Michaelmas in Erith

by Steve

View of Erith Pier

Happy Michaelmas everybody! I wasn’t really sure what Michaelmas was, or even when it was, until today, Michaelmas. It is the feast day of St Michael, the angel who dealt with Lucifer and threw him out of heaven.1 So, someone worth celebrating.

Michaelmas is traditionally the last day of harvest, and while there aren’t many of us harvesting anything these days, it does still feel like yet another marker as we head towards the winter. Michaelmas was also often “Goose Day”, when people ate goose, or kept their landlord happy with a gift of goose. Special breads were often baked.

And this is traditionally and superstitiously the last day for eating blackberries. This goes back to ol’ Lucifer being kicked out the sky, landing on a bramble. He then scorched and spat on them. Each year he renews his curse, hence the advice that we should finish up the blackberries by Michaelmas.

Many towns were known for their Michaelmas Fairs. One near where I live now was in Erith. The Westminster Magazine mentioned the Fair in 1785. Meanwhile, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 2, published in 1797 reported:

At the north east extremity of the parish lies the town of Erith, consisting of one small street of houses, which leads to the water side, where it lies open to the haven which the Thames forms here.

At the entrance of this village from Crayford, on the west side of it, stands the old manor house. On the Thames opposite this town, the Indiamen, in their passage up the river, frequently come to an anchor, and lay some time to be lightened of part of their burthen, that they may proceed with greater safety up the river.

This makes a great resort to Erith, not only of the friends and acquaintance of those who are on board these ships, but for some continuance afterwards, in the carrying on a traffic with the inhabitants and neighbouring country, for the several kinds of East India goods, which have been procured from on board. This, together with the shipping of goods to and from London, the sending hither from hence the produce of the extensive woods in these parts (great part of which is first piled up upon wharfs built here for that purpose) and some few fishing vessels, employ the generality of the inhabitants of this place.

Two fairs are kept yearly at Erith, one upon Ascension-day, and the other upon Michaelmas-day, Sept. 29; and another is kept on Whit-Tuesday, on Leason-heath, in this parish.

The passage paints a picture of a village long gone although some of the woods in the area remain. The odd ship still drops anchor, but the town is no longer any sort of resort, despite its lovely pier and huge skies. Modernity, and town planning, put paid to that.

By the time A Topographical Dictionary of England was published in 1848 the Fair was mentioned in the past tense:

This was once a market-town; was incorporated; and had fairs on Holy-Thursday, Michaelmas-day, and Whit-Tuesday.

Erith would become a market town again, then a former market town again, and now has made some tentative steps towards restoring the market. However, as far as I can tell, the Fairs have never returned.

It feels a shame that these feast days have fallen out of fashion, and not just because I enjoy eating. These days help give structure to the year, offer time for reflection and for planning. They bring us closer to the earth, to the cycles of the seasons, and to the stories, traditions and superstitions of our towns and our cultures.

There’s a funny sense of loss in reading about how our cities, towns and villages once where. But this sort of research feels like an opportunity to begin to understand my surroundings, to pick up on the cycles, the signals, the gaps. What was once there is as important as what is there now. We can learn from the silences.

Footnote

  1. I had to resist the temptation to make a Marks & Spencer joke here, but now I suspect footnoting an explanation of this is worse than just making the joke.
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