I posted a little piece on social media about markets – thinking, specifically, about Leeds Market. Kirkgate Market has been in the same place, with the same beautiful Vicar Lane frontage, since 1904. It’s survived additions and fires. Before that, there was the Central Market, and the open market has been a fixture since the middle of the 19th century, a place where the cheaper goods are traded, and still are.
Go back further, and there was a market on Briggate on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the same days as the cloth market. Markets are at the heart of our town and cities. They’re truly the continuity of the past.
When I was young, people of all social classes shopped at the market. My mother did it, just as her mother, grandmother and more, going back, all had. Items were cheaper, there were bargains to be had. I remember the smell of the used book stall, the wonder of the toy stall near the top of the market – one of only two places to buy toys in Leeds back then; the Doll’s Hospital in Country Arcade was the other. We’d go there every week, and she buy something, maybe fish or something else. It was tradition, it was the way things were done before supermarkets became the places to shop, to get everything under one roof (the irony, of course, was that in the market you could get everything under one roof, and probably for less money).
Markets change, of course. We don’t have live chickens in cages for sale these days, as they did in the 18th and 19th centuries. We don’t have the entertainers like Cheap Jack Kelly, ‘Doctor’ Green and his nostrums or The King of Ashanti who were a part of the market experience for Victorian shoppers. Yes, M&S got their start with the penny bazaar in the open market. But that’s only one story among so many. What’s there now, the people who sell, the items they stock, reflect the way Leeds has altered. It’s a better barometer than any official figures.
Markets are the most democratic shopping places we possess. They always have been. Not just in Leeds, but all through the word. They’re part of being human, a vital ingredient in any community. Buying and selling has been part of our nature even since people gathered together and we moved beyond growing everything ourselves.
In recent years we’ve gradually come to realise that not all progress is a good thing. We’re getting rid of disposable carrier bags in favour of the kind of shopping bags our mothers and grandmothers carried everywhere. We’ve learned that drying clothes on the line is much better than in a tumble dryer. We’re trying to get rid of plastic – maybe in favour of the brown paper parcels and bags that were everywhere in the past. Those ideas weren’t all wrong. Everything new isn’t better, and not everything old was good (certainly not the return of rickets and Victorian/Edwardian levels of malnutrition). In the market they’ll pop your loaf of bread or pound of plums in a paper bag. Ahead of the curve by being old-fashioned.
I write historical crime novels, most of them set in Leeds. I tend to look at my city through the lens of time. And I’m old enough to remember a time when the hangover of the early 20th century remained, when the market was a place where all classes went. Somewhere in the last 50 years that’s changed. We became seduced by the new, the idea of convenience, and then of the brand in clothing and shoes. By advertising above all. We became convinced each ‘advance’ was a good thing, and that beast has fed on itself.
Perhaps the wheel will turn a little more and we’ll realise that markets are a good thing, and we’ll understand it before it’s too late. Markets have been around too long. A market is one of the centres, one of the hearts of our towns and cities. They’re about the only living connection with the past that we have right in front of us, something that’s not an historic monument, but working and breathing every single day. They’re important.
One last thing, if you don’t mind. My new book, The Tin God, is out in just over a month. You can read more about it here. And you can pre-order it, either from the behemoth beginning with A, or other places, bookshops and independents. I’d be very grateful if you did. Thank you.