Take a walk through Sneinton Market today, and you’ll find fancy coffee, football fan-art and luxury vegan chocolates. Not only are the Sneinton Market Avenues now home to over twenty creative businesses, but it’s also the headquarters of a certain culture magazine you’ve been reading for the past few minutes. Throw it back seventy years or so, and this place was the site of a booming wholesale market, and a real pillar of city life...
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Nottingham had established itself as a world-famous hub for lace production. Workers flocked to the city in their thousands to get a piece of the action and, as a result, it became dangerously overcrowded. The town was no longer pastoral, but industrial. Diseases such as cholera were rife, and infant mortality rates were extremely high.
Following a time of land restrictions, the 1845 Inclosure Act was passed, which meant more housing and public amenities to deal with the increasing population. Along with Victoria Park and the nearby baths, Sneinton Market was part of the developments.
Before it was developed as a recreational public space, the square was the site of a clay pipe workshop owned by a Mr Thomas Edwards, and the nearby residential properties, known as ‘the Bottoms’, were practically slums. The cramped, back-to-back housing that stood on The Avenues – originally known as Nelson Street, Pipe Street, Brougham Street, Sheridan Street and Wood Street – were demolished and rebuilt, this time with adequate windows and outdoor garden space. On a map from 1861, the area was known as New Market, but by 1881 it had become Sneinton Market, despite not being situated in the Parish of Sneinton – it’s thought its name came from association to the nearest busy district.
Sneinton Market first made a name for itself selling ‘pots’ – crockery, to non-local folk – as well as second-hand clothing and furniture. Nottingham’s main wholesale market remained in Old Market Square, but Sneinton became a popular location for any overflow, or for new tradesmen trying to cut their teeth. The square was also used for public meetings and religious gatherings; most notoriously, bare-knuckle boxer William ’Bendigo’ Thompson gave a sermon while balanced precariously on top of a wagon. The market would also play host to travelling fairs and theatre companies who brought their ‘blood tubs’ – a form of violent melodrama – to town, the actors pitching up their caravans during their stay.
The construction of tram tracks in Old Market Square in 1900 sparked the real beginning for this new market place, as the wholesale market uprooted and made its way to Sneinton instead. The first set of rickety wooden buildings were erected on the corner of Bath Street and Southwell Road, and business soon began to boom. In 1926, a tram depot built on Southwell Road provided excellent travel links, and two years later a wash house was built adjoining the baths.
The success didn’t go unnoticed by the council – in the 1930s, Nottingham Corporation decided to modernise the wholesale market, demolishing the houses nearby and built sturdy, open-fronted units with shutters and glazed roofs. Nelson Street retained its name, the next three streets became Avenues A, B and C, and the final road was named Freckingham Street after Alderman H.J Freckingham, Chairman of the Markets and Fairs Committee who spearheaded the new developments.
A bacon cob breakfast at Thelma’s Cafe was the norm, followed by a pint from the Fox & Grapes pub that opened at 5am to keep the stallholders happy.
H.J Freckingham stood behind the local traders who previously made their living selling fruit, veg, crockery and rags in the square, so fought for their right to stay there. What soon developed was a close-knit community, which many considered family. Local firms that had occupied the area for years formed close bonds with the wholesalers, buying up stock they were having trouble shifting and turning it around for profit. Multiple generations of families would offer a helping hand on stalls, selling bags of carrots or Spanish onions for three pounds a shilling.
It was a place where many met their future spouse, or hung out with the Notts County players who unloaded vegetable vans during the week for a bit of extra pocket money. A bacon cob breakfast at Thelma’s Cafe was the norm, followed by a pint from the Fox & Grapes pub that opened at 5am to keep the stallholders happy. After a long day flogging furniture, traders would sink a few at the Bath Inn and head to Victoria Baths for some wrestling or boxing, before setting up shop at 3am the next morning to serve the punters that swung by on their way back from a night out on the town.
Many household names were made at the market. You’d see their produce vans driving around town – Blatherwicks, C.W Tooley, Percy Goring, Smalley’s. One particular success story was Hinton’s, the only stall in Nottingham to stock bananas. All bananas came to the city by rail, and had to be ripened before sale; they’d be taken down to the caves on Manvers Street, stored underground and blasted with gas heaters until perfectly yellow. In the late fifties, Hinton’s sold out to Fyffes, which became one of the biggest importers and distributors of bananas in Europe. Keep your eyes open as you cross through the market now and you can still spot their legacy – a banana statue hanging proud over The Avenues Cafe.
Over the years, Sneinton Market has been a port of call for many city dwellers. Whether it was a source of second-hand goods during times of shortage, a way for corner-shop owners to stock up their stashes, or just the place you’d pick up a pound of cod for tea, for years it served a vital purpose. By the late seventies, due to the production of cheap new goods and superstore supermarkets, it fell into a state of disrepair, and the next thirty years saw many plans for the area proposed and rejected. In 2014, another era of investment saw it become the head office of the Creative Quarter. With further plans to develop the remaining derelict buildings underway, it’s hoped Sneinton Market will become a permanent extension of the city centre.