Economic infrastructure and institutions: Fairs

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2005.

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J S Barrow. J D Herson. A H Lawes. P J Riden. M V J Seaborne, 'Economic infrastructure and institutions: Fairs', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005) pp. 100-104. British History Online [accessed 27 May 2024].

J S Barrow. J D Herson. A H Lawes. P J Riden. M V J Seaborne. "Economic infrastructure and institutions: Fairs", in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005) 100-104. British History Online, accessed May 27, 2024,

Barrow, J S. Herson, J D. Lawes, A H. Riden, P J. Seaborne, M V J. "Economic infrastructure and institutions: Fairs", A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions, (London, 2005). 100-104. British History Online. Web. 27 May 2024,


Earl Hugh I granted Chester abbey, probably in 1092, all the tolls, rents, and issues of a fair lasting three days about the feast of St. Werburg 'in the summer' (20–22 June), and assigned jurisdiction over it to the abbot's court and the proceeds to the monks. (fn. 1) There is no reason to suppose that the fair was new then, and indeed its existence may explain the creation of the feast of St. Werburg in the summer, a largely local affair not celebrated very widely. (fn. 2)

In the 1120s Earl Ranulph I confirmed the grant, specifying that all pleas and forfeitures during fair time should be dealt with in the abbot's court by the abbot's officials or the sheriff of the city. He also compensated the sheriff for losses sustained by the grant of the fines to the monks, an indication that such revenues had accrued to the sheriff's predecessors, the pre-Conquest reeves of Chester, and hence further evidence that the fair pre-dated Earl Hugh's grant. (fn. 3) Earl Ranulph II (1129–53) added stalls before the abbey gate, restricted trading elsewhere in the city while the fair lasted, (fn. 4) and later extended responsibility for policing the fair to the barons of Cheshire, arrangements which suggest that it was already too big an event to be left to the city sheriff alone. It is significant that routes to Chester from north Wales and north of the Mersey had to be protected for the duration of the fair. (fn. 5)

By the early 13th century fairs were held in the city on the feasts of the nativity of St. John the Baptist (24 June) and Michaelmas (29 September), and outsiders were restricted to trading at those times. (fn. 6) The June fair, which was the abbey's, evidently extended beyond its original three days, and was the subject of an agreement in 1209 whereby Stanlow abbey provided St. Werburgh's with 24 cartloads of thatching each 16 June, presumably as roofing materials for booths. (fn. 7)

In the late 13th century the abbey's rights were disputed. The abbot claimed that during fair time all sales should take place either at the community's own stalls (seldae) on the fairground in front of the abbey gate or in the adjoining street; the mayor and citizens asserted that they could buy and sell elsewhere within the city. In 1284 it was agreed that the citizens could erect and trade at 'stalls and stands' (seldae et ementoria) by the graveyard gate and alongside the graveyard wall but not between the graveyard and abbey gates. The community was not to let its houses there to city merchants while the citizens' stalls remained unlet, but might let them to 'foreign' merchants (meaning non-locals) or even local men if the citizens' stalls proved insufficient. The monks also conceded that at fair time the citizens could buy and sell anywhere within the city, saving the abbey's privileges during the two and a half days around the feast of the Translation of St. Werburg (21 June). In return they received an annual payment of £2 6s. 8d., (fn. 8) still exacted in 1360 although by then the citizens were in arrears. (fn. 9)

The dispute evidently resulted from an attempt by the abbot to enlarge his trading monopoly over a fair which by then lasted well beyond the three days granted by Earl Hugh I. By the 1290s the fair extended a fortnight either side of Midsummer Day, and was presumably more important than the autumn fair which lasted for only a week either side of Michaelmas. (fn. 10) Merchandise included cloth. (fn. 11) The fairs' significance in the 13th and early 14th century is indicated by special arrangements made by some citizens to obtain extra trading space while they were on, and by the continuing contribution of Cheshire landholders to policing the fairs and the routes which led to them. (fn. 12)

In the mid 14th century the abbot retained extensive rights over the Midsummer fair, including all tolls and fines levied during the three days around the Translation of St. Werburg. All pleas arising then, except those relating to manslaughter, were held in his court, and he was entitled to the chattels of those convicted and hanged. In addition, he could restrain ships in port from trading and had power to discipline all sellers of victuals. Tolls were taken on horses, oxen, sheep, pigs, wool, skins, and copper or bronze pots and bowls. In the case of livestock, an especially important commodity, the levy fell equally upon buyer and seller. (fn. 13) Tolls at the four main gates were doubled in fair time. (fn. 14)

In the late 14th and early 15th century the fairs still lasted a month at Midsummer and a fortnight at Michaelmas, with shorter core periods when most activity took place. (fn. 15) More and more, however, they were subjected to civic control in the mayor's piepowder court, and in 1484 after a scuffle in Northgate Street during the Midsummer fair the mayor ordered the city sheriffs to arrest the participants and imprison them in the Northgate, an action recorded by the town clerk as 'on behalf of our liberty against the abbot at fair time'. (fn. 16) The charter of 1506 assigned all jurisdiction in the city to the mayor and sheriffs, and its implicit abolition of the abbot's privileges at the Midsummer fair was confirmed in 1509. (fn. 17)

By the mid 16th century the city also managed the horse fairs, then held at both Midsummer and Michaelmas on the Gorse Stacks and of regional importance. (fn. 18) Its control was evident in the division of the fair tolls among the sheriffs' officers in the early 17th century, a custom which gave rise to dissension and eventually caused the Assembly to require the sheriffs to present the fair accounts to the city auditors. (fn. 19) By then the corporation also decided upon the duration of free trading permitted at the fair to merchants who were not citizens of Chester. (fn. 20) Fear of the plague brought further civic intervention, including regulation of the admission of strangers and goods to the city at Michaelmas in 1625, and the cancellation of the fairs in 1631, 1636, and 1650. (fn. 21)

By the later 17th century, when the Midsummer show was transferred to Whitsun week and then in 1678 abandoned, (fn. 22) the fairs seem to have been in decline. In 1685, however, Charles II granted the city a third fair, for horses and horned cattle, held on the last Thursday in February, and in 1705 that fair was moved to a new site in Foregate Street. (fn. 23) It was probably an occasion for the sale of other commodities, for the traditional sign giving notice of a fair, a hand or glove mounted on a pole, was suspended from the Pentice for its duration. (fn. 24)

By c. 1700 the fairs were beginning to revive. In 1704 the corporation defined anew the limits of free trading for non-citizen mercers as extending from six days before to six days after the two ancient fair feast days. (fn. 25) They also regulated the hop fair held under the common hall. (fn. 26) By 1718 ironmongery made at Coalbrookdale (Salop.), especially pots and kettles, and later also china, were sold regularly at Chester fairs. (fn. 27) In the 1720s and 1730s disputes over trading space in the Rows and at the Cross suggest that traders from London and all over the North of England were accustomed to occupy premises in the city at fair time. (fn. 28)

The revival saw the growth of both wholesaling and retailing. Hops were a feature of the autumn fair, concentrated in warehouses behind the Blossoms and Hop Pole inns in Foregate Street. Trade in livestock, focused on the February fair, seems to have served the city's immediate hinterland but not beyond. (fn. 29) The chief activity of the 18th-century fairs was, however, the trade in cloth. By the earlier 18th century Manchester merchants were attending in order to trade in cotton goods, and in the 1740s their presence was so marked that Eastgate Row North was known as Manchester Row. In 1751 a new warehouse, Manchester Hall, was opened between Eastgate Street and St. Werburgh Street; in the early 19th century it contained 44 shops along two ranges. (fn. 30)

Even more important was the development of the Irish linen trade, already in being by 1700 but much increased from the 1740s. Its rapid growth led to the construction east of Northgate Street of a linen hall, a private speculation by William Smith, an innholder and former alderman of Chester. (fn. 31) In 1743–4 Smith built 29 small shops, furnished with counters and a gallery, which were let during the fairs to linen drapers, all of whom came from Dublin except for one from Liverpool. By 1746 Smith had built a further 14 shops at the southern end of the original structure, also let mostly to Dublin drapers. By 1749 the hall had been enlarged again with the addition of another 22 shops on the northern side, all of which were let to traders from Dublin and Liverpool by 1752. Drapers from elsewhere, including Wolverhampton, Shrewsbury, Drogheda, and Chester itself, took up shops in 1754 and 1755, (fn. 32) and a second linen hall was built close to Smith's by Charles Boswell between 1755 and 1762. (fn. 33) By 1755 the linen fair had also spread to the Exchange. (fn. 34) The growth in activity engendered disputes in the 1770s about the double tolls traditionally exacted at fair time, and eventually they were enforced by constables stationed at each of the four main gates into the city. (fn. 35)

The linen trade reached its peak in the 1770s and 1780s. (fn. 36) The focus remained the fairs, opening on 5 July and 10 October after the change of calendar in 1752, and each lasting for a fortnight. (fn. 37) In the mid 1770s a group of 37 English and Irish merchants each subscribed £100 towards new premises. The New Linenhall, built on land purchased from the Stanley family, was opened in 1778 between Watergate Street and Breward Street, soon known as Linenhall Street. (fn. 38) It comprised a rectangular courtyard around which were arranged 36 double shops to east and west and 23 single shops to north and south, all built in brick. (fn. 39) All 95 shops were let in 1778, mostly to Irish traders, but thereafter numbers rapidly declined. In 1805 only c. 60 were let, and in 1815 c. 45. In 1823, when lettings had fallen to 29, including four used for cotton goods, the proprietors were recommended to surrender their rooms in order to escape liability for rent. (fn. 40) By 1831 the Irish linen trade through Chester was dead. (fn. 41)

Figure 60:

Union Hall, 1872

Even so, the fairs retained their wholesaling functions much longer than others in the area. (fn. 42) Their vitality was reflected in the wide range of goods sold and in the building of new premises. In 1809 the Old Linenhall, by then dilapidated, was supplemented by the Union Hall, erected south of Foregate Street by tradesmen from Manchester and elsewhere attending the fairs. A rectangular brick building of three storeys, it contained 60 single and 10 double lock-up shops, arranged on two floors around the sides of a galleried courtyard with cast-iron pillars, and a top floor con sisting of long halls where clothiers from Yorkshire set up their stalls. (fn. 43)

In 1815 the Commercial Hall was opened north of Foregate Street. A private speculation, it was also a rectangular brick building and had 56 single and 20 double shops arranged on two floors around a galleried iron-pillared court, approached from Foregate Street and Frodsham Street. (fn. 44) The hall was occupied during fair time by traders from London, Glasgow, Manchester, Derby, Nottingham, Birmingham, and Sheffield, selling goods of every description, but with an emphasis on hardware and cutlery. (fn. 45)

In 1830 the fairs were still 'great marts for the sale of various sorts of goods'. They were inaugurated by a horse and cattle fair, at which great quantities of leather were also sold. Thereafter fustians, printed cottons, and muslins from Lancashire, hardware from Sheffield and Birmingham, flannels from Wales, and woollens from Yorkshire were marketed in the halls. By then the emphasis had shifted away from wholesaling to shopkeepers from Cheshire and north Wales in the opening days of the fair, and towards more general retailing in the last week. (fn. 46) By the early 1850s wholesaling fairs in the purpose-built halls were largely extinct, since railways now allowed retailers from Chester and elsewhere to travel to the manufacturing districts and deal with their suppliers at source. (fn. 47)

In place of the general fairs there was a multiplication of more specialized events. From the 1820s there were six livestock fairs; in addition to that held on the last Thursday in February, they were held on the first Wednesday in April, May, September, and November, and the second Wednesday in December. (fn. 48) In 1830 they were augmented by fairs for cheese, butter, bacon, and other agricultural produce, held on the same days in the New Linenhall and Commercial Hall. (fn. 49) The cheese fairs became important local events held in the New Linenhall the day before the livestock fairs. (fn. 50) In 1850 the corporation began monthly cattle fairs, including one on 10 October, the date of the 'old Cheshire fair'. (fn. 51) By 1864, however, the ancient fairs had lost their pre-eminence: 5 July and 10 October were merely two among eleven dates in the year. (fn. 52) In 1871 an additional wool fair was held in the Linenhall in June, and there were seven cheese fairs. (fn. 53) The number of livestock fairs had risen to 13 by 1892, and cheese fairs were then held in the market hall on the third Wednesday of every month. By then the ancient fair days were entirely disregarded. (fn. 54) In the 1880s there was a separate monthly horse fair, held on Thursdays near the entrance to the Union Hall in Foregate Street until 1884, when it was removed to the cattle market in George Street. (fn. 55) By 1905 there were monthly horse fairs and monthly or twice-monthly cheese fairs. (fn. 56) That pattern remained largely unchanged until the 1930s. (fn. 57)

Of the buildings associated with the fairs, the Old Linenhall was dilapidated in 1831 but still used as shops and warehouses. (fn. 58) It had disappeared by 1872 and was presumably destroyed when St. Werburgh Street was extended. (fn. 59) The New Linenhall survived as the cheese market until its closure in 1876, and was eventually replaced by stabling for Chester races. (fn. 60) The Union Hall remained in use as shops and warehousing for Yorkshire clothiers until after 1850. (fn. 61) It was still intact in 1911, but shortly thereafter the street frontage and part of the south range were demolished. The western wing had been destroyed by 1966 (Fig. 61, p. 104), and in 1992 the remaining buildings were pulled down. (fn. 62) The Commercial Hall also remained in retail use until after 1850. (fn. 63) Still intact and used as warehousing in 1910, it continued to house workshops and stores until c. 1950, but had gone by 1966. (fn. 64) Manchester Hall, described in 1831 as a 'poor irregular building', was replaced by a corn exchange in 1859. (fn. 65)

A custom associated with the fairs was the practice of suspending a wooden hand or glove from a long pole attached to the Pentice, from shortly before the fairs started until their close. The earliest known reference to the usage was in 1687, when the citizens sought to extend it to the new livestock fair. (fn. 66) The origins of the custom are unknown, though it was clearly ancient. The glove surviving in 2000, which appears to have been repainted often, was inscribed with the names of Earl Hugh II of Chester and the guild merchant, and the date 1159, in a form dating probably from the 17th century. It is likely that the custom developed, perhaps at a very early date, as a symbol of the exceptional privileges and protection which the authorities in Chester accorded to traders from outside the city at fair time. (fn. 67) After the demolition of the Pentice in 1803 the glove was instead displayed from the south-east corner of St. Peter's church. By then it was customarily hung out 14 days before the fairs and continued on display until their close. (fn. 68) In 1836 the custom was discontinued and the glove then in use passed into private hands. It was later purchased by Joseph Mayer, and in 2000 was in Liverpool Museum. (fn. 69)

Figure 61:

Union Hall, 1989


  • 1. Cart. Chester Abbey, i, pp. xiii, 21, 39–46; Charters of A.-N. Earls, pp. 6, 9, 14–16, 21–2, 32–3 (nos. 4, 8, 12, 22).
  • 2. V.C.H. Ches. v (1), Early Medieval Chester: Church in Anglo-Norman Chester.
  • 3. Cart. Chester Abbey, i, pp. 47–8; Charters of A.-N. Earls, pp. 22–5 (no. 13).
  • 4. Charters of A.-N. Earls, pp. 32–4 (nos. 22–3); Cart. Chester Abbey, i, pp. 52–3, 68–9.
  • 5. Charters of A.-N. Earls, pp. 34–5, 79–80 (nos. 24, 67); Cart. Chester Abbey, i, p. 69.
  • 6. C.C.A.L.S., ZCH 7; cf. ZCH 8.
  • 7. Cart. Chester Abbey, i, p. 201.
  • 8. Cal. Ches. Ct. R. pp. 122–3; P.R.O., CHES 29/5, m. 2.
  • 9. Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 399–400.
  • 10. Cal. Ches. Ct. R. p. 182; P.R.O., CHES 29/59, m. 23.
  • 11. C.C.A.L.S., ZMR 3, mm. 2d., 5.
  • 12. V.C.H. Ches. v (1), Later Medieval Chester: Economy and Society, 1230–1350 (City and its Hinterland); Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 288.
  • 13. Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 287–8; Blk. Prince's Reg. i. 18.
  • 14. P.R.O., CHES 29/59, m. 23; cf. Morris, Chester, 555.
  • 15. Morris, Chester, 553; V.C.H. Ches. v (1), Later Medieval Chester: Economy and Society, 1350–1550 (Chester and its Region).
  • 16. Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 178; B.L. Harl. MS. 2057, ff. 133–4; C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 6, f. 101; Burne, Monks, 131–2.
  • 17. Morris, Chester, 133–5, 524–40; C.C.A.L.S., ZCH 32; B.L. Harl. MS. 1989, f. 87v.; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 142.
  • 18. King's Vale Royal, [ii], 23; Hemingway, Hist. Chester, i. 418; C.C.A.L.S., ZSBT 1–2.
  • 19. Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603–42, 145 n., 152 n., 170, 177, 181, 222.
  • 20. e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 238v.; Johnson, 'Aspects', 275.
  • 21. Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603–42, 136–7, 168, 189; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 2, f. 94v.
  • 22. Below, Plays, Sports, and Customs before 1700: City Watches and Midsummer Show (Midsummer Watch or Show).
  • 23. C.C.A.L.S., ZCH 39, m. 5; ZAB 3, f. 131.
  • 24. Ibid. ZAB 3, f. 5.
  • 25. Ibid. f. 117.
  • 26. Ibid. f. 136.
  • 27. Mitchell, 'Urban Markets', 41–2, 50.
  • 28. Mitchell, 'Urban Markets', 41–2, 50; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 4, ff. 17v.–18, 87.
  • 29. Mitchell, 'Urban Markets', 40–1; Hemingway, Hist. Chester, i. 417; ii. 335; P.R.O., CHES 16/132.
  • 30. Mitchell, 'Urban Markets', 41–9; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 4, f. 141; J. Wood, Map of Chester (1833); Hemingway, Hist. Chester, i. 412.
  • 31. Mitchell, 'Urban Markets', 43; C. Armour, 'Trade of Chester and State of Dee Navigation' (Lond. Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1956), 275–6.
  • 32. C.C.A.L.S., DLB 1548/Chester.
  • 33. Ibid. EDD 3913/3/5, pp. 44–5, 87–8; B.L. Add. MS. 5836, f. 226.
  • 34. C.C.A.L.S., ZHI 1, f. 4v.
  • 35. Ibid. ZAB 4, ff. 287–288v., 328v.
  • 36. Mitchell, 'Urban Markets', 43–7.
  • 37. Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 335; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 370–1.
  • 38. P.N. Ches. v (1:i), 9, 15; C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 498/2.
  • 39. C.C.A.L.S., ZG/Mc 11, 15; Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 12.
  • 40. C.C.A.L.S., ZG/Mc 15; cf. ibid. ZTCC 139.
  • 41. Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 12.
  • 42. Mitchell, 'Urban Markets', 40.
  • 43. Hemingway, Hist. Chester, i. 419; J. Williams, Story of Chester, 244; Chester Arch. Service Newsletter, 1992 (4), p. 1.
  • 44. Hemingway, Hist. Chester, i. 418–19; O.S. Map 1/500, Ches. XXXVIII. 11. 18 (1875 edn.).
  • 45. Hemingway, Hist. Chester, i. 419; Ches. Dir. (1840), 80.
  • 46. Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 335–6; 3 Sheaf, ii, pp. 119, 121.
  • 47. J. Romney, Chester and its Environs Illustrated, [35].
  • 48. Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 336; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 370.
  • 49. Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 336; Ches. Dir. (1840), 80.
  • 50. C.C.A.L.S., ZCCB 30, 11 Apr. 1850; Romney, Chester Illustrated, [4].
  • 51. Bagshaw's Dir. Ches. (1850), 76, 78.
  • 52. Morris's Dir. Ches. (1864), 6.
  • 53. P. & G. Dir. Chester (1871), 17.
  • 54. Kelly's Dir. Ches. (1892), 186.
  • 55. Ibid.; 3 Sheaf, xxxvi, p. 20; J. Williams, Story of Chester, 244.
  • 56. P. & G. Dir. Chester (1905/6), 30.
  • 57. Ibid. (1919/20), 37; (1935/6), 45; Kelly's Dir. Ches. (1910), 219; (1923), 235; (1934), 76.
  • 58. Hemingway, Hist. Chester, i. 419.
  • 59. O.S. Map 1/500, Ches. XXXVIII. 11. 18 (1875 edn.); V.C.H. Ches. v (1), Topography, 900–1914: Victorian and Edwardian (City Centre).
  • 60. P. & G. Dir. Chester (1871), 17; below, Chester Races; Harris, Chester, 100.
  • 61. Ches. Dir. (1840), 80; Bagshaw's Dir. Ches. (1850), 78; W. Willis, Pictorial Plan of Chester (1860).
  • 62. O.S. Map 1/2, 500, XXXVIII. 11 (1911 edn.); 1/1, 250, SJ 4066 (1966 edn.); J. M'Gahey, Bird's Eye View of Chester (1855); C.C.A.L.S., NVA 1/2, nos. 3668–3713; Chester Arch. Service Newsletter, 1992 (4), p. 1.
  • 63. Bagshaw's Dir. Ches. (1850), 78; Willis, Pictorial Plan (1860).
  • 64. 4 Sheaf, iv, p. 2; P. & G. Dir. Chester (1935/6), map; O.S. Map 1/1,250, SJ 4066 (1966 edn.); C.C.A.L.S., NVA 1/1, nos. 1284–1302.
  • 65. Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 364; O.S. Map 1/500, Ches. XXXVIII. 11.18 (1875 edn.).
  • 66. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 3, f. 5.
  • 67. R. Stewart-Brown, 'Notes on Chester Hand or Glove', J.C.A.S. xx. 144–7.
  • 68. Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 335–6; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 370.
  • 69. J.C.A.S. xx. 123, 132–9.