One of the main functions of Irish towns and larger villages in former times, and in fact the main reason for the establishment of many of them in the first place, was to act as centres for the marketing of the produce of the surrounding countryside. Camblin in his book "The town is Ulster'' tells us that it is ''to its function as the service centre of the surrounding rural district that the Ulster town owes its form, and to this is due the central square, or wide main street, in which the markets and fairs were held". The existence of addresses such as "Market Street" or "Fairgreen" in many of our towns and villages is a constant reminder of this function.
Anyone who is familiar only with the well-organised live-stock market usually located away from the centre, which is now a feature of most towns would find it hard to visualise the fair day of pre-World War II times, when the centre or main street of a town was literally taken over by the farmers and their livestock and produce and the merchants and dealers who had come to purchase these. There is of course plenty of photographic evidence of the seemingly confusing scene that resulted. For information as to how these events were conducted in earlier times we have to rely on written evidence. For the early 1850s an excellent source is the report of the Fairs and Markets Commission (Ireland), published in 1853. This is one of the vast collection of British Parliamentary Papers - a very rich source of information not only for social and economic history but also for nineteenth century local history.
The report was submitted to the Lord Lieutenant-General of Ireland in May 1853 by the Commission, and subsequently presented to both Houses of Parliament. In a letter accompanying the warrant of appointment the Commissioners were told that the Lord-Lieutenant had been receiving representations about ''the unsatisfactory state of markets throughout Ireland, the inconvenience that arises to the public from defective management, and the frauds that are practised under various forms'', and that the Inquiry had been "instituted principally with a view to legislation".
The warrant authorised the Commissioners to inquire into every aspect of fairs and markets in Ireland and to consider how abuses could be corrected, and to this end, they could call to give evidence anyone whom they considered competent. As it would not be possible to visit every town in the country which had a market they were instructed to select those where they "were likely to acquire the fullest information and where the most remarkable abuses were said to exist".
The Commissioners "left Dublin on 28 September 1852, and in the course of four months, visited, and held inquiries in ninety-four of the principal market towns, situated in thirty different countries ... and examined upwards of seven hundred witnesses". The evidence, which extended to over 500 pages, was published as an appendix to their report.
Portadown was one of four market towns visited by the Commissioners in County Armagh. Their visit took place on 5th January 1853 and they received evidence from nine persons. Three of these were from families who have played a prominent part in the history of the town and district - John Obins Woodhouse, town seneschal and chairman of the Town Commissioners, Thomas A Shillington, a merchant in corn, timber and iron, and Colonel Blacker. A fourth witness was John Conn who was the weigh master and whose evidence would obviously be important.
The other five were: William Langtree, who lived in Portadown; Bernard John Riddall who had a farm of seventy-two acres; John Watson, a farmer and shop-keeper who probably lived east of the Bann as he was at pains to point out that in Portadown there were two baronies and two parishes and two distinct manors; Michael Annesley, who lived about two miles out of the town and farmed about 105 acres of land, and John George Wolsey who lived about a mile from the town and who farmed and bought grain.
The evidence of Woodhouse was by far the most extensive as it takes up more than four pages in the report, while the combined contributions of the other eight fills about three pages - we will return to his evidence later: John Conn spoke about the use made of the public weighing cranes, how the various items were weighed and the charges made for them. The evidence of the other seven consists mainly of their opinions about the benefits or other wise of suggested changes in the regulation and management of fairs and markets.
In the second part of his evidence Woodhouse described how the various products were weighed, gave details of the charges made for each, expressed his opinion about the various improvements in the regulation of the markets suggested by the Commissioners, and put forward ideas as to how disputes between buyers and sellers might be settled. The first section of his evidence is worth reproducing in full, as in addition to telling us something about the history of the fairs and markets in Portadown it gives a good picture of how they were conducted in the early 1850s.