Trading through the centuries – the living history of St Albans market

old market pix

old market pix - Credit: Archant

FEW places have a more remarkable history than St Albans.

Blessed with Roman ancestry and home to various notable figures, the district has seen a lot of action over the centuries. But the true backbone to the city’s illustrious heritage is the market, which has been a fixed, unwavering part of everyday life since it first formed in medieval times.

It officially dates back to 1553, when it was recorded in Edward VI’s charter, but John Cox, publicity officer of St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society (Arc and Arc) remarked: “It’s been in existence definitely for 500 years and probably longer.”

The market can be charged with shaping St Albans’ identity and became a central focal point to the lives of the city’s inhabitants after the Peasant’s Revolt in the 14th Century.

A market reputedly ran outside the Abbey since the 10th Century. The charter officialised the market and first specified the dedicated market days of Wednesday and Saturday.

Since then crafts have been nurtured, skills unearthed, and family legacies immortalised on the cluster of stalls as generations have continued the work of their ancestors.

The traders have kept the market alive for centuries and St Albans has to thank them for the many varied products available. As historian John explained: “The market traders are a very close-knit organisation and a number of them have been around a long time. It’s a very good mix of stalls.”

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Anything from records, to clothes, to laptop repairs can be found at a great price – a far cry from the market’s more traditional days of selling bucket-loads of fish, ship paraphernalia and even cattle.

Huge herds of animals once trotted around the square on Wednesdays until the 70s, and the air was described as being “filled with mooing, bleating and squealing from the different hurdle-enclosed spaces”.

In earlier times the market would have been even more jostling than it is today – with fewer high-street chain stores in St Albans, it would have been the community’s lifeline for goods. Fresh produce and unusual objects took pride of place on different stalls lit by naphtha lamps, which were renowned for smelling strongly, making the shopping experience very different at the start of the 20th Century.

John said: “The market would have looked much the same, and probably would have had wooden constructions. Probably not with the blue and yellow awnings they have now, that came in the beginning of the 90s.”

The long-standing bi-weekly event has certainly witnessed a lot in its time John added: “In a sense it’s been there to witness the beginning of the First World War. It’s probable that they [soldiers] would have assembled in St Albans and marched to training.”

He also spoke about tales of people driving into St Albans with horse-drawn carts, often used for market days, and the army taking the horses off them for military use. Traders and shoppers alike would have felt the brunt of the war’s hardships: “Certainly in the 20s they would have gone through a very hard patch, but the market of course sold goods at prices people could afford.

“I think in a sense the market went on come what may, just something that was used.”

To this day the market still provides great produce, at great prices, with a large number of people coming in from outside the district week by week to shop for bargains: “It’s done well to survive so many years and it’s getting better,” John added.

n The Herts Advertiser is aiming to raise awareness of our ancient market, the diverse range of products available, and the challenges faced by traders.