Hereford's Markets, Past, Present and Future

PUBLISHED: 11:17 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013

Life in December...

Life in December...

Jean O'Donnell looks at life in Hereford's markets, past, present and future - often controversial, but vital to the prosperity of the city. Photographs by Cai Broom, Edmund Dickson, Michele Eversham and Gemma Harper.

For hundreds of years, Hereford life has revolved around its market. It was the reason why people travelled here, not just from the villages and towns around the county, but from across the Welsh and Worcestershire borders too. Traditionally on market day farmers and their wives would come into the city to buy and sell their animals and produce.

The right to hold markets has been jealously guarded through time, being vital to the prosperity of a town. After the Norman conquest, royal charters were granted to towns and cities or to local lords which confirmed their rights to hold markets and fairs and to receive the income they produced from rents and tolls.

By 1230 the townspeople of Hereford were complaining to the king, Henry III, that Leominster was damaging their trade by holding its market on the same day, a Saturday. In 1237 he ordered that Leominster should change its market day to Friday. Hereford still has a market on Saturdays, but over time Wednesday became its main market day.

A new charter that reaffirmed the city's market rights was granted by Elizabeth I in 1576. This magnificent document, illuminated with a miniature of the queen, is still kept safely in the present Town Hall vaults and may be seen on request.

At the same time a splendid market hall, often called the Town Hall, was constructed in High Town to reflect the prestige of the city. The merchants' guilds had offices on the top floor with a great meeting chamber on the first. Underneath, between the 27 pillars that supported it, the poultry and butter markets were held. The area around the hall became so congested with traders that the ironmongery and fruit markets were moved to St Peter's Cross, outside St Peter's Church.

The decline of the Town Hall building may have been due to the Civil War, when trade was disrupted and the city emerged much poorer. By the mid-eighteenth century a series of repairs were made to the hall until in 1770 the weight of the top floor was becoming dangerous and it was removed. The residual building was "modernised" by covering the timbers with white stucco.

The two great Hereford fairs of the year were held in May (St Ethelbert's) and October (St Dennis'). The autumn fair was mainly for livestock and agricultural produce, and the streets would have been full of cattle sheep and horses. It was not until 1896 that Broad Street ceased to be used for the cattle sales; and photographs of that time show animals being held in bunches in the street for inspection by buyers.

The first mention of a purpose-built cattle market is found in the minutes of the town council on February 1 1844, when a committee was set up to make a report. A local auctioneer, William James, had tried to establish a new market by raising subscriptions, but the attempt had failed. He spoke at a public meeting in 1852 and said that Hereford had the best market in the kingdom but the worst accommodation.

The opening up of the railways brought the problem to the fore. Leominster, Shrewsbury and Monmouth had all obtained acts of Parliament to enable them to establish new markets. Railways were the future for the transport of livestock and produce.

At the same time there was great concern about public health: Hereford was found to have a death rate above the national average. The government forced the city council to hold an enquiry into the poor sanitary conditions of the city. This was held in January 1853 in the Guildhall in Widemarsh Street, and appalling evidence was presented to the inspector about blocked drains, sewers, cess pits, contaminated wells, overfull graveyards, livestock and abbatoirs.

All of these nuisances contributed to the high incidence of water-borne diseases such as typhoid. The damning evidence led to Hereford obtaining an act of Parliament known as the Hereford Improvement Act 1854. A brilliant surveyer,Thomas Curley, was selected to draw up plans for a new waterworks on Broomy Hill, a drainage system with sewers and at last, a new livestock market.

Land on the Portfields, just to the north of the city walls, was selected for the market. This ideal site, offered by Mr William Heather, could be approached by four main roads and the railway was close by. The purchase and construction cost 6,500. Thomas Curley observed to the town councillors: "I cannot hesitate to avow my deliberate opinion that your new Cattle Market will be equal to the greatest public improvements which this city has witnessed in the last 50 years and will certainly rank among the greatest and cheapest which the city can see through the remainder of the present century."

On October 17 1856 the first Municipal Stock Market was opened to the public. A further 2,500 was spent in the same year on the site and 4,000 on laying out new roads and erecting new shedding.

A new road, New Market Street, was laid out parallel to the old Bowsey Lane or Wall Street and joined Brookside, now Victoria Street. Edgar Street did not exist then, but was merely a path leadiing to the new mansions at Richmond Place, the mill near Widemarsh and the racecourse. Next to the market the house that had belonged to Charles Heather, a local architect , had opened as the New Market Tavern, together with its own small concert hall.

Once the cattle market was successfully established, a public appeal was launched in 1860 to raise 5,000 to build new markets for the sale of meat, fish, butter and vegetables, together with new hop and wool warehouses. The plan was to demolish the old town hall, which was collapsing, and build a new butter market in its place, close to the open area in the High Town where poultry, butter and other produce had always been sold.

John Clayton produced an elegant design for adding a 20-foot high clock tower on to the rusticated arched entrance to the open area where poultry and other commodities had been sold .In spite of the appeal only raising 2,500 the city council accepted the plan, and in 1861 the old town hall was demolished. The redesigned Butter Market was covered with an iron frame and glass, no doubt inspired by the Crystal Palace. Hop and wool warehouses were constructed behind it in Maylord Street.

By 1886 the livestock market need to expand, and the Markets Committee resolved to buy a meadow next to the market, owned by Miss Bulmer, as a site for an agricultural produce market and a horse fair, as well as the May and October fairs, which were acknowledged to be a nuisance in the centre of town. The meadow was just over six acres and Miss Bulmer wanted 5,000 for it. She would not lower the price and so in 1888 the council reluctantly paid it. In 1897 it was enlarged again.

Drovers still travelled on foot from as far away as Carmarthen with their flocks of sheep, but cattle were brought in by train to the railway sidings nearby at Moorfields. Weekly auctions of apples and pears and seasonal fruit were held in the 1900s, and poultry and graded eggs were auctioned in a special shed. There was keen competition at the Christmas market for prime birds, as many Herefordians will remember.

The Queen with Price Phillip came to Hereford in April 1957 to open the Langford sale ring. One resident remembers her standing on the weighbridge "so that everyone present knew her weight...but was sworn to secrecy." The new ring was an important addition for showing off pedigree Hereford cattle and Ryeland sheep. When New Market Street was widened in 1969 and the roundabout constructed new buildings were erected on the market site, and the old fruit, poultry and egg building on the north side was demolished.

In 1927 Hereford was considered an important regional market, and 143,675 animals were sold here in that year. By 1997 the figure had increased to 334,917. However the adverse effects of BSE and then Foot and Mouth reduced throughput to just 92,520 animals in 2003.

Plans for a new multi-million pound cattle market on a 48-acre site on the outskirts of the city have now been drawn up for approval. Some say it is an unnecessary extravagance; but the Hereford Market Auctioneers, who hold the lease, are confident that the throughput will return to three-quarters of pre-Foot and Mouth levels.

The move will make way for a 200 million development on 12 acres by Edgar Street, including shops, housing and leisure facilities. Discussions are being held about what is needed, and it is crucial that local opinion is considered if the development is to be successful.

The Butter Market is vital to the High Town centre of the city, providing a retail area for local produce and small firms. It is also a thoroughfare to Maylord Orchards and to the cattle market; and its future must be linked to the new development. The traders have now formed their own association to promote the Butter Market with its immense potential. Herefordshire Council has a duty to help them with this ambition.

The Edgar Street Grid has raised many issues about the role of a modern market and where it should be held. The charter that gave Hereford its market rights in 1597 confined the market to within "the Liberty of the City" - an area over which the city council then had administrative and judicial powers. To make provision for a new market an Act of Parliament was passed in October 2003 giving new powers to Herefordshire District Council to relocate it. The old charter has been replaced and extended by a new one, but the city's powers, so jealously guarded for so long, are now submerged within the county authority.

Market day in Hereford is now much as it was, and although the city centre is less crowded with local people the Welsh valley ladies remain loyal to their day out on Wednesdays. In the livestock market store and prime lambs, together with breeding ewes, are sold regularly while cattle are auctioned on the second and fourth Wednesdays. Pigs are offered on alternate weeks. There is also an area of stalls selling a variety of goods, and a wide range of shops which are open throughout the week on this central, easily accessible site.

Herefordshire Council has acknowleged that it has a mandatory obligation to provide another site for the traders at the cattle market who are being dispossessed. One proposal is to reintroduce a street market twice a week in Commercial Street and by the Old House, which would give High Town a new vitality and restore the ancient role of the area.

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Herefordshire Life