Fairs and Markets in Portadown

Vol. 6 No. 2 - 1991

Fairs and Markets in Portadown in the 1850s

by Joe Canning

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.

Unsatisfactory state of markets in Ireland

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.

John Obins Woodhouse

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.

Market Street, Portadown, January 5, 1853. The old Town Hall is seen on the corner of Woodhouse Street (lower right of map).


Do you reside in Portadown? - I do; I am seneschal of the town, and chairman of the Town Commissioners.

When were you appointed? - Upon the 1st of October, 1845, by the Duke of Manchester.

Are you chairman of the Town Commissioners for this year? - I am; and have been for the last five years.


Are you aware under what patent the markets are held? - They are held by virtue of a charter dated the 13th of July, 1632, in the 7th year of the reign of Charles the First, which was what is called a renewal patent, granting to Prudence Obins and her son John, a market on the Saturday of every week, and two fairs annually; to be held upon the 1st of November, and one day following; and upon the Monday after Pentecost, and one day following.

Is the Duke of Manchester now the representative of the original patentees, and the proprietor of the fairs and markets? - He is.

Does the patent grant a right of toll? - It does, and a court of pie poudre*.

Are the markets now held upon the days mentioned in the patent? - Yes; for a long time I recollect the markets being held on Monday; but they are now back again to the day mentioned in the patent.

Are the fairs held upon the days mentioned? - We have more fairs than those mentioned; we have a monthly fair upon the third Saturday of every month, and we have an Easter Monday fair; the November fair, granted in the old patent, has fallen into disuse.

Are any of the new fairs held under patents? - Not that I know of; we claim them now by prescription, as they have been beyond the memory of man; there was some dispute about the holding of these fairs for the sale of cattle, for I conceive that is the difference between a common market and a fair; but whatever litigation there was, the fairs are still held.

Have they been held for the last twenty years? - Long beyond that period.

Are tolls paid at the markets here? - No; there are not tolls paid; I recollect tolls being levied here, and there was a great deal of litigation in this part of the country about tolls; and there was a great deal of rioting and disturbance, until, for the peace of the country, it was thought better to give up the tolls; we have still a demise of the tolls, and we might proceed under it, but we do not think it prudent to attempt to levy them.

How many years have they been abandoned? - I suppose nearly thirty years; a very long time. Does the Duke of Manchester exercise any control over the market? - No; it is vested in the trustees.

How did it pass from him to the trustees? - It was vested in them by a lease dated 31st March, 1845, from the Duke of Manchester, to John O Woodhouse, Thomas Donovan, John Shillington, Thomas Shillington, and Henry John Porter; there are now four of them alive, Mr John Shillington being dead.

In the event of an appointment being made, who has the power to make it? - We have all the right which the Duke has.

For what purpose was that lease granted? - It is declared in the lease that if there are any profits, they should be applied for public purposes; unfortunately, shortly after the lease was granted, the failure of the potato crop took place, and the market was quite unprofitable for the first two or three years; however, I am glad to say that things are changing now, and for the last year there has been a very fair return.

What is the rent received? - Ten pounds.

Is it paid? - Certainly.

From what do the profits arise? - They arise from two cranes; there was something paid formerly for standings in the streets, but it is not paid now.

Are the rights vested for ever in the trustees? - No; only during the Duke's lifetime. Is there an enclosed market-place? - None, except the meat market.

Where is corn sold? - In the open streets.

What are the principal articles of agricultural produce sold in the town? - Corn of all descriptions, pork, butter, flax, potatoes, green crops, live pigs, fowl and eggs.

Does the sale of all agricultural produce take place in the public streets? - Yes.

Where is it weighed? - The merchants themselves weigh the greater part of the corn, but if the seller pleases, he may go to the public crane and get it weighed; it is optional.

How many public cranes have you? - Two; there is the lower public crane, where grain is weighed, and the upper public crane, for pork.

Is there a crane in the meat market? - Yes, there is.

Is there a butter and flax crane? - Latterly, butter has been sold in the meat market, and some of the sheds are used by people who buy butter there, and who weigh it themselves.

Is that place the property of the trustees? - No; the pork and the grain cranes belong to the trustees, under their lease, but the meat market belongs to a Market Company, a Company formed for building the shambles.

Under the Town Commissioners? - No; they are a separate body, composed of shareholders.

What is the constitution of the body? - In September, 1829, a Company was formed for the erection of shambles, and the money was raised by shares. The Company were authorized to extend their operations if they thought proper to speculate by the deed, as far as they legally could. They hold the meat market, and it is their property.

Have you a weighmaster for your cranes? - We have.

Is there one weighmaster appointed for the entire town, under the 4th of Anne? - No. Merely a man employed at each crane? - We call a man named John Conn the head weighmaster.

Was he appointed by the trustees? - He was, and by the Market Company too. Does he keep a deputy at each crane? - He does.

Does he account to the trustees and the company. for his receipts? - He does.

And receives a fixed salary? - He receives a certain allowance, and the receipts of the meat market are returned to the Company, and the other receipts to the trustees under the lease. Is he sworn? - No.

Is flax sold in the public streets? - It is, and is brought made up in bundles to the mills, and never weighed at all, unless there is a desire to check the weight; but it is generally understood that the bundles are taken as stones, and unless some person raises an objection, the buyers will take it for granted.

Have the buyers stores in the town? - Not particularly for flax that I am aware of. Most of the buyers come from a distance. They store the flax occasionally here.

Where are potatoes sold? - In the public streets, and very freguently weighed by the parties themselves.

Where is butter sold? - It has been sold latterly at some of the stalls in the shambles, and the buyers there weigh it themselves.

Have you a fowl and egg market? - There is a large quantity of fowl and eggs sold here latterly, but they are sold in the public streets.

Where are the fairs held? - The cattle fair is held near the church, and upon the roads and avenues leading to it.

In the public street? - Yes.

Is there no enclosed fair-green? - None.

Do you not consider that a great inconvenience to the buyers and sellers? - I myself perhaps would rather see them in an enclosed place, but I know that there are a great many people in the town who would prefer having them in the streets.

What would the buyers and sellers prefer? - I am inclined to think the merchants would prefer going on with the business just as it is at present.

Do you think the public thoroughfare the proper place for holding fairs? - It is certainly inconvenient. I think an enclosed place would be better; but still, at the same time, there is always a great objection in this town to anything connected with the removal of the markets.

Could you give any idea of the quantities of grain, pork, flax, and everything else sold in this town? - Yes; we have prepared a return taken from the united opinions of several gentlemen conversant with the markets.

Return of sales in Portadown markets and fairs and trade of the town
Article No. of
Quantity Value
Wheat400 300 £3,000
Oats300 200 £1,200
Barley and other grain70 50 £300
Potatoes150 100 £250
Turnips - 50 £30
Fruit - 10 £60

100 5 £400
Pork (pigs) 60 £250
Live pigs
Butchers' meat
Flax60 - £1,000
Fowl and eggs - - £150
Other articles

40 £300
1,120 £8,840
Black cattle (head) 500 £2,500
Sheep 100 £125
Goods in the shops, meal and flour at the mills, timber, coals, iron, and other merchandise. Supposed to be the avg. amount of the town's ordinary weekly trade all the year round. £12,000
Total £23,315

*Courts of Pie Poudre were occasional courts which were set up during times of market to deal expeditiously with disputes that arose in the market ranging from thefts to disputes between merchants. Decisions had to be made within a day and a half of an accusation and the necessity for such courts arose from the fact that markets attracted visitors from outside the locality.