Researching the history of market houses and halls

Market Cross, NorwichTowns are built on trade. For centuries its focus was markets and fairs. Medieval markets were presided over by a cross, called the market cross or high cross. Eventually divine protection extended to physical. A Tudor cross could be an octagonal structure on legs that sheltered those selling butter and eggs from baskets. Market crosses were built by the market authority. In the rare event that one was donated by a private benefactor, it would generally be taken over and maintained by the authority.

Who was the authority? The valuable right to hold a market was granted by the Crown. Many such grants were made to monasteries and manorial lords in the Middle Ages. Poorly-placed markets died away; successful ones became the hub of a market town. The Dissolution and the growing independence of successful boroughs meant that by Elizabethan times markets were more likely to be run by a corporation, perhaps developed from a merchant guild. In Scotland markets were more often under burgh control from the start. A special Pie Powder Court dispensed justice in cases relating to the market; the building in which it met could be called a tollbooth or tolsey.

John Varley, Market Place at Leominster, Hereford (1801)So a natural development was the market house. This provided a covered area for vendors on the ground floor and a guildhall, town hall, moot hall or tolsey above. This plan can be traced back to the Palazzo del Broletto in Como, Italy (1215), but there are no British examples before the 15th century. The market house could serve many purposes. A small town might have no other public building for centuries, so it could house a Tudor court, Civil War armoury or a Victorian policeman. Civic functions, court sessions and public meetings could be held there. It could even double up as a school or jail. The typical structure was an open, arcaded ground floor with one or more storeys above.

From the mid-18th century until the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835 there was a burst of civic improvement through 'private' Acts of Parliament. Such an Act would create a local improvement commission, empowered to carry out specified works. In some cases this was the demolition, rebuilding or re-siting of the market house. The records of any such commission should be in the local record office. (And see West below.)

Corn Exchange in Mark Lane, London, from Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808)By this time growing towns and cities were finding it convenient to split the functions of the old market house between separate buildings: town halls, court houses, and a covered market and/or a corn exchange. Corn exchanges were designed to provide cover for merchants trading in corn samples. John Wood the Elder of Bath designed Palladian corn exchanges for Bristol and Liverpool in the 1740s. London gained a similar one around the same time (shown right). But the majority were built between 1840 and 1870, usually by private companies, who let them out for other events as well.

The 19th century also saw the creation of grandiose market halls. The first of the massive halls was St John's Market, built in Liverpool in 1822. It brought the outdoor market indoors, providing greater security as well as shelter from the weather. Stalls were set up under a huge roof supported on cast-iron pillars, surrounded by walls lined with small shops. Many Victorian market halls of similar type followed. Glass roofs became increasingly popular as the century wore on. The first market hall to have a glass and wrought iron roof was that built at Birkenhead in 1845. A late example is Cardiff's market hall (shown below). In 1870s multi-storey market halls began to appear, lined with shops and with flamboyant façades. They rivalled the department stores then coming into fashion. This generation of market halls, together with shopping arcades were the precursors of the shopping malls of the 20th century.

Some small town Victorian market houses were built by commercial consortiums. But in the main Victorian market halls were the work of corporations, paid for from public money and designed often by borough surveyors. So the plans and other records of the works should be in the local record office.

Cardiff Market Hall, designed by borough surveyor William Harpur in 1891.Sources