This edited article about Market towns originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 722 published on 15 November 1975.
If you happen to live in Market Harborough, Market Drayton, Market Bosworth, Market Rasen, Market Deeping, Market Stainton or Market Lavington it will not surprise you to learn that your town is one with a very long tradition indeed.
Since medieval times, or earlier, it will have been a trading centre. It will have been a meeting place for buyers and sellers of cattle and sheep, butter and eggs and poultry, lace and yarn, fleeces and gloves and half a hundred other products in constant demand that could be supplied by farmers and their wives, cottagers and others, centuries before the Industrial Revolution.
There are other less obvious place-names where buying, selling and bartering went on in distant times, all part of the way of life of scattered rural communities. Chipping Campden is one such. Others are Chipping Norton, Chipping Ongar, Chipping Sodbury and Chipping Warden. ‘Chipping’ comes from the Old English word ceap, meaning ‘barter’. It survives in London, in Eastcheap and Cheapside.
Few towns in Britain today, large or small, do not have their market place or Market Street, even if the original market has now been removed to the outskirts. Here, in olden times, was the focal point of the township’s life and activity. It was always central. It was usually close to the church. Here the town crier would broadcast his announcements. Here the people would gather, to protest against some local injustice, or perhaps to welcome home some fellow-townsman who had won glory and honour as a fighter or pioneer or adventurer.
These market places, whether in towns or villages, always had a market cross, Market House, or Market Hall. At its simplest, it would be no more than a stone shaft rising from two or three tiers of steps on which the vendors’ wares would be set out and haggled over. The shaft was usually surmounted by a cross, as a reminder that honesty and fair-dealing were a sign of godliness. There is one of these at Stalbridge, in Dorset, beautifully carved and six hundred years old.
In larger centres the pillar, with its cross and perhaps a weather-vane, was enclosed within a quite elaborate stone structure. Between and behind the arcades the vendors could set out their produce and their customers would inspect and purchase them, or reject them if they wished, sheltered from inclement weather.
Two of the most beautiful and ornate of these are at Chichester, in West Sussex, and Malmesbury, in Wiltshire. Quite apart from their usefulness, they are fine examples of the stonemasons’ craft. Both are octagonal, and the upper portions of the stonework are elaborately carved and ornamented, with statuary, pinnacles and finials. The one at Chichester is as impressive, in a small way, as a cathedral, Appropriately enough, it was presented to the city by the Bishop of Chichester, in 1501.
Materials other than stone were used in these medieval structures. The Yarn Market at Dunster in Somerset (known also as the Butter Cross) has an enormous octagonal slated-roof in two pitches, lit by gabled dormer windows and supported on oak pillars set on a plinth of stone.
Another ornate Butter Cross that combines stone, slate and timber is to be seen at Witney, in Oxfordshire, and yet another at North Walsham in Norfolk. The Butter Cross at Oakham has a sloping roof of Collyweston slates supported on squat oak pillars. Duck under this and you will see a set of medieval stocks, unusual because they have an odd number of holes.
The cathedral city of Salisbury formerly had no fewer than four market crosses. These were the Cheese Cross, the Wool Cross, Barnewell’s Cross, and the Poultry Cross. Only the last-named of these survives, and unfortunately it is now threatened by the ever-increasing traffic that swerves past it all too closely. This is the great danger. Far to the north, in Nenthead, the highest village in England, there is the ancient Market Hall. Or was. For only a year or two ago an overloaded lorry failed to take the bend on the hill and crashed into it.
As the words suggest, Market Houses and Market Halls were much larger structures than those already described. The Market Hall at Ross-on-Wye is a huge stone building, twin-gabled and mounted on no fewer than fourteen columns such as you might expect to find in a large church or cathedral. In Tetbury, Gloucestershire, the even larger Market House stands on no fewer than eighteen stone columns, set in three rows of six. Known also as the Town Hall, and overlooking the open market place, still referred to as The Chipping, it served for centuries both as a place for buying, selling and bartering and, its upper storey, or Great Chamber, as the meeting-place of the town’s authorities for administration.
The design of these Market Halls, or Market Houses, though it differed in details, as well as in the materials used, was such that they could fulfill at least a dual purpose. At ground-floor, that is at street-level, they offered space for customers to walk in and out through the arches and make their purchases. Some of the arches were wide enough for handcarts or even horse-drawn carts to pass through. In some towns, a right-of-way for vehicles to pass through existed. Below ground-level there might be cellars for use as store-houses.
Ledbury Market House is perhaps the most beautiful of all the timber-built market houses in the country, the work of John Abel, Carpenter to the King, in 1617. It is actually a three-storeyed building of herringbone-patterned timbers and diamond-paned windows.
In the uppermost storey, grain was preserved. In the Great Chamber the town council met to conduct their affairs. Trading went on meanwhile below. And official notices were posted on the giant fluted columns of Spanish chestnut that supported the structure as a whole. Until as recently as last century, bands of strolling players used to enact plays beneath the Great Chamber, the audience crowding in through the arcades as they liked.
At Abingdon, in Berkshire, where there was a market at the time of the Norman Conquest and a Royal Market Charter granted in 1328, Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, built the Market Hall on a site that had had some sort of a market building there for more than three centuries. Cellars were hewn out of the ground beneath, and the County Assize Court met in the Upper Chamber to dispense justice. An old custom, dating back to the reign of King George IV, is maintained here, buns being thrown from the balustraded roof on high days and holidays.
No two of these Market Crosses, Halls or Houses are alike. But all of them, whether timber-built or more splendidly designed in stone, are reminders of past days, ones that date back to the Middle Ages very often. If they are in use to this day, they form a visible and tangible link with the far-off days when they ranked among the most important buildings in any community.
This article and image(s) are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.