Crab Fair and Gurning

Crab fair and gurning history

The Crab Fair was first held in 1267. It is believed that the traditional fair has been held continuously since this time, except for unavoidable interruptions during the War years. The Lord of Egremont started a tradition of giving away crab apples, from where the fair gets its name. The tradition continues to this day with the Parade of the Apple Cart, where apples are thrown to the crowds which throng the Main Street. The modern day fair commences with a number of sporting events. Cumberland wrestling, an ancient and traditional lakeland sport, features prominently. The rest of the day’s amusements include the celebrated World Gurning Championship where contestants pull ugly faces through a horse collar or ‘braffin’, a pipe smoking event and the singing of hunting songs.


History of the Crab Fair

In Medieval times centuries ago, after harvesting time which usually ended in September, serfs to the Manor of Egremont gathered wild fruits (plentiful in South Cumberland), and with their vegetables, corn and animals went to pay their dues to the Lord of the Manor. From this sudden congregation of serfs, the opportunity was taken to celebrate the completion of harvesting for yet another year and to forget their poverty and tribulations by taking part in a series of crude but arousing and sporting games.

In 1267 King Henry III granted a Royal Charter to Thomas de Multon (1247-1294), Lord of the Barony of Egremont, for a weekly market on Wednesdays and an annual fair to be held on the 7th, 8th and 9th of September. A modern translation of the original Charter is as follows:

“One market every week, upon Wednesday, with one fair every year by three days enduring the eve, the day of, and the morrow after the Nativity of St. Mary the Virgin, and to be quite free from suit of the County Courts and the Hundred Courts, and from all fines and americiaments there, and the tolls within the seignory of Copeland of ancient custom.”

The original Charter is held in the British Museum in London. The granting of a Royal Charter, which freed the Barony from local fines and taxes, was one way by which the King could raise money. It also gave the town some degree of self-government and attracted people from the neighbouring countryside.

As time progressed the fair was reduced to a one day event held on the 19th September. This was probably necessary because of the industrialisation of Egremont which meant that the townspeople had less leisure time. Nowadays  the fair is held on a Saturday. It has become traditional to hold the fair on the third Saturday of September.

A typical Crab Fair in the nineteenth century would begin at dawn with the erection of the greasy pole “at the fish stone by the “Market Cross”. The pole was thirty foot tall and greased with lard. The objective was to climb to the top and retrieve the prize. Originally the prize was a hat- The winner, normally  paraded around the town wearing his prize. In 1852 the prize became a side of mutton – a tradition that continues to this day.

In the afternoon of ‘Fair Day’ the town relaxed with a succession of sporting activities, some being ancient and traditional. The Sports always commenced after the “scattering of apples” at Midday, now known as the Parade of the Apple Cart. This event has always caused great merriment amongst the spectators, with youngsters scrambling for the apples. In earlier years cakes but eventually crab apples were used-  it is thought that it was a celebration of The story goes that the Lord of the Manor would scatter crab apples amongst the local serfs of the town. Crab apples  are sour so sweeter varieties of apple are used these days. A cart or wagon loaded with apples is driven along the Main Street with the fair queen and her helper throwing apples into the crowd.

Typical sports of the nineteenth century would include:- street racing, Cumberland wrestling, Quoiting and Snap Pitching, cuddy & bicycle racing, hound dog trials, pipe smoking, best liar and dialect singing, Eating Biskeys and Treacle and of course gurning. Most of these events survive to this day.


To gurn means to ‘snarl like a dog, look savage, distort the countenance’. This competition is extremely popular and is the highlight of the whole Crab Fair for most people. Contestants have to pull a grotesque face through a horse collar, known as a braffin.

The origin of gurning is obscure. There are many stories but it most likely originated from the mockery of the village idiot – the townsfolk would throw a horse’s collar over him and make him pull funny faces in exchange for a few pints of ale.

The current Gurning world champion is :- Adrian Zivelonghi of Coventry

The womens world champion is :- Claire Spedding of Egremont

For further details visit:-


Cumberland Wrestling

West moorland and Cumberland (now known as Cumberland wrestling) originated from Viking and Irish settlers moving to Cumberland in the 9th and 10th centuries. It comprises mainly hold and few throws and resembles highland wrestling. Each wrestler locks his hands behind his opponent’s back – this is called takin’ hod (taking hold). The object is to lift your opponent up, then throw him to the ground so that he lands face upwards. Costumes worn by the wrestlers are richly embroidered and prizes may be awarded for the best outfit.