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Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story


Sharon Middleton

Medieval Boston was a prosperous town with a busy port. It was very wealthy. Only London paid more in tax than Boston. While much of this wealth was generated by the port, the town was also important for its markets and fairs. Regular markets enabled people from the surrounding area to buy and sell goods and services, whilst its fairs, dating from about 1125, had an international reputation. A royal charter of 1218 recorded the town’s right to hold markets and fairs, with further charters being issued to confirm Boston’s rights and privileges as a trading centre.

Boston’s annual fairs were sumptuous occasions. Lasting several days, velvet and silk, wines and spice, fish and all manner of luxury goods from Europe and further afield were traded. Whilst these fairs were important, the weekly markets were equally so. The Saturday Market was established by a charter of 1308. In 1545 when the Corporation of Boston was established, the town was granted the right to hold twice weekly markets, adding a Wednesday livestock market. Wednesdays and Saturdays are still the town’s market days.

Although the trade coming through the port declined from about 1500, the town remained a prosperous trading hub. During the 1570s the weekly market was so busy that stallholders had to be segregated according to their merchandise, and armed guards employed to keep the peace.

Cattle Market Neil Watson

Cattle Market (Neil Watson Collection)

illustration of sheep fair in Boston

The sheep fair in Wide Bargate c 1800

Following the drainage of thousands of acres around Boston, the importance of livestock increased and the annual sheep fair held in Wide Bargate during May became an important fixture in the calendar. In the 1820s the town’s fair was held in August, a horse and cattle fair took place in November and a cattle fair occurred in December. This remained the pattern until the agricultural slump of the late 1880s from which the livestock fairs never recovered.

In 1732 an elegant new Butter Cross was erected to serve as a market exchange with assembly rooms above. A very smart Corn Exchange was built in 1855, but it was never used as such because farmers and merchants preferred to carry out their business in huts in the market place, as they had always done.

As the prosperity of the eighteenth century progressed, many Bostonians were setting up shops in the town. In 1784 there were 35 shopkeepers but by 1835 there were 910! Despite this increase in the number of shops, the weekly market continued to flourish. The fairs were also good for business, particularly for the taverns, of which Boston had many. By the 1890s the May Fair’s growing emphasis on entertainment saw showmen setting up the latest rides and amusements alongside the market stalls, a tradition that is still strong today.

Boston Market frut stall

A typical town market stall (Bryan S. Graves)

Boston Fair with St Botolphs church in the background

All the fun of the fair (Bryan S. Graves)