Henley Markets & Fairs


Henley Market Place in 1880, looking West to the Town hall built in 1796 and replaced in 1899–1901.  The Obelisk superseded an earlier Market Cross in the 18thC and survives in Public Parks near the River.  Until the 1790s a line of Buildings (Middle Row) ran down the centre of the Market Place, containing Shops, the Guildhall & a Gaol 


The Main Crossroads c.1890, looking North towards Bell Street. The rounded Corner on the right reflects Street Widening under the 1808 Bridge Act; the Drinking Fountain was donated in 1885.

A Weekly Market was 1st Recorded in 1270.  Its status as a Prescriptive rather than a Chartered Market suggests an early origin, and presumably, it had existed from the Town’s creation. Market Day was Thursday in the early 14thC and probably earlier, and remained so in 2010.  In the 1670s the Market was noted for its ‘very considerable’ Corn Trade, and in the 1790s the main Commodities were grain, cattle, poultry & fish.  In 1838 it was said to be well attended by Farmers & Mealmen from the neighbourhood, and to be ‘always abundantly supplied with grain, poultry, vegetables, etc.‘.  In 1897 it was described as a ‘Corn & General Market‘.  In the 20thC (probably before the WW2) livestock were sold in the upper part of the Market Place, and other Merchandise below the Town Hall; at the Christmas Market Animals were also placed in the Yard of the former Broad Gates Inn, just off the Upper Market Place.  In 1927 a Christmas Farmers’ Market was held in the Yard of the White Hart, perhaps as an extension of the Main Market. Market Tolls belonged to the Lord of the Manor until the Corporation bought them in 2 Stages, in 1856 & 1932.

The Old Broad Gates Inn

A 4-day Fair was granted to Robert de Harcourt (as Lord of Henley Manor) by Royal Charter between 1199 & 1204, to be held on the Vigil & Feast of the Decollation of St John the Baptist (29th August) and the next 2 days. It continued until 1440, when the Charter was surrendered and Henry VI granted 2 replacement 3-day Fairs around the Feasts of St Mathias (24th February, – 25th February in Leap years) & Corpus Christi (in May or June).  The Recipients were the Lord of Henley Manor, Robert Hungerford, and his wife Eleanor, Lady Moleyns, but the Grant was obtained by the Warden, John Elmes, at a cost of £13 14s; the latter Fair was probably timed to follow the Sheep-shearing.  In 1525-26 a proposed Grant of Liberties to the Warden & Bailiffs included 2 New Autumn Fairs, but they were apparently not instigated, and nor were Fairs mentioned in the 1568 Charter of Incorporation.  By the mid-18thC the St Mathias Fair, and perhaps also the Spring Fair, lasted only 1-day.  After the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in September 1752 the St Mathias Fair continued on its specified date, but was moved forward in 1760 to 7th March.

A Statute Fair in September, presumably for Hiring & Pleasure, was started by 1757, and a Fair was also held on Holy Thursday by the 1790s.   A pattern of 4-Annual Fairs (7th March, Holy Thursday, Thursday after Trinity Sunday, Thursday after 21st September) continued until the 1870s.  In the 19thC, the Spring Fairs were usually described as Cattle Fairs, with Horses sometimes specified; a Resident who settled in the Town c.1869 recalled that the Fairs remained strong and remembered seeing Cattle, Sheep & Horses along the whole length of Hart Street & the Market Place at the May Fair.  In 1871 the local Board regarded the Autumn Fair as a health hazard, and in 1872 the Town Justices secured its Abolition under the 1871 Fairs Act.  It was reportedly last held in the Town in 1876, when Entertainments included a Menagerie and a Pony-powered Roundabout, and continued as a Pleasure Fair in a Field on Reading Road until the mid 20thC.  Horse Fairs were still held in 1897 on 7th March and on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and one was photographed c.1900.

Tolls from the Market & Fairs (except for the 18thC Statute Fair) belonged to Henley’s Lords as Manorial Assets, though from the later 16thC to the later 18th they were levied by the Corporation as Lessee of the Manor.  Early recorded receipts were low: in 1296–97 Market Tolls produced 18s-d and the Fair 3s-d, while in 1300 the Market & Tolls were valued at 15s, and the Fair at 3s.  By comparison, the smaller Town of New Woodstock produced £2–£3 annually in Market Tolls for much of the 13th & early- 14thC.  In the later 16thC Henley’s Lord evidently also levied Tolls on Corn in kind.

After the Corporation Leased the Manor in 1590 it appointed a man to take ‘Toll Corn’ at the Market & Fairs and on other weekdays.  Payments were specified for his work for each Quarter and on Market Day, and for Levying Toll on Corn before it was pitched in the Market Place.  In 1660, immediately after renewing its Lease of the Manor, the Corporation issued a year-long Rota for the collection of Toll Corn, with 3 men allocated to each month.  The Toll Corn appears to have been sold, and generated a large income: in 1673 the Warden accounted for £82-18s-d from Toll Corn & Stall Rents, and in 1701 the Income from Tolls was £95-18s-10d.  Other Tolls continued to generate relatively small amounts, and in 1768 the Tolls from Stalls at the Market & Fair were let for £4 per year.  In 1853 the ‘Corn Tithes’ of Henley Market were valued at about £40 per year, and other ‘Tithes’ (Tolls) were Let for £25 per year.

In 1856 the Corporation raised money by subscription to buy the ‘Large Tolls’ from the Lord in order to make the Market free of Corn Tolls.  The Lord retained ‘very small Tolls’ on Poultry & Vegetables, which in 1880 were let for £5 per year.  The remaining Market Rights were acquired by Henley Borough Council in 1932 as part of its purchase of Manorial Rights.


The Middle Row in the Market Place in the late 18thC, showing the Guildhall, Gaol, & Fire Engine House. The Market House (demolished 1793–4) lay further West, on the site of the later Town Hall


A Medieval Guildhall presumably existed by the late 13thC, when the Merchant Guild was 1st recorded.  In the early 15thC it stood on the South side of Hart Street a little way East of the Crossroads, and included a Cellar; Meetings of the Warden & Commonalty were held there regularly, and new Forms or Benches were provided in 1419.  Payments in 1479for making the Guildhall‘ must have been for repairs only since in 1487 it was agreed to create a New Hall in the Middle Row in the Market Place.  Thereafter the Guildhall remained on the same Site until the late 18thC.

In the 1780s and presumably earlier the Council Chamber occupied the 1st-Floor above a Hall & Kitchen.  On the East, the Premises abutted the Plume of Feathers Inn, and on the West, Corporation Property let as Houses or Shops.  A little further along the Row, also at Ground-level, were a Gaol and a space used for the Town Fire Engines.  All or part of the Hall was apparently Timber-framed, with a Jettied Upper Floor on the North, and by the 1690s there was a large Octagonal Lantern with a Cupola, surmounted by a Gilt Orb.  The Chamber continued to be used for Corporation Meetings, and both it and the Hall were frequently let for other purposes: Nonconformist Ministers unsuccessfully petitioned for its use in the 1670s, and in the 18thC it was regularly used for Social Events & Public Meetings, as well as by the Turnpike & Thames Commissioners and other Bodies. In 1753 Lords Macclesfield & Parker requested use of the Guildhall & Kitchen for a Political Entertainment (Vote Buying).

Market Place & Market Houses
The Market may originally have occupied the whole extensive area between the Crossroads & Gravel Hill to the West, but by the 1330s the building of a Middle Row along part of its length effectively divided it in 2.  The area around the Crossroads & Market Cross (mentioned from 1308) was clearly important.  In the 15thC Trading took place under the Cross, which was evidently the Guild’s responsibility: in 1422 it provided it with a new Bell, and paid for Shingles or wooden Roof Tiles.  In 1487 the Guild relocated its Hall to the Eastend of the Middle Row, apparently overlooking the Cross & Crossroads. 


The other main Trading area extended Westwards from Middle Row, roughly as far as the modern King’s Road. Its probable Western edge was indicated in 1441, when the Burgesses’ Assembly banned Butchers from slaughtering animals within half a stade (312ft) of the Cross.  In the early 17thC the area immediately beyond was Manorial Waste containing a Common Dunghill, and the nearby Market was described as the ‘Corn Market’.  A Market House there (on the Site of the present Town Hall) was built probably by the Corporation during the 17thC,  after it took on the Lease of the Manor, though the Site itself remained Manorial Property.  In 1755 the Market House was to be retiled and ‘properly supported’, and a Map of the 1780s showed it as a long rectangular structure.

New Town Hall

The Market House was demolished in 1793–4 together with the Middle Row, as part of a general opening up of Hart Street and the Market Area following the building of Henley Bridge.  There appears to have been no intention of replacing it, but Farmers objected, and the same year the Corporation agreed to build the New Town Hall on the Market-House Site, with a Colonnaded area underneath for Trading.  An Act allowing it to acquire the Land was obtained in 1795, though Tolls from both the Market and the Market House were reserved to the Lord.  The area under the new Town Hall was used mostly by Corn Dealers and was enclosed in 1870 to provide an Indoor Corn Exchange.  Trading ended in 1899 when the Building was replaced by a Town Hall with no Trading Facilities.

A Machine for weighing Carts and their Loads (presumably to determine Tolls) was erected on the Corporation’s initiative in 1766, replacing demolished Buildings in the middle of Hart Street.  Designed by the local Rev Humphrey Gainsborough (one of the most ingenious men that ever lived, and one of the best that ever died … Perhaps of all the Mechanical Geniuses this or any Nation has produced. Mr Gainsborough was the 1st), the Machine was constructed under his supervision by William Bradshaw & Thomas Sanders; it was repaired in 1772, and replaced with a new Machine in 1779.  In 1786 it was among the Manorial Assets repossessed by the Lord and was Sold with the Manor in 1853, when it was held on Lease with other Tolls.  It was removed in 1872 with the Lord’s permission, and its Pit underneath was filled in by the local Board.

Market Regulation
By the later Middle Ages the Guild was evidently involved in Regulation of the Market & Fairs, although infringements of the Assizes of bread & ale and Forestalling Offences were handled in the Manor Courts.  In 1441 the Burgesses elected 2 Tasters of all Victuals sold in the Town.  In the later 15th and early 16thC the Guild, clearly concerned to restrict Grain-trading to the Public Market, issued Ordinances requiring Grain to be deposited there before it was sold.  An Ordinance of 1517 affirmed some basic arrangements: between Michaelmas (29th September) and the Annunciation (25th March) the Sub-Bailiff would Ring the Market Bell at 12-noon, and in the other half of the year at 11am.  Any Corn-Buyer entering the Market before these times could be imprisoned at the behest of the Warden & 12 Burgesses.  An Ordinance made soon afterwards required Corn-Buyers to pay a commonly agreed price, and to refrain from intoxicating Sellers in order to obtain lower prices, or from buying wheat in the Countryside.  The Burgesses also elected Taxors for the Clerk of the Market, who evidently collected money for the Clerk’s expenses.  Their work may have been connected with visits from the King’s Clerk or his Deputy.

The 1568 Charter of Incorporation designated the Warden as Clerk of the Market, though this may have confirmed an existing responsibility. The position was confirmed by the 1722 Charter (which replaced the Warden with a Mayor), and continued in 1834.  There is no later reference to the Mayor acting in this capacity, however, and by 1880 there was reportedly no longer a Clerk.  Under the 1568 Charter the Warden was also responsible (as Justice of the Peace) for enforcing Statutes, dealing with Weights & Measures; during the 17thC, Weights & Measures were included amongst his Equipment, and in 1805 the Corporation acquired new ones.  In the early 17thC the Corporation remained concerned to enforce Open Trading during specified Market Times, which suggests that Trading was taking place outside the Market; in 1608–09 and 1625 it ordered that no Grain was to be bought before the Market Bell had been rung.

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