Sunday, March 25, 2007


(by kind permission of Newsquest Essex)

Although serious ‘retail therapy’ takes place in Chelmsford’s shopping precincts, some more prudent customers still prefer buying in the market, just as their forebears have for centuries. Ancient records state that the ‘Markett Crosse’ at Chelmsford dating back to 1199 granted to Bishop William by King John, was much the place for both housewives and farmers. Close to St Mary’s churchyard, it also served as a site for executions and burnings at the stake.

From paintings and, much later, photographs, we can look back at the town’s agricultural life in Georgian and Victorian times, particularly on the all-important weekly market days - traditionally Friday. Townsfolk were used to the bollards and cattle pens as they dodged the animals and sturdy wagons making the High Street and Tindal Square area a tumult of noise and mess.

In 1880 the market was moved to a piece of land behind the Corn Exchange (demolished 1969) where Chancellor Hall stands today. This freed the High Street from the weekly disorder caused by the wagons and animals, although many folk remember seeing sheep being driven through the town until the late 1940s. “Chelmsford came alive on market day,” recalled 96-year-old Eva Baxter, “my father remembered seeing the cattle, newly purchased by farmers, being driven down Market Street, through Tindal Square, along Threadneedle Street and New Street destined for loading onto cattle trucks at the railway goods-yard. How would motorists react today?”

After World War II, a new site was chosen for the Livestock Market, off Victoria Road at Springfield Road end. In the 1960s, the existing retail market was given a permanent site on the ground floor of the multi-storey car park. It was here that Pauline and Brian Handley started trading in haberdashery that attracts customers from all over Essex. Brian recollects the early years:

“We began trading around 1964,” he remembers, “our stall was then outside near the cattle-market – not far from where we stand today. The stalls then had tin-corrugated roofs - imagine the noise when it rained? In winter we traded, despite snow and fog. Often frost would form on the underside of the roof. As the day warmed up, it thawed and dripped all over the stock. I still think those early years were the coldest I can remember, working outside for ten or more hours a day. I recollect setting up and packing up my stall in all sorts of weather conditions. As a young man I was told by the old-timers who had worked the markets for many years, that market-life was dying out and wouldn’t be around in a few years. But we are still here and it would be a terrible loss if something that has lasted for more than 800 years should die out. Markets are at the heart of a town - a prosperous market usually means a prosperous town!”

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