Have you ever heard of a mop fair? I hadn’t, until last summer when it was a writing prompt in one of my online creative writing groups, for writing a short piece of historical fiction.
Apparently the mop fairs were held in England from the twelfth century onwards, for the purpose of hiring labourers. Those wanting to be hired would have to hold up something that represented the job they did, such as a mop for a housemaid. Some of them are still held today, although now they are just country fairs and nothing to do with getting a job. So here is my story:
It was midnight when I fled from the Great House, destitute, with no baggage or possessions.
The wind chilled me as I hurried along, and nightfall was approaching. I was heading towards my friend Dora’s home. It was the only place I could think of to escape the workhouse. She was older than me and lived in a simple house at the edge of the town with her family. Soon I was knocking on the door.
“You are so tousled, Jenny,” she exclaimed. “What has happened?”
“Disgraced. Because I loved John, the groom. They meant to send me back to father with a stern letter, but I fled before they could. A groom is not really above my station- it’s only that he is a distant relative of the master. Now I’ll never see him again.”
“You poor thing. You must stay here.”
“But I don’t want to be a burden on you. I know William doesn’t earn much, and you have your children to feed.”
“I know! The mop fair.” Dora smiled at me reassuringly. “It’s in three weeks’ time. You can go there and be hired by a new employer. You’re welcome to stay till then.”
I was so grateful. It was a solution, and Dora found me a broom that I could hold at the fair. But secretly that irked me because I knew I could educate myself if I was given the chance and wouldn’t always have to be doing the sweeping. No-one had any regard for what I wanted for myself, nor for which man I chose, neither the master nor my parents. Only Dora was being kind.
The mop fair soon came round, on a sharp, clear October day. I was up early, and Dora’s children giggled and made faces at me as they got ready for school. I only had the clothes I had run away in and one or two that Dora had given me, like the summer stole made of silky material that I had round my neck. So far, I had been too proud to visit my parents’ home and search there for old possessions. I hoped I looked smart enough to be hired at the fair.
When I got there, the market square was dusty and crowded, with many people talking at once and laughing. It smelt of the horses which were pulling the landowners’ carriages. There were some stalls selling sweetmeats, and I found myself wishing someone would give me a hiring penny so that I could buy some. I went and stood with the housemaids and farmhands waiting to be hired, holding my broom in front of me.
As the morning went on many squires and ladies came and went, hiring workers. I was starting to worry that they had heard from the people at the Great House that I was immoral, and no-one would want me.
At last two men arrived and the younger one said, “I am sure we could find work for that pretty maid, Father.” His father looked at me keenly and smiled, and began giving me the details of where and when to show up. I knew that although his son had called me a pretty maid I must be very careful in the future about falling in love, because girls like me are not free to be romantic. We must keep our minds on our work, lest we lose our living.