Paying on the Nail in the Shambles

Whilst many of our speakers are very good, some are outstanding. This was certainly the case at the February talk when, after the business of the AGM, Anna Hallett spent a riveting hour offering the audience a fascinating slide show on the history and evolution of markets. So comprehensive was her presentation that no summary can do justice to the range of information she shared with us. But let us try!

Originally a form of market was typically held in the nave of a church, Sunday being the day when townsfolk gathered together, since it was a convenient day for both worship and communal activities. As markets outgrew the confines of the church they moved to locations close by, where market crosses were erected to mark the close links between church and traders. Lichfield's market charter was granted in 1153 by King Stephen. As with all charters a specific day of the week was nominated for the market and fees paid to either the king, the church, or both for the privilege. In return no markets could be established in the vicinity or on the same day. Hence, royal charters were much sought after. Sometimes the market was so ancient, having been established at a river ford or crossroads, that the town grew up around it and took part of its name from its market (Chipping Ongar and Market Harborough are examples). Chipping is derived from ceap, which is Old English for market.

As markets became more sophisticated so they became more specialised. In Lichfield, Breadmarket Street reminds us of that part of the market specialising in selling bread. Similarly, Bore Street is a corruption of Board Street; boards being trestles upon which goods for sale were displayed. Market Street was originally named Sadler Street. As time evolved, so temporary tables gave way to increasingly sophisticated market buildings. Market crosses became enclosed to provide shelter from the sun (in the case of milk or butter) or rain. Market areas remained open at ground level but had covered upper floors (Tamworth, Bridgnorth and Ludlow still have examples) which were used as schools or law courts. These structures became ever larger and drew on contemporary architectural themes, often reflecting the town's wealth and prestige. By the Victorian era markets in large cities were of such a scale that market halls were constructed using iron and glass - the building materials of the Industrial Revolution.

As trading became more complex and more extensive, so specialist markets were established. Corn exchanges are familiar to us all because they were so numerous. Prior to that corn had been traded in other public venues - notably hotels or public houses. Cattle and sheep markets often filled our market squares or, in some towns, just took place on the main street with all the concomitant noise, smell and dirt, until banished to purpose built auction sites which were often on the edge of towns or near to the, then, new railway station goods yards.

Anna's talk toured the country with an impressive collection of colour slides. Amongst many we visited the pannier market at Barnstable and the market halls at Chipping Campden, Much Wenlock, Cheddar, and Stockport; we saw a variety of market crosses, both simple and ornate at Chester, Canterbury, Malmesbury and Chichester; and we marvelled at the amazing grandeur of Leeds Corn Exchange.

Finally, Anna explained the title of her talk. Trading was often concluded with a deal sealed by a handshake over a stone object; some of these were primitive, some were table-like works of art. This was "paying on the nail". The Shambles was traditionally the area for butchers. It was a messy, smelly, trade and usually banished to a far corner of the market; "the flesh hamels".

Those who missed a rare treat can still catch up on the talk. Anna's book, entitled Markets and Marketplaces of Britain (published by Shirebooks) is still available.

Roger Hockney
February 2013