Street Life

PUBLISHED: 16:00 24 November 2006 | UPDATED: 14:46 20 February 2013



While Horsham's economy may be dominated by insurance and IT companies, its beating heart lies with its historic markets. Even after 800 years, they're still full of character but, as Ashley Bird discovers, you can't buy yourself a wife there anym...

Sussex Life, October 2006

THE town of Horsham is known for many things. It's most famous for being the birthplace of romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), best known for anthologies like Ozymandias and Ode To The West Wind. It also boasts one of the most painted and photographed streets in Sussex in the beautiful Causeway.

And rather less poetically it's the home of huge international insurance firm Royal & SunAlliance. But the cultural soul of this pretty West Sussex town is its bustling, colourful market scene. You only have to visit on a Saturday afternoon and see Horsham come alive with traders and shoppers to realise that this is the best way to enjoy the place - whether you're on a mission to find the finest local produce, or just there to soak up the atmosphere.

Fattening up
Officially, the markets have existed in Horsham since 1233 when William de Braose, the lord of Horsham Borough was granted the right to hold a three day fair at the feast of the Translation of St Thomas Becket. But in truth their history stretches back even further. "People would come to this area to trade before Horsham was even created," explains Jeremy Knight, Horsham Museum's Heritage Officer. "The forest undergrowth here used to provide good grazing for the livestock so people would bring their cattle here, fatten them up and then trade. The town was created pretty much as a result of this - the market was the raison d'etre for Horsham."

In 1279, de Braose got permission to hold official weekly markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays and the trading culture of the town we see today was born, with people coming from far and wide to buy livestock, poultry, corn, salt, timber, wool, wine and more. "Horsham lies neatly between the south coast and London," says Jeremy. "So London traders would come down and foreign traders from France and Germany would come here too. It was exactly how you'd imagine a traditional medieval market to be."

The main focus of the market has always been the Market Square and Carfax - the main square in the centre of Horsham. Different types of cattle and poultry markets were also held in West Street and what we now call the Bishopric - created as a market area by the Archbishop of Canterbury around 1450. In the late 18th century the Black Horse and Swan Inns were also used as corn markets.

Lady trade

Variously, the market has been known for its excellent chickens, rabbits, gingerbread and brushes. But it wasn't just about food and hardware. At one time it was common for men to visit Horsham to buy themselves not just a new brush, but a new wife to push it around as well, while the town's 40 or so pubs made prostitution a very common activity. One theory even says that the town's name is derived from 'whore's shame' although most historians dismiss this idea completely. Legend has it that the final act of wifeselling was in 1844 when a man named Johnson had to sell his watch to raise the money for a young lady named Ann Holland. Presumably she forgave him every time he was late home for dinner.

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