Guest Blog – A Brief History of Shopping in Saffron Walden

The prosperity of Saffron Walden has been closely linked to its role as a shopping centre since Geoffrey de Mandeville moved the market from Newport to Saffron Walden in 1143.  Indeed for a short time the medieval town was even known as Chepying Walden.  The market had a major impact on the layout of the town and on its subsequent growth.

Chepying Walden acted as the chief centre for general trade in food, clothes, leather goods and other necessities for all the surrounding villages.  People came from as far as Bury St. Edmunds, Sawbridgeworth and Colchester to trade in the markets and fairs held in Walden.  In addition to the market there were two major fairs in Walden, one held in mid-Lent, and the other, St. Ursula’s Fair (or the Feast of 11,000 Virgins) held in early November (although St. Ursula’s Day is celebrated in October.)

The network of narrow market rows established in the middle ages survives, and still carrying the name that described the medieval trades practiced in them.  Some of the names, such as Fish Row and “le Cheesehill” have fallen into disuse.  Drapers’ Row was pulled down when the end of King Street was widened in 1769, and “le Bocherie” has become Butchers’ Row, Cloth Row has become Cross Street, and Fish Row has been replaced by a small muddle of buildings.

The medieval trade was strictly regulated and traders often found themselves in breach of the laws and regulations governing their activities.  One wealthy fishmonger, John Hurl, was often prosecuted for allowing putrid water from his fishery to pollute the Slade.  John Schmyming was fined for refusing to allow market officers to weigh the bread he was selling, and Richard Smyth a brewer, was fined for brewing and selling ale without displaying the sign of the Bush – the trade sign of alehouses which had to be shown by order of the King.

In 1421 Walden became a “royal manor” and heavy market tolls were levied by the Crown. Every brewer had to: “pay to the King for every quarter of malt that he did brew, to sell, a farthing…every chapman that did stand market in his own freehold or otherwise should for opening of every shop window on the Market day pay to the King a farthing…”

These tolls crippled the economic life of the town.  The tolls “have brought it to great decay and ruin, for chapmen forsook the market and maltmen forsook the town and went to other towns, because they were so troubled with paying such tolls and customs” wrote one member of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, when they petitioned the Crown to buy the right to levy the tolls instead of the Crown.  In 1514 the Guild was eventually awarded a charter conferring the right to run the market and to hold the Court of Pie Powder, a special market court.

Throughout the centuries, the market rows were subject to a process of infilling or “market colonisation” as stalls were turned into more permanent structures, and buildings joined or extended.   Small individual stalls would stand next to much grander shops with “upper chambers” built over them.  This was a slow process, however, and William Haywood’s 1630 Survey of Market End is useful for its description of the this part of the town, providing us with a colourful record of the “dunghillpit”, garden plots, orchards, squares, barns, stables and rows of tiny shops characteristic of a market town that depended on agriculture to drive trade.

Even as late as the 19th century the commercial life of the town remained centred on agriculture.  One resident, J.W. Burningham has left an account of some of the farmers who used the Corn Exchange in the decades after it opened in 1849.

“The corn market was indeed a busy place in the fifties and early sixties, when corn fetched a good price, and farmers were doing well, and their attendance much larger than now.  Many influential farmers, such as the Claydens, Webbs, Myhills, Giblings, Clarks, Leonards and many others were always to be seen there, several of which (sic) used to adjourn to the Rose and Crown for dinner when the bell rang at three o’clock. On special occasions 30, 40 or more would dine, and think nothing of it costing them from 7s.6d. to 10s.6d. for their dinner. These were the days of port wine and brandy and water after dinner (there was very little whiskey drunk in those days); with the long churchwarden pipe and mild bird’s eye tobacco.”

The agricultural depression in the late 19th century hit local trade badly.  The impact on the market which was then held on Saturday was severe.  Many of the shopkeepers could not afford to leave their shops to run their stalls and so the Saturday market was moved to Tuesdays.

A major innovation in the pattern of shopping took place in 1902 when Saffron Walden’s first Co-op opened in Castle Street.  Soon there were several other small Co-operative stores in different parts of the town, including a shop in the High Street (now the Olive Garden).  The Co-op opened its own bakery in Ashdon Road (transferred to new premises behind the High Street shop in 1912) and even a men’s outfitters in Hill Street.

The character of shopping has changed dramatically since World War II.  The demise of corn-dealing and the closure of the poultry and livestock markets, signalled the end of the town’s dependency on agriculture to drive the local economy.  Followed not long afterwards by the rise of the supermarket, and then the Super Store as the rise of the motor car radically altered the way we live and work.

The first supermarkets were tiny in comparison to Tescos and Waitrose.  International Stores ripped out its wooden panelling, marble-topped cheese counter and the tiny wooden cubicle in the centre of the store where shoppers queued to pay an assistant in fingerless gloves.  They were replaced by gleaming white and silver self-service display units.  Large square tins full of cut-price “broken biscuits” on the rack in front of the counter were replaced by cellophane-wrapped cylinders, and just a little bit of the magic went out of shopping.

Some of these long gone shops were quite exciting places. The Co-op shops in the High Street and in Hill Street had arrangements with canisters and pulleys, so that when you purchased something, the assistant put the money and a slip in the canister, and sent it whizzing over peoples’ heads to a cash desk. The cashier put in the change and receipt and sent it whizzing back. Each time the can arrived at the desk or the counter a little bell would ring.

Some shops stay in the memory because of the strange smells that lingered in the air.  Vert’s, a horticulturist in East Street, used to smell wonderfully of dark earth and marigolds.  Pennings, the last of Saffron Walden’s traditional grocers in the Market Place smelt of cheese, bacon and freshly cooked hams.  Other shops drew people in with the bright colours of the things they sold like the jars of sweets in Molly’s Candy Store, or the old-fashioned – almost antiquarian – layout of the premises.  Mr. Cresswell’s Chemist shop next to the King’s Arms had tall glass flasks in the window containing brightly coloured blue and green liquids, and rows of glass jars full of pills and potions lined up behind the counter.

Shopping could be an adventure. De Barr’s shoe-shop featured a large wooden box, with a viewer at the top. You could stand with your feet under the box, and look down and see your toes inside the new shoes you were trying on. Then there was the “Bombed-Out” shop in Cross Street – with all the excitement of forbidden territory, because it sold stink bombs, and those little bombs that held caps that exploded when thrown onto the ground.

Distant echoes of shopping in past centuries can still be seen in the surviving wooden Tudor shop windows on both sides of Cross Street (the Corner cupboard and the Parsley Pot), but 14th and 15th century shoppers would be surprised to know that now there is now only a single baker in the town (there were 25 bakers in 1381) and only two butchers (there were 21 in 1390).

Large supermarkets are convenient, but they have a negative impact on the local economy, and deprive us of a whole range of experiences that used to be part of shopping. When you go shopping in Saffron Walden it is no longer possible to look inside the dark interior of the George Street blacksmith’s and see the glow from the forge.  You can’t hear the bell ring when the canister’s whizz over your head at the Co-op, smell the grain in Barnards, or listen to the spluttering hiss from the gas mantles on Jim Reynolds rock stall on the market.  We have exchanged experience for convenience.

By Martyn Everett – Explore Saffron Walden Museum

First published in the Saffron Walden Directory,  2005/6