Whitehaven Market

At 10 am on the 12th of August each year the agent for the Earl of Lonsdale stands near the Market Hall to proclaim Whitehaven's Lammas Fair. The Fair itself is practically non-existent. No farm labourer stands around with a straw in his mouth to indicate that he is for hire. No dealer presents himself with horses for sale. No farmer comes to the Fair driving cattle or sheep. No tanner offers hides. But the proclamation is made each year as it has been made for over three centuries, for the charter which granted Whitehaven its Lammas Fair also granted the right to hold a weekly market.

As one writer has said "A market is, properly speaking, the franchise right of having a concourse of buyers and sellers to dispose of commodities in respect of which the franchise is given."

Being a franchise, a market is a privilege which can be granted only by the Crown by expressed (or presumed) charter, or by statute. The privilege is an exclusive one, and no other market may be held which would prejudice an existing market; even the Crown cannot derogate from an earlier charter and set up a new market in direct competition.

A "fair" is, strictly, a separate Royal franchise, but in practice it is really only a large market (usually accompanied by amusements) held less frequently, and at the present time there seems to be little legal difference between a fair and a market properly so called.

The first place in South West Cumberland to receive a charter to hold a weekly market and annual fair was Ravenglass in 1208, when King John granted to Richard de Lucy, Lord of Egremont, the right to hold a market there. Grants of a similar nature were given to Cockermouth (1227), Millom (1234), Egremont (1267), Keswick (1276) and Seaton near Workington (1280).

Whitehaven received its market charter in 1654, during the period of the Commonwealth.

Whitehaven Buttermarket c1880
Whitehaven Buttermarket c1880

The charter of 1654 may very well be unique in that it was granted to "The inhabitants of the town and port of Whitehaven." One legal authority who was approached in 1821 about the provisions of the charter wrote: "I never saw or heard of, in my own experience, any Market constituted like the present, and I should doubt whether there be any other of the kind anywhere. Markets are generally granted to Lords of Manors, or some other private individual, or to some corporation already existing, or to a Corporation on its formation and a Grant of a Market is inserted in the Charter. But this is a Grant to the Inhabitants of a Town generally who are not any corporation."

"I think however for the purpose of this Market, as the Grant is to the Inhabitants, and their Successors and a Rent is reserved to the Crown, that the Inhabitants are constituted a Corporation."

The first charter is missing but evidence of its existence is found in a memorandum in which Sir John Lowther petitioned for a confirmation of the 1654 Charter.

It begins: "Anno 1654, or about yt time ye inhabitants of Whitehaven Tenants to Sr John Lowther then in Minority procured a Grant of a Market to ye said Inhabitants and their successors. At ye King's Restoration, Sr John Lowther being doubtful whether ye said Grant was confirmed by ye Act of Judicial Proceedings, and fearing least ye Interest of ye Earl of Northumberland, Owner of ye two next Market-Towns, should not now endeavour to overthrow ye said Grant, as before it was used to oppose ye obtaining ye same; Solicits for a Confirmation thereof,  and yet it might receive ye less stop, takes it in ye same terms as ye former to ye inhabitants and their Successors, whereas it ought more properly, and might probably had it been so desired, have been to Sr John Lowther and his heirs as Lords of ye Manor."

The surviving text of the 1660 charter is the Chancery enrolment now in the Public Record office, reference C66/29 39 No. 15. The original would presumably be kept in the Lowther Archives and would have been submitted to Mr Isaac Littledale of Grays Inn, in 1821. The enrolment is a full and accurate copy of the original kept for the government archives, abbreviating only the opening and closing clauses.

When the date of the Whitehaven Lammas Fair, was moved from August 1 to August 12, is not known; the compilers of a local directory in 1829 were quite unaware that the date had been moved. Not that it mattered very much even then because they say "The fair on the 12th of August is now nearly obsolete."

In the Whitehaven News in 1879 some extracts were reprinted from the Cumberland Paquet for 1776 and the compiler to the notes has this to say about the Fair:

"The old Whitehaven institution of Lammas Fair, which Mr W. W. Lumb still proclaims with unfailing regularity each returning 12th of August, makes not the faintest stir nowadays, nor adds a single extra stall to the market. But a hundred years ago it was a great gathering both for business and pleasure, and one at which a fair proportion of the light-fingered gentry put in an appearance. As witness the following paragraph:

A correspondent, in the country, a good distance from this town, informs us that they are already put in mind of Lammas Fair by the frequent opportunities of exercising works of charity (or correction) which now present themselves. The highways and ditches are occupied by those of the wandering profession, and Madam Fortune, with all her train of dancers, gamblers and sixpenny lottery office keepers, will certainly pay us a visit on Monday next; but the misunderstanding subsist-ing between the magistrates and her most fickle majesty, we are assured, will prevent a single wheel being turned in public."

Although the fair had declined by the early part of the last century, the market was busy, too busy to please some people which was why the charter was referred to Mr Littledale for an opinion in 1821.

The crowded nature of the market was causing perturbation in various quarters and the matter was raised with the Earl of Lonsdale who in turn referred it to the manor court and the following presentment was made by the Jury:

"Several of the Tradesmen of Whitehaven within this Manor having represented to the Earl of Lonsdale the Lord of the Manor that they were very materially injured in their trade by the erection of Booths and Halls in the Market Place in the said Town by persons who resort thither on the market day and expose therein various kinds of merchandize and that such practice - also renders the market place very incommodious for the public, and his Lordship having been pleased to refer the matter to the consideration of the Jury at this Court in order to ascertain the nature and extent of the Evil complained of and the remedy for the same, we do hereby find that the Erection of Booths and Stalls in the Market place in the said Town is not only a great injury to the resident Tradesmen who Inhabit Houses in and near the Marketplace at considerable rents and which are liable to heavy rates for lighting and paving in cleansing and watching the said Town, but also renders the market place very incommodious for the Inhabitants of Whitehaven and to the Country people bringing provisions to the Town on the Market Day. That the Inconvenience complained of Is of late much increased by very large Booths being erected for the Sale of Woollens, Hardware. Shoes, Linen and almost all kinds of Goods and also by Pawnbrokers and others placing in the open Street large in quantities of Furniture for Sale to the great Annoyance of the Public and Injury to the regularly established Cabinet Maker, and it further appear-ing to us that in many instances the owners and occupiers of houses in and near the Marketplace, have taken upon to grant individuals the privilege of erecting Booths and Stalls in front of their houses and received for such leave a weekly Rent. We are on due consideration of 'the whole of the circumstances submitted to us of the opinion that the Complaint made by the persons who have as above mentioned applied to his Lordship is well founded, and we do therefore recommend that his Lordship will sanction such measures as may be necessary, to restrict the use of the Market Place to Persons bringing provisions for sale inasmuch as it appears to us from the authorities stated this day that it is the exclusive right of the Earl of Lonsdale as owner of the Soil to impose such rules for the Government of the market as to his Lordship may seem proper. We beg to suggest that in the first instance notice shall be given to the persons who erect Booths and otherwise improperly occupy the market place that they are to discontinue such practices and if on such notice being given the same are not discontinued then we recommend that his Lordship will sanction such redress as the law affords and as the parties aggrieved may be advised to seek."

Mr Littledale's opinion was that no regulation of the market could be made except at a public meeting called together by public notice and that every person had a right to attend such a meeting, not only ratepayers.

The Lord of the Manor had no right to regulate "the Market, but as owner of the soil on which it was held he could prevent booths and stalls being put up but "if the persons who sell things there choose to forego the Stalls and booths, and to put their wares on the ground, the Lord of the Manor cannot as owner of the soil prevent, them, because tho' Markets are generally held for the sale of provisions, yet all other goods may be bought and sold there, and the only thing that could be done, if a great quantity of other goods interfered with the sale of provisions would be that the owners of the Market might regulate it by directing that other goods should be sold in a particular part of the Market, but then that could only be done by the Inhabitants at Large assembled by public notice, and perhaps a common seal might be necessary."

The market-house stood over the site of the market cross erected in the seventeenth century, but within sixty years it was found inadequate and on February 10, 1880, plans were accepted by the Trustees for a larger two-storey building drawn up by Mr T. L. Banks, the architect who designed the Whitehaven Congregational and Methodist Churches and a number of other outstanding buildings.

The new Market Hall was built by Mr Doloughan, of Cleator Moor, and formally opened for business in June, 1881, by Mr (afterwards Sir) Augustus Helder, the then Chairman of the Town and Harbour Trustee Board.

Whitehaven Market c1928
Whitehaven Market c1928


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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