Bill Laws takes a look at the chang­ing for­tunes of th­ese vi­tal trad­ing places na­tion­wide over the years

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There is no bet­ter place to be than in town on mar­ket day. This, at least, was the opin­ion of Wil­liam Cob­bett, the rum­bus­tious 19th cen­tury com­men­ta­tor on ru­ral affairs. Cob­bett judged a town by its mar­ket and re­garded it as “the frank­est way” of do­ing what he most en­joyed: “to see many peo­ple and to talk with them.” He toured Eng­land in the 1820s and in his trav­el­ogue Ru­ral Rides, the Farn­ham-born farmer re­viewed many of “those wise in­sti­tu­tions of our fore­fa­thers.”

At Nor­wich, for ex­am­ple, “the meat and poul­try and veg­etable mar­ket is beau­ti­ful”, al­most as at­trac­tive as those in a French mar­ket al­though in the lat­ter, he sus­pected, the meat would be “lean and bloody and nasty”. Cob­bett also ad­mired Nor­wich’s mar­ket women who were “equal in neat­ness to the mar­ket women in Philadel­phia.”

He de­rided Ox­ford, a place where “they make the liv­ing pay for the dead”, but ranked Croy­don mar­ket as “good”. In Winch­ester, “ev­ery­thing was cheap and fall­ing in­stead of ris­ing.” At Here­ford Mar­ket he went amongst farm­ers “with whom, in gen­eral I was very much pleased” al­though neigh­bour­ing Ross-on-Wye was deemed “dull – no wheat in de­mand.”

Mar­kets, un­like shops, were places where “the trans­ac­tions are fair and just, not dis­fig­ured by false­hood.” Oak­ing­ton in Hamp­shire proved “very hand­some”,

Pet­worth “solid and clean” and Warmin­ster “ex­celled for its corn mar­ket – one of the great­est in this part of Eng­land.”

In con­trast, “Ash­ton Keynes” – or Keynes in north Wilt­shire – was down on its luck de­spite hav­ing been a large mar­ket town.

While a poor har­vest or a down­turn in the econ­omy could af­fect the for­tunes of the coun­try mar­ket, the im­pend­ing ar­rival of the rail­ways would seal the fate of many: 11 years af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of Ru­ral Rides, Ash­ton Keynes was by­passed by the Great Western Rail­way. It would never re­cover.

Coun­try mar­kets were in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to live­stock mar­kets and to­gether they suf­fused the lo­cal econ­omy with a weekly injection of cash. Money flowed into town from farm­ers, porters, drovers and deal­ers. As the auc­tion­eers sold the beasts and took their com­mis­sion, cash deals were done on the side with a slap of the hand and an ex­change of ‘ luck money’. The tra­di­tion of the seller hand­ing back a lit­tle cash as luck money con­tin­ues to this day.

There was a sig­nif­i­cant amount of money in­volved as Colin Man­ning, who started work as a mar­ket clerk in the 1940s, re­called in an oral his­tory of Here­ford Mar­ket, A Slap

of the Hand. Colin was ex­pected to ac­com­pany the se­nior auc­tion­eer to the bank to col­lect the nec­es­sary cash – up to £5,000 – in his Gladstone bag for the day’s trad­ing. The auc­tion­eer liked to fetch a hot pie from the baker on his way back to mar­ket. “One Wed­nes­day morn­ing he put the bag with £5,000 in on the floor and walked off to mar­ketk withih theh hoth pies,i to b be greetedd byb a tele­phone call from the baker: ‘Mr Robin­son, you’ve left your money be­hind’.”

The busi­ness of buy­ing and sell­ing beef beasts and milk­ing cows, foals and draught horses, thin sheep and fat pigs at­tracted a host of other traders. There were cheap­jacks and hawk­ers’ stalls, deal­ers in ‘ fur and feather’ (rab­bit, poul­try and game) and drovers’ dogs for sale; labour­ers, ser­vants, carters and car­ri­ers stood for hire; far­ri­ers, fur­ni­ture mak­ers and sad­dlers plied their trade while the cries of butch­ers,b h bbak­ers,k bb bar­bers andd pa­tent medicines mak­ers filled the air. Inns and pubs cleared the ta­bles to of­fer mar­ket spe­cials or ‘mar­ket ordinaries’ (a ba­sic lunch with plenty of ale); tem­po­rary cider stalls popped up along­side those of the small­hold­ers, loaded with dressed chick­ens and skinned rab­bits. AAnd ev­ery shop in town put on its

mar­ket best.b Alf EE­vans was a shop as­sis­tant in Here­for rd in the 1920s: “Wed­nes­day, be­ing mar­ket day, was al­ways busy for us,” he re­called d in A Slap of the Hand. “Ev­ery­thing was sm­martened up and put out­side and if there wa s a frost for four or five days, the skates wo ould be hung out in­stead of the usual rab bbit wires. It was a Mr Cor­nack’s job to fit the e skates to the ladies’ shoes. Whether he liked a pretty an­kle or not, I don’t know,” he added d.

For thhe farmer, dressed in his best breeches and po­lis shed gaiters, mar­ket day was an op­por­tun nity for some se­ri­ous gos­sip. “If they had a go ood price for their stock, they’d cel­e­brate e a lit­tle bit at the mar­ket tav­ern. Even if it t was a bad day they might cel­e­brate!” re­membe ered one farmer.

Farm ming may not be re­garded as the old­est pro­fes­sio on on earth, but farm­ers could jus­ti­fi­abl ly claim the ti­tle. And since the farmer hhas been shap­ing this land for at least 5,000 yeears, the place where he traded his

beasts is of equal an­tiq­uity. Th­ese an­cient mar­kets, how­ever, have rarely left re­searchers a pa­per trail. The cen­tral cross­roads in the city of Glouces­ter, for ex­am­ple, has served as a mar­ket place since time im­memo­rial. Live­stock, corn, but­ter, cheese, leather, wool and hides were all sold on the street here, near the neigh­bour­ing church col­lo­qui­ally known as St Mary-in-the-mar­ket. There was even a spe­cial mar­ket bell, hung in 1706, and yet the city never re­ceived a royal mar­ket char­ter.

Mar­kets, and fairs be­gan to re­ceive of­fi­cial char­ters to­wards the end of the me­dieval pe­riod. Led­bury in Here­ford­shire re­ceived its char­ter from King Stephen in 1138, and the Char­ter, Pa­tent or Close Rolls record many fur­ther grants awarded from 1199 un­til 1516. Fairs such as St Bartholomew’s at Smith­field, Lon­don, awarded a royal char­ter by Henry I, usu­ally ran along­side a live­stock mar­ket. The fa­mous Not­ting­ham Goose Fair is still held un­der a char­ter is­sued by King Ed­ward I in 1284 while the lit­tle York­shire town of Ap­pleby, granted a royal char­ter for a horse fair “near the river Eden” in 1685 by James II, con­tin­ues to host a huge horse fair ev­ery June. GazetteerG of Mar­kets and Fairs in Eng­land and WalesW to 1516 is avail­able on­line at his­tory. aac.uk/cmh/gaz/gazweb2.html.a

The First Re­port of the Royal Com­mis­sionC on Mar­ket Rights and Tolls (11889) records many, al­though not all, c har­ters con­fer­ring rights over mar­kets and fairsfa be­tween 1199 and 1483. Af­ter 1516, the royal grants awarded for mar­kets and fairs are recorded in Pa­tent rolls, ex­cept in cities such as Ch­ester, Durham and Lan­caster where,w as with those in the Duchy of Lan­caster,L spe­cial ju­ris­dic­tions ap­plied. The DuchyD of Lan­caster and the Palati­nates of Ch­ester,C Durham and Lan­caster can be searcheds sep­a­rately at TNA.

Changes are afoot

As the cen­turies rolled by, the busi­ness of buy­ing, sell­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally butcher­ing beasts in the street saw the dif­fer­ent mar­kets start to part com­pany. In the early 1800s, Glouces­ter’s city of­fi­cials wwere try­ing to reg­u­late the mar­ket trade, for eex­am­ple by bar­ring ‘ huck­sters’ and imm­pov­er­ished ap­ple sellers from the streets. TThey were also act­ing on res­i­dents’ ccom­plaints about the noise and smell of li­ive­stock penned in St Mary’s Square. GGlouces­ter’s cit­i­zens had a point: the ccom­bi­na­tion of flies and an­i­mal ma­nure was ppo­ten­tially lethal and city peo­ple reg­u­larly su­uf­fered from out­breaks of sum­mer di­ar­rhoea or worse still, a typhoid or cholera epi­demic.

As a con­se­quence, Glouces­ter’s live­stock mar­ket was moved to the city out­skirts in 1823 where, once linked to the Chel­tenham and Great Western Union Rail­way, it be­came one of the coun­try’s ma­jor pig and sheep mar­kets. Other Vic­to­rian towns and cities fol­lowed suit, edg­ing out the live­stock mar­kets and leav­ing be­hind a trail of cu­ri­ous place names such as Sheep Way, Cow­pen, Cowcross Street, Pig Al­ley, Horse Street and Cock Lane.

Glouces­ter was but one of a rash of pur­pose-built live­stock mar­kets. Rarely si­t­u­ated more than a short walk from the town cen­tre and of­ten raised on marginal land re­claimed for the pur­pose they in­cluded New­port (1844), Here­ford (1861), Aber­gavenny (1863) and Monmouth (1876) and they were soon mak­ing the most of the fact that Bri­tain ruled al­most a quar­ter of the world’s peo­ple. The Vic­to­rian era marked the be­gin­nings of the glob­al­i­sa­tion of trade and for the next 150 years live­stock mar­kets en­joyed their best pe­riod. Iron­i­cally, it also marked their de­cline.

The first to feel the bite were small town mar­kets. Si­t­u­ated 15 to 20 miles from big­ger city mar­kets, or a day’s walk for the drover and his cat­tle, they lost out to the ubiq­ui­tous cat­tle truck. Ru­ral ar­eas were flooded with cheap, ex-mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles af­ter the First World War. Adapted to carry stock, they killed the drovers’ trade and put larger, more lu­cra­tive live­stock mar­kets within the farmer’s reach. As the car sup­planted the farm cart it was not un­usual to find a farmer bring­ing calves to mar­ket in the back of his car.

Re­gional sales of pedi­gree breed­ing an­i­mals such as the Scot­tish bor­der

Th­ese an­cient mar­kets, how­ever, have rarely left re­searchers a pa­per trail

A Smith­field cat­tle drover, ac­com­pa­nied by his trusty dog. A flock of sheep and a herd of oxen can be seen in the back­ground

Farm­ers trade sheep in Nor­wich with the city’s cas­tle in the back­ground

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