The Development Of A Market Town
Very little survives in the records about the early history of Ormskirk, although we do know that the Priors at Burscough were granted a market charter in 1286 and it is likely around that time that the town began to grow from a hamlet to the town we know today.
Evidence from the layout of the town, particularly that from early Ordnance Survey maps, would tend to back this up. The town follows a typical Medieval layout, with its church at the highest point and a street running off from this with a market cross at its centre, in other words modern day Church Street and Moor Street.
The early OS maps also show long thin plots with narrow shop fronts, which again are a remnant of an older Medieval layout. Known as ‘burgage’ plots they allow for large numbers of houses to have a frontage on the Main Street, whilst long thin plots extending backwards allow for at least a reasonable amount of land associated with each plot.
It may be that Aughton Street and Burscough Street came in to existence at the same time as Moor Street and Church Street and that the town always had layout that we know today, although it is equally possible that they were later additions. Certainly they existed by the late 17th Century.
Over the years, little has changed in terms of the layout of the town, although very few buildings older than the Georgian period now remain and certainly none that could be considered Medieval. Perhaps again this is a sign of the continuous growth and development that seems to have been a feature throughout Ormskirk’s history.
Certainly the population of Ormskirk expanded rapidly through the Georgian and Victorian periods, with a need to develop low cost housing meaning courts were hastily thrown up in the areas behind the street frontages, effectively removing the burgage plots. This housing was of extremely poor quality and, as we shall see, it was not destined to last.
The origins of the town you will all be so familiar with today can perhaps be traced back to 1876, when the Court Leet in Ormskirk was disbanded in a bid to introduce a fairer system for justice and administration. Market tolls were transferred to the Board of Health and the remaining funds of the Court Leet were used to build the Clock Tower, which now stands proudly in the centre of town in approximately the location previously occupied by the Market Cross.
At this time Lord Derby also relinquished his tolls on the market, meaning that for the first time it was fully under local authority control, a situation which has remained until the present day.
The new clock tower inspired the newly established local authority to push for all four corners of the market cross to be re-built or regenerated in a bid to increase what we would now call ‘kerb appeal’.
Three of the buildings on the corners formed by the four main streets were rebuilt, indeed the only building left remaining as before was the corner of Moor St and Aughton Street. This building was a relatively recent addition to the town anyway and was considered suitable to remain at the town’s new focal point.
Many other buildings in the shadow of the clock tower were also rebuilt at this time, including The Kings Arms on Moor Street, the Talbot Inn on Aughton Street and the old iron mongers on Moor Street, which was re-built as a Corn Exchange. None of these buildings now survive.
By the 1920s, the court housing which had dominated the Victorian landscape in Ormskirk was well past its sell by date and a programme of clearing was undertaken. Many families were moved into the new local authority housing estates, the first of which was the Scott Estate built after the New Road, later County Road, was built in the late 1920s. The Tower Hill Estate soon followed in the 1930s, meaning that Ormskirk soon covered an area significantly greater than it had ever done so before.
To offer these growing housing estates a vibrant and modern town there were significant demolitions of large older buildings, The Kings Arms, The Talbot Hotel, the Wheatsheaf Hotel and the adjacent Ormskirk Hall and the Working Men’s Institute.
Large modern shopping outlets plus a new Bus Station replaced these buildings, giving the national retailers like Woolworths, Dorothy Perkins and Boots The Chemist larger premises in the town. New car parks were constructed on the sites of the old court housing to accommodate the anticipated increased footfall.
During the early 1980s the town centre became pedestrianised with through traffic being diverted through a new traffic system around the town. This changed the layout of the twice weekly markets and was perhaps the final step in the creation of the modern Ormskirk.
The second half of the Twentieth Century saw a shift from small local business to large national and multi-national chains. This development would change Ormskirk town centre significantly, with Woolworths arriving in the 1950s, soon to be followed by Tesco and eventually a long list of chain stores including Dorothy Perkins, WH Smith’s, Boots, Burton Menswear, Safeway (Morrisons) and several more.
By the time of writing a move to online shopping has resulted in a number of these stores closing, but despite this they still influence the make-up of the town centre greatly.
Ormskirk has also historically been quick to take advantage of new communications technologies.
In 1751 stagecoaches passing along Aughton Street and Burscough Street on their way to and from Liverpool began to bring a postal service to Ormskirk for the first time.
In 1870 the first telegraph messages were sent from Ormskirk at the post office on Aughton Street.
In the recent years the great technological advance has been the internet and a shift to online shopping has had a much less positive impact on Ormskirk’s town centre, with many national chains closing their stores as they shift to an online sales model.
Perhaps though this opens up an opportunity for local independent businesses.