Heritage Town

The Borough Market

By Geoffrey Washington

Markets have always been an established part of the scene in English social history regulated by Royal Charter, the earliest of which was granted to Taunton traders as far back as 904 AD. In the mid 19 th century a red brick Georgian market place (built in 1790) stood on the site of the present Halifax Borough Market with a slaughter house close by (previously animals were slaughtered in the street adjacent to the butcher's stall).

Referred to as the 'New Market', the market place was run by a private company until 1853 but it became inadequate as stalls overflowed on to footpaths and highways. Also included in the 'New Market' was a covered area known as the 'Low Market' which was situated (until 1968) on the bottom side of Market Street. Consisting mainly of open stalls trading only on Fridays and Saturdays, one could buy hot black puddings, tripe, cow heels and elder, not to mention such diverse items as puppies and second hand magazines. In one entrance was sited a weighing chair where weight could be checked for one penny (240 pennies = 1 pound). During the 1939 - 45 war the place was used as a British Restaurant for cheap and cheerful lunchtime meals.

The 1853 Development Act enabled the newly formed Halifax Corporation to take over the market and the running of it. In 1890, the Markets and Fairs Committee decided that the 'New Market' should be replaced so local architects, Joseph and John Leeming, were engaged for the purpose and one year later, the Corporation took out an initial loan of £50,000 (the final cost climbed to about £130,000). The foundation stone was laid in October 1892, however, progress was slow and it was not until July 1896 that the place was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of York (later to become King George V and Queen Mary). On the same day they also opened the Royal Halifax Infirmary, so thousands turned out for the combined event to enjoy the floodlit buildings and firework displays.

Architecturally the Borough Market is a mixture of styles but all seem to blend very well to make the building a most elegant and attractive feature of the Halifax townscape. It is constructed of stone with very fine ornamental detail including several slender Baroque turrets. There are no steps despite the sloping site, a feature appreciated by the disabled. The focal point of the interior is a superb octagonal dome, or lantern, supported by decorative cast iron pillars rising 60 feet above floor level. An ornamental clock, which can be seen from most parts of the Market, is at the centre of the dome. This combined feature is a superb example of Victorian grandeur and 'Under the Clock' has been a rendez-vous for many Halifax folk for generations.

Around the perimeter walls were 43 shops originally all occupied by butchers - many still are - whilst wide aisles facilitate pedestrian traffic. The Fish Market, originally indoors, was partitioned off with access from the Albany Arcade, until the fish shops moved outside into Albion Street and their number reduced accordingly. The outside perimeter of the market building was filled with shops looking into the streets (except for Albion Street until the fish market was moved) and above the Southgate and Market Street shops was living accommodation where many former traders lived. The Market Inspector had the upper rooms on the Albion Street side from whence he could survey the whole market.

Three public houses, the Wheatsheaf, the Saddle and the Peacock, were built into the Market Street side of the building. The first of these was re-named the Portman and Pickles following a public competition despite the sheaf of wheat carved into the stone front of the building. Both were nationally known Halifax men, Eric Portman being an actor and Wilfred Pickles a broadcaster. The Saddle at the Russell Street end was demolished in the 1960's and replaced by a building (designed as an early supermarket) totally out of character with its environment. The Peacock, at the bottom of Albion Street, was converted into a shop and a fourth public house, the Boar's Head, Southgate, is where the office of the Bradford and Bingley Building Society now stands.

Initially, water was not laid on to stalls and had to be carried by bucket from a well near the Market Street entrance. The market was unheated and stalls had to provide their own means of keeping warm; it was not unusual that a bucket of water left overnight froze by morning. In 1954 a few experimental gas operated heaters were installed which were not welcomed by some butchers who most likely did not have their own refrigerators. In the absence of refrigerators it was essential that all meat should be sold by Saturday night, resulting in butchers shouting out their progressive reduction in prices before closing time and many bargains were to be had. Closing time varied with initial opening hours as Monday to Wednesday 8.00am to 8.00pm, half day closing at 4.00pm on Thursday, Friday was 8.00am - 9.00pm and Saturday 6.00am - 10.30pm. How these have changed over the years.

In our time the appearance and purpose of many of the shops has altered and most of us will have nostalgic memories of stalls and their keepers now gone. But the market atmosphere, which still remains, is not found elsewhere. It is appreciated not only by us locals but also by countless visitors to the town. At least when other West Riding towns have demolished their Victorian markets and Cloth Halls those of Halifax stand as a permanent reminder of our distinguished heritage.

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