Widdicombe Fair

Album: Children's Favourites (1888)


  • Although it is nowhere near as ancient as "Greensleeves" for example, "Widdicombe Fair" is one of the most recognizable of English folk songs and by far the most famous emanating from the West Country. Even most English speakers who have not heard or heard of the song will be familiar with the phrase it bequeathed the English language: "And Uncle Tom Cobley and all", which is often used as an expression of contempt.

    In the song, the singer asks a man named Tom Pearse if he will lend him his horse to go to Widdicombe Fair with a group of men including Uncle Tom Cobley. Tom Pearse does so, but the animal ends up dead, probably because it was carrying the weight of eight men! The twist in the tale is that in the manner of the Flying Dutchman, the grey mare can be seen riding the skies of a moonlit Devon night groaning under its heavy load.
  • In its current form, "Widdicombe Fair" was taken down by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), a prolific author who is best known for writing the words to the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers." Baring-Gould was described by his grandson Bickford H.C. Dickenson as a pioneer folk song collector, among other things. Without his efforts many of the more obscure English folk songs would probably have been lost forever. He deposited his manuscripts in a West Country archive, which led to the 1974 publication with the somewhat long-winded title Folk Songs of the West Country Collected by Sabine Baring-Gould Annotated from the MSS at Plymouth Library and with additional material by Gordon Hitchcock.

    According to this book, Baring-Gould "took down" the song from W.F. Collier of or at Woodtown in 1888.
  • There are various spellings of Widdicombe and the characters in the song; Cobley is sometimes rendered Cobbleigh, as in the 1968 illustrated book Widdicombe Fair An Old English Folk Song, by Christine Price.

    In her book, Price says Uncle Tom Cobbleigh was a real person, an 18th Century Englishman who lived near Widecombe-on-the-Moor where the September Fair was a big event.

    According to Baring-Gould, Uncle Tom Cobley lived near Yeoford Junction in the parish of Spreyton, and the people named in the song were all residents of the village of Sticklepath, while in his 1996 monograph UNCLE TOM COBLEY Widecombe in the Moor, Devonian Peter Hicks points out that this Tom Cobley, Thomas Cobley of Puddlecombe Park, died aged 99; his will was proved March 14, 1794, and he was apparently buried in Spreyton but his grave has not been identified. Another Thomas Cobley, a gentleman of Butsford in the parish of Colebrook, died in 1844 aged 82. Hicks also points out that the Pearse family opened a mill in Sticklepath in 1810, and it has been suggested that the fair referred to in the song was the one held in 1802, which rules out Thomas Cobley of Puddlecombe Park.

    Although Uncle Tom Cobley, whoever he was, is long dead, he rides again at the annual Widdicombe Fair; Peter Hicks has himself played the part of the old codger.
  • In November 1915, the Times reported that "Widdicombe Fair" had been slipped into the programme of the London String Quartet; in November 1930, His Master's Voice advertised the record for sale at 3 shillings, recorded by Richard of Taunton Deane, Stuart Robertson and Male Chorus.

    Shortly after the Second World War, the Central Office Of Information made a cartoon of the song for the British Council. According to documents deposited with the Public Record Office (in file INF 6/735), W. Larkins & Co were commissioned to produce the film and a film of "The Lincolnshire Poacher" for slightly over two thousand pounds. Originally estimated to run for eight minutes, they would eventually run for eleven, and were scored by Hubert Clifford and sung by Dale Smith and a male voice quartet. "Widdicombe Fair" has also been recorded as "Tam Pearse," specifically by Burl Ives in 1941.
  • The sheet music for "Widdicombe Fair" has been published widely over the years, including a very full arrangement in 1938; retailing for 4d, this version, in the "YORK SERIES", was arranged by Donald Behenna and copyright Banks & Son of York. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Alexander Baron - London, England, for all above


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