Markets & Fairs

However productive a farm is it will never be able to supply the whole range of materials necessary for a family to survive. Even as far back as the Neolithic, people in the Yorkshire Dales were acquiring goods from beyond their local area such as polished stone axes quarried in the Lake District. We can only assume that these goods were exchanged for local materials in short supply elsewhere. Some archaeologists have speculated that henges were meeting places where such exchanges could take place in a protected environment. There are two such Neolithic henges in the Dales, at Yarnbury and at Castle Dykes. During the Iron Age, control of exchange systems became more centralised and tribal leaders collected tribute from their surrounding farms and exchanged part of it for goods from elsewhere. Some of these might then be redistributed back to the tributary farms. Hillforts such as How Hill, Downholme may have been where such exchanges took place in the Dales.


During the Roman occupation, the first markets appeared in Roman towns. The introduction of a coinage based economy allowed traders to sell their wares from one end of the empire to the other. No towns were established in the Dales, but the Roman soldiers in the fort at Bainbridge would have been part of an international military supply network which brought such things as olive oil and wine from Spain and Africa and fine Samian pottery from France. The subsistence farmers of the Yorkshire Dales may well have had to exchange agricultural produce for money in order to pay taxes to their Roman rulers. There is little evidence that these farmers had much left over to spend on imported luxuries. Romano-British farmsteads such as that excavated at New Ing Barn in Littondale have produced nothing more that a sherd or two of well-worn Samian pottery.


We know almost nothing about markets during the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period in the Yorkshire Dales. Artefacts show that materials and manufactured goods must have been acquired somehow or other. Three 9th century Anglo-Scandinavian coins called sceattas were found during the excavation of an Anglo-Scandinavian farmstead at Ribblehead but there was little other evidence for a market exchange system being in operation there.


Yorkshire had to wait for the arrival of the Normans for markets to become fully established in the region. A regular market or annual fair could only be legally created with the King’s permission. This came in the form of a charter. Many of these charters survive and it is possible to accurately date the foundation of hundreds of markets and fairs in England and Wales. The charter names the day of the week in the case of a market and the annual date, usually a Saint’s or Feast day for a fair.


The 12th century was an important period for the establishment of market centres in Yorkshire, some of which endure as market towns to this day. On the fringes of the Dales, early weekly markets were established at Knaresborough and Richmond with an annual fair known to have taken place at Embsay. The earliest and often most successful were established around the castles of powerful families, or came under the patronage of a monastic house. Markets on the edge of the upland areas also did well as exchange points between the two different economies. Richmond for instance supplied corn from the lowlands to the east and south into the Pennines. Wool and later, knitted goods were traded in the opposite direction.


During the 13th century, more and more charters were granted. Wensley had a market and fair from 1202, East Witton from 1219, Settle from 1249 and Grassington from 1281. Settle has survived as a market town to this day whereas the markets in the other settlements declined over the following centuries. Lords of the manor and monastic houses were all keen to set up markets because of the income they could earn through charging tolls to the merchants and farmers who brought goods and farm stock to sell. The traders received protection from attack or robbery in return. In 1302 the Prior and Canons of Bolton Abbey applied to the King to hold a fair at their new manor in Appletreewick at St Luke’s Tide (16-19th October). This annual fair was very profitable and continued on long after the Dissolution of the monasteries. From the 17th century it became a Droving Fair and cattle and sheep from Scotland were sold there to local farmers. It also specialised in the sale of locally grown onions and Onion Lane in the village is a relic of that time. The fair probably died out in the mid-19th century.


A much more important Droving Fair was held on Great Close near Malham Tarn during the 17th and 18th centuries. A regular trade in Scottish cattle and sheep passed through the Yorkshire Dales at this time. Dealers called graziers bought cattle and sheep in Scotland and then had them driven to fairs and markets in the Dales. Here local farmers bought them to fatten up on their own farms before selling them on south to the growing urban markets of Lancashire and the West Riding. On Malham Moor, thousands of cattle were exchanged at a single fair. The wealthier graziers became bankers of a sort, since money in the shape of beef cattle was harder to steal. Some issued their own bank notes. One featured the Craven Heifer, a famously large young cow raised in the Dales in the 18th century.


On a smaller scale, weekly markets provided an important regular income for farmers with surplus eggs, butter, cheese and poultry. Open-air stalls were all right in the summer but unpleasant for both trader and customer in the winter. In the largest market towns in the Dales, local benefactors provided indoor market halls for the comfort of all concerned. Hawes Market House was built after a local bequest at the end of the 19th century. In Sedbergh, a reading room and market hall was built in memory of a master at Sedbergh School in 1858.


Evidence for the smaller open-air village markets is still visible even though the markets themselves have long since ceased. Grassington’s broad cobbled town square in the centre of the village is now covered with parked cars but it was once the site of a thriving weekly market. Carperby was granted a market and fair charter in 1305. Here the remains of a market cross survive although it dates to 1674. Earlier market crosses can be seen in Clapham and Austwick. Such local markets provided a link with the outside world for the farmers of the Dales. The village fair on the other hand, was an annual treat for the whole family. Farmers traded their stock and everyone acquired goods and little luxuries to see them through the year. The fair was also an opportunity for relatives and friends to catch up on news. The Reeth Bartle Fair, so-named after its charter date on St Bartholomew’s Day, was revived at the millennium as a fun fair with much the same aim in mind.


The market cross in Askrigg dates to 1830, and is a reminder of the jealousy that surrounded the possession of a successful market. Askrigg’s market and fair charters were granted in 1587 and the town commanded trade in upper Wensleydale for centuries afterwards. People from Hawes on the opposite side of the valley had to cross the river to visit Askrigg’s market and fairs. By the 17th century, Hawes had expanded and its church became independent of Askrigg parish. Farmers in the town decided that they wanted the added economic benefit of their own market. A Gayle schoolmaster, Matthew Wetherald, made the application on their behalf in 1700. The charter was granted for a regular Tuesday market “…for buying and selling of corn, cattle and all manner of goods and wares whatsoever.” Two fairs were also granted. On 29th April and 17th & 18th September.


The people of Askrigg were furious and more trouble followed. In 1795 the Richmond-Lancaster Turnpike was diverted through Hawes putting the market there at a distinct advantage. Angry letters were exchanged in the local newspaper, but Askrigg’s fate was sealed. Its market and fairs struggled on but by the time that the present market cross was erected, Hawes was the dominant market centre in the upper dale. A weekly market is still held on Tuesdays in Hawes but it is nothing like the sprawling chaos of the cattle and sheep markets that dominated the main street right up until the early years of the 20th century. At that time, sheep pens were erected in Penny Garth and tolls were collected from farmers and stallholders by a specially appointed ‘toll man’. His toll booth once stood in the market but was demolished when it became unsafe. At the autumn fair, bulls were sold. They were apparently chained to rings in the wall running along the south side of the main street.


The sale of stock in Hawes became so lucrative that by the end of the 19th century, a group of local farmers got together to found Hawes Farmers Auction Mart. The sale of cattle continued in the town centre until the First World War but made less and less money. From then on, the Auction Mart took over all the trade in livestock in the town. Today it is the only Auction Mart within the National Park and its farmer owners are continuing to develop it.


The coming of the railway in the 19th century ended the great cattle and sheep fairs of the Yorkshire Dales. In the 20th century, the motor car nearly killed off the weekly market. Larger settlements like Reeth and Hawes are still many miles from the nearest supermarket however. Here weekly retail markets where stallholders brave the weather to serve their loyal customers still manage to survive. In villages there is also a small revival. From 2004 a regular Farmer’s Market has been established in Grassington where local producers will are able to sell direct to their customers just as they did in the days when the village’s market charter was first granted.



Alderson, James (1980) Under Wetherfell. The Story of Hawes Parish & People Gayle: Brian Alderson [‘Hawes Market’ pp37-44]

Britnell, Richard (2003) ‘Boroughs, Markets and Fairs’ in Butlin, Robin A (ed) (2003) Historical Atlas of North Yorkshire Otley: Westbury pp104-105

Fieldhouse, R & Jennings, B (1978) A History of Richmond and Swaledale London: Phillimore

Hallas, Christine (2002) The Wensleydale Railway Ilkley: Great Northern Books [Askrigg/Hawes market dispute]

Hartley, Marie & Ingilby, Joan (1997) Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales Otley: Smith Settle

Wright, Geoffrey N (1985) Roads and Trackways of the Yorkshire Dales Ashbourne: Moorland Publishing – Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516