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