The English Market Town

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By: Kevin Wilson

Born in England.  Resides in Nottingham, England.  Staff tutor in history, the Open University, East Midlands Region. Ph.D., London University.  Author. 

Between 1500 and 1700, the population of England roughly doubled, growing from about 2.5 million to 5 million.  The proportion of people living in towns grew much faster than the rate of population, and in this sense we can legitimately regart the period as one of increaseing urbanization.  At the same time, we must not exaggerate this tendency.  Even by the early eighteenth century when the English industrial pulse began to quicken, more than three-quarters of the population lived in the countryside and earned its living directly from the land. 

Much of the increase of the urban population in this period is due to the staggerin growth of London from an estimated population of 50,000 in 1500 to around a half-million two centuries later.  Yet although the metropolis towered over the urban hierarchy, there were various types of towns in England in this period.  Let me give you some examples.  There were the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge, cathedral towns like Salisbury or Wells, county towns like Nottingham or Leicester, and sea ports like Hull or Boston.  But the most numerous urban type was the market town.

In 1500 it has been estimated that there were about 750 or so market towns scattered throughout England.By the eighteenth century, there had been considerable fluctuation in the urban heirarchy, and new towns like the dockyard towns of Chatham and Portsmouth, the industrial towns like Sheffield and Halifax, and the spa towns of Bath and Wells had made their appearance on the urban scene.  THe market town, however, continued to be the most numerouse type, even though there were less of them than in 1500.  So when we reflect upon the urban experience of preindustrial England, the market town remains an important consideration.2 

But what did market towns look like?  How did they develop?  What role and function did they perform?  What was their pattern of distribution?  What were different types of market towns?  What records have they left behind?  How can these records be exploited by the family historian?  These are the questions I would like to explore with you in this session.

Almost all the market towns in England in the sixteenth century had their origins in the distant past.  Some, the so-called primary centers, predated the Norman conquest of 1066 and could trace their settlement back at least to the Anglo-Saxon period.3  But the majority were either organic towns, that is to say market towns which had grown from villages in the two or three centuries after the Norman Conquest, or planted towns, that is to say market towns which, in the same period, had been founded especially for trading purposes.  Irrespective of their origin, these towns had a number of features in common.

In the first instance, they were survivals from a more expansive age.  The period from the eleventh century to the fourteenth century had seeneconomic expansion, a rising population, and a corresponding growth in the number of market centers.  By the early fourteenth century, there were mor than 1500 market centers in England.4 But the following the Black Death when England lost at least one third of its population (1348-50), this number rapidly declined.  So the market towns of Tudor England had weathered some difficult times.

The other features they had in common were legal and topographical.  These included (1) the right, usually granted by a charter from the King or lord of the manor, to hold a weekly market and one or more fairs during the year, (2) the existence of a marketin space where buying and selling could take place, and (3) the existence of burgage plots or tenements for which their holders, the burgesses, paid an annual money rent to their lord.  Burgage tenure is a good indicator of merchandizing and marketing.  The burgage plots themselved fronted onto the marketing area, and their holders enjoyed a prime trading position as well as privileges in the local market.  In fact, it was the line of burgage plots which marked out the original trading area of a market town, though by the sixteenth century, marketing in most towns had spilled into adjoining streets. 

More than anything else, the market space gave the core of the market town its distincive character.  no two towns looked exactly alike but several predominant market shapes can be identified.  The long wide main street is a fairly common shape.  We find it well illustrated in two Oxfordshire towns of Burford (see figure 1) and Thame (see figure 2), where later building development, or, if you like, infilling, has encroached upon the original market space.  A triangular shape is also common and tended to occur when the market grew up at the junction of three roads as at Bampton, also in Oxfordshire (see figure 3).  Eynsham, another Oxfordshire town, illustrates the rectangular market square which was also fairly common (see figure 4).  And then there is the cross shape, wher the market develped at the intersection of two main roads, a feature which can be seen at Royston in Hertfordshire.

But whatever their shape, market towns shared several basic functions.  First and foremost was the sale of suplus agricultural produce from the surrounding countryside.  Second was the supply of goods like dystuffs, metal wares, or spices not readily available in neighbouring villages and the provision of services by people like lawyers, doctors, or school teachers.  In addition to their basic marketing roll, certain market towns developed an interest in particular commodities like corn, wool, leather or in livestock such as orses, pigs, or cattle.  In such cases, specialized fairs attracted people to a town from much farther afield than its immediate hinterland.

Economic specilazation, then, was one of the factors which had a bearing on the distribution of market towns in preindustrail England.  Another was the spread of population.  There was a greater concentration of market towns in the more populous midland and southern corn-growing counties than in pastoral northern counties.  Nor must it be forgotten that in an age before mechanizedtransport, the distance that people could travel in the course of a day would be a further crucial factor in the distribution of market towns.  Villagers would  have to journey to the market with their goods and return home on the same day.  It is no coincidence that livestock markets were further apart than grain markets because moving cattle on the hoof was a much easier proposition thant carting bulky farm produce.

So far we have touched briefly on the origins, funcion, and distribution of market towns in preindustrial England.  Before we dicuss the characteristic institutions of the market town, I would like to give you some idea of what a market town was like.  I would like to do this by showing you some film of the Cotswold town of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire.  This film sequence is taken from a television program made for the Open University course on English Urban History 1500-1780.

We're looking down on the Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire.  The buildings are strung ouot along both sides of a long road that follows the floor of the valley.  We can just get a hint of the course of the road by tracing the roof line of the buildings.

This rural setting gives some indication that the lives of the merchants, tradesmen, and shopkeepers of Chipping Campden were orchestrated by the cultural rhythms of the surrounding countryside.  Depending on the season, wool, grain, livestock, and dairy produce were marketed in the town, and if the market gave the town a distictive urban character, there must have been a strong rural flavour in the marketing function.  Anyway, by 1500 when our period opens, there had been a market here for the best part of three hundred years.  And the settlement goes back even further.

Chipping Campden was one of several north Cotswold towns which acted as a link between the economy of the lowlands.  It is situated in a dip in the wolds, and it is on the line of an ancient road called the White Way, which came from Cirencester northwards through Chipping Campden and down the Cotswold scarp leading to the Avon and Stour valleys.  It was also linked by the road across the Cotswold scarp to the Severn plain, and it may well be that Chipping Campden's lovation on several traffic routes was a factor in the settlement's development along urban lines.  The town itself consists simply of a church on a spur of land overlooking a curving high street which broadens to accomodate a market area.

As early as 1273, a survey shows that Chipping Campden has seventy-five burgage plots, fifteen other houses, and seven shops.  A century later, the poll tax returns of 1381 give an idea of the occupational structure of the town.  Only a handful of people earned their livelihood directly on the land, although many traders and craftsmen probably had dual occupations, working part of the year in the fields.  The population at the end of the fourteenth century was somewhere in the region was undoubtedly William Greville, a wool merchant listed in the poll tax returns as having no less than six servants.  The inscription round his memorial brass in the church reads  "Here lies William Greville of Campden, formerly a citizen of London, and the flower of the wool merchants of all England, who died on the first day of October in the year of the Lord 1401."

This is where Greville lived and worked.  It has been restored over the years, but there are still one or two ourteenth century details.  Greville's career bears witness to the fact that Chipping Campden, besides acting as a center for the exchange of local agricultural produce, had a wider marketing role.  Through the commercial activities of merchants like Greville, Chipping Campden was connected not just with the neighbouring towns and villages, but also, via the woolstaple at Calais, with European markets.  Greville House gives us the rare opportunity of looking at a late medieval business firm, with living quarters and offices at the front and warehouses and storage at the rear.  The wool probably changed hands in the wool staplers hall, originally a private house which later became a meeting place for merchants and their agents.  The parish church of St. James was substantially rebuilt during the fifthteenth century from the profits of the wool trade.  Although there were several weavers and fullers in Chipping Campden in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the town never developed a specialist interest in cloth manufacture.  It remained substantially a small market town and a wool distribution center.

It is likely that the area around the church represented the core of the early rural settlement.  The church was obviously a gathering point, and in many small towns, the market grew up next to the churchyard.  But in Chipping Campden, the church and market place are well separated, and it is likely that the establishment of a market along a roomier section of the main road was a thirteenth century speculative venture.

The road simply broadens to form a central market place.  The overall shape is obscured by later encroachments on the open area--the market hall, the town hall, and nearest to us, a group of buildings forming a third island.  Indeed, one of the buildings is called Island House.  It is likely that these buildings have replaced stalls and temporary buildings connected with market trading.  The town hall is largely a nineteenth century building, but there are traces of fourteenth century craftsmanship in the paneled buttresses.  It may have served as an early courthouse or meeting hall of the borough.  It clearly occupies a central position, and it is from here at the town officials would have supervised the weekly markets and the quarterly fairs.

We can be a little more definite about the market hall.  It was built by Baptist Hicks in 1627 and bears the Hicks coat of arms.  Baptist Hicks was a wealthy London merchant who became lord of the manor in the early seventeenth century, and made a big impact on the town.  His imposing tomb in the parish church bears witness to his position and wealth, but despite his efforts, the town did not regain the commercial prosperity of the late fifteenth century.

The market hall acted both as a commercial and a social center.  It offered to tradesmen and customers alike shelter from the sun and the rain, and performed the crucial function of separating perishable goods like butter cheese and other foodstuffs from the sheep and cattle milling about in the street.  But even allowing for encraochments the open marketing area was comparatively small and the fact remains that Chipping Campden was a simple market town in terms of both economic activity and topographical features.

Chipping Campden, then, has some of the characteristic features of the basic English market town--a marketing space, a market hall, a meeting place (in Chipping Capden's case the wool staplers' hall) for those engaged in the handlin of the principal commodity, and a rather fine church.  It also has a grammar school founded in the sixteenth century, though we did not see this on film.  The governmetal business of the town, if that is not too strong a phrase, was carried out in the manorial court, and this too is fairly typical.  The bulk of English market towns in this period did not achieve corporate status and did not therefore develop independent political institutions, a factor which has strongly influenced the surviving record.

There are just two further points about Chipping Campden that I would like to draw to your attention.  The first related to the name of the town.  Chipping is an old English word meaning general merchandising; the surname Chapman, meaning general merchant or trader, is derived from it.  It is worth stressing that place names often provide a clue to the former work and leisure activities in a tow.  This is something to which I will return at the end.  The other point relates to the harmony created by th colour and texture of the building materials.  Chipping Campden was built in locally quarried Cotswold stone.  One of the delights of the English market town is the way that local building materials blend together to procide a singular identity.  Extensive usse of local building materials is one of the indicators of the age of a town and, as with place names, is a useful historical source, particularly when the written record is slight.

I have said that Chipping Campden is representative of the simple English market town, but just how typical is it? Let us pursue this question by looking at Banbury.  This film sequence on Banbury is taken from the same Open University television program previously cited.

Twenty miles or so east of Chipping Campden is Banbury, a market town in Oxfordshire.  It is situated on the river Cherwell in the heart of a rich agricultural area, and two major geographical features have influenced its development as a merket center.  First, it is at the junction of two regions, between the Thames Basin to the south and the Midlands Plain to the north, so it acts as a gateway for traffic from contrasting rural economies.  And second, it is at the junction of two main routes, a north-south road running from Northampton to the Cotswolds, known as Banbury Lane, a route of prehistoric origins.

Banbury, like Chipping Campden, acted as a distribution center for local agricultural produce and was for a time a local wool-collecting  center.  But it differes from Chipping Campden in the way it developed as a regional market center during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, specializing in particular in the livestock trade.  Ron Linford of Midland Cattle Marts, Linford said:

  Banburry is a very, very old market town, it had its first charter in 1185 in the time of Henry the second; there is I believe fairly good evidence to the effect that markets were being held a long time before that.  At this time of year, we're selling breeding sheep, and feeding and breeding lambs, that is to say those for future production as well as for current fattening and eventually turning into food.  Today, which is a Wednesday, we sell what are called store cattle, probably between a thousand and fifteen hundred of them, which are again for future fattening.  The big day is Thursday, when we sell what really constitutes your Sunday joint.

This is in fact, the largest stock market in England.  It is now a busy market town, and there's been a good deal of modern development.  Even so, enough has survived to remain us of the old town, and the topography of the market area has not been darastically altered.

I want to point out several topographical features:   The central market area lies at the junction of High Street, Bridge Street, and parsons Lane, and a line of buildings, filling in part o the open space, has broken the market into different sections.  The depth and shape of High Street--originally called Sheep Street--suggests an overspill maket area.

There is another large open space on the edge of town, and it is here that we begin our look at Banbury.  Banbury Cross is situated where the main Oxford to Coventry raod broadens to form a long rectangle called Horsefair.  Space was essential for a livestock market because animals had to be kept in pens or tied to tethering posts.  From the sixteenth century onwards, Horsefair became a specialized secondary market for sheep and horses, away from congestion of the main market area.

The street curvin down to the center of town was known as Sheep Street until the nineteenth century, its name providing a clue to the trade of the area.  It's now called High Street, and it leads directly into the main market place.  This is the core of the preindustrial market town, and the whole of the central area was given over to open stall trading.  the wekly markets attracted agricultural produce from surrounding villages, and the fairs, were of regional importance.  It is all on a much grander scale than the market place in Chipping Campden.  And we get some idea of Banbury's sophistication as a market center from the way certain parts of the market and its surroundings specialized in particular produce.  A corn market was tucked away in the top corner on the site of the present corn exchange, and there was a pig market on the site of the Bear Inn.

Butchers had long congregated in one section of the market place, and this came to be called Butchers Row.  Over the years, temporary stalls and booths were replaced by actual buildings which became permanent encroachments.  This division of the open area fostered specialized trading.  By the seventeenth century the market place had evolved into a complex of alleys, steets, and open spaces.  try and put out of your mind the fact that many of these buildings are of fairly recent origin.  The important topographical point to grasp is that these street lines have been created by infilling in the original market space.  But not all Banbury's commercial activity took place in the designated area under the supervision of corporation officials.  Increasingly, from the seventeenth century, there was a shift from open marketing in the streets to private trading, especially in the inns.

This was one of the first houses to be built in Banbury after the great fire of 1628, and it was probably purposely built as an inn.  The courtyard has been filled in somewhat since then, but clearly it could have accommodated carts and horses. An eighteenth century deed refers to stabling facilities here.  Although The Unicorn wasn't a coaching inn--it's much too near the market place and it had no rear access--it was an important gathering point for carriers, and in those days this rather picturesque and pretty courtyard would in fact have been very busy goods yard.

The number of inns increased in Banbury in the seventeenth century; in fact, eigh new inns appeared between 1640 and 1651 (obviously the landlords of Banbury did well out of the civil war), and more appeared by the turn of the century.  There seem to be two reasons for this: first, the general growth in trade and population, and second, the fact that Banbury was centrally situated on the roads from the Midlands towns of Northampton, Coventry, and Daventry, to the Cotswold towns and also of course, to London.  Well, it was in inns like The Unicorn that traveling merchants gathered to strike private deals in corn, cloth, and malt.  Not surprisingly, landlords came to acat as middlemen between buyer and seller, and even, in fact, perform a fairly primitive banking role.

Other factors were at work in widening the trade of the town.  The Coventry- Banury section of the Oxford canal was completed by 1778.  It not only brought coal to Banbury for distribution throughout the region, but it encouraged in the district the specialized industry of plush weaving which had Coventry connections.

A number of commercial and industrial buildings were erected on land between the canal and the market place, and a traveler in 1785 called Banbury "a dirty, ill-built town."    Although it did not undergo rapid industrialization like some of the northern towns, Banbury did see the growth of small scale industry which mingled with old crafts and trades and began to change the character of the town.

Banbury, the regional market center, provides some obvious contrasts with Chipping Campden, the small market town.  These include a complex market topographu, marketing specialization, and nascent industrialization.  But in the topology of market towns, it would be incorrect to think only in terms of those two market types.  Well below the level of Chipping Campden were numerous small towns, even perhaps market villages.  Hallaton in Leicestershire is an example of this third category and is illustrated from our third film sequence.  The speaker is Charles Pythain-Adams, lecturer in local history at the University of Leicester.

The examples you have looked at so far represent two surviving levels in the miniature heirarchy of the market town.  But we do need to remember also that during the period 1400-1700, another type of community with marketing funtions was falling rapidly into oblivion.  Such places, like Hallaton in Leicestershire, had never achieved true urban status; they were simply villages whose medieval lords had been granted the right to hold markets or fairs or both and to collect the tolls from them.  You can see how many of these rural market centers there were in southeast Leicestershire during the earlier middle ages.  Away from the busier though roads, these small trading centers served the wealthy agrarian communities of this densely populated corner of the county.

During the thirteenth century, Hallaton was more important even that the newly planted town of Market Harborough.  We get a hint of its role from the market place, as originally laid out around 1200, covering a much larger area that the present square.  But Hallaton did survive to serve the needs of its small and somewhat isolated hinterland.  And although by the mid-sixteenth century, its market place must already have shrunk to its present compact size, the place seems to have experienced a revival, a final phase of modest prosperity in the later seventeenth century, when its population increased to around 170 households.

The village, as we see it today, is virtually fossilized in the form it had reached about 1700.  A short street, containing quite smart houses of about this period, has been built into the market place and follows the probable southern edge of the original market area.  It leads from the church to the present small rectangular market place,  with its green and late seventeenth century butter cross, where the country wives sold their butter, cheese, and eggs.  You can see how even this reduced area has been enroached upon by the eighteenth century cottage which symbolically blocks one of the major access points.

Further up the main street behind it, we can also see a triangular indentation in the housing line.  This may have been a subsidiary market for hogs, since further down the street, there is a side road known as Hog's Lane.

In the seventeenth century, Hallaton's weekly market can have served no more than its immediate locality, but the place was still holding four fairs each year which brough in trade from further afield.  The community could then boast three inns, at least one of which probably overlooked the market place as the Bewicke Arms does today.  One of the other inns may have stood on the site of the Fox at the top of the village and near to the open area with its pond where the larger livestock fairs were probably held.  These fairs went on into the nineteenth century, and as late as 1938, the oldest inhabitants of Hallaton could still rememer the incomprehensible speech of the Welsh calltle drovers who came to the village on such occasions.  But by that late date, Hallaton's market was already dead.  Its annual fairs had shrunk to two, and soon they too withered away.  Hallaton reverted to what  it had originally been, an ordinary agricultural community with its once busy drove ways now overgrown with grass.

Hallaton's fate was typcial of that which had befallen scores of other village market centrers throughout the country by 1600.  All that distinguished this one was the unusually long time it took a-dying.

I would like to finish by very briefly placing the towns we have looked at in a general context.  Within the category of market town, we have been able to identify at least three types.  At the top of the hierarchy is the regional center like Banbury with a complex market topography.  At the end of our period, Banbury had a population of about 2,500 and was beginning to respond to the impulse of industrialization.  In the middle of the hierarchy is the basic market twon like CHipping Campden with a simple merket topography and a general marketing function for its subregion.  Chipping Campden experienced little growth during our period, and at the end of the eighteenth century it had a population of about 1,000.  On the bottom rung of the hierarchy is the market village like Hallaton, serving a restricted county locality with a very simple market topography and a population at the end of our period of about 500.

So we have had the regional center, the small market town, and the market village.  Their relative importance and their growth or decline can be traced from visual evidence that still survives.

We tried to indicate in the film that visual evidence such as street lines, open spaces, street names, and actual buildings constitutes an important source of information for market towns.  Despite changes in the urban environment, there is a good deal about the past that can be discovered in the existing historical landscape.  The best way of finding out is to use your feet and your eyes and do some exploration for yourselves.  Your explorations can be helped in a number of ways.  Maps are a very useful source, particularly if you can track down two or more for the same town at different periods because this will help you to chart changes over time.5  Aerial photographs can also assist you considerably in seeing the shape of a town.6  Travel writers like William Leland in the sixteenth century, Celia Fiennes in the late seventeenth century, and Daniel Defoe in the early eighteenth century have recorded their impressions of the market towns they visited, and this can help you to get a picture of a town at a particular point in time.7

If you merely want to check whether a town you have an interest in had a grant to hold a market, you can do this by referring to the report of The Royal Commission on Market Rights and Tolls which we first published in 1878.  This can be supplemented by the county by county history series known as the Victoria County History of England and the uch shorter handlist of medieval English boroughs put together by Beresford and Finberg.8

For the students of family history, the records of the market town in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries present something of a problem.  Few of these towns aspired to corporate status, and hence they have not left behind a coherent set of easily accessible records.  The main disadvantage, though, is not so much that the records are scattered but that in many cases, they have not been published.  So, if your family had market town connections and you want to piece together something of the pattern of their lives, be prepared for a fairly long research program.  Rather than cite detailed strategies here, I think it would be much simpler if I referred you to the excellent appendices on family history societies,  record offices, and family bibliography put together by Don Steel in his recent book called Discovering Your Family History.9

I would only remid you, as a final point, that market towns in preindustrial England were comparatively small in size and small in population.  Banbury at the end of the eighteenth century contained perhaps 600 households, Chipping Campden, or Hallaton in this period, you would be embarking on an enterprise that would involve you in exploration of the forces that helped to shape English society and this, to my mind, brings the family biogropher and the historian together.