Oxford's Famous Covered Market
Oxford has had a market probably since the late ninth century, when the town was fortified, or perhaps earlier, but the first written reference is found in twelfth century records. It started at Carfax (the main crossroads) and spread along adjoining streets.
Land at the town centre was expensive, and so the shops here had narrow frontages, barely two metres wide. This small size makes it easier to believe that there were, at one time, forty seven tailors’ shops in Oxford. Shops then were workshops where goods were made to order, rather than stores; except perhaps the spicers’ shops which were more like our grocers today.
In the Middle Ages, goldsmiths, mercers and tanners used to trade in shops on or near the site of today’s Covered Market. There were some academic halls (student hostels) here too. Butchers’ stalls were set up in High Street and Butchers Row (now Queen Street). So many traders existed in and around the centre that travelling through the town must have become increasingly difficult as more and more people were attracted to the market, and in 1771 the Mileways Act condemned the remains of medieval street trading in High Street and St Aldates.
The Covered Market was started in response to a general wish to clear ‘untidy, mess and unsavoury stalls’ from the main streets. John Gwynn architect of Magdalen Bridge, drew up the plans and designed the High Street front with its four entrances. In 1772 the newly-formed Market committee (half of whose members came from the town and half from the university) accepted an estimate of nine hundred and sixteen pounds ten shillings, for building twenty butchers’ shops. Twenty more soon followed and after 1773 meat was only allowed to be sold inside the market. From this nucleus the market grew, with stalls for garden produce, pig meat, dairy products and fish.
The earliest stalls were in colonnaded blocks: the high-raftered roofs of today are the outcome of nineteenth century rebuilding. Some stalls are used as single units but many traders have expanded their businesses and taken over several tenancies.
Today you can still buy a great selection of meat and fish here, and numerous cheeses, but the scope of trading has enlarged since the early days. Fruit and vegetable stalls still make colourful displays but much of the produce is now imported from all over the world. You will find all sorts of goods, clothes, records, pine furniture and much, much, more.
As with many a market, its smells are part of the atmosphere. It may be the smell of fresh ground coffee that draws you in for refreshment, but it could be the attractive displays of the tenants, flowers, fruit, and so on that prompts you to look for the unexpected or special gift. If the spice of life is variety, then it will be seen here.