VCH Explore

Explore England's Past

Markets and Fairs

Ledbury Market House in the 1860s

For centuries, markets and fairs were places where face-to-face trading took place, at set times and places. They were subject to regulation, often laid out in a market charter, granted by the king or other lord. Some charter markets had special courts to regulate them, often known as pie-powder courts, the term coming from medieval French, pié-poudré - reflecting the dusty feet of those who came to market. Many markets operated as prescriptive markets, having existed 'time out of mind', and were subject to the regulation of the local manorial court.

The pattern of weekly markets at centres of population (even small villages) was complemented by periodic fairs, sometimes held in the countryside. These more remote settings may reflect very ancient gathering places, where people came together to pay tribute or tax. By c.1300 there were about 600  towns in England, mostly small market towns, and about 1,000 more markets in rural areas. More information on these early markets and fairs can be found at the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516.

Markets in towns and villages were often held in special areas, which can still be traced on the ground today.  Rectangular or lozenge-shaped 'broad street' spaces were probably the most common form, no more than the widening of a main route through a settlement. Especially in the 12th century when many new boroughs were planned, square or rectangular areas were set aside for the market. Some triangular market places were set out at the gates of monasteries, others arose at road junctions.

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries many towns built market houses. These offered shelter for traders and customers and storage for goods and also reflected civic pride. Many of them had upper rooms which were used for meetings, becoming, in effect, a town hall. During the 18th & 19th centuries larger towns, especially, built ever grander market buildings, tidying the often messy business of market trading off the streets.

The number of markets has declined remarkably over the 20th century and those that survive often have very few stall holders. The number of fairs has not only declined, but their nature has altered. Very little trading now goes on, except at some horse fairs, and the entertainment  element, which had always run beside the trading fairs, is now their main function.

Theme Items

Traditional haymaking near Winsford

The Exchange was built in 1741–43 by John Wood the Elder, with carvings by Thomas Paty, replacing the less grand facilities on the site for Bristol

This book contains the names of the various Welsh traders (mostly women) who traded on the Welsh Back in Bristol in the eighteenth and early ninete

This two-storey timber-framed building is a key central structure in Ledbury and an important visual symbol of the town.

Market Day in Ledbury   ‘The farmers used to bring their animals through to market…through the town. The sheep and the cattle.

Timber-framed and set on octagonal stone columns, the Tolsey is typical of a broad range of market houses, town halls, and moot- or guildhalls foun

Its primary function was as a market house - the name 'Tolsey', found particularly in the Cotswolds and Wiltshire, suggests a place where market to

Castle Cary's market seems never to have been a success despite numerous charters and revivals.

Many rural areas had fairs from the Middle Ages until the 19th century or later but few have left behind such a distinctive site as West Lydford's