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19th April 2022

What’s going on?

It’s barely dawn, the birds are just waking up, and suddenly the bells of the Parish Church of St John, start to ring out. A crowd of folks dressed in a variety of costumes gather around to listen to the proclamation of a three hundred- and forty-year-old document, signed by King Charles II. Wait! This can only be the Corby Pole Fair!

You are forgiven if you have never heard of this event. It only happens once every twenty years after all. And it’s going to happen this year, over the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee bank holiday, on Friday 3rd June.

The origins of the Corby Pole Fair may go back nearly nine hundred years. The earliest known settlement is thought to be even earlier, some thirteen hundred years ago. A Danish Viking, Kori gave his name to the village, and it may have been the early Viking settlers who introduced the idea of the ‘pole’, giving its name to the fair. A typical Viking punishment for men who had committed minor offences was to be captured and carried through the community astride an ash pole or ‘stang’, where villagers were free to hurl abuse, rocks or even rotten vegetables. This was known as ‘riding the stang’.

By the time the Domesday book was written in 1086, the thriving village was known as Corbei. Forty years later, Henry III granted the right for Corbei to hold two annual fairs and a market. But it was Elizabeth I who gave the greatest gift to the village in 1586. Local legend tells that the Queen was indulging her love of hunting in Rockingham Forest when during a storm, her horse stumbled into a bog and she fell. The loyal villagers came to her rescue, and she was so grateful to them and to her favourite local Sir Christopher Hatton, that she granted a charter to the men and tenants of the manor of Corby, giving them important and valuable benefits. These included the right of pannage (the right to graze the forest), murage (the right to be free from taxes to repair Rockingham’s defensive walls), and best of all, freedom from the tolls usually paid by travellers as they travelled through England.

Sadly after the Civil Wars, Cromwell, the Lord Protector removed these rights, fun was frivolous, and taxes were to be paid by everyone. So big cheers were heard in Corby following the Restoration of the monarchy, when newly crowned Charles II ratified the Royal Charter granted by his predecessor Elizabeth.

But there are still mysteries surrounding the Pole Fair, why only every 20 years? And why is it associated with the charter, but not mentioned in it? Perhaps it is just to celebrate the generosity of ‘Good Queen Bess’ and who needs an excuse for a bit of fun anyway?

The most enjoyed elements of the Pole Fair have remained consistent over the years. The day begins at dawn, with the ringing of the bells and the proclamation of the Charter as confirmed by Charles II, and witnessed by the Rector, the Mayor, and the oldest person born in the village of Corby. These three notables are then paraded around the village seated on chairs mounted on poles. This proclamation is repeated throughout the day. At this point, entry to the old village becomes chargeable with a ‘coin of the realm’. This is very important! If you fail to pay and display your ticket you may be captured and made to ‘ride the stang’ on the pole to the stocks, where your leg will be imprisoned. There you will have to wait until someone ‘pays you out’. The day is filled with music and colour, with processions, events and happenings, dancing and fancy dress, good food and drink, and a market to buy all sorts of things. One of the traditional highlights is the challenge to climb a greasy pole to rescue a ham, not as easy as it might sound!

Many fairs have taken place over the years, and occasionally mention has been made of them in the historic record. Perhaps most notably, in 1862, an escaped slave from Missouri named John Anderson was welcomed and ‘treated most kindly’ by the villagers of Corby. Anderson had been enslaved, and like many, kept illiterate. Aged thirty, he became a pupil at the village school, learning to read and write, and was freed from paying tolls to the fair. The following year he sailed away to a new life in Liberia.

The last five Pole Fairs have come at a time when the people of Corby most needed to be cheered and to celebrate life. In 1922, the effects of the Great War were still evident as the village had lost forty-one men, and the fragility of the peace in Europe was still a concern. In 1942, the country was still in the grip of the Second World War and so the Pole fair was delayed until 1947, when the celebration was sweet indeed. 1962 saw the growth of the new town and an increased population as Corby was strong economically, but the following fair in 1982 was very different. Corby had suffered dreadfully from hardship following the decision by British Steel to close the steelworks and let the blast furnaces go out. However, there was still steel inside the hearts of the people of Corby to survive and thrive. The 1982 Pole Fair was a much-needed boost to the locals, and in 2002, the most recent fair held was a great celebration by the newly revitalised town which even today is still experiencing spectacular growth.

The next Pole Fair will be on Friday 3rd June. The perfect time to celebrate our Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, celebrate the benevolence of our former monarchs, and hopefully to celebrate the end of the pandemic, God willing!

There’s many plans afoot, and lots of ways to take part, from ringing the bells, entering the parade, or just coming along to enjoy the fun, If you would like to volunteer you can register your interest by emailing [email protected] and if you would like to learn more about the day, then please visit and to keep up with the latest news, follow @corbypolefair on Facebook.

It is going to be a wonderful day!

By Laura Malpas

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