The Markets of Birmingham

This week Birmingham welcomes back the Frankfurt Christmas Market, and this year marks 50 years of partnership between our two cities!

In celebration of this significant anniversary a number of events have been planned jointly with the City of Frankfurt and Frankfurt based organisations, and a calendar of events marking this special year can be found here.

The Christmas market, the biggest of its kind outside Germany and Austria, came to Birmingham for the first time in 1997 when it consisted of 11 stalls in Victoria Square. It returned in 2001, since which time it has become an annual fixture in the Birmingham calendar. The stallholders all come from Frankfurt and surrounding areas and their offer here in Birmingham mirrors that in Frankfurt – in fact some of the stalls look almost identical! If you want to find out more about the history of the Frankfurt Market you can find out more here.

The history of markets in Birmingham, however, goes back a little further… and what follows is a hop, skip, and a jump through time, courtesy of the chapter ‘Markets and Fairs’ [in Stephens, W. B. (ed.), VCH Warwickshire, Vol. VII, the City of Birmingham (London, 1964)], and showcasing some of the photographs we have here in Birmingham Archives & Collections.

In 1166 Peter de Bermingham, then lord of the manor of Birmingham, was granted a Royal Charter to hold a weekly market every Thursday. In 1251 the township was allowed to hold a fair lasting four days beginning every Holy (Maundy) Thursday. The market quickly flourished, and artisans and tradesmen began to gradually settle in the area. Economic activity was probably stimulated by the fact the settlement still bore the status of a manor, as opposed to that of a medieval borough, which allowed trades to be practiced free from the restrictions of the medieval craft guild system that existed in most boroughs.

 “The lack of any large market place meant that as trade grew the markets spread into many of the streets in the centre of the town. By 1553 the Cornmarket, the Welsh Market and the English Market were all apparently separate places.  Westley’s map of 1731 shows the corn market in the Bull Ring, with the shambles above it and the beast market in the High Street… The cheese market was moved to the Welsh Cross in 1768. A Monday cattle market, which was later discontinued, was opened in Deritend in 1776. The main cattle market continued to be on a Thursday, which remained one of the chief market days throughout the 19th century, although various goods were increasingly sold on other days. In 1791 a hay and straw market was established on Tuesday in Ann Street. The fish market in Dale End was apparently started at about the same time.” (VCH p. 251).

Entrance gates and railings at the fish market, Birmingham. 1912 [WK/B11/520]

Entrance gates and railings at the fish market, Birmingham. 1912

“In the early 19th century the street commissioner cleared the Bull Ring and moved the general market there from the High Street in 1806. In 1817 they opened the Smithfield market on the site of the manor house moat. This absorbed the former markets for hay and straw as well as for cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs.” (VCH p. 251).


Exterior view of Smithfield Market, n.d. [c1887] [WK/B11/367]

Under the Borough Improvement Act of 1851, the Borough Council took over the function for markets and the Markets and Fairs Committee was formed. The full functions of the committee not only concerned all matters relating to the regulation, control and management of all markets, but also fairs and wakes held within the borough.

“In 1883 a wholesale vegetable market opened on part of the Smithfield site. By 1900 the whole site had been taken over by the vegetable market, though a weekly or bi-weekly second-hand market known as Rag Fair, was held there from before 1912 until 1957. A market on Montague Street was opened in 1892 to replace the pig market at Smithfield. ” (VCH p. 251).

The Saturday Rag Fair, Open Market, Moat Row, Birmingham , 1904. [WK/B11/394]

The Saturday Rag Fair, Open Market, Moat Row, Birmingham , 1904.

Cattle Market and Pig Market buildings, Montague Street, Birmingham, 1902. [WK/B11/1233]

Cattle Market and Pig Market buildings, Montague Street, Birmingham, 1902.

To do its work, the Markets and Fairs Committee was served by several departments: the Weights and Measures Department, the Markets and Fairs Department (Markets Department after June 1965) and the Veterinary and Food Inspection Departments, which later merged to form the Veterinary and Food Inspection Department, though in February 1964, this department was transferred to the Health Committee. Also, the committee liaised closely with the Salvage and Stables Department, as in 1926, all condemned foodstuffs would become the property of the Salvage and Stables Committee and all the Markets Department horses, rolling stock and carters would also be transferred to them.

View of horse and cart full of vegetables at Old Open Market, formerly Cattle Market, Moat Row, Birmingham,  July 1896. [WK/B11/340]

View of horse and cart full of vegetables at Old Open Market, formerly Cattle Market, Moat Row, Birmingham,  July 1896.

The committee’s powers were far-reaching, and it had to implement all by-laws and regulations relating to the inspection of slaughterhouses and the ‘prevention of exposure for the sale of unwholesome food’. The committee was also expected to manage and control weights and measures and weighing machines (also previously under the control of the Lord of the Manor) and superintend the collection of tolls and dues to the borough.

There is so much more to the history of markets in Birmingham, and we have a wealth of resources here in Archives & Collections at the Library of Birmingham should you wish to delve further! You can find out more about us and how to use our service here:

To get you started though, the images used in this blog come from MS 2724, Warwickshire Photographic Survey (1890 – 1955), and The Birmingham City Council Archive has an extensive run of minutes should you wish to find out more (BCC/1/AN,  Markets and Fairs Committee, 1851 – 1974), not to mention the various manuscript collections we hold that refer to market charters.

Perhaps you can combine a visit to this year’s Christmas Market with a research trip to us here in Archives & Collections at the Library of Birmingham… Perhaps start with the research first though!

Corinna Rayner



One response to “The Markets of Birmingham

  1. Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market started last Thursday 17th November…..this is a brief history of Birmingham Markets from 1133 until the present day with Brummagem’s Markets under threat from internet shopping and the Wholesale Market moving to Witton in the shadow of Villa Park another Birmingham institution….

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