The Market & The Making Of Ormskirk

Throughout most of history Ormskirk played second fiddle in terms of importance to its much smaller neighbour Lathom. At the time of the Domesday survey Lathom was held by Uchtred, a significant North West landowner, whilst Ormskirk is not mentioned.

Lathom would continue to be the seat of power in the area for centuries to come, being successively the seat for the de Lathom family, the Stanley family, who would later become the Earls of Derby and eventually the Bootle-Wilbraham family, the Earls of Lathom.

Why then today is Lathom a small village and Ormskirk the principal town of West Lancashire?. Quite simply the answer lies in its position as the area’s market town.


Postcard courtesy of Dot Broady-Hawkes

Ormskirk’s Market Charter was granted in 1286 by the Plantagenet King Edward I and his younger brother Edmund Earl of Lancaster to the Canons of Burscough Priory. From this point onwards, Ormskirk held weekly markets, bringing traders and buyers into the town from a large surrounding area.

The town’s medieval layout hints at a large expansion throughout this period and it is likely that the population grew too as more and more people sought to be at the centre of commerce for the local area.

For centuries it was local products which sold on the market, including fresh  grown farm produce and locally reared poultry and livestock. As in other market towns, fish stones were sited near the main market place, used for displaying and selling a fresh catch. The produce was inspected for freshness, the advertised weights and measures  were always tested and anyone caught under weighing was banished from trading.

Market tolls were set and not always agreed with by the stallholders, avoiding paying a Market toll was an offence which could lead to court.

Local retailers during the 19th century would take their weekly market stall to increase trade and take a share in the success of the markets.  Local auctioneers, commissioned to sell bankrupt stock or damaged produce from Liverpool warehouses, would set up on a run of stalls across from the Golden Lion, advertising the one time only sales in the local paper.

Thursday was the traditional market day and it took many years for the Saturday market to be as successful, mainly because the fresh food traders were not prepared to attend twice in a week. That meant that stalls were let on Saturdays to less fresh produce and more hardware and clothing traders.

The range of local produce was vast, along with wheat, barley, oats and potatoes, there was a supply of beef, mutton, veal, lamb and cheese. Hen, goose and duck eggs, ham, bacon, butter, gooseberries, plums, currants, red and black, damsons, rhubarb, strawberries, apples, pears, cucumber, onions, carrots, turnips and Mangold  Wurtzels.  There was also manure on offer by the cart load, essential to the area.

Over the decades, the products offered on the stalls grew in variety.  Traders became more mobile and were able to stand several of the county markets in a week, which moved away from the local producers bringing in local product.

The swelling of the population of the town on a market day was such that local businesses throughout the town, from pubs to bus companies, from sweet shops to shoe shops, all shared in the influx of shoppers and browsers.

The weekly prices of corn, straw and hay were published in the local papers across Lancashire and the prices achieved per bushel on the Ormskirk Thursday Market were closely monitored by Liverpool merchants. There was such interest in the price of the produce that the local Ormskirk paper would issue a second edition of the Thursday paper at 3.30pm to include the prices achieved over the market day.

During WW1, hay became scarce for winter feed as the Army took the bulk of the crops for supplies leaving local farmers with less to sell at market. When seasonal produce hit the market it was newsworthy, the first crop of new potatoes was announced with anticipation but during the war years the Food Controllers caused farmers to be under so much pressure to produce volume, the markets were left almost empty of local produce. This gave the smallholders the opportunity to sell their surplus to the public.

Another impact on the produce available at market during the war years was the commandeering of threshing machines and straw pressers by the Government, farmers were struggling to get the crops to market to sell to the general public.

Labour was dramatically reduced by the loss of men to the services but also the loss of the seasonal migrant workers. This loss was partly replaced with women coming into the local area and working on the land. These were groups of women from Liverpool and other large cities who probably had no experience of working outdoors in the fields.  

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