Lincoln’s History: The Butter Market and City Assembly Rooms

In the early eighteenth-century, the women who sold butter, milk, poultry and eggs on Fridays at the Butter Market in Lincoln had to do so with no shelter from the elements. Until 1572 their forebears had sold their wares at the Butter Cross on Newland but when that was taken down the Butter Market moved to the churchyard of St Peter at Arches.

For ten years, the Corporation of Lincoln agreed, at the instance of the mayor, John Lobsey, Esq, to forego its annual feast, saving £1,000 (their feasts must have been something to behold!) and they donated this to pay for a new market, providing shelter for the traders, which was erected in 1736.

The Butter Market was located on the High Street in ‘downhill’ Lincoln, close to the junction with Silver Street and just behind St Peter at Arches church (the market still extended into the churchyard). The Stonebow is on the other side of Silver Street. Neither the Butter Market or St Peter’s still stand; for anyone who knows Lincoln, the corner building (dating to the 1930s but built in a Georgian style) which now houses The Works is where St Peter’s and the Butter Market once stood.

The Stonebow and Guildhall, Lincoln, 1836. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
The Stonebow and Guildhall, Lincoln. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
The Butter Market can be seen on the right hand side.
The Butter Market can be seen on the right-hand side.

The openings along the side of the building were originally open arches but they were later glazed to make things more comfortable for the stallholders. The façade had a fine pediment made of Portland stone with the city shield carved into it.

Early 1900s postcard showing Lincoln High Street with St Peter at Arches and the Butter Market on the right.

Early 1900s postcard showing Lincoln High Street with St Peter at Arches and the Butter Market on the right.
Two early 1900s postcards showing Lincoln High Street with St Peter at Arches and the Butter Market on the right.

In 1744, Lincoln gained an Assembly Room on Bailgate, in the ‘uphill’ area of the city (Lincoln is famous for the aptly named Steep Hill, neatly dividing the city into uphill and downhill sections). In the twentieth century, a newspaper columnist recalled that:

Those who lived ‘downhill’ were not permitted to set foot in the ‘sacred’ precincts of the County Assembly Rooms, which were for the ‘uphill’ people and county magnates.

Harlequin Inn, Lincoln, at the top of Steep Hill
Harlequin Inn, Lincoln, at the top of Steep Hill; Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service

And so, it was decided that the people living ‘downhill’ needed their own assembly room. Funds were raised by public subscription and, in 1757, the council allowed the upper floor of the Butter Market to be developed to include an assembly room with a tea room and a small card room, overlooking the street. Accessed by a staircase from the rear of the Butter Market, it was the finest ballroom in the lower part of Lincoln and the scene of many important gatherings. Subscription Assemblies were hugely popular and well attended by the ‘city’ tradesmen who, together with their wives, were not admitted to the County Assembly Rooms uphill. The façades of both buildings are strikingly similar.

The County Assembly Rooms on Bailgate, Lincoln.
The ‘uphill’ County Assembly Rooms on Bailgate, Lincoln.

In 1813, some bronze statues and elegant decorations were contributed by Lady Monson (Sarah Elizabeth Grevile, wife of John Monson, Baron Monson of Burton). Gradually though, over the decades, the building declined and while the ground floor continued to be used as a market hall (selling fruit and vegetables in the week as well as milk, butter, eggs and poultry on a Friday), the upper rooms saw service as a ‘People’s News Room’, were the home of the mechanics institute and housed the city library for a time; by 1934 the school medical service used the space.

The Butter Market (prior to being pulled down in the 1930s), as glimpsed through the Stonebow on Lincoln High Street.
The Butter Market (prior to being pulled down in the 1930s), as glimpsed through the Stonebow on Lincoln High Street. Library of Congress

The Butter Market (prior to being pulled down in the 1930s), as glimpsed through the Stonebow on Lincoln High Street.

A bugbear of any Lincoln resident to this day is traffic congestion in the city; in the 1930s Lincoln was undergoing redevelopment and the Ministry of Transport had stipulated that the roadway in that area had to be 50 feet wide. The Butter Market and St Peter at Arches were in the way and had to go, despite their history.

St Peter at Arches Church, Lincoln by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, 1784.
St Peter at Arches Church, Lincoln by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, 1784. British Library

We have the Bishop of Grantham (the Right Rev E M Blackie) to thank for the fact that the façade of the Butter Market has survived. The bishop wrote a paper, Architecture and the Ordinary Man, in which he referred to the Butter Market as a fine specimen of eighteenth-century work, pointing out that very few towns in England possessed anything of its kind quite so good. He urged that the beautiful façade facing High-street should be taken down and carefully rebuilt.

“What is going to be its fate? Will it be pulled down and destroyed and forgotten? I am told that this is likely to happen, and I can only hope that the prophecy is not entirely true.”

As a precuation against the south wall of the Butter Market collapsing during the demolition of St Peter-at-Arches Church adjoining, it has been shored up.
Lincolnshire Echo, 13 October 1933

The bishop’s advice was heeded and the façade was taken down, brick by brick, each carefully numbered, and it was rebuilt on Sincil Bank, the focal point of a new central market where the stallholders from the Butter Market could share the space with the vendors from the existing Cornhill Market. This new building, four times as big as the former market, was opened on the 18th May 1938. Within the fabric of the building, care had been given to provide space to continue an old custom which would have been familiar to the eighteenth-century residents of Lincoln.

Stones of the facade of the old Lincoln Butter Market, which were numbered as they were removed, being reassembled on the new site at the entrance to the market hall which is being erected in Sincil Street.
Lincolnshire Echo, 15 November 1937.

An Old Custom: An interesting feature of the new market was the fact that the Corporation had provided sittings for the sale of butter, eggs and poultry, thus continuing an old-established custom, and indeed a custom which was almost unique in England.

The provision of these sittings on Fridays in each week had meant, of course, that the building had to be built sufficiently large to accommodate the sittings and ordinary stall-holders as well, the sittings were used only one day per week.

The old facade of the Butter Market in its new home, fronting the Central Market on Sincil Street, Lincoln.
The old facade of the Butter Market in its new home, fronting the Central Market on Sincil Street, Lincoln. Geograph

Sources:

Lincolnshire Chronicle, 1st July 1904

Lincolnshire Echo, 19th February 1932

Lincolnshire Echo, 22nd January 1934

Lincolnshire Echo, 19th May 1938

Williamson’s Illustrated Guide through Lincoln, 4th Edition

A Survey of the Antiquities of Lincoln

Tudor and Stuart Lincoln, J.W.F Hill, Cambridge University Press, 1956

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3 thoughts on “Lincoln’s History: The Butter Market and City Assembly Rooms

    1. Joanne Major

      Thanks Linda. My interpretation is that it’s the equivalent of a market stall, literally somewhere for the seller to sit and lay out their wares. But, I’m willing to be corrected on that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I wondered if they actually had a small stall and a stool or sat on a blanket! I suppose it’s one of those expressions no-one bothered to define because everyone at the time knew what they meant.

        Like

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