The word ‘market’ first appeared in English in the 13th century, but for 1,000 years a market place has been at the heart of almost every village, town and city in England – and Durham City can
boast one of the finest. Keith Proud looks back into its past.
DURHAM City’s ancient market place, almost completely surrounded by impressive buildings, most of them Victorian, recently underwent expensive and extensive maintenance, restoration and remodelling
which will enable it to remain one of the finest of its kind in the country.
The present location of the market place was decreed by Bishop Ralph Flambard in the early years of the 12th century to replace the area which is now Palace Green between the castle and the
cathedral, a site which allowed too easy access for the general populace into a militarily sensitive area.
Although now much changed in appearance since the Middle Ages, the three entrances into the market place are via Framwellgate Bridge and Silver Street from the north and west, via Claypath from the
east and from Elvet Bridge and Fleshergate from the south.
Silver Street may have taken its name from the belief that there may once have been a coin mint there, while Fleshergate was certainly the place where butchers operated, frequently actually
despatching the animals in the street before butchering them.
The adjoining Saddler Street was known for its leather dealers.
The Durham historian Thomas Hutchinson wrote in 1787 that in the market place “is a fluent fountain of excellent water, which supplies the greatest part of the town. The reservoir is built up in an
elegant form and ornamented with a fine statue of Neptune. In the year 1450, Tho. Billington Esq.
granted to the city forever a spring of water in his manor of Sidgate with liberty to convey the same by pipes etc. to a reservoir in the market place for the public use at 13 pence a year rent”.
THE market place is also famous as the home, intermittently, of a statue of King Neptune which was given to the city in 1729 by George Bowes MP, of Streatlam and Gibside, as the symbol of a plan to
link Durham City to the sea by improved navigation of the River Wear.
Of the four schemes that were proposed to make this dream a reality, none came to fruition.
Neptune stood at first on the market place wellheads until, in 1863, it topped the new wellhead designed by ER Robson. In 1902, he was moved to top the new fountain and in 1923 to Wharton Park.
Having been struck by lightning, Neptune was eventually restored by Andrew Naylor, of Telford, and returned to the market place in 1991.
Another statue which has stood in the market place since 1861 is that, created by Raffaelle Monti, of Charles William Vane Stewart, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, on his horse and in the uniform of a
Since St Nicholas is the patron saint of merchants, it is appropriate that the church in the market place is dedicated to him.
The present lofty Victorian building of 1857 replaced, on the same or a very similar floor plan, the dilapidated and frequently-patched medieval church built by Bishop Flambard sometime before
In 1778, it was described as “very plain and meanly built, being constructed of small and perishable stones so that from frequent pointing it is now almost covered in mortar”.
The old building, along with its tower, had undergone extensive repairs over the centuries and had even suffered the ignominy of being almost hidden from view behind a nine-arched piazza built in
1780 in front of almost the whole of its south face.
In 1841, the church’s east end had been shortened so that Claypath could be widened where it entered the market place, just as the nearby medieval Clayport Gate had been demolished in 1791 on
Between St Nicholas’ Church and the Town Hall is an alleyway whose position once saved the life of an arrogant archbishop.
In 1283, just a few weeks after the death of Bishop Robert de Insula, Archbishop Wickwane of York travelled to Durham to claim, not for the first time, that he had what were called “rights of
Having been refused admission to the cathedral, Wickwane moved down to the market place and the church of St Nicholas which he entered and climbed into the pulpit where he started to excommunicate
the monks of Durham.
When the local people heard what was happening, an angry group of them entered the church to challenge the intruder’s actions, frightening him so much that he fled the building in terror, to find
that the mob had already cut off one of his horse’s ears. HIS life was saved only when one of the king’s commissioners who was present diverted the attention of the crowd while Wickwane made his
escape along Walkergate to the comparative safety of nearby Kepier Hospital.
Close to the church at that time was a large house called New Place, referred to locally as the Bulls Head and built during the Middle Ages as a palace for the powerful Neville family, the Earls of
Westmorland, of Raby and Brancepeth.
It was an extensive property with gardens stretching down to the river, but it had to be forfeited by the earl after his unwise involvement in the Rising of the North of 1569 against Elizabeth I,
which had been planned at Raby and Brancepeth Castles.
Confiscated by the Crown, New Place was eventually bought from King James I in 1612 by Henry Smiths Charity, who used it as a woollen factory, then a workhouse and finally the Blue Coat Charity
Founded in 1708, it started with just six pupils, but by 1732, it had 50 and, in 1812, the school moved to a new site in Claypath. On this west side of the Market Place are Durham’s civic
buildings, the medieval Guildhall of 1356 dating from the reign of King Edward III. In 1535, Bishop Tunstall had it considerably rebuilt and then gave it to the city.
Further rebuildings and alterations were carried out in 1665 and 1752 and many of the coats of arms of the old city guilds were recorded there.
Medieval in origin, these guilds were the jealous guardians of their members’ privileges. Their main functions were to oversee and guarantee the maintenance of high standards of workmanship in
their craft and to ensure as far as possible, a monopoly of work for their members. They also supervised the admission of new apprentices into the crafts and monitored these people’s long progress
to full membership of a guild.
Sometimes the guilds undertook the provision of pensions for elderly or infirm members and helped with their funeral arrangements. BETWEEN 1450 and 1667, although some were established earlier than
that, the craft and merchant guilds of the City of Durham, with the dates when they were first recorded, included Weavers and Websters, 1450; Cordwainers, 1458; Barber surgeons, Waxmakers, Ropers
and Stringers, 1468; Skinners and Glovers, 1507; Butchers, 1520; Goldsmiths, Plumbers, Pewterers, Potters, Painters, Glaziers and Tin Plate workers, 1532; Barkers and Tanners, 1547; Drapers and
Tailors, 1549; Merchants or Mercers, 1561; Fullers and Feltmakers, 1565; Curriers and Tallow Chandlers, 1570; Free Masons, Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviours, Plasterers and Bricklayers,
1594; Blacksmiths, Lorimers, Locksmiths, Cutlers, Bladesmiths and Girdlers, 1610; Saddlers and Upholsterers, 1659; Carpenters, Joiners, Wheelwrights, Sawyers and Coopers, 1661; Dyers and Listers,
By the middle of the 19th century, the Guidhall had ceased to be a building suitable for the purpose of accommodating all the business transacted by the city council so, in 1850, a new town hall
was proposed and built onto the rear of the old building.
The architect, Philip Charles Hardwick, designed it as a less-complicated and smaller- scale version of the great Westminster Hall. The hammer beam roof is most impressive, as is the great west
window with its portrayals of the medieval Corpus Christi procession, four bishops of Durham and a scene centred around King Edward III on horseback in Durham Market Place. Another stained glass
window is dedicated to the men of the Durham Light Infantry.
In 1851, the Durham Markets Company Act was passed to establish new markets in the city. The area set aside for the new market hall, the underground market, was part of the site of New Place. In
the late 19th century, fairs for horses, sheep and cattle were held in the underground market along with servant hirings twice a year.
Today, Durham continues to offer great value to marketgoers – two markets where most places have only one.