Market becomes growing concern

Lancaster Market interior showing stalls and shops around the outside.
Lancaster Market interior showing stalls and shops around the outside.

By the 1840s it was clear that the market needed more space.

Initial plans focused on demolishing property around Market Square but it was eventually decided to build a new covered market on the site of gardens between Market Street and Common Garden Street adjacent to the shambles.

This became known as the ‘back market’. We know little about it but the press reports suggest it was not popular.

Being adjacent to the slaughterhouses it smelt. Access was difficult, especially for carts. It was over-crowded.

Shopkeepers on Market Street complained that they had lost trade. But it survived for more than 30 years.

Then, in the 1870s, as the town started to grow rapidly, a larger market hall was built on the site, and the offensive slaughterhouses were moved to Prince William Henry Field, now Thurnham Street car park.

The new hall, with its cast iron structure and glass roof, was opened with grand civic ceremony in 1880. It housed a corn market, fish stalls, stands for market gardeners, benches for farmers’ wives to sell their dairy produce, butchers’ shops on the site of the old shambles and a variety of other shop units built into the walls which were tenanted by retailers selling household goods or by ‘penny bazaars’, the forerunners of the Poundland style shops of today.

Unlike most market halls there are few photographs of its exterior because it was sandwiched behind shops and buildings on the streets which surrounded it.

Nevertheless, it rapidly became the hub of Lancaster’s shopping, the alleyways which led to it providing what were effectively a series of spokes from surrounding streets.

Unlike the street market and the farmers’ ‘potato market’ on Church Street it opened daily. It made a profit for the town council.

Since the stalls were removable it could be used for public functions: a free dinner for the ‘aged poor’ (described as being over 60) for Queen Victoria’s jubilees and a celebratory dinner for Herbert Storey when he became High Sheriff for the county in 1904.

In the decades from the 1950s the market was modernised and extended.

A new arcade for the fish merchants was erected from Corn Market Street; the butchers’ shops were modernised and moved; fixed stalls, more akin to shops, replaced the benches and stands.

When improvements were completed in 1975 the revamped market hall seemed unchallengeable as the town’s main source of supply for fresh produce and household goods.

Then on October 8, 1984, disaster struck. Fire swept through the building. The market’s prime location meant that national retailers quickly expressed an interest in buying the site.

The city council hired consultants to draw up plans. They proposed selling the land and moving the market to a first floor site above a new bus station on Cable Street. Local campaigners resisted these plans and the recession of the late 1980s put paid to them. Meanwhile, the market traders remained on the original site trading under canvas in all weathers.

In the 1990s, despite yet more opposition from campaigners, the council decided to sell the site for retail development. This is now Market Gate and still functions as a retail cross-roads in the centre of town. A new two storey market hall was built adjacent to King Street but this meant that a detour was necessary to enter the market and shoppers had to use a ramp or escalator to visit all the stalls.

Whether it was this move or the expansion of the supermarkets which led to its demise remains open to debate. But trade ebbed away and in 2013 the market hall closed and the remaining market traders either retired from business or found alternative premises around town. Ironically, just as this was happening, Lancaster’s street markets, which had been in danger of disappearing altogether, were revitalised.

The wheel has come full circle and Market Square and adjacent streets are again busy. The Market Hall, long referred to simply as ‘the market’ may stand empty, but Lancaster’s markets continue and will no doubt survive in decades to come – although in what form remains to be seen.