The History of the English Market

What’s in a Name?

The Market was created in 1788 by the Protestant or “English” corporation that controlled the city at that time. It was a new flagship municipal market located at the heart of the new commercial city centre.

When local government was reformed in 1840, and the representatives of the city’s Catholic, “Irish” majority took over, they established another covered food market, St. Peter’s Market (now the Bodega Bar on Cornmarket Street), which became known as the “Irish Market” to distinguish it from its older counterpart which remained associated with its English creators.  It is thus that the name “English Market” dates from this era of transition.

The Emergence and Development of Markets in Cork City

The economic prosperity of Cork grew in the eighteenth century and was based mainly on the provisions trade. Salted beef, pork and butter were exported to the West Indies and were used to provision the British navy. The unrivalled ability of Cork Harbour to shelter the biggest fleets assembled during the American War of Independence and later during the Napoleonic Wars was a major factor in the expansion of the provisions trade in Cork. Cork Butter Market, with its strict and rigorously enforced system of quality control, was world famous and became the largest butter market in the world for its time.

Medieval town dwellers enclosed their settlements with defensive walls but also depended on the outside world for their supply of food and other necessities.  In common with other cities and towns of the time, there was a wide variety of markets in many locations in Cork, trading in meat, fish, potatoes, milk, corn etc. Whilst a limited amount of animal husbandry and fruit and vegetable growing was carried on within the walls of medieval Cork, it was the rural hinterland that supplied most of its basic needs and also the export trade.

There were many informal and casual arrangements for the supply and sale of such goods in and around the city but a centrally located market, held regularly, best suited the needs of the townspeople – it could be more easily protected and used as a source of revenue for the body that controlled it. Beyond revenue generation, the building and maintenance of markets by the municipal authorities was motivated by the desire to regulate trade and also by issues of public health.  It had been common practice for butchers to slaughter and butcher animals in the street or open market place and to offer the meat for sale at standings there.  Meat markets were built in an effort to separate the slaughtering and retail aspects of the trade.

Expenditure on the building and improvement of markets by the Corporation was regarded primarily as an investment but also the provision of a service to its citizens.  The Corporation wanted well-run and regulated markets.  The meat markets had to be regulated also and this was achieved by the appointment of weigh-masters (or scalesmen), who were paid by the butchers for each weighing.  The markets had to be kept clean and in good repair, and a Market Jury was empowered to enforce regulations and prevent blocking of streets etc.


The Establishment of the English Market

The economic development of Cork in the 18th century was mirrored by the physical development of the city during the same period. After the partial destruction of the city’s walls during the Williamite siege, the city began to expand rapidly in the area outside the walls and began to take on a recognisably modern configuration.

The 18th century saw the reclamation of the Dunscombe and the Reap marshes, creating a land-mass that correlates with the area between Saint Patrick’s Street and the South Mall. Hammond’s marsh to the west was also reclaimed. The river channels between the marshes were infilled to form what are now Saint Patrick’s Street, the Grand Parade, Henry Street, Grattan Street, Cornmarket Street, Sheare’s Street and other streets.

As the 1780’s progressed, the regulation and control of markets was brought a major step forward by the corporation’s decision to establish a new, purpose-built, conjoined covered food market at the core of the new city centre – this was inspired by the trend developing in England of modern covered markets. During 1785 and 1786, the Corporation took a number of dwellings fronting onto the newly created Grand Parade as well as onto Princes Street where the markets were to be built, and so began the establishment of the English Market. 

The foundation for the Market was formally laid on September 29th, 1786 and work proceeded throughout the next two years. Several stalls were completed in July 1788 and offered for rent, paid weekly, for one year (it was specified that they were for the sale of meat only).

The grand opening took place on 1st August 1788. The newly emerging United States of America had not yet elected it’s first President, George Washington. And just months previously the first vessels of the “First Fleet”, under Captain James Cook, had arrived in a far foreign land. These vessels carried the convicts and marines who are now acknowledged as being the “Founders of Australia”. 

Expansion of the English Market

Following it’s opening in August 1788 the original market gradually took shape over the following years, under the supervision of a special corporation committee. The committee decided to create additional fish, fowl and vegetable markets adjoining the original core meat market.

In 1789 the city’s central fish market was relocated to a new site adjoining the Grand Parade Meat market.  The “New Fish Market” was located to the north of the Grand Parade Market, between Mutton Lane and Meat Market Lane. This market was accessed initially from St Patrick’s Street. Soon after, access was provided from the new adjoining Root Market off Princes Street.

A “Fowl Market” for the sale of poultry was commenced. A “Root Market” for vegetables was also developed, effectively extended the trading area of the market towards Princes Street. In the early 1790’s a narrow passage from Princes Street was created into these market areas. The conditions in this area were generally poor. The area was unroofed, and the trading stands and stalls were very much of an ad-hoc nature and of a much poorer standard to the formalised stalls of the adjoining meat and fish markets. These inferior conditions persisted until 1862. 

A Difficult First Century of Trading

The Market faced a variety of difficulties, natural and political from its earliest years.

On Saturday, 17th January 1789, the English Market had to be shut down as Cork was hit by serious flooding - a recurrent danger in the marsh-based city.  The entire flat of the city was reportedly under water, which was at least five feet high in most places.  The markets, normally closed on Sundays, were ordered to be opened following the flooding to allow inhabitants to purchase provisions.

A decade later, in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, the high level of military deployment meant that soldiers of the Cork garrison seized goods from local suppliers entering the city.  The head of the garrison, Major General Myers, was forced to station a guard of a sergeant and twelve soldiers at each of the city’s markets to maintain order.

The opening decades of nineteenth century saw a decline in the economic fortunes of Cork City. The ending of the Napoleonic Wars after 1815 was a major factor in the economic downturn. Cork Harbour no longer regularly hosted fleets of the Royal Navy and this caused a major decline in the provisions trade. Prices for agricultural produce declined by one-third to one-half of the wartime prices. After the removal of protections in 1824, Irish industry was exposed to competition from the far more developed British economy. The textile industry and the provisions trade suffered greatly and unemployment in Cork rose sharply.

Not all of the city's industries were equally affected by the economic decline of the first half of the 1800s. Shipbuilding, brewing, distilling, tanning and the butter trade still flourished and Cork Harbour remained a major port for trans-Atlantic trade. However, even the continued prosperity of these enterprises could not make a major impact on the high levels of unemployment that served to depress wages and contributed to the poor living conditions in the densely populated inner city.

In September 1845, potato blight appeared in the city’s market gardens.  As the early new potatoes had already been harvested, the impact was limited to the second crop.  As winter descended it became clear that more than half of that crop was unusable. Widespread hardship grew among Ireland’s rural and urban poor. Disastrously, in 1846 the entire crop was wiped out. With a wide-spread dependence on the potato as a staple food, the country-wide blight led to the Great Famine, resulting in the death of 1 million people over the next five years, and the emigration of 1 million more.

The winter of 1846/47 became known as 'Black 47' - the worst in living memory. The rural poor fleeing from starvation and evictions poured into Cork City. Special constables were organised to expel rural vagrants from the city. The workhouse and the city hospitals were full and people were literally dying on the streets. The cemeteries in the city couldn't cope with the numbers to be buried and a new cemetery was opened at Carr's Hill to the south of the city. By April 1847, a reported 20,000 people had descended on Cork from the rural hinterlands. At the height of the Famine up to 500 people a week were dying in the city. 

It was not until the 1850’s that the effects of the famine began to ease in the city. Despite wide-scale poverty and a huge downturn in trade, the English Market had remained open throughout the famine years – goods had become expensive, but supplies were maintained.

Market Investment

The Municipal Corporations Act (Ireland) 1840 was passed by the British Parliament on October 10th 1840. The Act set about to reform municipal government, as was previously undertaken in England and Wales. The subsequent elections of October 1841 extended voting rights and saw the return of a Catholic majority in the Corporation, heralding a new era in the political history of Cork.

The new Corporation made the improvement and expansion of markets a priority and in 1842 almost £5,000 was earmarked for the building of new markets and renovation of existing ones.  Improvements were made to other existing markets, which, with the exception of the English Market, had been neglected by the previous Corporation. 

The building of St Peter’s Market as Cork’s second central indoor food market, at a cost of £3,000 was the major act of the new corporation.  With a main entrance on North Main Street, and a rear entrance on Cornmarket Street, this huge building covered half an acre and its hundreds of stalls sold meat, fish, and vegetables to the Cork working class.  Rents, prices, and food quality in St Peter’s were lower than in the English Market, and it was the poor man’s market, referred to as the “Irish Market”, most likely to distinguish it from the grander “English Market”. 

In 1862, plans were finalised for a new entrance and roofed interior for the Root Market at the Princes Street end of the English Market.  The renowned architect, Sir John Benson, prepared plans, including for two houses or shops on either side of the entrance. Work began in May 1862 and was completed eight months later.  The new market occupied the same space as the old one, but its design enabled addition of a balcony area allowing for almost double the amount of stalls. This redevelopment also produced the ornamental front and entrance on Princes Street and a new roof to this part of the Market. The new Princes Street Market was officially opened on 19th December 1862. 

The acclaimed new Princes Street entrance highlighted the blandness of the Grand Parade entrance and during the 1870’s various options to improve this side of the Market were considered.  A Grand Parade Market Front Committee was formed and in 1881 a tender was accepted for the building of the new entrance from Terence O’Flynn, with the clock at the centre of the façade to be supplied by Egan & Sons.  A Cork coat of arms was positioned above the clock, and work was completed in July 1881 and officially opened on the 14th July 1881.

20th Century

The English Market had already been in business for 112 years when it entered the 20th Century.  The turn of the century saw the decline in markets in Cork, with St Peter’s Market declining rapidly during the first decade.

The years of the First World War were a time of spiralling inflation, especially in food prices which, by the end of 1916 were 84% above their pre-war level.  This had an obvious effect on the Market, with more vulnerable traders being granted rent reductions due to the fall-off in trade.  Improvement works were suspended due to the increased costs of works.         

During the War of Independence, when the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans looted and burned buildings in Cork city, the English Market miraculously escaped the main brunt, but stalls were damaged, and the roof in the Princes Street Market was extensively damaged when fire spread from a nearby store.

There was a gradual decline in the status of the English Market from the mid-1920’s, as a result of a combination of historical factors.  The disruption and economic impact of the World War, War of Independence and Civil War all had an impact on Cork, its trade and its administration, and the Market became a casualty of the prolonged economic depression of the City.

However, the Market still retained a certain status, and although parts of it often lay vacant for long periods, it still survived.  The Market was modernised and upgraded during the 1960’s, which corresponded with a general upturn in Irish economic fortunes.  However, during the 1970’s, the Corporation actively considered a number of plans to demolish the English Market and replace it with a multi-storey block overhead, with retention of a Market space on the ground floor.  Intensive lobbying of City Councillors and Corporation with resultant public pressure saw the plans dropped and the Market surviving. 

Further refurbishment of the Market took place in the 1970’s, with the roof and flooring replaced, and improvement works to stalls.  The opportunity of refurbishment was also used to instigate new trading arrangements – the market traders, unhappy with the vulnerability of weekly tenancies, negotiated improved security of tenure in a new system of granting each stallholder a 21-year lease, with rent reviews every 5 years.  Each stallholder would be charged an annual rent, together with a service charge and rates.

The 1980 Fire

Shortly before 11.30pm on 19th June 1980, a gas explosion in the Princes Street Market caused a fire to engulf the building.  Six units of the city’s fire brigade fought the fire, and brought it under control within 30 minutes.  However, the Princes Street Market was in ruins – with the exception of the fountain, which had survived the fire with only minor damage.  The fire had not spread to the adjoining Grand Parade Market. 

The Princes Street Market was fully restored by Cork Corporation, through it’s own Architects Department.  The project was undertaken architects Jack Healy and Des Berkeley. In difficult economic times, the Corporation opted to refurbish the property – the insurance compensation payable was £150,000 and the overall cost of restoration was over £300,000, the Corporation borrowing the balance.  Building work commenced in January 1981 and was completed by October 1981.  The overall space stayed the same and the repaired fountain became the focal point of a circular geometry. The layout was improved and the upstairs gallery created new trading space and a café area.  The restoration was widely regarded as successful and in 1983, Europa Nostra, the international federation of conservation societies, awarded the project a gold medal in recognition of its contribution to the enhancement of Europe’s architectural heritage.

The English Market in the 1980’s

There was renewed interest in the restored market, but the economic recession of the 1980’s had a profound effect on the city and it’s retail traders, including those in the English Market.  The number of vacant stalls increased.  Difficulties were compounded when a further fire damaged Princes Street Market on 6th January 1986.  The fire started in the gallery and destroyed 4 stalls there and another 4 on the ground floor.  A portion of the roof was also damaged but the efficient response of the City Fire Brigade prevented any further loss. Over £150,000 worth of damage was caused but the repair work was not as extensive as previously and traders were able to resume business within a short time.

The English Market survived the recession of the 1980’s.  However, as had happened in 1973, a new development proposal for the English Market was entertained in 1988, which would see demolition of the Market, and its replacement with a multi-storey car park and shopping complex, with ground floor space for a market area.  Again, this proposed redevelopment did not go ahead.


The English Market in the 1990’s

The first surge in economic growth led to a more open and adventurous outlook and significant changes in patterns of food buying and eating.  Influences from abroad were absorbed, and consumers also become more concerned about food sources and there was increased demand for naturally and locally produced foods.  The English Market was well placed to accommodate the needs of disparate groups of consumer, and it adapted and contributed to the new food culture.

Food historians and writers, as well as local, national and international media, now highlight the English Market as a food emporium, a place where local and exotic could exist, and the English Market became a tourist destination and shopping experience alike.

Within a relatively short number of years a long and impressive list of new foods was added to the English Market food counters!! From cheeses to pastas, from olives to cured meats, from sauces to oils, from sausages to sushi, and from exotic spices and herbs to an abundance of beans and rices – the Market took on the ambitious role of meeting the culinary tastes of a modern and diverse new market, and knowingly married these with local and traditional fare.

Showcasing local and traditional produce on critically-acclaimed plates of food, the Farmgate Restaurant in the gallery of Princes Street Market opened in 1994. Shaping it’s menu from the finest of produce on sale from the stalls below, the Farmgate encapsulates the very essence of the values that have sustained the English Market across four centuries.