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Harborough Museum

Trade and transport

One of the reasons for the growth of the town was its place on the River Welland where it was shallow enough to cross the river without needing to put your swimming costume on, although you would probably get a bit wet.  The first known existence of a bridge was in 1228.  Its not clear how much people were allowed to use the actual bridge.  About 1615 it was known as the Chain Bridge as a chain was used to close off the bridge and the only time you could use it was when the ford was impassable. In 1675 a Three Arch Bridge was built, the bridge has remained in that form to the present day.  It’s been repaired and restored quite a lot since as in the 17th century, and when it was first built it didn’t have buses and HGVs using it.

The was a market in existence from the beginning of the 13th century which received a Royal Charter.  At the time this would have been something like getting a good review on Trip Advisor or a Five Star rating in a Michelin guide.  It also meant the town could now call itself (yes, you’ve guessed it, drum roll please); Market Harborough!

There have been markets in the town ever since and the Square was used for a cattle market.  Constant complaints were made about the nuisance it caused. What with the unwashed bodies and clothes and the sewage going into the river you can understand why people got annoyed by it.  They would certainly need to use the ford to clean their foot wear after visiting the town!  Also, the noise and congestion would have got on peoples nerves along with the smelly dung.  Finally, in 1903 the council moved it. In 1937 a new market was opened on the other side of the river.  This included a rather grand ‘Settling Room’.  This wasn’t a room where you settled down for a nice chat and a cup of tea.  Farmers went there at the end of the day to ‘settle up’, that is pay their bills or collect their money.  They may well have had a nice chat with a cup of tea (although more likely a pint) while they were there. 

There were many other markets and fairs held in the town including a butter market held under the Grammar school. There were regular horse fairs held just outside the town and numerous other markets on special days. This continues today with the various continental, craft and Christmas markets.

In 1637 it was said Market Harborough was ‘A great thoroughfare consisting of Inns and Tradesmen’.  As the town was situated on a major road it was well placed to become a stopping off place for travellers most of whom were heading for other destinations.  Travelling was slow and tiresome.  Journeys could take several days to places like Cornwall or London. Roads were very bumpy as they weren’t well surfaced.  This might be fun on a short ride at a theme park but on a journey lasting several hours it was very uncomfortable and passengers would get thrown around quite a lot.  Cheaper seats were on the coach roof which can’t have been much fun in bad weather or the winter.  As a result, there were coaching inns which were the equivalent of Motor Way Service Stations.  Instead of petrol or diesel the horses were ‘fed and watered’.  They would also be changed at certain points with fresh ones provided.  The horses left behind would then have a rest until they were swapped with other horses that now needed a rest.   The tired travellers could get food and drink and at some stages of their journey a bed for the night. There was a reference to an inn known as the Swan as early as 1517, later this became The Three Swans.

In the 18th century Coach travel started to become easier as the roads were paved and people using them were charged.  This was known as ‘Turnpiking’.  As a result, even more travellers were stopping off in Harborough and there was a wider choice of Coaching Inns to choose from.  These included The Angel and one known as The Peacock.  If you look carefully you can find where that one was as the original carving is still there – have a look in St Mary’s Place opposite Adam and Eve Street.

There was another important development in improving transport at the end of the 18th century.  Rivers had always been used as a means of transport including by royalty and boats were probably much more comfortable than coaches.  On a river there was probably less chance of having travel sickness unless it was a particularly rough, windy day.  Making use of the existing rivers, a system of canals was built which made it possible to travel much further without the boat running aground and getting stuck in shallow water.  This was more about moving heavy goods and cargo rather than passengers.  A canal was being constructed through Leicestershire in the 1790s, passing very close to Kibworth.  This was part of The Grand Union Canal from London to Birmingham.  Branches were added to canals later so they reached more places and in 1809 the Harborough section was added, including the Canal Basin just outside the town.

Whole families would live on board the barges or Narrow Boats that they later became.  Conditions were very cramped but at least they got to see a lot of the country as well as getting plenty of fresh air.  The boats were horse powered.  That is a horse would be led pulling the boat along by a rope.  The path was known as the Tow path and plenty are still used by walkers and cyclists today like the one at Foxton.  Unfortunately, in those days there weren’t places you could get an ice cream or hamburger like you can in what was originally the Lock Keepers cottage. Water always finds its own level so the canals could only be flat, they couldn’t go up and down hills.  Locks were used to overcome this and also tunnels.  There are several very long tunnels near Market Harborough like the one at Saddington.  Tunnels didn’t usually a tow path through them and the horse would be untied and led over the top of the tunnel, often by children.  Luckily for the horse this would have meant he or she got a bit of a rest while they waited for the boat to come through the tunnel.  This was done by two adults, usually men or older boys each lying on their backs on a plank sticking out on either side of the boat.  They would then ‘walk along the tunnel walls to move the boat along.  This wasn’t as dangerous as it might sound, as ropes were used to secure the men and the planks.  However, it must have been very hard work and not much fun if you were scared of the dark!

At Foxton there were a series of locks and the boats often had to queue for very long periods as only one boat could go through each lock at a time which must have been a real pain. In the early 20th century an Inclined Plane was built to try to speed up things up.  This was used to literally haul the boats up and down the steep slope.  Sadly, it didn’t get much use because by then canals were being used far less.  These days going through the locks seems to be regarded as all part of the fun for the many pleasure boats that queue up to go through them. 

Canals increased the amount of trade in many places, including Harborough.  However, another new development was rapidly coming down the tracks.  That was steam engines and railways: the train had arrived. The Leicester to Swanington Railway opened in 1841.  This had a big impact on one resident of the town.  A young carpenter called Thomas Cook came up with a brilliant idea to make some money.  He organised a trip that he called an excursion to travel on this new railway.  This was the beginning of the very first travel company, Thomas Cook’s. The original headquarters were in Leicester and can still be identified by the mural showing different ways of travelling.

In May 1850 the railway arrived in Market Harborough as a station on the London and North Western Railway running from Rugby to Stanford.  This was part of a much bigger railway boom across Britain.  In 1857 The Midland Railway opened a north south line linking Leicester to Kettering via Market Harborough.  Two years later the LNWR opened a line to Northampton, known as the Northampton to Lamport line.  This had stations at Northampton, Pitsford and Brampton, Spratton, Brixworth and Lampton.  The line didn’t stop at Lamport however, it went on to Market Harborough with stations also at Kelmarsh and Brixworth.  Passenger services finally stopped on this line in 1973.  Since then it has become a cycle route, The Brampton Valley Way.

These three different lines shared the same station.  A new station was built in 1885, this was jointly owned by the different railway companies.  It had 6 platforms linked by subways.  The station building was like a mirror.  If you wanted to travel on the Midland line you turned right to get your ticket; or left to travel with the LNWR.  At one time you could travel on 6 different lines. These were:

  • North West to Leicester and beyond, or you get off before that at the stations at East Langton, Kibworth and Great Glen.  Don’t try to get off at any of those places now, there aren’t even platforms.
  • A line north to Melton Mowbray with stations at Hallaton, East Norton and Tilton.  This line closed in 1957 and its closure would be followed by all except the line running between Sheffield or Nottingham to London St Pancras. 
  • Another line that has disappeared went East to Peterborough with stations at Ashley and Rockingham.  There was also a station at Medbourne and if you got off there you change to another line to Melton.
  • The Midland Railway line running south to Kettering and beyond.  These days you can no longer get off at Desborough and Glendon or Rushton.
  • The LNER line to Northampton.
  • West to Rugby

It’s really hard to imagine so many stations in so many places!  At the time the train really was probably the best way to travel and Market Harborough must have been a very busy, bustling station!  Before the second World War, it had more than 200 staff and around 250 trains passing through there every day. About 100 of these were freight trains.  These were carrying cattle and sheep, milk and crops, coal and iron ore as well as daily goods, the post and newspapers.

From the 1950s more and more people had cars which gave travellers even greater flexibility.  No need to get a bus, taxi or walk to your destination!  In the 1960s a government advisor called Dr Beeching, recommended that many lines or stations on them should be closed.

In more recent times the railway has had a further impact on Market Harborough, as it is now possible to travel to London in less than an hour. Harborough is now the last or first stop on the journey to and from the capital.  This has encouraged many commuters to move to the town from outside of the area.

The coming of the Railway had a big impact on the town’s growth.  However, even before that there was activity going on.  In the mid-18th century there was a great deal of wool production.  In 1810 a carpet factory was established, presumably using wool from the descendants of earlier sheep.  In 1831 a Scot named William Symington acquired premises in the town initially for his wholesale tea business, later including other foodstuffs, notably dried pea flour, invented by William in 1852. This was a real winner! All you had to do was add boiling water and hey presto you had pea soup.  This might not be your favourite, but it was enormously popular with soldiers fighting in the Crimean war.  This was something warm they could cook for themselves in the freezing winter weather in that part of the world. In 1901 Captain Scott included it in provisions for his Discovery Antarctic Expedition and he wrote in his diary;  ‘A lot can be done with the addition of a little pea meal’

In 1850 William was joined by his brother James.  James was a tailor and draper (he sold cloth and other materials for sewing).  His wife was a stay maker.  Stays were often uncomfortable underclothes worn to hold you in, improve your posture and make you look slimmer. They were mainly used by women and whilst they may have made you look better, they definitely didn’t do your insides much good. Victorian ladies found moving about in them very difficult and didn’t do strenuous exercise as a result!  It also meant that some had a nasty habit of fainting due lack of air in their squashed lungs.

James and his wife leased a workshop for their business in 1850.  The business was soon thriving, especially after the invention of the Singer Sewing machine in 1854. In 1864 They bought part of the now disused carpet factory.  In 1876 they bought the rest and rebuilt it in 1884.  By then stays were known as corsets and the factory diversified into other ‘nether garments’ later including swim wear.  Most famously the factory also produced ‘Liberty Bodices’ for children which remained best sellers well into the twentieth century.  Many mothers later bemoaned their disappearance, as they were such ‘wonderful’ garments!  However, they have never come back into fashion.  The factory remains a prominent building in the town and the Symington family played a very important part in the life of the town.  This wasn’t just by providing employment, they were what were known as ‘Benevolent Employers’ who provided many amenities and facilities that improved life in the town for all of its inhabitants.

In 1894 another factory opened in the town, The Market Harborough Rubber Company.  This was owned by The Briggs family who owned a boot making shop in Leicester.  Boot production needed rubber and the location on St Mary’s road was ideal as producing rubber needed water, taken from the river Welland.  During the second world war there was a huge demand for rubber.  However, there was a problem: the raw material came from Japan and other parts of South East Asia.  Japan was an enemy during the Second World War and occupied most of South East Asia, so a new way of producing synthetic rubber was devised.  One of the many rubber items produced included rubber buttons, used on the Liberty Bodices.

Fox hunting also brought trade to the town. This was particularly the case in the years 1900-1914 when many houses were rented out to wealthy hunting families for the entire season. This must have been really good for the town in terms of trade.  However, according to your point of view it wasn’t beneficial to the foxes! 

Into the 20th century the town continued to expand with a greater variety of businesses.  One particularly well know one being ‘Joules’. Originally the business was set up by Ian Joules.  It produced clothing to sell around the country at various agricultural fairs, equestrian events and festivals.  In 1989 his son took over and spotted a gap in the market.  This was for comfortable and practical clothes which were also stylish and colourful.  One of his earliest successes was to get 100 pairs of pink ‘wellies’ made.  They sold out almost immediately.  In 2000 he opened the firms first shop where it remains today, however the firm was still predominantly selling at agricultural fairs. Then came an horrific disaster for British agriculture in 2001; an outbreak of ‘foot and mouth’ disease amongst livestock.  It was a terrible time, with many animals being slaughtered to stop the disease.  People weren’t allowed to go into the country side and many events were cancelled.  Tom Jules responded by launching a mail order catalogue in 2002 and a website followed in 2003. Instead of collapsing the company expanded! More shops were added and also concessions in department stores.  These days if you see a hare sitting upright the Joules brand may well spring to mind!

Bringing us right up to date the town attracts many shoppers.  It has many independent shops providing a wide range of goods.  It also has branches of several high street chains that are no longer available elsewhere in the county including Leicester.  It has many bars, cafes, pubs, and tea shops which also make it a great place to visit. As a result tourism plays an important part in the town’s economy.

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Tel: 0116 305 3627

Address: The Symington Building, Adam and Eve Street, Market Harborough, LE16 7LT (Car Park: LE16 7XA)

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