20,000 Sheep

"Shepherdess Tending Sheep" by Winslow Homer.

“Shepherdess Tending Sheep” by Winslow Homer.

Snippets 112. During the 19th and early 20th Centuries a sheep fair was held annually at Westbury, near Salisbury. At the tail end of the 19th Century it had become a huge affair, with nearly 100,000 sheep. In fact it resulted in some cause for concern when school attendance suffered greatly, with all the children wanting to be off school seeing the sheep! By the time Richard Le Gallienne visited Salisbury and wrote his travel journal (Travels in England), in 1900, the fair was starting to decline, but was still quite an impressive sight.

On the morning I was to leave Salisbury, I was awakened by a running murmur of plaintive sound. The street was sad with the cry of driven sheep. The downs were thus rolling by every avenue into the city, and twenty thousand sheep were to fill the market place that day. I learnt the number from a serious-browed, broad-clothed farmer at breakfast. He was sternly full of the occasion.

“It’s a great day in Salisbury today,” he said, as soon as I sat down, evidently longing, like every other human being, to share the ruling passion with another.

I guessed that he referred to the sheep, so I did my best to be sympathetic, though sheep — out of Theocritus or Spenser — is not a subject on which I talk easily. However, I succeeded better than I expected, by a simple plan which I have often found useful: that of asking those rudimentary questions, which, though they betray an entire ignorance of the cherished subject, seem no less acceptable to the enthusiast than the exchange of valuable experience. I didn’t quite begin by asking: “What is a sheep?” But whatever the next simplest question may be, I certainly asked it. Had you met me half an hour afterwards you would have found me a surprising authority on sheep-farming, though at the time of writing my mind has resumed its pristine disinterestedness on the subject.

Remembering Cobbett, I asked the current price of South Down ewes, and, if I remember aright, it was about forty-two shillings; but before acting on the information, the reader would do well to verify it. I looked in at the market place to see if the sheep had been allowed to bring their starlings with them, but found that they had not. What a noisy ocean! Twenty thousand woolly waves all baa-baaing together. And, I suppose, not a thought in one single farmer’s head that a sheep may possibly have its own business in the universe quite apart from the feeding of man — though as you look a sheep in the face, it is difficult to imagine what that business may be. Perhaps, indeed, its one aim in life is to grow up good mutton, and its highest ambition a handsome funeral in the form of caper sauce. If so, it is wiser than it looks — for who can doubt that the farmers are right and that sheep were made to be fleeced and eaten, and for no other more transcendental purpose at all? As a topic of conversation I found them as monotonous as mutton, and, as the reader may by this time be too ready to agree with me, I will here say no more on the subject of sheep.

By 1940 the fair had declined to less than 10,000 sheep, and by the end of the war it was no longer in existence.


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About Windows into History

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This entry was posted in 20th Century, Books, Britain, England, History, Nature, Snippets, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 20,000 Sheep

  1. Pingback: Sheep | Anne Samson - Historian

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