Markets In Yorkshire

There are many thriving markets in Yorkshire, which offer a wide variety of goods, produce and colourful characters minding their stalls. From the valleys in the North and West Ridings to the flat, fertile land lying in the eastern and southern areas, market towns have always been an important part of Yorkshire life.

This kind of trading has existed in Yorkshire since Roman Times which saw the introduction of a currency based system where people could buy and sell things for the first time. Farmers would trade their wares for money in which to pay taxes to their Roman landlords and use the stalls to buy tools for their own use in agriculture. During the Anglo-Saxon and Viking times markets decreased in Yorkshire but were revived again under Norman Rule during the middle Ages.


The origins of medieval markets developed from farmers and their wives holding informal stalls in the churchyard for parishioners after worship. Some settlements also became centres of local activity, especially in those where Norman castles were built. These places became the centre point for the local area and from this the market town developed. In Medieval times to be granted market town status was a sign of increased importance in the area. Laws were introduced meaning that each new market town was given this legal status by Royal Charter through the sitting monarch and must be over one day’s travel from the next. By Medieval standards this was a long distance and meant that each new trading town also served the surrounding villages, who in turn could not apply for this status themselves.

Examples of some of these early castle market towns are Skipton, Knaresborough and Pontefract. The former has a long trading tradition, due to its proximity to the Yorkshire Dales. It received its market charter in 1204 and was used mainly for wool-trading.

The residents of the castle and landowners of places such as Skipton were keen to add a market to their towns because they could generate extra income through charging merchants a toll to hold their stalls in return for protection from thieves or attack. Nowadays the market offers a vast range of goods from meat, cheese and vegetables to DVDs, jewellery and flowers. Many of the traders set up their “setts,” from scratch as, unlike other towns, there are no fixed stalls.

A settlement’s market place became the centre of the community’s activities. Central town squares dedicated to market stalls began to be developed with the granting of these legal rights to hold them on certain days by the Crown. It also provided an opportunity for local farmers to sell their produce and livestock to the paying public or other tradesmen.

Like many things in the middle ages they were influenced by religion. Market crosses were built next to these central squares in order to seek god’s blessing for trade and a reminder to “not defraud by cheapening.” These often elaborate structures took many forms, some merely steps leading up to a mounted cross, such as the one in Northallerton to almost temple-like creations, emblazoned with carvings and coats of arms, like the one built in Beverley.

This octagonal market cross was constructed in 1714 and has eight columns supporting an elaborate roof, which bears the coat of arms of the reigning monarch, Queen Anne, and those of the town amongst others. The enriching urns on top of the roof were added in 1769. The market cross has recently celebrated three hundred years in the market place and has been recently renovated as part of a project in the town centre. Beverley is a fine example of how religion and trading combined during the Middle Ages to increase the wealth and importance of town. Beverley was already a place for religious pilgrims to visit, due to Saint John of Beverley’s tomb in the minster and so became the ideal place for local traders to sell their wares to the paying public, many of whom were religious tourists. The surrounding pasture lands of the Westwood and its fertile plains leading to the Humber estuary made Beverley an ideal location for a market town.

Nowadays it has two markets in separate locations. The smaller Wednesday market has a range of stalls including fruit and vegetables, fishmongers and a book stall. In recent years pavement cafes have opened around the small market square to give it a relaxing almost Continental atmosphere.

The larger Saturday market takes over the larger town square and has a vast range of stalls, ranging from traditional ones such as jewellery, grocers and confectionary to signs and even one dedicated to Thomas the Tank Engine!

For many years Beverley was an important centre for livestock trading at its cattle market and during the post-war years had one of the biggest pig markets in the country. Unfortunately this declined towards the end of the 20th Century and was eventually knocked down to be replaced by the biggest “market” of them all, Tesco.

The market towns of Yorkshire have played an important role in livestock trading. The farms dotted around the Yorkshire Dales, Moors and Wolds come together to buy and sell their animals at live auctions.

The East Riding town of Market Weighton is the only place name in Yorkshire to have the word as a prefix to its name and has a long history of trading. Located on an important trade route between York and Hull it became an important location for traders selling both livestock and produce. The town was granted market town status in 1251 by Henry III and trading was held on a Thursday. Throughout the 18th century to the early Victorian period the Market Weighton September sheep fair was one of the largest in the UK with up to 80,000 animals on sale. This would have taken up most of the town’s small high street, maintaining its prosperity and status in the East Riding.

Nowadays a much smaller market is still held on a Friday at a dedicated area off the High Street. Farmer’s markets have been added every third Saturday, in keeping with the traditions of the town.

Malton in North Yorkshire had until recently a very lively and public auction at its cattle market in the heart of the town. Like others of its kind around the county, in York, Selby and Skipton, it is set to move to an out-of town location near the Eden Camp museum, ending centuries of tradition.

Instead, the town’s thriving monthly food market has become one of the most renowned in the county and included regular demonstrations from celebrity chefs and stalls selling locally produced food.

The foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 hit Yorkshire cattle markets hard, with some of them failing to re-open or closing in the years after the disease had passed, such as Wetherby, Driffield, Hull and Ripon, significantly reducing their number in the county.

Ripon market during the Tour De France, Photo Credit Peter Cooper, (IFY Community)
Ripon market during the Tour De France, Photo Credit Peter Cooper, (IFY Community)

As transport progressed through the 18th and 19th Centuries, some market towns, such as Wetherby, Northallerton and Ripon, which lay next to the Great North Road from London to Edinburgh, also became hospitality places. As inns opened along the high street and around the edge of marketplaces, more customers from different parts of the country would come to trade, further increasing the wealth for stallholders and the town.

The Industrial Revolution also helped change market towns forever. As the populations expanded rapidly in places such as Leeds and Bradford from 1750-1900 so did their markets.

Leeds, like many other places had achieved market town status in the Medieval Times, when one was established in 1207 on Briggate. For many centuries this was a renowned place for trade, especially in wool and cloth, but by 1800 a much larger location was needed for the market once the population began to expand. In 1700, the population of Leeds was around just 12,000, but by 1821 had increased to 84,000.

Leeds Kirkgate market, nowadays the largest indoor one in Europe was founded in 1822 on its current site. The diversity of stalls was so large that it had to be divided into five sections. The new site, which was a field and the old vicarage between Kirkgate and Vicar Lane (hence the name) was chosen for the new complex. Originally it was open-air and stalls moved gradually from the over-crowded Briggate from 1822. Among the first to arrive were the fruit and veg sellers, followed by the livestock traders and butchers. The nearby Corn Exchange for this sector of trading was built in 1864 to house crop merchants. Due to popular demand Kirkgate market was covered in 1857. By 1875, trading on Briggate was banned, completing the move which had started over fifty years earlier. Nine years later a penny bazaar in the market was set up by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer and became one of the best known retailers in the country, Marks & Spencers.

By the end of the 19th century Leeds was granted city status and wanted to compete with other major places in the area. The newer market halls which had since developed in Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield made Kirkgate, with its leaky roof and chaotic environment look dated. The old market was demolished in 1902 and a new structure was built and opened two years later. By now the population of Leeds had swelled to 500,000 and the growth of other places in the West Riding meant it had become the centre for trade in the area. Moreover its location near both the Canal systems and railway station meant the transportation of goods became easier.

The market continued to thrive into the 20th Century and survived the disruption caused by two world wars most notably the attempted bombings on Leeds by the Luftwaffe in 1941. By the 1950s and 60s the market was changing once again. Money was spent on upgrading the butcher row, while space was created for outdoor stalls. The nature of the produce on sale was changing too. These decades saw an influx of migrants from the Commonwealth and this was reflected on the produce for sale. Exotic fruits and spices began to become part of the Leeds market experience and more recently Eastern European stalls have begun to appear, reflecting the multi-cultural city of modern day Leeds.

In 1975 disaster befell Leeds market, when it was ravaged by fire and two-thirds of the market was lost, with only the 1904 great hall remaining. Famously three days later, once the building was safe the stallholders crammed into to the only part of the market left and continued trading, such is the Yorkshire spirit.

In the 21st century, the rebuilt Kirkgate market is still an important landmark in Leeds, but faces an uncertain future. A decline in customers due to competition from more convenient shopping places like supermarkets, new retail malls such as Leeds Trinity and online buying has meant that many traders have left the market, leaving the grand old place half empty. Moreover in an age of austerity measures, higher rents from the council have helped to put off traders setting up new stalls. Over the past few years a proposed £12m revamp of the market has been proposed and will be completed in 2016, the same year in which John Lewis will open just down the road.

It is these types of problems faced by the largest indoor market in Europe that the future of market trading in Yorkshire is uncertain. The modern age has changed customer’s shopping habits from market to supermarket, from bartering to Ebay and some people merely do not have the time to browse the many fantastic stalls on view in the centre of some of Yorkshire’s towns. However markets are trying to adapt to the 21st Century. The revival of food and farmers markets has made them great places to sample fresh cuisine not available in supermarkets. Cookery demonstrations from TV chefs has brought market trading into the celebrity- obsessed society, while the influence of multi-culturalism has increased the variety of products available, opening up new ways to keep customers interested and ensure that markets in Yorkshire are here to stay.