The history of the Gilten Market

The Isle of Wight is the only place in the British Isles that has a Gilten Market. It’s always held in the first week of December and celebrated by gilding the horns of the winning steer, called the Gilten Beast, with gold.

The origin of the tradition has been lost in the mists of time, possibly it was once an ancient pagan custom but there’s no proof.

By holding the market at the beginning of December, it  encouraged IW farmers to produce top quality beef for the Isle of Wight butchers to buy for Christmas. This saved the IW butchers travelling to the mainland to purchase their  Christmas beef. They kept it in insulated containers cooled by ice from the ice factory, and if they had bought any of the winning steers they would display the rosettes and prize cards in their windows.

The first Fat Stock Exhibition was organised by the Isle of Wight Agricultural Society on Wednesday, 11 December, 1861.  David Biles, the Island’s High Sheriff in 1998-1999, has a framed poster of the original event in 1861 showing a list of the prizes for each class and informing competitors that ‘a fee of 5s. must be paid with each entry’ and that tickets for the dinner afterwards at the Bugle Hotel, Newport, would cost 2s.6d.

As the Society had held a ploughing match at Stone Farm, Blackwater, on 19 October, prizes for both the match and the Fat Stock Exhibition were awarded to the winners at the dinner by the Mayor of the old Newport Borough Council.  The County Press records that three Gilten Market dinners were held at the same time during the 1890’s when thirteen toasts were proposed.

The event continued to be run by a Newport Borough Council committee with the Mayor acting as chairman and it was revived in 1924 after the First World War. After that, the Gilten Market was held annually until 1938 when for the second time, war disrupted life on the Island. In 1950 the market was revived again until 2000 when the B.S.E crisis and an outbreak of foot and mouth stopped the movement of cattle and closed markets.

With the abolition of Newport Borough Council and the office of Mayor of Newport, the Committee decided to look into the possibility of the Gilten Market coming under the office of the High Sheriff of the County of the Isle of Wight.  The then High Sheriff agreed to this and the Market continued, surviving the termination of Newport as a Fatstock Certifications Centre in 1974 and the closing of Newport market in 1984 when it moved to Brickfields.

From 2001 to 2003 there was no Gilten Market because of the B.S.E. crises and market closures but December 2005 saw its successful revival. The Gilten Market Committee is made up of Island farmers and the event is organised by Southern Counties who run Salisbury and Shaftesbury markets. Phil Legge, who is a blacksmith by trade, provides pens for four or five animals at the indoor-school at Brickfields and the entries are adjudicated each year by a different judge from the mainland with sponsors for every class.

All the animals have to be weighed on the scales from the old Newport market and to compete, the steers must be under 30 months old and led on a rope.  In December 2007 more than two hundred cattle, plus sheep, were entered for the event and it was generally agreed that the quality of five steers was good enough for Smithfield market.   Besides the prize money, the owner of the winning Gilten Beast gets a good price for the animal at the auction afterwards and the presence of mainland bidders helps to increase the bidding.  Last year the prize was won by Mike Denness who sold the steer to Hamilton Fine Foods.

But the highlight of the Gilten Market is, as it always has been, the gilding of the Gilten Beast and last year the High Sheriff, Lt. Col. David Langford, painted the steer’s horns with gold leaf.   Following tradition, the annual dinner is held in January when a percentage of the dinner money, proceeds of a raffle and the revenue from entry fees etc. is donated to a charity chosen by the High Sheriff.

Richard de Redvers, Lord of the Isle of Wight, who founded Newport, granted the town its first charter around 1180 and his plan of the town included three squares which for centuries served the town as market places.   In 1645 the then bailiffs of the ancient borough of Newport recorded in the Ledger Book, the ‘old Ligger’, their oaths ‘to see the Kings market well’ and its thanks to a similar spirit on the Island today that the tradition of the Gilten Market continues to thrive.