A history of Borough Market

A history of Borough Market

The 16th and 17th centuries

A hive of activity
The Southwark of the 16th and 17th centuries was a hive of activity—part commercial district, part travel terminus, part party town. Londoners surged across the river to let off steam in the pubs, brothels and theatres—think Kavos or Ibiza, but with fewer foam parties and more Shakespeare. Meanwhile, farmers flocked in from the countryside with herds of cattle and sacks of grain, seeking to make a living at the market.

The City did its utmost to maintain order. Market traders were supervised by bailiffs and constables who enforced price controls, inspected goods and collected fees. A weighing beam was situated next to the pillory in the middle of the high street, and it was here that sacks of grain were weighed in public before being put on display. Towards the end of the 16th century, a market house was built around it to keep the grain safe from the elements.

Rules and regulations
16th century rules required that traders set up their stalls in a fixed sequence, no more than a yard from the drainage channel running down the street: fishsellers closest to the bridge, followed by butchers, “poulterers from the countryside”, oatmeal makers, fruiterers and herb sellers, then finally local bakers and poulterers. A further set of ordinances from 1624 lined the traders up in a different order, with the further proviso that fishwives be forced to stay on their feet—in the face of growing chaos, bureaucratic fiddling seemed to be the main weapon in the authorities’ arsenal. 

Butchers were a particular source of drama. The best way of transporting and storing meat was in the form of live animals, but a narky ox can cause considerably more mayhem than a French-trimmed rack of lamb. One of the 1624 ordinances attempted to force butchers to stop entering local shops or slaughter houses with livestock “that are so wild, that they will not enter but run away (as often it happeneth)”. In 1676, the churchwardens of St Saviour’s ordered the construction of a series of posts to keep out wandering beasts.

Rogue traders
Unlicensed trading was a huge problem, with many a rogue trader selling bread or fish on the sly outside of the defined marketplaces. Pubs—of which there were a vast number—were some of the worst culprits, causing the City authorities to complain in 1522 that “almost every inn holder within the said Borough kepyth market”.