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A walk through the history of Northampton Market Square

Christopher Glazebrook of Northampton Heritage Hunters details the history of the heart of the town

The ancient market of Northampton owes its origin to a series of secular fairs that were held in the church and churchyard of All Saints, established by the reign of William II (1087-1100), immediately after the church was constructed around 1084 to 1090.

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In 1235, Robert Grosseteste Bishop of Lincoln, persuaded Henry III to remove the fair from church property on religious grounds, and the king issued an order that henceforth the market and fair of our town of Northampton “shall be held in the void and waste place of the said town on the north part of the church.” The Royal Charter of Richard II (14 June 1385) appointed the mayor of Northampton clerk of the market and gave him control of the weights and measures. The clerk of the market was an important official of the royal household, as part of his duties was to test the accuracy of the measures in use. When the town was redeveloped in 1300, the new Market place was given the name of the Chequer. 

The great conduit, which had a large chamber above for meetings, was located on the lower south side of the market place and dated from the reign of Edward IV (1461-70 & 1471-83). It was supplied with water through pipes from a spring to the east, now located in the grounds of St. Andrews Hospital. A lead pipe connected the great conduit to the little conduit. In1543 the pipes were re-laid to ensure a better supply of water. A water levy was introduced in 1630 on innkeepers and victuallers who frequently took water for brewing purposes creating a shortage. Innkeepers paid 2s 6d and alehouse keepers 12d. When new tanks and pumps were installed on Wood Hill in 1831, the remaining conduits around All Saints and the market were removed.  

Until the Act of Parliament of 1870, market stalls were erected in the streets immediately adjacent to the Chequer or Market Square: the Drapery, Mercers’ Row and near the west end of All Saints churchyard (the Women’s Market), and sites assigned according to a strict classification of trades. An order of 1605 names Wednesday, Friday and Saturday as the three market days, and specified that stallholders must remove their stalls at the end of the market otherwise they would be forfeit. The only exception was for those “stalls as be rented to our sovereigne Lord the King and that stande faste in the grounde.” 


Read Mike Ingram’s urgent plea about the future of the Market Square


In Records of the Borough of Northampton it explains that “on cattle market day the cattle were penned in the Market Square, the sheep in Sheep Street, the horses (entire) in Horsemarket, the mares in the Marehold, and the hogs in the Hogmarket.” 

Northampton was always vigorous in defending its ancient toll-rights on livestock entering the town for sale in the markets and fairs, as this was an important source of revenue. One major project financed through these tolls was the fortification of the town. Henry III; Edward I; and Henry IV all issued Letters Patent concerning the “customs to be levied and collected on saleable articles coming to the aforesaid town.” From a local order dated 1585 we find the first reference to Wood Hill when a penny was introduced on every cart load of wood, hay, straw or any other fuel.

As the plague was raging in Northampton in 1638 the market was held on Northampton Heath (a large open area which ran from the upper part of the Racecourse to Kingsthorpe), to which none of the inhabitants were permitted to go without a certificate from the mayor. Between the 25th March and September, 1638, 533 persons died in the town. 

The market place also acted as a deterrent against crime as many people were publicly humiliated in either the stocks or pillory. At the Michaelmas Sessions 1689, it was ordered that Thomas Smith of Kislingbury, for counterfeiting a pass, should “stand in the Pillory in the Publike market place in the Towne of Northampton for the space of one hour betwixt the hours of twelve and two in the afternoon with a writing on his Breast declaring his crime.” This piece of equipment was situated in the south-east corner of the market, almost opposite the old Guildhall in Abington Street, under which was the borough gaol. The pillory was in use until 1814 and had a double purpose as the local whipping post. In 1747 the corporation paid one shilling for mending the handcuffs on the pillory. The original stocks on Cornhill were burnt by disgruntled soldiers in 1634, and seem to have been replaced by moveable ones. 

From the thirteenth century a Market Cross existed in the Chequer, but in 1535 a new and more elaborate cross was designed. This cross was destroyed in the Great Fire of Northampton 20th September 1675 along with most of the buildings around the Market Square, apart from Welsh House. No doubt the temporary “shead of Bord and Timber at the Chamber Charge for the judges to sitt in next Assizes,” which stood close to the cross, would have helped fuel the flames. The wooden shed dated from 1670 when the previous location of the assizes in Northampton Castle had become ruinous. 

After the fire new buildings were constructed on the same alignment as the old ones. The width of some buildings dating from medieval times may have been determined by the ridge and furrow plots from when the land was open fields.  However, certain provisions were made to enlarge the corner between the Drapery and Sheep market; the corner between the Market place and Abington Street; and also the passage from the middle of the east side of the Drapery. All of the buildings had large cellars or vaults for storage which were excavated under the Market Square itself, giving rise to the modern myth of tunnels. Fred Goldby in his book about the Market Square says the old tunnels under the market were opened up as air-shelters during the last war. 

For centuries the trading of cereals had taken place on Cornhill (The Parade), in the open market. The purpose built Corn Exchange opened in 1851. This classical Italian style building was designed by Messrs. George Alexander and William Hull, at a cost of over £10,000.  The Great Hall was 140 feet long, 65 feet wide and 60 feet high. Besides the Corn Market every Saturday, concerts, balls, bazaars and public meetings were all held in the great hall, also early demonstrations of the Electric Bioscope (1901), a precursor to its later role as the Exchange Cinema, renamed the Gaumont on 9th April 1950.  

To celebrate the marriage of the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, a grand fountain was presented to the Borough by Samuel Isaac, Captain Commandant of the Fifth Northamptonshire Rifle Volunteers 9th November 1863. It replaced previous structures erected on the site of the cross, an insignificant Obelisk (1780), a Pump (1806) and gas lamp standard (1826). There was a drinking and jet fountains surmounted by a gas lamp pillar, cast in iron and bronze. The fountain was dismantled on 15th April 1962, due to its unsafe condition, although the base survived into the 1970’s.

The Act of Parliament of 1870, already mentioned, gave the corporation of Northampton power to establish new markets for horses, cattle, and various commodities; and abolish the existing markets in the Drapery and Mercers’ Row. It also contained compulsory powers to purchase new land. On the opening of the new Cattle Market (17th July 1873), the Northampton Mercury explained the reasons behind the move: “For a number of years the providing of better market accommodation has been a theme of discussion both town and county. Few towns possess a better market square; but the stock sales on Wednesdays and Saturdays prevented its space being occupied to any considerable extent by humbler agriculturists than farmers and cattle dealers, such as market gardeners, poulterers,  fish salesmen, vendors of dairy produce, and a great many other articles and things which count in the motley assortment to be found in a weekly market, and which in consequence were thrust into the streets, to the inconvenience of traffic and business therein.” 

This is probably when the granite sets were laid (which most people think are cobblestones); a few remain around the outer perimeter of the present market. Previously the market area had a partly gravelled surface. On the 5th February 1702 it was ordered that any person riding a horse on the gravelled part of the Market hill to make a show will be fined 12d for each offence.

The historic Parade House, home of Church’s China Store for many years, was demolished in 1899 to construct the Emporium Arcade; a collection of shops located behind an architectural facade on the Parade. These shops came to the end of their working life during April-May 1972, swallowed up by the Grosvenor Centre.

The large open space was an ideal venue for all kinds of outdoor events. Before the First World War, Empire Day was celebrated every year, and when George V and Queen Mary visited the town on Tuesday 23rd September 1913, a special dais was erected in the Market Square to welcome them. Many towns organised Tank Funds to keep the army supplied with armaments during the war. A Tank was parked on the market from Monday, 25th February to Saturday, 2nd March 1918; the slogan was: “Get them a Tank today.” Tank certificates cost 15/6 and Tank Bonds from £5. The reason why we ended up with a 20 ton Tank in Abington Park; given in recognition of the towns efforts. From 1921, until it was relocated to the garden of remembrance on Abington Square in 1937, the Edgar Mobbs Memorial was sited towards the Abington Street end of the market. 

Back in 1873 the council considered turning the Peacock Hotel into an indoor market rather than going to the expense of moving the cattle market, of course this did not happen. However, 1960 saw the demise of this iconic building, praised by Nikolaus Pevsner in his Buildings of England series. It was lost to provide more shops, this time along Peacock Way, later redeveloped into Peacock Place, now Market Walk.

As the Northampton Mercury said, few towns possess a better market square, while Pevsner thought it had something of the character of market places in Holland and Belgium, and this historic character should be preserved for future generations to enjoy, although much has already been lost.

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