St. Leonards Fair was the Launceston market traditionally held on the last market day of November. Below is an interview conducted with Mr. John Dennis, of ‘Pounstock’ Dunheved road, in November 1961, who at the time of his interview was 93, by the Cornish and Devon Post :
John’s (pictured left at the age of 87) first memory of St. Leonards Fair was some 88 years previous, when he was a boy of 5 attending the National School. In those mid-Victorian times, there was no cattle market as was to come later at race Hill. The sheep were offered for sale in what is now the Guildhall car-park (Multi Storey); indeed Launcestonians still refer to this as “the old sheep market,” a folk-memory that doubtless will last down the years.
In those days, as Mr. Dennis told us, there was no Guildhall or Town Hall; where the Drill Hall now stands was the “Noahs Ark,” a rambling building famous in its time. While the sheep had their market, the cattle stood in the streets, in the area which is now Guildhall square and along Western road and New road as well, while others could be found standing outside the now demolished Butter Market in the square. There was no reservation of positions: the first comers took the best places.
Nor was there any auctioneering in the modern sense then; the fair was almost entirely based on private sales, with cattle dealers such as Mr. John Wonnacott, senior of Newport, and Mr. Emmanuel Chudleigh, of Cross Lanes, very busy. The grandsons of these two men continued the family tradition right up to the 1980’s. This was the biggest market of the year for Launceston in those days and it was the most important because it was the day on which farmers by tradition paid their annual bills. The merchants and tradesmen of the town would provide dinners for them, to mark the occasion, something echoed in the refreshments still supplied at agricultural shows but which has died out from St. Leonards Fair.
In addition to the market itself, there were various stalls crowded into the streets, packed with all sorts of goods, including those of the home-made sweet vendors, one of whom “Grannie” Hicks, of Angel Hill, is still remembered by many. Sideshows also clamoured for the countryfolk’s pennies, and all sorts of cheapjacks shouted themselves hoarse. A particularly notable spot was at the entrance to Castle Dyke, where one George Lacey, from Barnstaple, annually held sway. He was a famous salesman who could sell anything – and did, to the entertainment of onlookers and no doubt his own pocket.
The Butter Market building in the square would be filled with farm wives selling butter, eggs and other produce, with rabbits and poultry on sale as well, and such things as cabbage plants laid out for examination and sale. Stalls were set up around the outside of the building too, and on the south side (facing what is now the HSBC Bank) was the particular stand of the china dealers, with a man called Little still remembered as the chief of these.
With cattle also “penned” in the streets, it can be imagined that there was little room for traffic, and although there were no cars then there was still a parking problem for the horse drawn vehicles. Traps and gingles would be parked along Castle Dyke, the shafts of one under the body of the one in front, to save possible space. Others would be parked in New road, Western road, Race Hill – wherever a space could be found, just like today – and others packed the yard of the Launceston Arms in Exeter street (now the old Sprys workshops) and horses were stabled by practically all the inns and public houses.
Launceston had more of those at that time: since vanished are the Little White Hart (Boots), the Dolphin (Westgate street), Trademark (Southgate street), Exeter (High street), Jubilee (Castle street corner), Ring o’ Bells (Northgate street) and the London (Church street). They doubtless all did good trade at St. Leonards Fair, which Mr. Dennis remembers as “a day apart: it was thrilling for us youngsters to see all the people thronging the town. They used to come in four-in-hand horse coaches from such places as North Hill, Altarnun, Stoke Climsland and so on, while the railway (it was the G.W.R. only then, before the London and South Western, later the Southern, opened their line) also brought masses of visitors on special excursion trains. “It was something like Tavistock Goose Fair still is; it was a great time.”
The schools gave no holiday for St. Leonards Fair, but, Mr. Dennis recalls with a smile, many of the boys were missing from their desks that day. They would be on hand to watch the horse buses and coaches trundling in, the usual stopping place being at Millman’s livery stables (site of the present Conservative club). Adding to the bustle would be the arrival of the cattle, driven on the hoof in those days before cattle lorries from anything up to ten miles away, even such an eminent man as the great astronomer, John Couch Adams, returning home for a visit to his father’s farm at Lidcott, Laneast, was pressed into service on such a day, despite his fame, walked stock into Launceston Market.
But, says, Mr. Dennis, the transfer of the cattle to the new market in Race Hill just after the turn of the century meant that some of the atmosphere of St. Leonards Fair Day began to go. A weighbridge was installed and cattle offered for sale could be weighed, something the prospective vendor had to judge on the hoof previously. Mr. Dennis himself was in charge of the market for the Town Council from 1912 until his retirement just after the second world war, and he has seen many changes, principally the use of cattle lorries to transport stock instead of driving them along the roads to market. He has seen too the growth of the local auctioneering firms; Mr. John Kittow, and his partner, Mr. Walter Dennis; Mr. William Vosper and his partner, Mr. William Kivell; and Mr. S . B. Colwill, followed by his son Mr. S. J. Colwill.
He remembers too the less illustrious but no less famous personalities of the marker, particularly the drovers; “King David,” “Curly,” and Bill Farley among them. “They were real characters in those days,” he says. “Fiercely individualistic.” It was a bigger market in Mr. Dennis’s early days, for there were few country markets then, while Launceston Market itself was only held once a month (although there was a weekly pannier market on Saturdays). After the move to Race Hill it became a fortnightly affair, and in about 1945 it became weekly, with the late Mr. Richard Martin, then Town Councillor, one of the leading advocates of the change. “I have often been struck by his foresight,” says Mr. Dennis, “St. Leonards Fair itself has gone down, but the Market itself has grown immensely.”
The weekly Pannier Market, held on Saturdays in the Lower Market House (now the Market Arcade) deserves an article to itself. Memories are revived of such personalities as Mr. Gordon the Plymouth fruiterer, Mr. Wenham with his antiques, Mr. Polkinghorne the bootmaker, Mr. Doidge the newsagent, and others; but we must return to St. Leonards Fair, a busy day indeed for one particular person: Launceston’s one-man police force of those days – Policeman Barrett, the Borough Constable. The new fangled County Constabulary was not welcomed in Launceston in the early days, and the first superintendent, Mr. Sherston, had to have his office at Newport, with no jurisdiction over the town. That was P.O. Barrett’s beat and, as Mr. Dennis recalls, he did have one valuable assistant: his fierce dog, which preceded him wherever he went. “We boys used to fly when we saw that dog coming,” remembers Mr. Dennis of those far off days of nearly ninety years ago. Mr. Barrett was mainly responsible for superintending the market but later a Mr. Brown became market inspector, and subsequently Mr. Dennis took on for over thirty years, before being succeeded by Mr. Preston Frost.