To Eskdale index 

If the Internet had been invented along with the computer, during the Second World War, I probably wouldn't have had to start the Eskdale Project- Mary Fair would have done it all. Unfortunately, very little has been written about this multitalented, erudite, entertaining and kindly woman, so within the Eskdale Project I'm also starting a Mary Fair project (not to be confused with Eskdale & District Local History Society's recent archaeology project of the same name, featured in their book "Walking In the Footsteps of Mary Fair") beginning right here:

Mary Cicely Fair was born at Clarendon Road, Barton upon Irwell, Lancs. 28 Apr 1874, daughter of Thomas Wilson Fair, merchant of 3 Bentinck Terrace, Newcastle upon Tyne and Sarah (nee Darwell; also spelled Sara) [there is a copy of her birth certificate in the "Mary Fair" information folder at Whitehaven Record Office].

Thomas had been born at Pooley Bridge about 1842, son of a farmer and landowner (his mother was born into the Wilson family of Alston). He decided to strike out on his own, and as a young man spent time in Australia. Returning to England he set up in business, with interests both in Newcastle and Manchester,where presumably he met Sarah. After his marriage, he decided to enter the Church, and studied for his MA at Jesus College, Cambridge. He was ordained in Winchester diocese, his first curacy being at at Wroxall, Isle of Wight. He then moved on to Carlton on Trent, Nottinghamshire, but returned to Ryde, Isle of Wight, as curate of Holy Trinity church (he was also a member of the East Medina lodge of Freemasons), then crossed the Solent to Freemantle, where he spent 10 years.

Thomas Fair. Photo from Whitehaven News County Annual 1912 However, Sarah's health was failing, so he resigned and moved up to the Lake District in 1903. After a few months, he was given the opportunity to take over the living of Eskdale, following the resignation of the Rev. W.S. Sykes (of whom more later). This he accepted, taking up the post in October 1904. Sadly, Thomas's own health was not, it seems, equal to his commitment. On 10 Feb 1911, he became seriously ill, and died on 16 Feb, aged 68.

Among those present at the funeral (held, of course, at St. Catherine's) were Mary, the Rev. F.T. Bradshaw (his nephew, who led the funeral service); James & Arthur Fair (cousins); Marcus Rea (cousin) and Geoffrey Ermon (nephew). The chairman of the local Methodists gave a memorial speech in chapel at Santon, referring particularly to his work with the sick: "He spoke kind and comfortable words, and when he offered prayer to God it was the breakings of his heart, which brought blessing to the sick..." [This section based on obituaries in the Whitehaven News, 23 Feb and 2 Mar 1911]
Mrs Fair died in January 1925, and the funeral at St. Catherine's was again conducted by the Rev F.T. Bradshaw, then vicar of Downham near Clitheroe. [Funeral report in the Whitehaven News, 15 Jan 1925]

[This section based on obituaries, correspondence and notes at Whitehaven and Carlisle Record Offices, the Jackson Collection in Carlisle Library, and Tullie House Museum]
Reading between the lines, I suspect that Mary chose to spend much time looking after her mother, so she came to Eskdale with her parents. Though her training was in medical science, she was also a very capable writer. She produced a charming magazine article on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway soon after her arrival in 1903 [in "Wide World", Dec 1903, and reprinted in "The Bedside Ratty" 1974]. She was also quite bold, travelling in Europe and undertaking adventures like a voyage on a cargo ship, serving as semi-official medical officer. And when wireless equipment became available she took the course to gain a radio engineer's certificate.

From the 1890's (when she had "one of the first folding pocket Kodaks") she took photographs. Many, many photographs. The "Ratty" was one of her favourite subjects, and she recorded most of the significant events on the line during her years in Eskdale. She would also bring her camera to big occasions like Eskdale Show (and motorbike trials on Hardknott Pass) and even accepted commissions for weddings. Though able to process her own, she established a good working relationship with the Chester laboratory of Will R. Rose. For use of her pictures in magazines, she usually expected a fee of half a guinea (she had rubber stamps made to declare her copyright on the back of each photograph she sent out).

Longtime local resident Bert Turner, in his book "Memories of Ravenglass" (1998) recalls Miss Fair's frequent visits to the village in her Trojan car (2-cylinder, 2-stroke engine; chain drive to wheels with solid tyres) and her wildlife photography among the dunes in the gullery. She would set up a hide one day, wait for the birds to get used to it, then come back a few days later with her camera and tripod. Fisherman Joe Farren would ferry her across the estuary.

But all the above (and much more) just filled in time not spent on the real work of her life in Eskdale. Like many before and since, she found the area fascinating not just for its beauty and fun, but for its astonishing heritage, tracing a line of settlement from prehistory through the Romans, the Dark Age and ever on. She set to recording everything she could about Eskdale's past, presenting it for all through articles and talks. A keen member of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society [hereafter CWAAS or I'll get RSI] from her early days in Eskdale, she kept up a life-long correspondence with the Rev W.S. Sykes, who had gathered a large amount of historical information by the time he left the valley, and maintained his interest from his new home in Birkenhead.

She also learned the practical skills of archaeology; not just digging holes but identifying and recording faint traces of the past. Over the decades, she filled up dozens of notebooks, files and photograph albums with records of ancient ruins, roads, iron-smelting sites, earthworks. More still contained transcripts and abstracts of important documents, with her analyses of historical conundrums like the early history of the Manor of Millom.

In addition to serious writing and lecturing on history, she gave "racy, humorous talks on all aspects of country life and her own experiences" and was regarded as "of Cumberland's best women lecturers". From the 1930s she even broadcast on the BBC. Her love of country life extended to an admiration for the local style of hunting; she was a friend of both Tommy Dobson, founder of the Eskdale and Ennerdale Foxhounds, and his successor Willie Porter.

Oh, and by the way, she wrote detective novels, under the name Donald Deane. She never told anybody, but another of her friends, Whitehaven librarian Daniel Hay, solved the mystery. Published by John Hamilton of London, they were "The Fifth Tulip" (1930); "The Luck of Luce" (1931) and "Hidden Clues. A Lakeland story" (1932). Most of the manuscript for a fourth novel, set in Scotland, also survives, written in cheap exercise books.

Her first attempt at a book on Eskdale was also published in 1930, under the pseudonym "Silverpoint" which she also used when her photographs were published, and for newspaper articles (according to one source, she also sometimes used "Silverpen"). This was a short guidebook, which she expanded in 1949, that version being revised and reissued after her death by the "Ratty". Her articles for the CWAAS, and for local and national newspapers and magazines, in styles ranging from technical to chatty, really are too numerous to list (though I am gradually compiling a rough guide to her writings for use by local libraries and Record Offices).

For me, though, her letters are the real delight. She was a good friend and a fierce enemy. Perhaps her biggest pet hate (which by no coincidence is also mine) was sloppy "factual" writing, a particular problem in the field of history where entertainment value is often considered to outrank accuracy. A major offender in this respect was Millom's Norman Nicholson; but I shall just give one quotation from a letter by Mary (to Daniel Hay) which sums up a lot of others: "The Lakes Today ... contains so many factual errors as to be useless and misleading; quite clearly he does not know what he writes about; he should stick to poetry which is all he is good for.".

Considering that she left so many records of a long life's work, the story of Mary Fair is surprisingly hard to decipher. She was a specialist in X-Rays and radium science, one of the first women in the field (a little too early for her own good; the inadequate radiation shielding of the time left her with scarred hands for the latter half of her life). However, apart from the time she apparently spent working for University College Hospital in London during the First World War, I know nothing of her career (all I can find from her own notes is that at some indeterminate period her office was at "Poplar"). At least I know a fair amount about where she lived in Eskdale: while her father was curate she lived at the Beckfoot Rectory (hence the numerous early photographs of Beckfoot Station); she then lived at "The Ferns" for some years, then at 2 Rigg Cottages [1949 description here] until the end of her life. I'm having trouble finding photographs of her, though there are one or two online elsewhere; she can also be seen tucked away at right of the front row in a photo of a school trip to Hardknott which she guided (in the Cumbria Image Bank picture library). Can anybody explain the following, from another letter to Daniel Hay: "I am lost without the late Miss Stokes my record searcher. Jerry's land-mine destroyed almost all my Mss. including a mass of her notes, so it means a lot of starting over again." Identifying Miss Stokes is not the problem; was that the Eskdale Green landmine of April 1941 (which certainly broke a lot of local windows but ought not to have "destroyed" a collection of papers)?

Deeply involved in a project to establish the history of the Herdwick sheep (and contributing to the official survey of public rights of way) Miss Fair died on 10 Feb 1955 in Workington Infirmary. By her own wishes, she was cremated near her birthplace, in Manchester, then her ashes were taken and buried at Garrigill, back in Wilson territory. Among the tributes were a letter to the Whitehaven News [24 Feb] describing her as "a great and distinguished Cumbrian", a perceptive obituary in the Cumberland News [18 Feb] "Though her interests were primarily scholarly, the sense of service to her fellows was strong in Miss Fair. Unfailingly she made her weekly round with National milk and orange juice for 'my precious infants'. She served on committees, perhaps not always gladly, but always conscientiously..." and a wonderful summary by Lord Rea of Eskdale [Whitehaven News, 17 Feb]

"Archaeologist, welfare-worker, explorer, geneaolgist, naturalist, photographer, writer and lecturer ... this familiar and friendly figure, sometimes half-tramp, sometimes professorial, trudging up the fells in foul or fair weather to deliver orange juice or medicinal oil out of her knapsack to some infant arrival in a remote farmhouse; or, at midnight, popping up disturbingly from behind a beck-side drystone wall, where she had been recording the seasonal note of an unusual owl. ... we shall miss more than her erudition: we shall miss her friendly, twinkling eye, her crisp opinions- sometimes inventively ornamented and not infrequently critical- but particularly we shall miss her humanity: her readiness to give a knowledgeable helping hand wherever it was needed."