Witney borough: Economic history, markets and fairs

Pages 103-107

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 14, Bampton Hundred (Part Two). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2004.

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Witney had a weekly market and two annual fairs from the early 13th century, though their economic fortunes, as reflected in tolls and stall-rents, seem not always to have mirrored those of the town generally: during the 13th and 16th centuries, both periods of apparent growth and prosperity, market and fair income declined or remained low, suggesting that much of the town's trading took place outside the formal market structure. In the 1540s Witney was nevertheless described as a 'great market town', (fn. 1) and several new fairs were established in the 18th century. The market and fairs' trading functions during the Middle Ages are ill recorded, but by the 17th century they were predominantly for foodstuffs and livestock, often combined, from the 19th century, with pleasure- and hiring-fairs.

The Middle Ages

In 1202 the bishop of Winchester was granted an annual fair at Witney, held on Ascension day and the three days following; (fn. 2) presumably there was also a market, but no formal grant is known. Selds (booths or shops) were repaired in 1210–11, (fn. 3) and from 1218 combined market- and fair-tolls were accounted for annually, together with seldage and stallage. (fn. 4) In 1279, as later, the market was held every Thursday; (fn. 5) the establishment of Wednesday and Friday markets at nearby Bampton and Standlake in the early 13th century was presumably planned to avoid competition from Witney's market. (fn. 6) A second annual fair, held for five days from the eve of St Leonard (5 November), was granted in 1231 and continued in the 1270s. (fn. 7)

47. Witney cattle and sheep market, early 20th century.

Despite the borough's early success (fn. 8) neither the market nor fairs seem to have prospered consistently during the 13th century. Tolls, over £4 in the early 1220s, fell gradually to 30–35s. in the 1260s and to under 30s. by the mid 1280s. Income from selds and stalls, around 23s. and 15s. in 1218–19 when some 16 per cent of selds were apparently unlet, rose intermittently to around 26s. and 17s. in the early 1250s; thereafter it fell to 23s. and 13–14s. in the 1280s, despite frequent repairs by the bishop designed probably to attract new traders. (fn. 9) The underlying cause was presumably insufficient trade or bypassing of the market, though occasional disruption may have contributed: prises demanded for the king or queen allegedly kept merchants away in 1276 and 1301–2, when tolls brought in under 13s., (fn. 10) while in 1319 the market was disrupted and traders were assaulted apparently in a dispute over regulation or tolls. (fn. 11) The annual Ascension-day fair was confirmed in 1317, though as it was said then to have been 'not used' hitherto it was presumably in decline. (fn. 12) Both fairs appear to have been superseded in or before 1414 by fairs on the vigil and feast of St Clement (22–23 November), and for five days from the feast of St Barnabas (11–15 June). (fn. 13)

In the mid 1280s the tolls were briefly let to the prominent burgess William Raulin, (fn. 14) and from the early 14th century seldage and (soon after) stallage and tolls were let together for 56s. a year, at first to Raulin. Later lessees were borough reeves or bailiffs and other prominent townsmen, who, like Raulin, were presumably responsible for keeping stalls and selds in repair. (fn. 15) The 56s. was accounted for throughout the Middle Ages, but by the later 15th century actual income was evidently far less, implying further decline in the market or fair or both. From the 1450s successive bailiffs refused to pay the sum, and though accumulated arrears of over £90 were apparently written off in the early 1480s, by 1498 they had again risen to nearly £30. (fn. 16) In 1473–4 tiles from presumably derelict selds were re-used at the manor house, (fn. 17) and in 1500–1 the bailiffs swore that they had received no more than 2s. from tolls, stallage, and seldage because of the 'poverty' of the burgesses, and that all the stalls and selds were destroyed. (fn. 18)

The 16th Century and Later

Markets Despite evidence for the town's growth and prosperity during the 16th century, (fn. 19) recorded tolls, apparently chiefly from fairs, remained at similar levels until the 1580s, when they were let with the rest of the manor and borough. (fn. 20) Fines and new rents for shops built on encroachments in the market place nevertheless argue against a general decline in local trade during the 16th century, (fn. 21) and the market clearly continued. In 1560 a wealthy clothier left money for a new market house, eventually built about 1606, (fn. 22) and some of the numerous debt cases heard in the borough court during the later 16th century, involving farmers and tradesmen from a wide area, arose presumably from trading at the market or fairs. (fn. 23) Certainly both crops and livestock, some from surrounding villages, were sold at the market in the late 16th and early 17th century. (fn. 24)

Thereafter until the 20th century the market remained predominantly agricultural. Inhabitants petitioned about 1670 that it be confirmed for cattle, sheep, wool, and other commodities, (fn. 25) and in 1673 it was 'indifferently well furnished with provisions', (fn. 26) though in 1710 townsmen were accused of forestalling it by buying barley at Asthall. (fn. 27) Corn, butter, meat, fruit, cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep were all sold during the 18th and earlier 19th century, with butchers reportedly coming from as far as Fairford (Glos.), (fn. 28) and in the 1820s the market was 'usually well attended'. (fn. 29) A separate 'great market' for cattle and sheep, held on the last Thursday of each month, was successfully instituted in 1839 and became fortnightly before 1872; it was still well attended in 1939, and in 1957 was a weekly market for auction of fat- and store-cattle, and of calves, sheep, and pigs. (fn. 30) It was closed in 1963. (fn. 31) The original weekly market, chiefly for corn after 1839 and still in the 1930s, had fifteen long-standing stallholders in 1963, including an Oxford fishmonger, a greengrocer, and a trader from London; (fn. 32) it continued for general retailing in the early 21st century, together with a smaller Saturday market informally established by the late 1930s. (fn. 33)

Fairs The annual St Barnabas fair was moved to St Peter's day (29 June) apparently before 1572; a pinmaker's stall there was mentioned that year, and horses driven to Witney from Eynsham were perhaps also for sale at the fair or market. (fn. 34) A petition around 1670 for additional fairs, including hiring fairs, seems to have gone unheeded, (fn. 35) though both the St Peter's and the St Clement's day fairs survived as one-day fairs until the 19th century. By the 1790s they were apparently held on the old-style dates (10 July and 4 December), or on a Thursday close by; in 1819 the former was one of several fairs for cattle, and the latter was for cattle and cheese. (fn. 36) Though still noted in the 1850s and later, they had apparently lapsed by the 1870s. (fn. 37)

Several other fairs seem to have originated during the 18th century. An Ascension-day fair for horses, cattle, and pigs, evidently refounded since the Middle Ages, (fn. 38) was mentioned occasionally from the early 18th century to the mid 19th, and a cattle fair on Easter Thursday was established before 1790; in the 1830s it included an ox-roast, but lapsed apparently in the mid 1850s. A Statute fair on the Thursday before 10 October, recorded from the 1790s, originated probably as a Michaelmas fair before the calendar change of 1752; by 1839 it was partly a hiring or 'mop' fair, though hiring was reportedly unpopular and gradually dwindled. (fn. 39) In the 1870s it included a small pleasure-fair with waxworks, fortune-telling, and stalls selling toys and dolls, and continued until the earlier 20th century both as a pleasure-fair and for sale of cattle and sheep. (fn. 40) A fair on 24 August, founded in 1811, lapsed apparently by the 1850s. (fn. 41)

The only fair to survive into the later 20th century was Witney feast, held on two or three days following the first Sunday after 8 September (the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin). The Sunday was celebrated as the parish feast in the early 18th century and probably from the Middle Ages, (fn. 42) though the fair itself, for cattle, horses, pigs, cheese, and general merchandise, was not recorded before the 1790s. (fn. 43) In the early 1840s it ran from Monday to Wednesday, the last day coinciding with the Forest fair in Wychwood Forest; (fn. 44) probably then and certainly by the 1870s it included a large pleasure-fair, which continued in the early 21st century. Sale of livestock ended in the mid 20th century. (fn. 45)

Market Places

Medieval markets and fairs were probably concentrated on the market place and Church Green: there is no evidence of an early market on Corn Street, whose name derives from quarries at its western end and whose eastern stretch, the only part within the medieval borough, was probably always narrow. (fn. 46) Selds and possibly stalls were evidently substantial permanent structures: repairs to the former included new slated roofs and new doors with locks, (fn. 47) and the term fenestra selda, recorded in 1253–4, may indicate the long rows of booths noted in some other towns. (fn. 48) In 1235–6 6s. 8d. was spent on covering or roofing the market. (fn. 49) Shambles were mentioned in 1367 and frequently from the 16th century, (fn. 50) when they probably stood, as later, on Church Green; in 1704 there were 23 slated butchers' stalls there arranged in three rows, perhaps recently built. A new padlock for the shambles was provided by the churchwardens in 1792–3, and a partly occupied row remained in 1816, but was removed before 1840. (fn. 51)

By the mid 16th century most other stalls were evidently erected and removed on market day, among them butchers' stalls (presumably distinct from the permanent shambles) ordered to be removed in 1554. (fn. 52) In the 18th century and probably earlier only the bailiffs could erect stalls under the market house, and tilted butchers' stalls were confined to the 'upper end towards the Church Green . . . above the shambles'. (fn. 53) By then loaded carts and waggons stood also in Corn Street, where some corn was sold, and graduated tolls were charged for pitched waggons, for carts used as stalls, and for hawking-carts, as well as for tilted and untilted stalls, standings in the shambles, and shows or exhibitions. (fn. 54) The area under the town hall was used as a corn market by 1749 and probably much earlier; (fn. 55) corn was apparently still sold in the market place in 1871, when the market hall in the recently erected Corn Exchange was said to be largely unfrequented on Thursdays, but by 1922 the corn market was held in the Exchange. (fn. 56) The livestock market continued in the market place until 1963, temporary pens, constructed of hurdles, being erected and dismantled the same day; (fn. 57) an area east of the town hall was paved for use as a pig market in 1897, and the market place was surfaced with tarmac in 1903 to meet national requirements, following a temporary closure ordered by the Board of Trade. (fn. 58) A weighbridge, thought unnecessary in the late 19th and early 20th century, was provided about 1921. (fn. 59)

Medieval fairs presumably occupied much the same area, though in the late 18th century festivities associated with Witney feast were held on Curbridge Downs, and in the late 19th century, following demolition of the shambles, surviving fairs were usually held on Church Green. They were transferred about 1904–5 to the Leys recreation ground south of the church, where the Witney-feast fair continued in the late 20th century. (fn. 60)

Market Regulation

In 1319 the bishop's men were 'deputed to keep his . . . market and to collect tolls thereof.' (fn. 61) By the 16th century and probably much earlier, however, the market was regulated through the portmoot or borough court, which prosecuted for avoidance of tolls, enforced the assizes of bread and ale, oversaw meat inspection, and issued orders concerning erection of stalls or removal of livestock from the market place. (fn. 62) The town reeves or bailiffs apparently acted as clerks of the market, to the exclusion, under the bishop's medieval franchises, of the royal clerk of the market, who occasionally visited and issued orders but could not deliver verdicts or receive fines. (fn. 63) From the 1660s the lord's annual lawday or court moot, which superseded the borough court, appointed two clerks of the market and continued to deal with stalls and obstructions, though by the mid 18th century orders were repeated so frequently that they were probably no longer enforced. (fn. 64) In 1705 the clerks of the market were summoned for failing to enforce legal measures, and in 1717 and 1718 they were fined for refusing to serve; (fn. 65) in 1753 one was assaulted and robbed of a pair of scales. (fn. 66) By 1800 the bailiffs arranged for inspection of skins, appointed officers to prevent disturbances at the market, and issued orders concerning weights, measures, and forestalling, (fn. 67) though in 1842 the clerks again lacked the required weights. (fn. 68)

From 1705 stallage and tollage were leased, at first with the manor house, the butchers' shambles, and the right to shovel dung in the market place and streets. From the 1740s the tolls and shambles were let together for £27, and by the early 19th century the tolls were separately let for £10. (fn. 69) The lessee, responsible in the early 18th century for keeping the market place in repair, (fn. 70) collected tolls in a brass dish, if necessary with the aid of a constable, and could seize livestock or other goods for non-payment. Market tolls in the early 19th century included 2d. a quarter for corn, 1d. for barley and oats, 4d. for a bull, and 3d. for a score of sheep, though fair tolls were generally heavier. Witney's hamlets and the villages around Woodstock (the duke of Marlborough's seven 'demesne towns') were exempt, (fn. 71) and in 1758 the duke, as lessee of Witney manor, declared the market toll-free during a smallpox epidemic at Burford. (fn. 72) The lessee of the market tolls clearly enjoyed some latitude, since in 1866 the town's local board complained that he had allowed photographic caravans onto Church Green. (fn. 73)

From 1870 the board and later the urban district council rented the tolls from the duke of Marlborough and took over regulation, though the court moot still appointed a clerk of the market who, in 1871, was also hayward, fish-taster, and flesh-taster. (fn. 74) Both the board and the UDC appointed a toll-collector, controlled stalls, booths, and sideshows, and fixed rents. About 1925 the UDC bought the market tolls outright, (fn. 75) and in the 1960s the market was regulated through a council subcommittee, which accounted for tolls and rents. (fn. 76) Responsibility passed in 1974 to the newly established town council.


  • 1. Chant. Cert. 48; Leland, Itin. ed. Toulmin Smith, v. 73.
  • 2. Cal. Chart. 1300–26, 349–50.
  • 3. Winch. PR 1210–11, ed. Holt, 65–6 (seldis de burgo); below (mkt places).
  • 4. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/7 sqq; borough income was not separately recorded earlier.
  • 5. Bampton Hund. R. 91; Par. Colln. iii. 342; Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1939).
  • 6. VCH Oxon. xiii. 38, 191.
  • 7. Cal. Chart. 1226–57, 140; Bampton Hund. R. 91; for the context of the grant, N. Vincent, Peter des Roches, 275, 360.
  • 8. Above (medieval trade and ind.).
  • 9. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/7 sqq; Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 67–8.
  • 10. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/40, m. 8d; Winch. PR 1301–2, ed. Page, 144–6; Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 68–70.
  • 11. Cal. Pat. 1317–21, 368–9; for possible disruption during the Welsh wars, Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 69.
  • 12. Cal. Chart. 1300–26, 349–50.
  • 13. Ibid. 1341–1417, 467.
  • 14. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/44; for the Raulins, Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 71, 74, 77, 300–5; Bampton Hund. R. 91, 94.
  • 15. Winch. PR 1301–2, ed. Page, 144; Hants RO, 11M59/B1/61 sqq.
  • 16. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/200–12; Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 220–1.
  • 17. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/203, f. 21v.
  • 18. Ibid. 11M59/B1/216.
  • 19. Above (econ. life 1500–1800).
  • 20. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/216–85; above, manor.
  • 21. Above, intro. (origin and devpt).
  • 22. The Butter Cross: above, intro. (bldgs).
  • 23. Witney Ct. Bks. pp. xxviii, xxxviii, maps I–II.
  • 24. PRO, SP 12/198, ff. 98, 105; Witney Ct. Bks. pp. xxviii, 204.
  • 25. Plummer, Witney Blanket Ind. 13.
  • 26. R. Blome, Britannia (1673), 187.
  • 27. ORO, Cal. QS, i, pp. 156b–157; cf. ibid. pp. 163, 256.
  • 28. Blenheim Mun., shelf A2, bdle. 22, undated note on tolls; ORO, P4/2/MS 1/5, ff. 2, 6; ibid. Cal. QS, i, pp. 156b–157; ii, p. 272b; Oxf. Jnl. Synopsis, 30 Sept. 1758.
  • 29. Pigot's Lond. & Prov. Dir. (1823–4).
  • 30. Giles, Hist. Witney, 69; Sale Cat., Manor and Showell Farms, Crawley (1872): copy in COS; Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1883 and later edns); Oxf. Times, 1 Feb. 1957.
  • 31. ORO, Witney UDC III/ii/26b, pp. 481, 488.
  • 32. Partics. and Plan of [former Workho.] [1922]: copy in Bodl. GA Oxon. c 256 (55); Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1883 and later edns); Oxf. Mail, 19 Apr. 1963.
  • 33. ORO, Witney UDC III/i/8, p. 327; Witney Official Guide (Witney Town Council, 1991), 41; local inf.
  • 34. Oxf. Church Ct. Depositions, 1570–4, ed. J. Howard-Drake (1993), pp. 29, 49; Par. Colln. iii. 342.
  • 35. Plummer, Witney Blanket Ind. 13.
  • 36. Par. Colln. iii. 342; Univ. Brit. Dir. [c. 1790], iv. 806; Pinnock's Co. Histories (1819), 69; PO Dir. Oxon. (1847 and later edns).
  • 37. Giles, Hist. Witney, 69; Harrod's Dir. Oxon. (1876), 846; Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1883 and later edns) notes 6 fairs until 1907, evidently copying from earlier Dirs.
  • 38. Not mentioned e.g. in Par. Colln. iii. 342.
  • 39. L. W. Thwaites, 'Marketing of Agric. Produce in 18th-Cent. Oxon.' (Birmingham Univ. PhD thesis, 1981), 72–3; Univ. Brit. Dir. [c. 1790], iv. 806; PO Dir. Oxon. (1847 and later edns); Harrod's Dir. Oxon. (1876); Giles, Hist. Witney, 69; Oxf. Jnl. 21 Apr. 1838; Oxf. Chron. 19 Oct. 1839, 30 Mar. 1844, 13 Oct. 1849, 29 Apr. 1854; Witney Express, 14 Oct. 1869; Witney Gaz. 11 Oct. 1890.
  • 40. Witney Express, 13 Oct. 1870; Witney Gaz. 11 Oct. 1890; Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1939); C. Mitchell, Around Witney in Old Photos. (1990), 101.
  • 41. Oxf. Jnl. 17 Aug. 1811; PO Dir. Oxon. (1847 and later edns), still noting it in 1877; Giles, Hist. Witney, 69. For an earlier fair on 2 Aug., Thwaites, 'Agric. Produce', 72–3.
  • 42. Hearne's Colln. ix (OHS 65), pp. 192, 346; below, churches (origins).
  • 43. Univ. Brit. Dir. [c. 1790], iv. 806; Giles, Hist. Witney, 69.
  • 44. Oxf. Chron. 7 Sept. 1844, 19 Sept. 1846; Monk, Hist. Witney, 49–51.
  • 45. Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1939); above, intro. (social life); local inf.
  • 46. Above, intro. (origin and devpt).
  • 47. e.g. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/10; 11M59/B1/16–17; 11M59/B1/25; 11M59/B1/39; 11M59/B1/42; 11M59/B1/52.
  • 48. Ibid. 11M59/B1/25; cf. D. Keene, Surv. Winchester (Winchester Studies II, 1985), i. 138.
  • 49. 'in merced' cooperatoris': Hants RO, 11M59/B1/16, m. 3d.; 11M59/B1/17, m. 6.
  • 50. Cal. Close, 1364–8, 475; ORO, Misc. Je. I/1, f. 69v.; Blenheim Mun., B/M/145, pp. 9–10, 263–6.
  • 51. Blenheim Mun., box 156, lease 16 Feb. 1704/5; Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 215, ff. 121, 123; ORO, tithe map; for padlock, ORO, MS dd Par. Witney c 30, f. 27.
  • 52. Witney Ct. Bks. pp. xxvii, 20.
  • 53. Blenheim Mun., B/M/201, s.a. 1705, 1715; Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 215, ff. 121, 126, 130.
  • 54. ORO, P4/2/MS 1/5, f. 6; Blenheim Mun., shelf A2, bdle. 22, undated note on tolls.
  • 55. ORO, MS dd Par. Witney c 49, no. 7; above, intro. (bldgs).
  • 56. Witney Express, 1 June 1871; Partics. and Plan of [former Workho.] [1922]: copy in Bodl. GA Oxon. c 256 (55).
  • 57. T. Worley, Witney in Old Photos. (1987), 82–3; above, Fig. 47.
  • 58. ORO, Witney UDC I/i/4, p. 281; ibid. III/i/2, pp. 33, 49, 87, 143, 149–52, 160.
  • 59. Ibid. I/i/4, pp. 87, 101; III/i/5, p. 248; III/i/8, p. 12.
  • 60. Above, intro. (social life).
  • 61. Cal. Pat. 1317–21, 368–9.
  • 62. Witney Ct. Bks. pp. xxiii, xxvii, 5, 20, 76, 85, 99, 145, and refs. at pp. 250–1; cf. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/22, m. 15; Winch. PR 1301–2, ed. Page, 144–5.
  • 63. Witney Ct. Bks. pp. xviii, xxvi, 16; ORO, MS dd Par. Witney b 22, item c; below, local govt.
  • 64. Blenheim Mun., B/M/200–5; Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 215, f. 121.
  • 65. Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 215, ff. 122, 126–7.
  • 66. ORO, Cal. QS, i, p. 322.
  • 67. Oxf. Jnl. 30 Aug., 11 Oct. 1800.
  • 68. Blenheim Mun., B/M/204, s.a. 1842.
  • 69. Ibid. box 156, leases 1705–45, rental 1751 (folded into unrelated lease of 1780); Hants RO, 11M59/E2/248950, no. 6, s.v. Thos. Dalton.
  • 70. Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 215, f. 121.
  • 71. Blenheim Mun., shelf A2, bdle. 22, undated note of tolls; ibid. shelf C1, box of 18th- and 19th.-cent. pps., 'Notes on Hist. Witney Manor' (1857), p. 7; for the 'demesne towns', VCH Oxon. xii. 1,435.
  • 72. Oxf. Jnl. Synopsis, 13 May, 30 Sept. 1758.
  • 73. ORO, Witney UDC I/i/1, pp. 118–19.
  • 74. Ibid. pp. 303–4, 308, 315, 329; III/i/2, pp. 89, 399; Witney Express, 29 Sept, 6 Oct. 1870, 26 Oct. 1871.
  • 75. ORO, Witney UDC I/i/1, pp. 329 sqq, 378, 404, 429; ibid. III/i/2, pp. 102, 152–3, 286; ibid. III/i/6, pp. 56, 90.
  • 76. Ibid. III/ii/26b, pp. 481, 486–8, 490.