as “Hanging Wood”. In the road to Woolwich, and at a short distance southward was Charlton Common. This joined the high London Road to Shooters Hill, on the other side of which (further southward) was the hamlet of Kidbrook.

A market (granted by King Henry III to the priory of Bermondsey) was held each Monday. A fair was held annually on St Luke’s Day (18th October) and known as “Horn Fair” at which were sold rams horns and all number of toys made of horn. According to Edward Hasted’s account it was a riotous mob that dispersed through several towns and the countryside round about. Everyone met at Cuckold’s Point near Deptford and marched from there in procession through Deptford and Greenwich to Charlton with horns of various kinds upon their heads. These processions were infamous for rudeness and indecency.

The story behind this tradition is that King John, who was out hunting one day entered a cottage here and was taken with the beauty of the mistress, who was alone. The husband returned suddenly, surprised them together, and consequently threatened to kill them both. The King was obliged to make himself known and gave the husband a purse of gold and a grant of land known as Cuckold’s Point. The husband was not only made master of that part of the hamlet, but in memory of this grant the fair was established for the sale of horns and all sorts of goods made of that material. A sermon was preached at Charlton church on the fair day.

The fair was banned by the Victorians for being too boozy and unsalubrious, although a pale shadow of the original was revived in 1973. It is held in Charlton House and its grounds in June each year. One aspect of the festival that hadn’t been revived until last year (2009) was a parade from Cuckold’s Point, Rotherhithe to Charlton.

Source of information:
Hasted, Edward. 1797. The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 1. Pp 420-441. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid53782. Date accessed 29 January 2010.

Below are the words of a song associated with the Horn Fair and to hear the music click here

As I was a-walking one fine summer morn,
So soft was the wind and the waves on the corn.
I met a pretty damsel upon a grey mare,
And she was a-riding upon a grey mare.

Now take me up behind you fair maid for to ride,
Oh no and then, Oh no, for my mammy she would chide,
And then my dear old daddy would beat me full sore,
And never let me ride on his grey mare no more.

If you would see Horn Fair you must walk on your way,
I will not let you ride on my grey mare today,
You’d rumple all my muslin and uncurl my hair,
And leave me all distrest to be seen at Horn Fair.

O fairest of damsels, how can you say No?
With you I do intend to Horn Fair for to go,
We’ll join the best of company when we do get there,
With horns on their heads, boys, the finest at the Fair.

Source: http://www.folkinfo.org/songs/displaysong.php?songid=456 . Date accessed 29 January 2010.