Economic and Social History: Markets and Fairs

A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7, the City of Birmingham. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1964.

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, 'Economic and Social History: Markets and Fairs', in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7, the City of Birmingham, (London, 1964) pp. 251-252. British History Online [accessed 26 May 2024].

. "Economic and Social History: Markets and Fairs", in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7, the City of Birmingham, (London, 1964) 251-252. British History Online, accessed May 26, 2024,

. "Economic and Social History: Markets and Fairs", A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7, the City of Birmingham, (London, 1964). 251-252. British History Online. Web. 26 May 2024,


Peter the steward received a grant, made probably in 1166, of a market to be held each Thursday at his castle of Birmingham. When the charter was confirmed in 1189 'castle' was amended to 'township' (villam); (fn. 2) presumably the original word had been used in error. William of Birmingham claimed in 1285 that this market had been held without intermission (fn. 3) and in 1308 another William alleged that his ancestors had held it before the Conquest. (fn. 4) In a suit of 1403 the then William of Birmingham claimed that 1d. toll should have been paid by some Wednesbury men on each beast they bought at his Thursday market. The suit was also concerned with cloth, iron, and brass bought at the market. (fn. 5) In 1529 tolls were paid by strangers who were not free of the market on each beast, while those who were free paid 1d. a year. Burgesses and commoners of the town paid no toll. (fn. 6) In 1553 the bailiff and commonalty of Birmingham were tenants at will of stalls for the fishmongers, butchers, and tanners in the market. (fn. 7)

The lack of any large market place meant that as trade grew the market spread into many of the streets in the centre of the town. (fn. 8) By 1553 the Cornmarket, the Welsh Market and the English Market were all apparently separate places. (fn. 9) Westley's map of 1731 shows the corn market in the Bull Ring, with the shambles above it and the beast market in the High Street. In 1749 the sellers of earthenware and garden produce were warned not to encroach upon the space reserved for the corn market. (fn. 10) The cheese market was moved to the Welsh Cross in 1768. (fn. 11) A Monday cattle market, which was later discontinued, was opened in Deritend in 1776. (fn. 12) The main cattle market continued to be on Thursday, which remained one of the chief market days throughout the 19th century, although various goods were increasingly sold on other days. (fn. 13) In 1791 a hay and straw market was established on Tuesdays in Ann Street. The fish market in Dale End was apparently started at about the same time. (fn. 14)

From the passing of the first Improvement Act in 1769 the regulation and reorganization of the markets were among the principal concerns of the Birmingham Street Commissioners. In 1806 they became contractors of the tolls and in 1824 they purchased the market rights and tolls outright from the lord of the manor. (fn. 15) In 1852 the control of the markets passed to the corporation. (fn. 16)

The first step in the reorganization of the markets was made in 1769, under the Act, when the cattle market was moved to Dale End. (fn. 17) In the early 19th century the street commissioners cleared the Bull Ring and moved the general market there from the High Street in 1806. (fn. 18) In 1817 they opened the Smithfield market on the site of the manor house moat. This absorbed the former markets for hay and straw as well as for cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs. (fn. 19) In 1883 a wholesale vegetable market opened on part of the Smithfield site. By 1900 the whole site had been taken over by the vegetable market, though a weekly or bi-weekly second-hand market, known as the Rag Fair, was also held there from before 1912 until 1957. (fn. 20) A market in Montague Street was opened in 1892 to replace the pig market at Smithfield. After opposition from the pig trade, it came into use in 1897: meanwhile a private market in Meriden Street had been used. The remainder of the cattle market went to Montague Street in 1898. The growth of the dead meat trade had contributed to the decline in the Smithfield cattle market. The street commissioners opened a meat market in Jamaica Row, which was superseded in 1897 by one in Bradford Street to which slaughterhouses were attached. (fn. 21) The Market Hall was opened in 1835 for the general retail market. (fn. 22) It was gutted in 1940 and covered stalls were erected on the site. (fn. 23) The wholesale fish market in Bell Street was opened in 1869 and extended in 1883. (fn. 24) In 1891 there was still a miscellaneous market in Dale End (fn. 25) and the open-air market in the Bull Ring was still being held in 1950 for the sale of poultry, eggs, rabbits, flowers, and shrubs. (fn. 26)

Various exchanges were set up in the 19th century and later which were not managed by the corporation. The corn market in the Bull Ring was replaced in 1847 by the Corn Exchange in Carrs Lane. (fn. 27) The Birmingham Stock Exchange Association was formed in 1845, though an association of share brokers was apparently in existence before that date. (fn. 28) It first met in the old Royal Hotel, then, after being held in various hired rooms in Waterloo Passage from c. 1874, it moved in c. 1894 to Newhall Street, where the building in existence in 1955 was opened in 1928. The Birmingham Exchange, a commodity exchange dealing mainly in iron and steel, was founded in 1861. (fn. 29) Its building in Stephenson Place, which also served as a meeting place for various purposes, was opened in 1865. (fn. 30) The Grocery Exchange was founded in 1866 and used the Corn Exchange buildings until 1908 when it moved to its own premises in Newhall Street. (fn. 31) It closed in 1934. (fn. 32) The Building Trades Exchange in Cannon Street was founded in 1905. (fn. 33)

There have been a few markets in Birmingham apart from the central ones. There may have been a market at Handsworth in the 13th century, (fn. 34) and there was one at King's Norton in the 17th and 18th centuries. (fn. 35) The New Market Hall at the junction of Prospect Row and Belmont Row was opened by a private firm in 1837 to provide for the increasing population of the neighbourhood. (fn. 36) It closed between 1850 and 1858. (fn. 37) There was a market at Gosta Green in the 19th century. (fn. 38) It was 'nearly done with' in 1888, after a long decline. (fn. 39)

In 1250 William de Birmingham was granted a yearly four-day fair in Birmingham at Ascensiontide. (fn. 40) In the same year the king ordered that a fair be held in his own manor of 'Bermigham' or 'Burmigham', which was apparently in Worcestershire, on St. John the Baptist's day. (fn. 41) It was not specified which of the two feasts of St. John the Baptist was meant. This has been identified with the second fair which Birmingham later enjoyed, but the identification is unlikely. Birmingham's second fair, which appears to have been first mentioned in 1400, was held at Michaelmas, and it seems clear that the order of 1250 related to a royal manor in Worcestershire. Possibly the name Birmingham was written in error for Bromsgrove or Feckenham, both of which were royal manors which had fairs at one of the feasts of St. John the Baptist. (fn. 42) At all events, William of Birmingham claimed only the Ascensiontide fair in 1285. (fn. 43) In 1400 two fairs were held, at Michaelmas and at the Invention of the Cross. A toll of 2d. was apparently paid by strangers on each beast bought at the fairs. (fn. 44) From 1529 on, the two fairs at Ascension and Michaelmas seem to have been enjoyed without intermission. (fn. 45) At the alteration of the calendar in 1752 the Ascension fair was apparently changed to the Thursday in Whit week and the two following days. (fn. 46) In 1778 the horse fair, which was held on both dates, was moved from Ann Street to the street now called the Horse Fair. (fn. 47) Onions were the principal merchandise in the 19th century at the Michaelmas fair, which was sometimes called the Onion Fair. The fairs were proclaimed formally until 1851, and they were spread over the whole centre of the town. From 1861 they were restricted to the Bull Ring, the upper part of Digbeth, and Smithfield. In 1875 the pleasure fairs were stopped, although a few booths and side shows were said in 1912 to be generally erected at Michaelmas on vacant land in Aston. After 1875 there were only the horse fairs, which were abolished in 1912, (fn. 48) and the Onion Fair which gradually declined. By 1955 the only relics of the fairs were a few extra stalls set up in the Bull Ring market on the last Thursday in September. Amusement fairs were still held at various times of the year in different parts of the city. (fn. 49)

Fairs were held at King's Norton until the early 20th century. (fn. 50) A section of the British Industries Fair has been held at Birmingham since 1920. From its first opening it has occupied a site just inside the city boundary at Castle Bromwich, though it originally used various public buildings in the centre of Birmingham as well. (fn. 51)


  • 1. This section was completed in 1955, with minor additions up to 1958.
  • 2. Transcript and translation printed in T.B.A.S. xxxviii. 8-9, 24; facsimile in Gill, Hist. Birm. pl. facing p. 12; see also p. 58.
  • 3. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 781-2. The importance of the early markets is discussed on pp. 6, 76, 78-79.
  • 4. Dugdale, Warws. 899.
  • 5. Plea Rolls (Coll. Hist. Staffs. xv), 110.
  • 6. S.C. 12/4/1 f. 5 a.
  • 7. 1553 Survey, 60-1.
  • 8. Hutton, Hist. Birm. (1781), 53, 231.
  • 9. Ibid. 16, 22, 23.
  • 10. Langford, Birm. Life, i. 26.
  • 11. Ibid. 124.
  • 12. Ibid. 223.
  • 13. Dix, Dir. Birm. (1858), 15; City of Birm. Official Handbk. (1950), 136.
  • 14. Langford, Birm. Life, i. 361, 363.
  • 15. Hist. Corp. ii. 171.
  • 16. Gill, Hist. Birm. 357.
  • 17. Hist. Corp. i. 79; Langford, Birm. Life, i. 192.
  • 18. Langford, Birm. Life, ii. 201.
  • 19. Ibid. 317.
  • 20. W. Barrow, 'Birm. Markets and Fairs', T.B.A.S. xxxviii. 22; The Times, 14 Aug. 1958, 10.
  • 21. Hist. Corp. ii. 172; iii. 144-7.
  • 22. Langford, Birm. Life, ii. 553; Hist. Corp. ii. 172; see p. 43.
  • 23. Birm. Official Handbk. (1950), 134.
  • 24. Hist. Corp. ii. 174; iii. 138.
  • 25. Ibid. iii. 139.
  • 26. Birm. Official Handbk. (1950), 136.
  • 27. Pictorial Guide to Birm. (1849), 97.
  • 28. F. E. Armstrong, Book of the Stock Exchange (4th edn.), 167.
  • 29. Ex inf. D. E. C. Eversley, Birm. University.
  • 30. Langford, Modern Birm. ii. 232.
  • 31. Kelly's Dir. Birm. (1880), 8; (1920), 16.
  • 32. Ex inf. Birm. Markets and Fairs Dept.
  • 33. Kelly's Dir. Birm. (1908), 13.
  • 34. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 706.
  • 35. See V.C.H. Worcs. iii. 182.
  • 36. Pictorial Guide to Birm. (1849), 97.
  • 37. Dix, Dir. Birm. (1856), 15.
  • 38. White, Dir. Warws. (1850), 31; Hist. Corp. iii. 139.
  • 39. 1st Rep. Com. on Market Rights [C. 5550-1], p. 274, H.C. (1888), liii.
  • 40. Cal. Chart. R. 1226-57, 350; see also p. 58.
  • 41. Close R. 1247-51, 374.
  • 42. V.C.H. Worcs. iii. 21, 115.
  • 43. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 781-2.
  • 44. Plea Rolls (Coll. Hist. Staffs. xv), 110.
  • 45. S.C. 12/4/1 f. 5.
  • 46. Hutton, Hist. Birm. (1781), 36.
  • 47. Langford, Birm. Life, i. 230.
  • 48. T.B.A.S. xxxviii. 21-2.
  • 49. Ex inf. Birm. Markets and Fairs Dept.
  • 50. See V.C.H. Worcs. iii. 182.
  • 51. British Industries Fair, Official Catalogue (1920).