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Abergavenny Farmers' Market

History of Abergavenny Market Hall

The Market was established in Abergavenny when the town began to grow around the castle and the priory. Over the centuries Abergavenny has grown and flourished as the Market centre for the surrounding district.  The market was controlled by the Norman Lord of Abergavenny. Markets had to be regulated carefully on the principle of the Roman maxim “Ubi est multitude, ibi esse rector” – where there is a crowd, someone should be responsible for its control. 
As early as the 9th century laws were enacted to ensure the markets were orderly and peaceful.

Revenue was derived from the markets and fairs held.  When towns grew larger, owning a market franchise was a lucrative source of income.  The first reference to the markets and fairs held in Abergavenny is in the Lordship of  Abergavenny accounts for the year 1256 – 1257.  At this time the Lordship was being administered by the Crown, whilst the heir was too young to take responsibility for his estates.

 “William Hermon & John Poth…render account for £10.11s.6½d for the toll of the market per annum and for £4.6s.10d. for the toll of the fair at the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept 14th)…..the same render accounts for 40s.9d from the chensers of the burgh, that they might sell and buy as if they were of the liberty of the town at the two terms of the year viz,at the Feast of St. Martin (Nov 11th) and at the Annunciation the Blessed Mary (March 25th).”

Markets were often held in or around the Church, which appears to have been the case in Abergavenny.  During archaeological excavations an extensive area of cobbling was found on the north west side of Flannel Street, this strongly suggests that the Market Square was in this area, strongly associated with St. Johns Church.  After the mid 14th century this open space was encroached upon by streets and buildings, presumably because of increasing pressure on available land within the walled medieval town.

Little is known about the Market in Abergavenny after this date until the early 17th century, although fairs and markets were undoubtedly an important part of Abergavenny life from medieval times onwards.  Reference is made to the holding of two markets in every week, on Tuesdays and Fridays (which is still the same today) in a charter granted to Abergavenny by Charles 1 in 1638.  The responsibility for the markets had now passed to the people of the town.

In 1602 Philip Jones of London and Llanwenarth Court left 200 marks in his will to the town of Abergavenny with which to build a new market house.  He specified that it should be built in the manner of the Market House at Monmouth which at that date was a timber framed building.  This building is mentioned by Archdeacon Coxe in 1801.

“The Old Market House in Abergavenny is badly situated, just in the middle of the principal street in the town to which it so nearly covered as to leave a narrow passage only on one side, scarcely sufficient to admit carriages.  It was however, spacious and commodious and contained a large apartment at the further end, which was a convenient court of justice…..” 

It must have stood in the now wide part of Cross Street between Boots and the present Town Hall.  The Abergavenny Improvement Act of 1794 gave the Abergavenny Improvement Commissioners the power to erect a new Market House and to demolish the old one in order to widen Cross Street.  Two pubs, The Dog & Bull and the Plume of Feathers and four shops were pulled down to make way for the new market.

The architect, Mr P Nash of Carmarthen was asked to submit plans and estimates for the new Market Place (John Nash later became famous as George 1V’s own architect and for building Regent Street, The Haymarket Theatre and Brighton Pavilion as well as many others).  Mr Nash got to work and by August 4th,. A week after receiving instructions, had produced a colour drawing of the proposed market house embellished with figures which was approved and put out to tender.

The Market Place was to in the form of an open courtyard surrounded by market stalls.  It was decided to leave as much as possible of the town wall standing and to build on top of it to a height of 14 feet to screen the market from the North wind.  By the end of 1795  the butchers of the town were invited to attend a meeting for the allocation of stalls.  Thirty nine stalls were let at a monthly rent of £1.11s.6d  At the same meeting it was decided to install a clock specially made by a London firm and not to exceed the sum of £40.  New scales and measures were also purchased for the market.

Notice of the opening of the new market was advertised in the Hereford Journal on April 13th 1796.

“………the said new market place…..shall be deemed the market place of the said town, and shall be used as such and al corn and other grain, meal flour, butchers meat, fish, poultry, butter, cheese, vegetables and all other matters and things usually exposed to the sale in the late market house, or in the public streets and places within the said town (other than and except horses, cattle and sheep and swine) shall be exposed to sale and sold within such market place and not elsewhere…..This public notice is therefore given, that the said mater will be open for the purposes of the aforesaid on Tuesday, and will be appropriated as a daily market.”

The advertisement continues by defining the streets in the town where animals could be sold; Castle Street for exhibiting stone horses (stud horses) and the south west side of Lion street , Lower Monk Street  and Ross Road for the selling of horned cattle.  Nevill Street was previously caller Rother Street (Rother meaning horned cattle) and has also been known as Cow Street, which suggests that this thoroughfare had in the past been used for marketing beasts.  I the 19th century Nevill Street had two pubs whose names may have recorded this - The Cow Inn and the Bull Inn which was demolished in 1958.

Livestock sales were still being carried out in the streets of the town and the inhabitants were pressing the commissioners to do something about the matter.  In 1823 it was decided that a sheep market was essential and a piece of ground in Castle Street belonging to Thomas Gabb was purchased.  The sheep market was ready be May 1825 so sheep sales elsewhere in the town were forbidden.  The various livestock markets were not brought together on one site until 1863 when it was situated on the old cricket field where it stands today, although subsequently extended.

Repairs to the market place and market house were a constant drain on the resources of the Commissioners and over the years a great deal of money was spent on maintenance.  In 1824 it was suggested that a new market place should be constructed but the following year the commissioners decided instead to carry out Mr Wescotts plans for improvement to the property undoubtedly due to shortage of money.

A print and watercolour painting survive of the Cross Street front of the market place. Inscribed on the print are the words “Front view of the new Market Place, Abergavenny.  Erected in the year 1826…..J.G. Peene Del.  J. Westcott  Archt.  “ The inscription is extremely misleading as it is not a new market place nor was it rebuilt in 1826. It is clear from the commissioners’ minute book that only alterations were made.  The4 print and paintings look suspiciously like the description of Nash’s “coloured drawing of the proposed market house with embellished figures”.  How much of the building depicted in the 1826 print and painting is by Nash and how much by Westcott will never be known.

By the middle of the 19th Century, despite Westcott’s improvements, the market place still had insufficient space undercover .  Once again the question of rebuilding  was discussed and the decision was made to completely rebuild.  The architects chosen this time were a firm, Wilson & Wilcox of Bath.

They wrote to the Improvements Commissioners with the plans for the new building saying  “we do not hesitate to say that the sum at your disposal,  i.e £5500 is not a large sum for your requirements, but we confidently assert that our design can be carried out in a thoroughly substantial manner for that sum…….Style it would have been deceptive and wrong to have designed the building with much expensive and meretricious ornament, for your funds would not be adequate.  We have consequently adopted a very simple style of the Gothic art as our guide, choosing this as being more expressive, much more with your beautiful neighbourhood……upon examination of our design you will see the details are marked with simplicity and boldness giving the breadth of effect so characteristic of early Gothic art, which always has been from medieval times and is the chosen style for the Hotel de Ville of all continental towns.

Tenders for building the Town Hall were invited and in 1868 Mssrs. S J. Morelands & Sons of Gloucester were contracted to do the work. When the Town Hall tower was being completed in 1870, Thomas Watkins, a 26-year-old labourer working on the tower, fell to his death. He was buried on September 9th1870. The clock was donated by Crawshay Bailey; the black north-facing clock is said to be in commemoration of Price Albert who died in 1861.

Since the Town Hall was built and the livestock market given a permanent site in Lion Street, few changes have been made. The Tuesday general produce market has been extended to include clothes, materials and household stuffs. Organised auction sales were introduced to the cattle market in 1872 along with specialist stock shows and auction sales at various times of the year. Travelling fairs visit the town twice a year in May and September and use the Fairfield car park as a temporary site.

At a local government reorganisation in 1974, the responsibility for the fair and market regulation passed from the Borough of Abergavenny to Monmouth District Council. 

From medieval times to the present day the market has played a vital part in the life of the town, and while other industries have grown flourished and disappeared, the market has ensured the development of Abergavenny as the commercial centre for the surrounding countryside.