How Shops Developed in Market Harborough

Towns thrive on trade and it is no accident that Harborough, after it acquired a market in 1203 soon adopted the prefix to its name to become Market Harborough. Markets were indeed the forerunners of shops as we know them today. In 1221 in response to complaints from residents of the town that Rothwell held its market on the same day, a Monday, which took business away, a request was made to the king, Henry III, to change the day. It was subsequently changed to Tuesday and this became 'Market Day' for the next 700 years.

The original market was held in the main thoroughfares of the town itself. Cattle or 'beasts' were located on Coventry Road and houses and shops opening on to the street were boarded up on market days as cattle could be 'difficult' at times. The horses were located on the High Street and sheep on the town square, previously known as 'The Sheep Market.' Several fairs were also held throughout the year and the October Fair lasted for nine days. The farmers would then have a good time usually in the plentiful local pubs and inns where deals might be struck, friendships renewed and much ale consumed.

Other wares were also traded on market days and there was a Butcher's Shambles where the Old Town Hall stands, a Corn Market, a Cloth Market next to that, and a Butter Market under the Old Grammar School. In times past the market stalls would be dismantled at the close of the market but eventually many remained permanent fixtures and eventually became shops.

Shops lined many a medieval market place or high street. Typically a shop would have large, arched, unglazed windows. The windows could be protected at night by a pair of horizontal shutters, the upper one of which could be hooked up to provide shelter while the lower one folded down to form a counter, or one shutter could be hinged to form a counter.

The shopkeeper's aim was to draw attention to his wares, and this sometimes led to disputes between traders and local authorities over encroachments onto the street. A stall set up just outside a shop window, perhaps under an awning, can put a tempting array of goods under the noses of passers-by, as we still witness today from Frank Gilbert's shop on the High Street with its chinaware and baskets outside. Glazed shop windows gradually took over from open ones during the 18th century. Small panes of glass were set in a grid of glazing bars. Bow windows were popular by the end of the century. Shopkeepers were among the first to take advantage of cheaper sheet glass, after excise duty on glass was abolished in 1861, to create large windows with the view unbroken by glazing bars.

Over time the range of shops and business in Harborough has been considerable reflecting the changing nature of the town's trade.

The 18th century witnessed the climax of the coaching trade and the number of inns on the high street increased from the 17th century onward, the most notable being the Three Swans and The Angel which still exist today under their old names. It is estimated that over the centuries there were over 60 different inns, pubs and ale houses in the locale, and up to the early 19th century many inhabited the high street and its environs.

The coaching trade began to decline with the coming of the railways in 1850 and once again the High Street reflected the changes with the arrival of more retail outlets and by the end of the 19th century the appearance of shops as we know them today. The Symington Brothers, for example, began their respective businesses with shops in the town. James Symington whose business eventually burgeoned into the enormous factory complex known as Liberty Land which now houses the council offices, once had a shop selling stays on the High Street. Both William and James also had shops in Church Street.

The High Street also had banks, some more successful than others. The Harborough Bank started in 1791 was situated at 14 The High Street, where Mistry's is today, but sadly went under with the collapse of Clarke's Carpet factory in 1843. The Old Bank House as it was known was taken over by a tailoring business and then a butchers. The Midland Bank eventually took over the premises buying the building next door. Today it is the HSBC bank. Plus ca change!

A number of High Street premises housed and still house professional businesses such as solicitor partnerships, land surveyors and estate agents. No. 39 High Street for example was occupied by Fisher German (previously Edward Thomas Peirson & Son), chartered surveyors and rural property consultants. They moved into the premises in 1944 having previously occupied numbers 44 and 45 The High Street. Before 1944 no. 49 had been owned and rented as a private family dwelling. No. 44 High Street is occupied by the long established Harborough firm of solicitors Wartnabys.

Market Harborough High Street has been fortunate in not having been invaded by too many national chains although national chain shops have, and still do inhabit some of the thoroughfare. Home and Colonial Stores has come and gone as has Woolworths. Chains such as Fat Face clothing fashions and Burtons remain, but there are many individually owned shops like Joules, Frank Gilbert, Quinns, etc.

Thus the High Street reflects the changes in economy and society at both national and local level. The present worry for many retailers is how such phenomena as internet shopping will affect their trade. This may well cause another uncomfortable upheaval in the ever changing story of Market Harborough High Street which is detailed on this website.

Dr Len Holden (Editor, Harborough Historian)