Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

Rye, East Sussex Beggars Bush 1578

Holinshed’s Chronicles were first published in 1578, with a second edition in 1587. It remains a substantial sourcebook for the history and geography of Britain in the late sixteenth century. In Book 6, section 15, the contributor William Harrison lists the principle fairs and markets by date. He says, “On Bartholomew day, at London, at Beggers bush beside Rie, at Teukesburie, at Sudburie, at Rie, at Nantwich, at Pagets, at Bromleie, at Norwich, at Northalerton, at Douer.”

“Rie” must be Rye in East Sussex, but the reference is not without difficulties. It seems unlikely that there would have been a fair “beside” Rye and “at” Rye on the same day.

A prescriptive fair, held by the hospital of St Bartholomew at Rye on St Bartholomew’s Day (24 August) is recorded by the early thirteenth century. A Charter for a fair on the Nativity of Mary (8 September) was granted in 1290 by Edward I to the barons of the Rye, then changed in1305 at their request to Assumption Day (15 August). St Bartholomew’s Hospital in an area north of the town, known as “Rye Foreign”, next to the parish of Playden. The fair was held on the field on the west of the Rye to London Road towards the top of Rye Hill, now a housing estate known as Fair Meadow.

The mayor and jurats of Rye had the right to propose the chaplain or warden and approve brothers and sisters, some of whom were lepers. In 1380 the warden was found to have appropriated the assets of the hospital for himself, and left the inmates to beg in the streets. In 1442 the warden was found to have been absent for more than six years, the buildings decayed and no paupers maintained. By 1521 it was in the control of Westminster Abbey and decayed past remedy.

By 1698 it had become ‘Beggars Hill’. Celia Fiennes’s record suggests the ground was unattractive for agriculture, and the fair decaying commercially, though not without some merriment:

“Then I went from ye wells to Rye 31 miles, by Ambursly 8 mile – this was good way being a drye summer, otherwise its deep being Clay for ye most part. I passed much through Lanes and little villages and near Rye I went thro’ a Comon full of Bushes and ffurze and heath; its a pretty steep hill I ascended wch is Called beggars hill and being Bartholomew tide here was a faire wch was Rightly Called beggarhill faire being the saddest faire I ever saw – ragged tatter’d Booths and people – but the musick and danceing Could not be omitted.”

A local historian, H.P. Clark, wrote  in 1861 :

“Passing on, on the left, is the King’s Head field where a fair was held formerly, called Beggar’s Bush Fair; but latterly, Beggar’s Hill Fair, which was held on the first Tuesday after Romney Lamb Fair. In former times a Bull was baited here, the last was nearly sixty years ago; the ring, to which he was fastened, remains there. In 1858 this fair terminated and thus the scenes of dissipation and blackguardism dropped, and most probably never to rise again.’

The name may have travelled between here and Wadhurst which was on the route to London from Rye.

There was also a Beggars Bush fair at Enfield, recorded slightly later.

There are nearby cognate place names, to the north Mockbeggars and north west Coldharbour.


Holinshed’s Chronicles (vol 1 p.244)

(<>  accessed 27.12.10.)

A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2 (1973), pp. 104-05 (<> accessed 18.08.10)


Jo Kirkham, Chairman of Rye Museum

Posted: March 13th, 2011 | Filed under: Places | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

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