Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: July 04, 2017.
Webpage updated: July 04, 2017




The term "Shambles" is said to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon word 'fleshammels', or the 'flesh shelves' upon which butchers laid out their meat.  As the animals were slaughtered out in the open all the pieces of the animal that were not saleable were simply thrown into a stream in the middle of the roadway in which the market was held.

To be able to hold a market of any sort was a privilege granted by the King or, through delegation, by the Lord of the Manor.  In the case of the village of Sutton the Lord of the Manor was the Prior of Plympton and he made the first grant in the year 1253, in the time of HRH King Henry III.  The market was held every Thursday and when the festival of Saint John the Baptist (June 24th) was being celebrated there was also a three-day fair.

Just a couple of years later, in 1257, the Prior granted a similar right to Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon and Lord of the Manor of Plympton.  The market days was Wednesdays and a 3-day fair was to be held at the time of the Festival of the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, which was a moveable feast held on a Thursday either forty days after the Resurrection or ten days before Whitsun.

But the burgesses of Sutton were beginning to flex their muscles as their discontent grew over being ruled by the Prior of Plympton.  A stone cross had been erected in Sutton, probably in Holy Cross Lane, and many stalls had been placed their for the sale of meat, fish and other victuals.  Technically these belonged to the Prior and the townsmen of Sutton had no right to erect additional stalls for their own use.  Eventually, in 1311, the burgesses came to an agreement with the then Prior, Matthew, to rent eighteen of the stalls at one penny per year, subject to them not erecting any more stalls without the license of the prior.  The burgesses were not a corporate body at that time and the agreement was sealed on their behalf by the Prepositus, Richard the Tanner.

In the earliest Town Rental still preserved, Michaelmas 1491-92, the following people paid rent for stalls in the Shambles: William Bold; Robert Warwyke; Richard Goe; William Joseph; William Chopyn; Robert Ayer' Matthew Chopyn; Gelam Bocher; Richard Drap; John Moysen; Robert Hore; Roger Joseph; and Thomas.

A Corn Market House existed in 1539.

In 1601-02 a Fish Market was built right up against the churchyard wall of Saint Andrew's Church.  It cost 18 19s 4d.

The Holy Cross was also known as the Market Cross and this was removed around the time that the Jacobean Guildhall was being erected in 1606.  The Guildhall was built on pillars and the Shambles was held underneath.

A new market house was built in 1625-26 at a cost of 9 13s 11d but it is not clear what this was for.  It may have been for the Cloth Market.  It did not survive long, though, because the following year it was pulled down to be rebuilt 'above higher mill'.

In 1653 a Yarn Market was built in Old Town at a cost of 6 14s 6d.

Old maps of Plymouth show Old Town as having a long, narrow building in the middle of the road.  This was the Shambles built in 1656.  It was 200 feet in length by only 12 feet wide and cost 177 10s 9d.  About one third of the Shambles had a Leather Hall on the first floor.

Around this time there was what Worth calls 'The Old Green Market' on the south side of Whimple Street.

From 1693 in the middle of Whimple Street, opposite Saint Andrew's Church, was the Fish Shambles.  It was later known as the Old Fish Cage.  It was 30 feet long by 10 feet wide.

The Fish Shambles was demolished in 1789 in anticipation of the visit to the Town of HRH King George III, 'a waggon being hired to drive against it to ensure its demolition'.

When it was decided to tear down the Jacobean Guildhall and replace it the architect, Mr Eveleigh, seems to have overlooked the need to provide accommodation for the Shambles.  As a result it was decided to erect a new Market in a field to the west of Old Town Street.  The foundation stone was laid in 1804.

In effort to improve conditions in the centre of Plymouth the Shambles were removed and the roadways were widened.  A interesting plaque was placed on the wall of Saint Andrew's Church, facing Old Town Street, which told what the conditions had been like: 'Immediately in front of this wall lately stood a set of stalls called the Flesh Shambles, which narrowed the space from the opposite houses to about nine feet.  On the right hand were two houses which considerably confined the entrance to the Church; immediately in front was a building called the Fish Market, taken down on His Majesty coming to this borough in the year 1789; on the left side, by Buckingham steps, were some miserable loathsome Almshouses; and at the entrance of Old Town-street stood a Conduit and new Shambles, all of which, for the greater comfort and convenience of the inhabitants and persons resorting town the town have, with great liberality and public spirit on the part of the Mayor and Commonalty been removed, and the present new Market erected.  To commemorate these improvements this tablet was set up 4th of June 1813'.