History – St. Mary Hill Fair

Although fist established back in medieval days, St Mary Hill Fair continued to draw huge crowds, particularly travellers and gypsies.

The main business of the fair was to trade horses, although there would be side shows and other wares for sale and at least 13 beer tents, for which each of the local public house landlords had to obtain a special licence. It was a boisterous, often disorderly affair, indeed many thought it to be one of the most dangerous places in the locality.

The Gypsies would come along in their caravans and park on the moors at Treoes, amongst other places no doubt. These were Romany Gypsies not just travellers. They would be most welcome as they were always spotlessly clean. It would be a pleasure to see their laundry drying on the gorse bushes. They traded with the villagers and spent their money in the local hostelries.

Natalie Llewelyn, who was born and still lives in Treoes, recalls a time around 1950 when she together with other village children would eat with them around the camp fire. She would be careful that her sandwiches were of jam as she knew well that they caught and roasted hedgehogs for making sandwiches and Natalie wanted none of that. Their caravans were the traditional horse drawn type immaculately clean and well decorated both inside and outside.  Colourful ornaments and fine bone china dishes adorned the shelves within the caravan.

Mr Chard, who was a wheelwright was always pleased to see the arrival of the Gypsies, particularly during the time of St Mary Hill Fair. They would come in their droves and were good for business. He repaired the wheels of their carts for them. His daughter Nancy Davidge tells of him being reproached by one of the local farmers who had to wait his turn because Mr Chard was busy with work from the Gypsies. His response to the reproachment was “they pay me on the nail – I have to wait a year for payment from you “

 People would come for miles around and from even further afield when the railways came to nearby Bridgend in 1831. It’s not surprising that locals would tell of the numerous visitors who for days after the fair came to the site looking for the money earned for deals made; money that was never taken home.

Arriving at Bridgend Railway station, there would be brakes plying for hire waiting on Station Hill. The brake would take its passengers via Llangrallo (Coychurch) and Treoes, to the foot of the hill leading to the fairground from where they would have to walk through the fields.

 The following description of the journey was taken from the reminiscences of a newspaper contributor:-

“August 26th brought back memories of Ffair y Mynydd – and what memories! With all our modern excitement-raisers, like wireless, cinemas, motor racing etc., nothing it seems to me, can compare with the intense interest which everybody alike took in the old-time fair. The coming and going past one’s door of all sorts of conditions ; an endless stream of traffic, the merry and gay, the serious and grave, merchant and pedlar, cattle-drovers and showmen, traps, carts and gambos, the rough and ready, all in good temper setting out for the Fair – AN INCESSANT RUMBLING DIN.

In the middle of the smooth rhythm of noise as the traffic flowed by in a flood, there would be an extra bit of shouting, as Cranky Joe, the drover with unmanageable steers and calves, trying to negotiate the Coychurch Road corner would make for Cowbridge, not St Mary Hill.  Ructions, rodeo like a bullfight in Spain, language unmentionable; the oxen much preferred Uxilla and the Golden Mile to Llangrallo and Treoes. The procession would be held up while Joe Gunter (that is Cranky Joe) with an enormous stick belaboured the poor beasts. Back in the traffic near W H Richards’ house, people in traps in the queue would be getting into a bad temper with waiting and wondering.  ‘Beth sy na ? Cerwch I wila Will’ but Will could do nothing while the chase went on – what a hullaballoo around that corner! Meanwhile the principle actors, Joe and his Bullocks are between the Coach and Horses and Mrs Reynolds’ shop, some in Cae Wallace (Cae Billy Preece, Llangewydd).

Round the turnpike gates at the top of Nolton Street, the Misses Julia, Sophia and Rosina Francis are in the shop looking at the passing carnival and wondering if the end of the world is coming as the big engine pulling a long train of merry-go-rounds and swing boats goes by.

Bill Samuel and his boxers, and Oh the bicycles, boneshakers and the big wheel penny-farthings – all bound for Ffair-y-Mynydd. The bicycles were a particular worry for poor old Mrs Lamb on the Coychurch Road. She called them ‘vycycles’ and thought the police should be informed every time one passed her gate.

All that excitement and noise has gone forever. The fairs today, I suppose, are only a ghost of those long ago. The buying and bargaining, the horse with a broken wind or strained sparm worked up to appear a thoroughbred for the fair, the booths, the gipsies – ALL GONE.

The homeward journey had less mass excitement; but some were merry and bright, some morose and all too tired for any more. I suppose that the fair goes back to the middle ages. But August 26th, Ffair –y-Mynydd – when I was a boy, people would date events by it – such and such a thing happened about the time of Ffair-y-Mynydd”

The Fair was always well policed, with even plain clothes constables in attendance. They would be on the look- out for pickpockets and card sharks in particular. Some of the card sharks would pitch their stools in the centre of the surrounding fields hoping to make a few shillings from the approaching fair goers with their tricks such as the old ’threepenny bit game’ and gambling with dice.

The counters within the beer tents would be nothing more than a piece of board, surrounded by thirsty souls all clamouring to catch the eye of the barman. It was no wonder that problems arose as the drunken customers became more and more impatient.  Indeed many of the fights started in the beer tents of the fair would be settled in other public houses in the area later that night.

There would be a long avenue of stalls selling fruit, vegetables etc., plus many other stalls seemingly dumped anywhere and everywhere. You could buy anything from a banana for a penny to a gold watch for half a crown. You could see anything from a woman performing with crocodiles to a man harnessing house flies.

You could try your luck at games like nine-pins and other games of skill

The bargaining itself was a treat to listen too. It always seemed that the buyer and the seller would never come to terms, when they shook hands on the deal it was traditional for the seller to return a small coin to the buyer for a token of good luck. Overheard in August 1906 was a buyer of a horse who after agreeing to pay £30.00 expected half a crown back whilst the seller was offering a mere one shilling.  The bartering went on and on, the deal was struck eventually when the buyer gave in to accepting a shilling, but also induced the seller to spend two shillings on drinks.

There was a tent containing a boxing ring where Cyril Jones tells us he saw Mel Llewellyn fight Tommy Farr.

The fair was a red letter day in the calendar of the residents of the nearby villages including Treoes as indeed it was, may be to a lesser extent to most folk in the locality.

 Cyril Jones recalls it being the best fair around.  As the fair was coming to a close Cyril and his pals would wander into the neighbouring field in which there was a big Ash Tree.  They would climb the tree and conceal themselves to wait upon the arrival of the entertainment. The Gypsies would arrive to settle their differences by bare knuckle fighting. The watching Gypsies would gamble on the outcome of the fight. Fascinated, the lads would silently watch every move and every blow until it was all over and the last of the Gypsies was out of sight. They would then descend from their hiding places and scour the surrounding area looking for any money that could have been dropped in the process of it changing hands.

On Friday the 26th August 1892. In spite of the old joke about the rain always falling on St Mary Hill to wash away the blood, the weather looked promising. There had been a violent thunderstorm on the 23rd with a downpouring of rain, followed by two generally fine days. A certain Morgan Thomas of Cwmdda owed his life to having decided to go to the famous, maybe infamous, fair. Whether he lost a shift or had a buddy exchange shifts with him is not known, but the idea of spending a day in the sun and fresh air tempted him.

Whilst Morgan and probably about another 20 of his workmates were enjoying the fair, an explosion at the Park Slip Mine, their place of work, occurred. 112 men and boys died in this disaster, amongst them was Morgan’s sons Rees and David.  Twenty One year old Richard Davies mounted his pony to take off for St Mary Hill that morning, but changed his mind and died with his younger brother in the explosion.

There was invariably a sequel to the St Mary Hill Fair at the Magistrates court in Bridgend.

An attendant of the local Asylum brought a summons against a collier from Treoes for an unprovoked assault on himself. The defendant denied all the allegations, however Mrs Llewellyn of Treoes and Mrs Parker of Treoes were among the witnesses all of whom supported the claimant’s version of events. The defendant was found guilty and fined £2.00 or 14 days in default.

The Landlord of the Coach and Horses in Bridgend had his jaw broken by hooligans on his way home from the fair. The fracas in a Pencoed public house that had started in a beer tent in St Mary Hill Fair.

The man who stole a horse from a field, claiming he was dead drunk when the offence took place, then sold the horse at St Mary Hill fair. The horse was later found at a stable in Bristol.

 The above and numerous Card Sharks, apprehended for gambling in public, appeared before the magistrates.

The last Fair was held at St Mary Hill in 1954 and in 1999 a commemorative plaque was unveiled on the site.

The Coity Wallia Board of Conservators now organise an annual fair named The St Mary Hill fair which is held on the common between Pencoed and Heol-y-Cyw.

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