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Why we should tread lightly on the remaining cobbles of Northampton’s Market Square

Mike Ingram looks into the epicentre of Northampton's history

Northampton’s historic Market Square is in the news. And not for the first time!

In February 2019, plans to regenerate the town centre were unveiled by an organisation called Northampton Forward, which includes the borough council, the University of Northampton and other public and commercial organisations, although largely devoid of representatives of the numerous history and heritage groups within the town. The proposals to improve the market square and surrounding streets are to be funded by a bid for £25 million from the Government’s £620 million Future High Streets Fund. 

Originally the plans controversially included a proposal to build a food hall or a ‘semi-permanent’ food pavilion on the Market Square. Since the plans were unveiled, the council has been flooded with letters from the public (many unaware of the consultation) objecting to the idea. After all, it was not that many years ago that they demolished the perfect food hall – the old Fishmarket with its sumptuous Gothic Victorian tiling to make way for the new bus station, and Market Walk remains largely empty. The leader of the council, Jonathan Nunn recently stated that “Looking at the food hall, this kind of thing has worked really well in other areas but thinking about its location and size it’s hard to come up with something which we know would work, so the jury’s out on that one.” The plans have now been revised, and Councillor Nunn said that an events type space on the market was a popular idea and that there was a ‘strong argument’ for fixed stalls on the site, and claimed that a number of traders were ‘passionate about’ the idea. However, what he means by ‘fixed stalls’ is unclear. 

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service after a borough council overview and scrutiny meeting on 11 November 2019, Councillor Nunn said that “We all know how dear the market square is to everybody. It’s right at the top of our list in terms of priority. Using the £150,000 we’ve had from the government, we have engaged Gillespies, who are experts in landscape architecture. We’ve instructed them that the market square is the key area.” Councillor Nunn also admitted that the council was ‘toying’ with the idea of a green space on the market square near the top corner entrance to the Grosvenor. He also expressed his own desire for the market to be returned to a more ‘traditional surface’ such as stone. The square was first cobbled in 1530, and a popular Cobblers chant used to remark how the cobbles “shook the old dears to their bones”. They were controversially ripped up and replaced in 1989, costing a reported £1 million, however, parts still survive today on the square’s extremities. A proposal to reinstate them was put forward once before in 2007 but was eventually dropped. 

A further consultation is planned for December 2019 on the proposed areas that will form the business case submitted to government. Make sure you look out for it. The future of your square is firmly in your hands. 

So, what is all the fuss about and why is the Market Square so important to the town? For a start, it is reputedly the oldest and largest fully enclosed open-air market in England. Northampton’s first markets were probably held in an open space at the end of the modern Horsemarket close to the Mayorhold (originally called the Marehold) and the Roadmender Club. The first guildhall being situated on the corner of Scarletwell Street. Sometime before 1153, Simon Senlis II, Earl of Northampton granted a tenth of the profit of the fair held in the church and churchyard of All Saints to St Andrew’s priory. Then in 1189, the town received a further charter allowing markets and fairs to be held on the ground around All Saints. However, in 1235, Henry Grosstete, Bishop of Lincoln persuaded King Henry III to stop the fairs being held there and soon after Henry issued a decree that the fair should move to a “void and waste place” to the immediate north of All Saints, where it remains to this day. 

Initially the market was called the Chequer and extended to the west side of the Drapery. Over time some of these shambles became permanent shops, complete with cellars which still survive under the square today. A market cross is mentioned in 14th and 15th century deeds, although it is not known whether the cross was then anything more than a central cross. In 1535 a new structure was built in the square. It was octagonal in shape and on a two-foot-high stone pedestal were eight large wooden pillars ornamented with carvings, finished at the top with arches to support the roof. The roof itself was covered with lead, and embattled, and on the several squares were plates of lead, wrought with figures and gilt, and on the top of each was an ape holding an iron rod with a vane. In the middle were three circular stone steps leading into a lantern or chamber. It was here that the towns standard weights and measures were kept. In April 1672, a shed or temporary timber house was put up in the market square close to the market cross as an Assize and Sessions house for the County. It was burnt down three years later during the great fire. In 1780, an obelisk was built on the site of the cross, but this having become “a nuisance” was taken down in 1805-6. 

It was replaced in 1863 by a fountain on the south side of the Market Square to commemorate the marriage of Prince Albert to Princess Alexandra of Denmark presented to the town by a Captain Isaacs. The fountain was manufactured by the Eagle Foundry in Northampton and was 45 feet high and 19 feet wide with embellishments cast in bronze. The structure was seated on an octagonal plinth with four steps leading to the base of the fountain which formed a St. Andrew’s cross.  A decorative sculptured jamb was located on each corner. Drinking basins were located on the north and south sides and shields bearing inscriptions on the east and west sides. Emblems, masks, and shields containing the Borough’s coat of arms and the crest of Captain Samuel Isaac were visible on the lower parts of the structure. 

St Crispin’s Fair in the Market Square

In 1962, after vandalism and claims that it was unsafe, the fountain was torn down. Despite these claims, it still took, six men, a crane and a blowtorch several days to remove it. Its stone steps remained and were used by market traders. Eventually, the steps and the cobbles were also removed leaving no trace of the fountain ever being there.

On the south-eastern side of the square was the Great Conduit which supplied the town with its water. It was fed from a spring in a field to the east of the town called Conduit Head (where St. Andrews Hospital now stands) and its waters were piped into a reservoir close to the square before passing into the conduit. It is almost certainly this underground water supply that has given rise to some of the legends of tunnels under the square. Sometime around 1460, a second guildhall was built over the top of the conduit as the Guildhall, which was on the corner of Wood Hill (the Skipton Building Society now stands on the site) was proving too small. The Market Cross, and all the buildings around the market square, with the exception of the main Guildhall and Dr. Danvers’ House (Welsh House) in its north-east corner, were destroyed by the fire of 1675. Almost in front of the Conduit stood the Northampton pillory. It was of wooden construction with holes for the head and hands and was probably raised on steps or a platform of stone. It would also serve as the public whipping post and would have handcuffs specially arranged for that purpose. Although the pillory was primarily for weights and measures offences, in January 1552, William Tonson, a townsman of Northampton was put in them and his ears cut for writing and singing a seditious song. The pillory was last used at an exceptionally late date, on 23 April 1814, for an offence against public decency. There was also a set of stocks outside Cornhill. The stocks were burned down by infuriated soldiers in 1634 after a town constable set one of the Kings Guard in them. After this time both stocks and pillory were made portable to be put up when needed.

In the time of Edward II, the buildings now known as the Drapery were called the New Drapery. Mercers’ Row was originally known as Wimplers row where lady’s headwear was sold and then linens and expensive silks, is frequently described even as late as Stuart times, as the Old Drapery. The eastern side of the modern Drapery was originally called the Glovery which was of a shorter length and broken up by several approaches to the square. The short narrow street from Mercers’ row to the south east corner of the Market square has been called Drum Lane from before the sixteenth century and probably took its name from the inn called “The Drums” situated there.  Osborn’s Jetty between the Drapery and the lower side of the square was known as Fleshmonger Lane in the fourteenth century, as it was here that the towns prostitutes gathered. 

The Northampton market days, according to the charter of 1599, were Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday; and this order was confirmed by the charters of 1618, 1683, and 1796. Traders were divided into rows of sellers of the same product. Butchers’ Row was the name given to the series of movable butchers’ stalls or shambles on the west side of the square. Thirty-nine such stalls in the west row and forty-two in the east row, with three at the top. In 1503, Fishmongers had twelve shambles and three shops in the Fishers Row probably next to the butchers as a custom stated “No butchers or fishmonger’s wife shall fall out with one another nor use or speak any evil or slanderous words or otherwise revile” Offenders would be put in the stocks or face a three shilling fine. Other rows included the bakers and parmenters (skins and furs), a cobblers’ row and a cooks’ row. On the periphery, goods that were sold from carts were placed. Cornhill (now called the Parade) on the north side of the square, was as the name suggests for the sale of corn. Documentary evidence suggests it was actually divided into Barleyhill, Wheathill, and Ryehill, with Ryehill being at the entrance to the modern Grosvenor Centre. Malt was sold on the east side of the square, which was called unsurprisingly Malthill, Wood for fuel was sold from carts to the east of All Saints’ churchyard, a site that still bears the name of Wood hill. An unusual town custom stated that a straw seller had to keep their load on their head and if they put it down, it would be confiscated. Sellers from outside the town including sellers of hardware, tallow, honey and cheese were forced to stand between the west corner of All Saints and the “Great Conduit” in what was known as the ‘Cooks’ Quarter’ until the late 1400’s when they were moved to the ‘Hirelings’ Quarter’ near the fishmongers. 

Large-scale horse markets were held in the town four times a year and Daniel Defoe writing in the 17th Century described them as ‘the centre of all horse markets and horse fairs in England’. Cattle were also penned and sold on the Market square until 1873, when after complaints about cattle being driven through the town, a purpose-built market was built on part of Cow Meadow known as ‘The Flat’ or ‘Freeman’s Common’ where Morrisons now stands. There were many objections to the move by local tradespeople who would lose business as a result. The new site was one of the biggest and best in the country, covering three acres with an additional two acres available if needed. Today, only the main entrance survives. 

As well as the local markets, every year Northampton held one of the seven great annual royal fairs, lasting the whole of November. As well as sellers from London and towns in the area, these fairs included foreign traders from Douai, Ypres and the like. It was here that the King’s buyers would come to buy their goods, particularly at Northampton – cloth. In 1231 it was recorded that they brought, 150 robes for knights, 100 robes for clerks and 300 tunics for alms. 

In 1257 at one such fair, an altercation between the men of Northampton and traders from London broke out on the square. Several locals were injured, and one died the next day. Four Londoners were arrested, and their goods taken. The goods of other Londoners were also seized. A furious row between the Mayor of London and the people of Northampton erupted over the rights of the town and the liberties of Londoners. It was brought before King Henry III at the Tower of London, who it appears ruled in favour of the Northamptoners. It was a landmark decision because from then on, all other towns rights took precedent. 

In 1462 Edward IV and the Duke of Somerset are passing through Northampton when locals try to hang Somerset in the Market Square for being a traitor. Edward has to stand over him with his sword drawn whilst 250 gallons of wine is brought for the townsfolk. Whilst the town gets drunk Somerset makes his escape. Edward later remarked on the wealth of the town because of all the silverware that the people brought out to fill with wine.

It was in the square that another nationally important event took place, when Northamptonshire born King Richard III began his race for the throne. When Edward IV died in 1483 the new King Edward V, and his guardian the dowager queen’s brother, Anthony Woodville from Grafton Regis left Ludlow for London. Around the same time, Richard, then duke of Gloucester, left York with 600 ‘gentlemen of the north.’ It was planned that the two groups were to meet at Northampton. The Woodvilles’ who were travelling down Watling Street from Wales, stopped seventeen miles from Northampton at Stony Stratford, close to their powerbase and home at Grafton Regis. Then Rivers and possibly Grey, rode to Northampton to meet Richard on 29 April 1483. There were inns all around the marketplace including the Hart or Hind and the Talbot which were two of the twelve ancient inns of the assembly orders of 1585. As was the Peacock that dated to the later part of the fifteenth century. However, the next morning Rivers lodgings, which was probably in the Market Square were surrounded by armed guards and he was arrested. Richard and Buckingham then moved on to Stony Stratford. Richard brought the new king back to Northampton, where they stayed until 3 May. From there they went to London, and by September the new king had disappeared, and Richard was King of England.

Between 25 March and September 1637, there was an outbreak of plague in the town in which 533 persons died. During this period the market was held on the heath (the upper part of the present racecourse), to which none of the inhabitants were permitted to go without a certificate from the mayor.

In May 1649, after the Leveller defeat at Burford near Oxford, a party of Levellers under Captain William Thompson made for Northampton. The Levellers were sympathetically received and let into the town. Three Levellers who had preceded Thompson into the town who had been arrested for circulating the mutineers’ leaflets were forcibly released from gaol, and a magazine of arms was likewise seized. Thompson made a speech in the Market square announcing his intention of abolishing all taxes and tithes, and then took their money out of the excise men’s tills and scattered it in the streets among the poor. Two days later Thompson and his men left the town, pursued by Colonel Reynolds. Refusing to surrender, Thompson killed two of his pursuers before being killed himself in a skirmish at a wood outside Walgrave.

In 1675, the Great Fire of Northampton devastated the town, destroying over 600 buildings in just six hours. Local people raised around £25,000 towards rebuilding the town centre based around the Market Square. Daniel Defoe on his Tour of England was effusive about all the public buildings in the rebuilt town. He thought them ‘the finest in any country town in England, being all built new’. He went on to describe the town as ‘the handsomest and best built town in all this part of England’.

In 1693, starving rioters seized a corn-dealer’s wagons to stop him forestalling (preventing normal trading by buying or diverting goods, or by persuading persons to raise prices). The dealer was arrested as “an oppressor of the poor and a public enemy of the whole country.” Somewhat suspiciously he later hanged himself in Northampton gaol. Not long after, a large crowd of women went to the Northampton market armed with knives, determined to get corn at fair rates. In June 1694, the riots began again after it was spotted that corn was being stored and sold in large quantities out of one of the inns, presumably for the troops overseas. In the battle that lasted several hours, the mayor and burgesses were assaulted, two were killed and some sixty wounded. 

During the ‘Bread Riots’ of 1795, quantities of meat and butter were thrown about the streets. The Royal Horse Guards (Blue) were called out and soon dispersed the rioters, but they re-assembled in the evening, stopped the London waggon on the road near Queen’s Cross, and brought butter and meat back again to the town in triumph. The Yeomanry who were in the town, and the Blues, again dispersed the mob, but not before some of the rioters were wounded.

The square became a natural place for political gatherings. The election of 1768 became infamous throughout England as the ‘Spendthrift Election’. The Tories two MPs were the baronets, Sir George Osborne and Sir George (later Admiral) Rodney, whilst the Whigs supported Sir James Langham. Rioting began in the Market Square and two hundred Tory supporters fought a hundred Whigs both sides armed with sticks and brooms. Even Lord Northampton’s Chaplain joined in!

The Welsh House

At the beginning of 1842, the members of the House of Commons had little or no understanding of the will, sympathies and feelings of the people of Britain. Prime Minister, Robert Peel’s remedy for the chronic suffering of the poor was to reintroduce the income tax at seven pence in the pound. That February a group of several hundred men entered the Market Square carrying a life size effigy of Peel intending to burn it.  The police intercepted the rioters and recovered the effigy, arresting one man who was taken to the Guildhall. By this time, the crowd had grown to around a thousand. An attempt was made to rescue the prisoner. Cobbles from the square were ripped up and thrown at the building and the doors were smashed. The Riot Act was read out and the rioters were eventually disbursed by Special Constables. A company of the 54th Foot based at Weedon were called out, but by that time things had gone quiet, although they remained in the town the next day.

It was in November 1857, at a meeting held in the market square to consider the issue of the introduction of shoemaking machinery, that Manfield’s warehouse was christened the ‘monster’. The chair of the meeting, an operative shoemaker called Mr. Wilsher, spoke of a ‘monster warehouse’ rearing its head in the town which would ruin them all. Moses Manfield was present and denied that there were any grounds for the fears of the workers that his warehouse was to be used as a factory. The shoemakers remained unconvinced and pledged to resist the introduction of machinery. In April 1858, the Northampton Boot and Shoe-makers Mutual Protection Society was formed to oppose mechanisation. In February 1859, the manufacturers of Northampton issued a statement confirming the shoemakers worst fears: machines to close shoe uppers were to be introduced.

In 1865 radical Charles Bradlaugh helped to establish the National Reform League to campaign for one man one vote. He supported votes for women, but at the time the thrust for women’s votes was on the same basis as votes for men, you had to own property which meant primarily conservative-leaning voters were only eligible. He was soon put forward as a prospective MP for Northampton. In 1874, after a by-election, the square was the scene of the Bradlaugh Riot when his supporters believed the election had been rigged. Brawls broke out, and these developed into a night of serious rioting. Cobbles were once again thrown. The Mayor read the riot act and soldiers fired shots over the heads of the crowd to disperse them.

Having a large open space in the centre of the town has also meant that our Market Square can quickly become the focus of the town’s festivals and festivities, to be accessible and enjoyed by all the people. In 1588, a great spectacle watched by people from ‘towns, far and near’ was held in the square. The conduit was temporarily converted into a castle which was called the Groyne, on the top of which was erected a tower. A court was created outside the Guildhall and a fence which looked like the town wall, complete with gates around the market. For three days, mock battles raged backwards and forwards around the square and cumulated with an assault on ‘castle’.  Throughout the 19th century, fun fairs were regularly held on the Market Square. They included all the popular amusements of the day, such as dancing bears, acrobats, jugglers and sideshows. Steam driven carousels and other rides also made appearances. In 1828, when balloon flights were still a novelty, an ascent from the Square ended in failure when the balloon caught on one of the chimneys on the surrounding roofs and its pilot, Mrs. Graham had to make her escape through an attic window. Then in 1845, tragedy struck when Mr Gyngell, a tightrope walker and fireworks ‘expert’ ascended a tightrope whilst holding two lit fireworks. Halfway up the rope he threw or dropped one of them into the watching crowd, killing Mrs E Smith. In 1913, when King George V visited the town, he was received on the Market Square. During the 1930’s, the Square was the venue for an open-air cinema with films used to enlist troops for the armed forces and during the Second World War it was used for War Weapon Weeks to raise money for Spitfires, Warships and Tanks.

So, as can now be seen, the history of the Market Square IS the history of Northampton and its people. There are eleven buildings that are Grade II listed for their historic importance in the square, such as Numbers 16 and 17 (Drury Chambers), and 32 and 32a, all dating from the last quarter of the 17th century when the town was rebuilt after the fire. Who would know today? If you look up, you will get hints of their origins. However, most look tatty. If money is to be spent, surely it should be on cleaning up and restoring these and the other buildings. The whole Market Square should be preserved for future generations and a more enlightened time when the towns history is once again appreciated and respected. The lessons of our lost castle should be heeded, as once it is gone, it will be gone forever. 

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