Wisbech: Markets and fairs

Pages 262-263

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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The market is held by prescription. In 1657 John Thurloe, as lord of the manor, was granted a fortnightly market at Wisbech by letters patent. (fn. 1) In the 1840's Wisbech was one of the largest if not actually the largest corn market in the country. In 1844-5 250,000 quarters were sold, the quantity changing hands in each week of that period sometimes being as much as 9,000 quarters. (fn. 2) About 1850, in spite of the recent revival of the markets at Chatteris, March, and Whittlesey, Wisbech ranked second only to Wakefield among the English corn markets. (fn. 3) There are now weekly markets for cattle on Mondays and for general produce on Saturdays. (fn. 4)

The right to hold a fair on the vigil, feast, and morrow of Trinity, and the nineteen days following, was granted to Bishop Hotham in 1327. (fn. 5) This fair had changed slightly in date by the end of the 15th century, when it was associated with the festival of St. Peter and St. Paul, to whom the parish church is dedicated. At the end of the 18th century there were five fairs, on the Saturday and Monday before Palm Sunday, the Monday and the Saturday before Whitsun, 25 July, and 1 and 2 August. Hemp, flax, cattle, and horses were the principal goods exchanged. (fn. 6) In 1778- 9 Francis Bampton leased the fairs for £5 7s. a year, probably a beneficial rent; as far back as 1632 their annual value had been put at £5. (fn. 7) Until about 1930 fairs were held on the Saturday after 14 February, the second Thursday in May, 25 July, the first Thursday in August, and the third Wednesday in September. The last was for hiring. (fn. 8)

Since at least 1851 travelling showmen and hawkers, on their way between Lynn to Stamford Fairs, have gathered in the town. This concourse is called the Mart. 'This saturnalia' it was said in 1851, 'sometimes continues five weeks, and during that period all the noise that can be tortured out of drums, dulcimers, lungs, trumpets, organs, and cymbals serves to enliven, if not to gratify. The utility of marts and fairs is now almost wholly superseded; and those of Lynn and Wisbech have degenerated into a mere gathering of freaks of nature, "harlotry players", dirty exhibitions, conjurers, wild beast [sic], and ragamuffin life in all its gipsyism.' (fn. 9)

During the Middle Ages the profits from the market and fairs were a manorial perquisite. They long remained so. Seventy years after incorporation an attempt to buy out the episcopal claim in the butchers' shambles failed. (fn. 10) The bishop's rights were not finally extinguished until 1811, when £20 was paid to the bishop and £300 to trustees for the holders of permanent stalls, whose annual rent had been 8s. 8d. (fn. 11) In the early 19th century the Corporation held the market and fairs at a fee farm rent of £5 6s. 3d., the tolls being let by the Corporation for £85 in 1819 and £153 in 1845. (fn. 12) The tolls produced £111 10s. in 1822-3. (fn. 13)

A market cross existed in the Middle Ages. In 1549 £4 3s. 4d. was spent on its repair. (fn. 14) A market house, probably a wooden shelter around the base and shaft of the cross, was repaired in 1614. (fn. 15) It was rebuilt in 1667 on a more substantial scale near the river. (fn. 16) Two years later, however, it was in a dangerous state from defective workmanship, and John Lewin, the builder, received £425 in final settlement. (fn. 17) Four 'dyalls' were set up on it in 1671. (fn. 18) Its successor, the butter market, a building of the common market-house type with an upper story carried on open arches, was erected at the foot of Bridge Street in 1801. In 1849 it was also known as the custom-house. (fn. 19) It was removed in 1856 when the bridge was again rebuilt. (fn. 20) An obelisk was erected in the Market Place in 1765, on which an effigy with an abusive inscription was placed after a robbery in 1770. (fn. 21) The Shambles at the east end of the Market Place were built in 1595 for £104 7s., (fn. 22) and were let yearly for £7 10s. This rent was increased in 1610 to £8 10s. (fn. 23) The Shambles and the obelisk were removed when the Market Place was repaved under the Improvement Act of 1810. (fn. 24)

The Improvement Act of 1810 (see Corporation) resulted in the repairing of the Market Place, the erection of a town hall and the construction of a cattle market. The lower story of the Town Hall, of which the arches were originally open, was intended for a corn exchange. It was, however, little used for this purpose, merchants preferring to trade in the street. From 1831 the building was let out for public meetings, bazaars and concerts. (fn. 25) In 1858 the present Corn Exchange behind the Town Hall was built by a private company. (fn. 26) The first cattle market was enlarged in 1827 and 1838. (fn. 27) A new one was opened in 1869. (fn. 28) In the 1840's the hiring fees from the Corn Exchange and tolls of the cattle market amounted to about onetenth of the Corporation revenue. (fn. 29)


  • 1. A.O. 3/411.
  • 2. Cassey, Dir. Cambs. 209.
  • 3. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1933).
  • 4. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 593.
  • 5. Cal. Chart. R. 1326-41, 11.
  • 6. Univ. Brit. Dir. (1796), iv, 802.
  • 7. Bp.'s Mun., Ely, D 6.
  • 8. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1933). The horse fairs were held in Lynn Road (infm. the late E. J. Rudsdale).
  • 9. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 595.
  • 10. Corp. Rec. iv, 18b (1619). For Bishop Patrick's clothing charity relating to the Shambles, see p. 270.
  • 11. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 424.
  • 12. Ibid. 438.
  • 13. Corp. Rec. xi, 9-15.
  • 14. See above, p. 256, note 33.
  • 15. Corp. Rec. iii.
  • 16. Close to the bridge, where the Butter Cross later stood.
  • 17. Corp. Rec. iv, 160a, 163b, 166b, 170a.
  • 18. Ibid. 175.
  • 19. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 427.
  • 20. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 111-12. The materials of the building, which had cost £2,500, sold for £219.
  • 21. Anonymous late 18th-century diary in Wisb. Mus.
  • 22. Corp. Rec. ii, 334.
  • 23. Ibid. iii, 87a.
  • 24. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 25.
  • 25. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 612.
  • 26. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 284-5.
  • 27. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 438.
  • 28. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 190.
  • 29. £438 out of £4,473 average for the years 1837-46 (Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 438).