6. Community Spirit – Market and Town Life

The origins of the market in Great Torrington

1183 and c.1187 there are royal collection documents indicating that ‘Rannulf’, the (prespositus) portreeve of Torrington (senior official elected by freemen of the town, separate from the manor) was fined first three marks, then yearly 40shillings for continual offences of the town selling corn contrary to regulations. This suggests whilst a market existed it was illegal, so a charter did not exist at this stage. However it does show that Torrington had a thriving market, even if it wasn’t official in the eyes of the King and it was bringing in enough revenue that it was brought to the attention of officials and was worth fining the townsfolk (represented by their portreeve).

The earliest record of a feria, or fair being held in Torrington was run by William Briwer in 1221, at Michaelmas, (September).

1249 Assize Roll records Torrington as ‘Villata de Chepyng Toriton’ which roughly translates to ‘Town of Market Torrington’. So we know there was a market established by at least the mid 13th century, which was obviously legal and recognised by this stage.

A record of 1291 records the town as Magna Toriton (Great Torrington) for the first time.

A document of 1371 records the taxes from the market being bequeathed in a dower payment to Maud, wife of Richard de Merton. In modern money this equates to about 38,000 pounds a year; a very healthy yearly income and representative of considerable wealth in that period. Conversely this shows how much wealth was passing through the town and its market in the 14th century, as the taxes would only represent a fraction of the gross total.

By the 1544 Corporation ‘Charter of Philip And Mary’, decreed Torrington had one official weekly Saturday market and biannual fairs in September and April on the ‘Feast of St Michael the Archangel, and the eve and the morrow after, and the other on the Feast of St George the Martyr, and two days next following, together with the Court of Pipowder during the period of the fairs’.

A fair up until the 20th century was basically the same as a county show nowadays, for trading animals, competing with breeding stock, sale of crafts, social events, semi-religious or regional celebrations. Into the 20th century only the social sides of these events had survived and the important economic intention of these holidays was lost to history.

In James I reign, in 1617, a further charter allowed Torrington to hold a second fair in June, the Feast of St John, as well; hence no doubt the flourishing reputation of Torrington as a centre for livestock sale.

The ‘Shambles’ alongside and behind the town hall was the general location of the butchery and meat market in the medieval and early modern period, Cornmarket Street obviously indicates where the corn was auctioned. By the early 1800s it was clear the scale of the market required a new site and that standards and sanitation meant it needed to be purpose built. The town corporation acquired a rundown medieval inn, the white swan, which sat in a prime location at the south end of the market square. At first they just used the large yard behind for butchery and meat selling, taking the messy market off the street. In 1842 the knocked down the inn and built a grand Market House and pannier market behind, with formal spaces for stalls covered by a roof and shops to the front and offices, with an auction space above and viewing gallery. The weekly markets after this date were held in this formal space and the sale and taxation of goods could be more easily controlled to bring revenue in for the borough.

Wednesday had become the day for the cattle market in Torrington by the 19th century and the cattle market moved from the square to New Street, opposite the church and then in the mid 20th century to a site of school lane, only closing in the later 1990s.


George Doe, the famed town councillor and local antiquarian described the cattle market on the street in his memoirs of the 1920s; ‘pandemonium reigned in the street, sometimes a bullock or cow ran amok through the crowd of dealers and others, scattering them in all directions.’

In 1890 part of the Glebe lands, held by the Rector and administered by the church, behind the vicarage along school lane was sold to the Town Corporation for 120 pounds. A new purpose built cattle market was built. The market building was finished in 1892 and held a monthly live animal market, at first officiated by the mayor of the time Mr Henry Slee. The market moved to a larger site across the road in the later 20th century and closed in the 1990s.

The town also developed an agricultural show in the mid and later 19th century, known as the Torrington Agricultural Exhibition, historic photographs of this are held in the heritage museum in the town. The show was held on Town Park an open communal area and in the town square. In 1895 the individual show ended and the Devon County Show went on a touring circuit around the county to major market towns in the late 1890s and early 1900s, including Torrington.

The Fairs Act of 1873 moved the biannual fairs to May and October; by 1924 the second fair had died but the May date was revived, although only for social celebrations and mistakenly combined the event with the medieval Feast of May-day. Until 2020 the Mayfair had run continuously since 1924 and did not even stop for WWII, both 2020 and 2021 were stopped by the Covid-19 pandemic, possibly the last time since the plague a fair had to be curtailed.

Life in the Town and Sport in Medieval Times

Life was stressful for the Serfs in the medieval period and rivalries were high, insults and gossip were one of the few ways they could control their own environment. The main focus of medieval social life was the town square before, during and after the market. Some classic medieval insults the people of Torrington would have used: Bamfoozle – lier, deceiver; Rakefire – bad guest, one who overstays their welcome; Raggabrash – messy/disorganised person; Muckespout – foul mouthed, ill-educated; Coxscomb – vain, strutting person; Whiffle waffle – time waster; Bewattled – confused, stupid or drunk person.

The Pipowder Court was the most ancient and scandalous medieval market traditional to survive into the post-meideval period. ‘Piepoudre’ is translated from Norman French to mean dirty, or dusty feet and represents the communal status of this traditional. The Pipowder Court was the open air market courts of justice, these dealt with personal claims such as slander and disputes or feuds between traders and were considered rife with corruption claims against Justices and intrigue, often descending into mass brawls and shouting matches. This would be held after the fair, each year and presided over by one of the visiting justices of the peace.

Sport wasn’t common in the medieval period but Archery which we would consider a sport today was conscripted on men and boys in times of war. The first English Archery Law was passed in 1252 by King Henry III, this decreed that all freedmen and boys between the ages of 15-60 years of age should have a bow and quiver of arrows and be trained in its use, at the disposal of the King. In 1363, in the middle of the hundred years war, King Edward III decreed every man and boy, aged over 12 or 13 must go to the town or village Butts (archery ground) and formally practice every Sunday or religious holiday. This was enforced through the Sheriffs and Lords of the Manor and town bailiffs. The longbows with which the men were practicing belonged to the manor or town and were only handed out at practice; some of the richer individuals may have had their own made. All men and older boys were included in this practice, serfs or not; there was no exceptional for wealth or occupation, unless you were already a knight, or of a religious order. Younger boys were trained in basic archery principles before they started longbow practice.

A sport that did exist and directly competed for the interest of men and boys in medieval England was football; women and girls were not allowed to play sports. Medieval football was incredibly violent, played in the street by unlimited numbers and there were often deaths. King Edward II in 1314 first tried to ban the game for a period of time, hoping it would focus the nation’s attention on their archery but this failed and it was dropped. It was banned in town centres in 1388 nationally and more effectively enforced, instead men and boys had enforced archery practice. By 1410 during England and Wales, war with France the punishment for playing football was six days in prison. In 1414 Henry V released another proclamation insisting on further archery practice which was borne out by the success of English archers at the Battle of Agincourt the next year. Ordinary men could be ‘mustered’ or conscripted into the army to fight for the King as their overlord or local official would owe a duty to provide a certain number of men to the king, in exchange for land rights. Interestingly the town-centre ban on football wasn’t fully repealed until 1845 and this is the reason why many sports fields are always located on the edges of towns, out of the way, but close enough to walk to.

Another sport today is horse riding but this was an essential for the knightly and wealthy classes in medieval times, even noble women were taught to ride and to hunt on horseback which was considered a popular court activity in the royal and other noble households right into the 20th century. Young boys and girls form the knightly class would be taught to ride as children but young men would often go to serve as squires in a knights household at the age of seven or eight, where they would learn more technical forms of riding for fighting and for jousting. Jousting was a popular sport, open only to the knightly classes and it allowed young men to practice charging and fighting skills on horseback. The quality of a senior knight or nobleman’s household was an issue of honour and high competition, ‘melees’ mass organised brawls or mock battles were a common event across medieval Europe and knights and their households may travel to compete to gain fame and fortune and therefore honour for their family and their sponsor or mentor.

The Market at Torrington

Torrington Market Square was one of the largest in North Devon, it occupied the whole of the centre of town (the Town Hall etc and central block of property weren’t there, just an older central Guildhall). Traders operated from shops around the square and timber covered market stalls could be wheeled into position, others had large foldable trestle tables.

If a trader couldn’t pay their market tariff and had debts, their table in early medieval periods could be broken, trading symbolically prohibited; hence the term ‘bankrupt’.

Torrington was famous for leather working in the medieval period, saddlery, boots, gloves and gauntlets, were a particular specialty, but in later medieval periods combined with the wool traders, padded leather jerkins for armour were also sold and belts were a popular item. Gloves became synonymous with Torrington in the 18th century and the town became the centre for leather glove-making across England in the 19th century.

The size and price of bread and liquid measures of ale were set by the crown from 1266 to 1863; bakers and tavern owners could be fined heavily if found to be selling underweight goods or watering their ale down, or repeat offenders could be locked in the stocks!

The market square wasn’t just used for markets, but was also the centre of town life; for showing off and socialising; clothing in a town could be highly controlled by the authorities, the length of tunics was controlled for moral reasons and you could be fined the equivalent of 700.00. You could even be fined 100 for wearing pointy shoes which exceeded the length of two inches. Men’s fashion was considered particularly important, as the more impractical, the more it expressed wealth, as the owner didn’t ‘work’. Contrary to expectation there was considerable movement between the classes, for rich merchants or skilled soldiers for example and clothing was one way nobles could indicate their rank.

The colours of the ‘manor’ or ‘lord’ could also be imposed in the medieval period; colours worn in Torrington by the peasants in the middle ages would have been gold (yellow) and green and later in the post medieval period changed to scarlet-red and black. You could be fined for wearing the wrong colours, dependant on status and outsiders wearing wrong colours might be excluded from certain activities in a town. For example a 1704 ‘bylaw’ stated, ‘every Alderman of this Town shall wear his Scarlett Gowne at all times as hereafter followeth upon payne of five shillings for every time he shall offend.’ This is associated with councillors not wearing their full regalia for courts of session and meetings and official events. However it records for us the use of Torrington ‘Scarlett’.

Keeping such a large and busy town clean and tidy fell to many junior officials, who could be fined or even whipped publicly for lack of diligence; many court quarterly sessions from the mid 18th century shows the ‘pig drivers’ were constantly in trouble for allowing feral pigs to wander in the streets and the churchyard!!!

In the Elizabethan period Torrington Square was the site of general Borough activity which had a national significance; it seems to have been used to train soldiers and inspect armour for conscripted or ‘impressed’ local men. Boroughs had to provide a certain number when the crown demanded and parishes had communal armour stores, often in the church. Hartland’s church records refer to Torrington being the focus of the acitivity; ‘1598-99 paid the xth November 1598 for the carriage of iij mens armour att Torrington when the soldiers went into Ireland’. This was Elizabeth I’s failed Irish campaign and appears to suggest a yearly assembly, training and then shipping out of local men to bolster the army; clearly Hartland was being used to store the armour.

Famous chronicler John Hooker is believed to have described Torrington Market square in about 1599 in Tudor times, in his book: Synopsis Chorograhical of Devonshire, but it has not been confirmed; ‘good humoured, noisy, country folk selling their eggs and cheeses, apples and vegetables. Travelling tinkers and button-sellers, piemen, cider-sellers, showmen, bakers, cobblers, wool merchants, farmers hiring help, tricksters, thieves, fishmongers, scribes, barbers, tooth-pullers, apothecaries and carpenters.’ Tristram Risdon, a Stuart traveller who wrote a study of Devon, ‘Survey of the County of Devon’ was born in nearby St Giles parish. 

National Records

Great Torrington Market Place

Her No: MDV18799
The group of buildings bounded by Cornmarket, High, Fore and South Streets represents infilling of the medieval market place.
The market was held in High Street until a market house and pannier market were erected on the south side of the street in 1842. A passageway under the town hall is still known as The Shambles. Wood’s map of 1843 shows the town plan in detail. The May Fair festivities are still held in High Street.
National Record Link: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV18799&resourceID=104

Great Torrington Town Stocks

HER No: MDV12388
Text: Former town stocks, restored in the early 20th century, were located in the museum in the Town Hall during the 1970s. 1.6 metres long, 0.4 metres high, with four holes.
Now in the Museum, across the square.
National Record Link: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV12388&resourceID=104

Great Torrington Town Square Fountain

HER No: MDV23881
Text: Gothic style fountain in centre of road at south end of High Street, dates from 1870.
Fountain in centre of road at south end of High Street, 1870. Gothic style square on plan with crocketed spire of carved stone, and round basin for drinking water on each face. About 12 feet to apex. The fountain at the south end of the square was the gift of the Honourable Mark Rolle in 1870.
Also a Listed Building: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1104766
National Record Link:

White Swan Inn

HER No: MDV60413
Text: Site of an inn of at least late 18th century origin. Now occupied by the pannier market.
The market was constructed on land previously occupied by the White Swan Inn, which had stood on the site since at least 1795. Eight feet of garden to the east, today seen in the extra width of the south half of the pannier market, was previously let by the owners of the inn to a tallow chandler.
National Record Link:

Market House

Listed Building Grade II*
UID No: 1104742
Text: Dated 1842, 2 storey, stucco front with pediment. Lower storey rusticated openings, that in the centre having ornamental east-iron gates. Upper storey has Ionic pilasters and 3 round-head sash windows with glazing bars. Circular panel in tympanum. Above is bell-cote with 4 Tuscan columns supporting small dome. Behind this building, a central cobbled lane is flanked by market stalls (Pannier Market). Most of these have been re-fronted, but some are open and east-iron Doric supports remain. Stucco gateway at south end has date 1842. The front of the building faces the end of High Street, and so can be seen to the best advantage.
National Record Link: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1104742