He’d never bin to Colchester! He hadn’t I’ll be boun’.

Well that’s a caution, ent it, zur, he’s never sin the town!

He oughter went next Saddy, zur, when I shall be a goon.

For that’s the day for Colchester, a Saddy arternoon.

An’ all them little stalls and that, along the High Street, lor, “I see”, I sez , sez I, “young Nat, you niver bin afore!

There’s rabbuts, birds, an’ guinea pigs, an’ sweets of every kind, An’ knives and tools and thingmijigs – all manner of sort you’ll find.”

This famous dialect poem, Never Been to Colchester, written in 1894, describes the stalls in Colchester High Street as seen by a yokel from a “forrin” land. Elmstead Market, for example.

Now, 120 years later, you can see it all again.

Well, maybe not the guinea pigs, but loads of thingmijigs.

Of course, Colchester’s market goes back much further.


          Open to cars – Colchester High Street market in the Sixties

High Street was the central street of Roman Colchester. Shops stood there.

Some 900 years later, Saxon Colchester arose from a market opposite the present town hall.

In Norman Colchester, a royal charter confirmed the town’s right to hold a market – the legal basis for the market now.

Medieval shops were more like stalls, open to the air; shop is short for workshop, where craftsmen sold on the street goods they made in their room behind.

For centuries, the same trades sold the same things the length of High Street.

Products become more smelly as you moved east.

At the top of High Street, farmers sold corn. The present Co-op Bank was once the Corn Exchange.

Then came stalls selling tools (which is how Williams & Griffin began).

Opposite the town hall they sold butter; inside the town hall there was a cloth market.

Then came leather, meat and fish.


    Livestock market – a photo in 1862 catches the last days of the livestock       market in High Street.

We’ve now reached St Nicholas Street, where wet fish was still sold in 1950.

In the town hall, a court was held to prosecute grocers with false weights, merchants with ‘stinking fish’ and to issue licences to brewers.

But Market Day – Saturday – was not just about corn and fish; there was livestock.

Long before dawn sheep, cattle and sometimes pigs were driven up North Hill or through the Dutch Quarter to be housed in pens for sale.

After the railway arrived in 1843 the market grew as livestock was sold and taken down North Hill to travel by cattle truck to London.

A conflict of interest arose between smart shops catering for farmer’s wives and a market catering for farmers.

The odd bull entered the odd china shop and excited young bullocks ‘presented scenes of indecency that must deter women from entering High Street’.

Well, that’s what the Essex County Standard said.

Manure from 400 cattle and 2,000 sheep, mixed with mud, was still there on Sunday morning when fashionable ladies made their way to St Peter’s Church in their best crinolines. The cry went up, ‘The Market must move!’ But where to?

There followed a 20-year debate. Wherever the market went, there would be winners and losers. When they tried empty land behind Crouch Street, Head Street complained. When they triedthe Castle Bailey, there was an outcry from the east. In the end, a hung council settled for an old tan yard at Middleborough, conveniently close to the train station, where the Cattle Market flourished till 1976 and the NewMarket Tavern kept drovers (and art students) happy.

All that remained on High Street were horses and carts and stalls, lit on Saturday night by hissing naphtha flames, as the poor hustled round at ten at night, looking for bargains in the days before refrigeration, and small children nagged their parents for gobfulls of Cater’s rock.

And thus it remained until the explosion of car ownership in the 1960s.

Two Town Council decisions came in quick succession. First, the stalls were bundled off to Culver Street Car Park. Second, twoway traffic ended and our famous one-way system began.

But a new town plan led to Lion Walk Precinct and in-fill to Culver Street. In 1968 the market moved again to the large car park outside the old Public Library, where a new town square was promised.

This debate raged ten years. Finally, a hole the size of a football pitch was planned to house the Culver Precinct and the market moved back to High Street in 1981. But grave were the doubts. Talk of scruffy stalls and ruined shops led, in 1989, to a council decision to move the stalls to Vineyard Street.

An article I wrote in this paper is said to have helped stop that. Reprieve, however, was brief. In 1993, the stalls got their marching orders again. High Street was narrowed, at some expense (and twice), and boy racers, given to playing ‘Brands Hatch’ round the one-way system, were frustrated for ever. Accidents fell.

So here we are again. Déjà vu. Welcome back to High Street, Colchester’s Charter market, but no guinea pigs or stinking fish this time, please.