The Market Square has been the centre of Cambridge since the middle ages. Cambridge was a flourishing town by the 10th Centuary and even had its own mint. It was also the administrative centre for area and so it was a Town of some importance.
By the time of the Domesday Book, in 1086 Cambridge had a population of about 2,000 which, by the standards of the time, was a medium sized town. Medieval Cambridge had a weekly Market and by the early 13th Century it also had a fair. In those days fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a period of a few days. People would come from all over Eastern England to buy and sell at the Cambridge Fair. Local people and villagers from all around Cambridge came to the Market to trade, gossip and see justice done. The Market was also the site of the jail, public whippings, the stocks, and beheadings.
Medieval Cambridge prospered because it was local on the River Cam that in turn flowed into the Great Ouse. The River flows into the sea at Kings Lynn, which in the Middle Ages was a large and important Town. In those days it was much easier and cheaper to transport goods by water than by land. The Cam acted as an ‘artery’ through the Fens.
Cambridge was granted a charter in 1207 and from then on, the merchants of Cambridge elected a Mayor. In 1728 it was estimated that the population of Cambridge had risen to 6,179. (There were also 1,599 inhabitants of the University). By the standards at the time Cambridge was now a fair sized town.
As early as 1888 there was a movement afoot to install a covered Market in the Market Square and in 1897 Cambridge’s Market Committee reccomended that a new form of market stall, known as the ‘Diamond Stall’ be erected on Market Hall. It was remarked that the long argued question of covering the Market was mainly the objection to a permanent structure being erected on Market Hall. However, the cost of erecting and dismantling all of the stalls plus the cost of repairing them by the time had amounted to £850 per year and the advantages of the proposed scheme to the town was put to the Council who agreed to consider it.
In 1950 Cambridge’s chief sanitary inspector said the stalls on Market Square were unnecessary.’We don’t like these open-air stalls at all and I don’t see that in 1950 we need them at all. I think it is an anachronism”. Questioned about that ‘wet and sniff all over the place’ he said he had spoken to stallholders and asked if they did not realise that people had to eat vegetable which had been fouled by dogs.
By 1951 the population of Cambridge had grown to 91,000 and today Cambridge has a population of 123,000. In 1960 Market stall holders are among Cambridge’s most colourful characters. Many have taken over the stalls from their fathers or grandfathers, often stretching back five or six generations. There are a handful of names which provide the nucleus of the traders- Whitehead, David Sharp, Reynolds, Simpkins and several others. Charles Whitehead has stood a his greengrocery stall since he was 14. In 1965 the new £8,000 Corn Market was opened in Cattle Market marking the end of trading in the Corn Exchange. An estimated 2,000 people turned up for the first days;s trading at the Marcade, Cambridge’s first indoor Market in 1972. The Marcade was the brainchild of two city businessmen , one of whom said ”We have spoken to every trader today and most of them have said they have taken as much in five hours today as they usually take in a week”. There were 48 stands in the Market, which was in the old Eastern Electricity building in East Road and they hoped to have a total of 100 by the following January. ”The whole idea is to make it a good Market where someone can buy anything at competitve prices and of good quality”. In 1978 Sunday Market proposals for Market Hill & Cattle Market were vetoed.
In 1988 the future of Cambridge Market was in doubt due to severe parking problems. Until 1969 drivers could park their cars in the middle of the Market area, where attendant collected fees whilst stallholders occupied all the outside area. The then Council came up with a proposal that the area be divided into two halves, one for stalls, the other for cars. However, this provoked indignation and all parking was eventually banned with new metal-framed, plastic covered stalls (instead of the old wood and canvas ones) set out over the whole arwa. In 1986 the 19th Century Corn Exchange was coverted into a theatre and entertainment Centre.