A Glimpse Of The Past
Shrewsbury is surely one of England's most beautiful towns lying within a giant loop of the River Severn. Wherever you stand in Shrewsbury you are surrounded by history, for this town is steeped in medieval heritage, which is matched only by the vibrancy of its modern cultural life. Shrewsbury boasts over 660 listed buildings but at its heart lies the Square, the cultural and economic focal point for the town for generations past. In the centre of the Square lies a very special building with an extraordinary past...
1200 - 1800
The Old Market Hall (originally named the Market Hall or Market House) was built in 1596 by the Corporation of Shrewsbury and is one of Shrewsbury's finest buildings. It reflects the town's prosperity towards the end of the 16th Century and especially its emergence as a major regional centre for trading. A previous Market House was built on the same site in the 1260s. This building was demolished to make way for the Market Hall.
Stone was brought from Grinshill, the choice of stone above timber, which was still used for almost all private building in the town, shows that this was a building which was more than functional. The building was intended to impress by its materials, style and scale and to give out the message that here was the region's premier market. It had two storeys: the large upper room was originally used by the Shrewsbury drapers or dealers in cloth to sell Welsh wool and the lower floor was used by farmers to sell their corn. The Old Market Hall was one of the earliest forms of prefabricated buildings; it was erected in less than four months. It bears the Royal Coat of Arms of Queen Elizabeth I, with the date of 1596, and the supporters are the English Lion and the Welsh dragon. On the North side of the Old Market Hall there is a statue of the Duke of York; it is the only one in the whole country.
In front of the Market Hall in the Square there was once a pool or bog. According to tradition this pool was called the Bishop's Pool and it would be the ducking pool for nagging wives and dishonest traders.
Shrewsbury possessed this instrument of punishment (the Bishop's Pool) as early as 1292. The offender was tied to a chair called the cucking stool or ducking stool, exposed to public derision and then immersed in water. A husband had to foot the bill of one farthing each time for each immersion. According to one chronicler, the whole purpose of this form of punishment was to cool the intemperate heat of the scold. It appears this custom was carried into the late 17th Century as in 1669 the Corporation accounts show the purchase of a new stool.
The Square has always remained a meeting point for the town with its open space in front of the Market Hall used for public events; markets are still held there today and it is the gathering place every year for residents to welcome in the New Year.
1800 - 1870
For 200 years the building remained at the heart of Shrewsbury's vibrant economy. By the early 19th Century however, there were significant structural problems and a proposal to demolish the building and start again was only narrowly defeated.
Over the next 15 years, between 1804 and 1818, major repairs were carried out; the stonework was restored, a new floor installed; the first floor was refurbished and subdivided, and it's main beams were supported on brackets supplied by the local iron founder, William Hazeldine.
By the early 19th Century the market for Welsh cloth had declined and the Drapers gave up the Market Hall room; it was converted into warehouses.
The ground floor undercroft became the location of the Saturday corn market, corn then being sold mainly on the basis of samples rather than by bulk. The corn market moved away to a new, purpose-built corn exchange (named the Market Hall) and subsequently in 1867 the building in the Square became known as the Old Market Hall.
The Old Market Hall became a venue for dances, volunteer Cavalry sword instruction, auctions, lectures on astronomy and even a travelling crocodile exhibition.
1870 - 1995
In the 1870s the upstairs was converted into offices and a courthouse. The building housed two courtrooms and service rooms and remained in use as the county magistrates court until new, purpose-built courts opened next to the Shirehall in 1995. When public hangings were the fashion many were held in the Square and condemned criminals would be led from the holding cell in the Old Market Hall to be hung in front of the building. During the Second World War the Undercroft was given over to a brick built air public air raid shelter.
Once the new magistrates court was opened in 1995 the Old Market Hall became dormant and remained unused for a further 7 years. Without proper maintenance the building quickly began to fall into disrepair. The roof was in very real danger of collapse as the supporting beams, suffering from damp had long been rotten. Thus the Old Market Hall, by then a Grade I Listed Building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument, was added to the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register.