The History of Markets and Fairs

On the evening of 23rd October, members met at St Mary's Centre to hear an interesting illustrated talk by Dr. Trevor James on the history of our markets and fairs.

Trevor took us back to medieval England, reminding us that before the Black Death scholars confidently maintain that there were over 3000 weekly markets in England alone. Given that at that time the population of England was probably about four million persons, we can see from the number of markets that they played a vital role in the medieval period as mechanisms for the exchange of goods. The Black Death dealt a body blow to the intensive market structure in England. Whilst the population fell to approximately two and a half million persons, over half of the weekly markets died out and, as a generality, can be said to have been in decline from then on.

Trevor then trained us to be market detectives. While many markets have disappeared, evidence of their existence can still be found in many towns and villages in England. What is this evidence? Well, firstly Trevor reminded us that quite often there are built structures that tell us that there was a market in the general vicinity. Perhaps a market cross still exists or more significantly a market building. Or perhaps there has been infilling development which clearly related to the existence of a previous market. He reminded us that at Ashby de la Zouch there are a group of shops in the main street which stand isolated, surrounded by pavements. Trevor explained to us that these were almost certainly sites of market stalls which, through the application of squatters' rights, obtained a built permanence. Sometimes, as indeed is the case at Ashby, a gentle widening of the main road through the town or village centre would indicate the presence of a long lost market. If you have visited Newport in Shropshire, Chipping Campden or Ashby de la Zouch, then you will almost certainly have visited towns which once had thriving weekly markets on the central main street.

Place names are also a good clue to the previous existence of markets. The obvious example of course is where the word 'market' forms part of the title of the settlement; but other words also hold clues. Chipping is an Anglo Saxon word meaning selling and so any town with the word "Chipping" in its title almost certainly was a flourishing market town. To our surprise he told us that the word Boutham means a neighbourhood of stalls and so, again, spot the word "Boutham" as part of a street name and you have found the site of an ancient market.

More surprisingly, find the word "port" within the title of a town which is clearly not associated with water and you find yet another ancient meaning for the word market. Newport in Shropshire is therefore in essence a new market town.

Then the detective looked at street names which identify trading activities. Linked to chipping is of course the word cheapside. Moreover, as markets expanded into nearby streets, those streets became specialist areas for specific kinds of trading. Irongate in Derby and Breadmarket in Lichfield are good examples; but go to Northampton and there are 17 different trading streets identified by special names.

The next clue excited much interest from the audience. Unbeknown to many if not all of us, church dedications also give a hint to trading activity sites. Probably not many people know that St Nicholas is the patron saint of traders and this dedication is one of the most popular church names. If there is a church dedicated to St Nicholas, then look for the site of the ancient market nearby. For certain, Leicester market originally existed next to St Nicholas Church before migrating elsewhere within the city centre and St Nicholas Church in Newport sits on an island site in the main street adjacent to the site of the previous market.

Not to be outdone, fairground people had their own patron saint - St Giles. So the same clue can be used to identify the sites of fairs. You won't be surprised to learn therefore that many churches dedicated to St Giles are on the edge of medieval towns where at that time a reasonable amount of open space was available to accommodate the annual arrival of the fair.

In passing, Trevor also reminded us that fairs often perform the same functions as markets. They may not be as frequent but originally they grew up as a means of exchanging goods with only a minor element of festive activity associated with them. Slowly that role of course has reversed.

Finally of course Trevor reminded us that as good detectives we would need to look at the Domesday Book which provided a host of documentary evidence on the existence of traders in towns and villages.

Being a detective can sometimes be a fraught occupation. Sometimes there are red herrings to confuse you. One for Trevor in his hunt for market and fairground sites is the calendar change in 1752 which effectively lost us 11 days. Many charters for fairs were granted on specific Saints Days prior to the calendar change and are now 11 days out of line with what we think they should be. So always remember, if you are seeking to link a particular annual fair to a Saints Day, then readjust your calculations to take account of the 1752 change in calendar dates.

The second part of Trevor's talk was illustrated by a number of slides, providing us with concrete examples of his research. We looked at Masham in Yorkshire with its large market square, market cross and flanking buildings. It's a small town and yet with a market square which clearly hosted a major market. We moved on to Cheddar then Burford and Chipping Campden before Shrewsbury, Alcester and Penzance, following the development of the simple market cross to a more sophisticated covered building capable of protecting the perishable goods on sale.

Another piece of history previously unknown to members of the audience involves the papal bull enacted in 1215, which banned markets from taking place in churchyards. So next time you visit a churchyard look for the ancient market cross that may still exist, indicating that once the site was used as a weekly market. Certainly, these sites exist in the Midlands and Trevor directed us to Berkswell where a market cross exists in the churchyard but a more common memory of the market is that it took place immediately beyond the precincts of the church. Go to Laxton in Nottinghamshire or Alfreton in Derbyshire and you will find similar examples of market crosses in the churchyards.

And what about the Lichfield Bower fair? Trevor wasn't going to escape without telling the audience about its origins but the background to the fair is shrouded in the mists of antiquity and so far has had to admit that his skills as a detective have not enabled him to explain its existence. Unlike markets, many of which were granted charters and for which quite a lot of physical evidence of their existence can still be found, many fairs exist for reasons which have long since been lost. Leaving us the more curious, Trevor closed his talk by saying that the Lichfield Bower probably goes back to Anglo Saxon times. Who knows? Perhaps a member of the Society would, too, like to become a detective and find out!

Roger Hockney
October 2001