North Walsham emerged as an important market town in the 13th century along with Worstead and Ayl-sham. The rise of the wool and textile trade meant that some centres became more important than others, North Walsham having the encouragement of the abbot, who stood to gain from the payment of market tolls. Weaving developed in the 14th century on a large scale and late in that century the market had no less than 25 wool booths as well as 7 for the finished cloth, outnumbering the produce stalls. Local produce was however very important. As farmers specialized and many cloth workers were so busy that they could not produce sufficient to feed their families, the buying and selling of foodstuffs became essential. Professor Thorold Rogers collected many thousands of market records from the Middle Ages and gives us a broad picture of what was bought and sold in North Walsham and other markets in the late 13th century.
Grain was at that time the staple of life, no potatoes or rice were available to supplement the diet, harvests were uncertain, so prices varied greatly. Prices quoted were per quarter(5 cwt):
Wheat-12 70 -8/- Barley-12 70-5/ - STOCK -each
7/6 1283-5/4 Cattle-12 90-12/-
1276 -5/6 1290-3/4 1292-19/6
6/6 3/- 1295-10/-
1283 - 8/- 1398-2/8 Pigs 1270-1/6^
1290- 5/- Oats 1270-3/6 Geese- 1270-2|d 4/10 1290-2/- 1276-2|d
Rye- 1276-4/- Beans-1290 -2/2 1292^3d
2/6 Hens -1276-ld
Steel, nails and ploughshoes were other ^, - . i ,
.. , , Capons-1276-lid
items recorded as sold. F ^
Labour was hired at market for threshing: 1292-2d 1276, a quarter of wheat or rye-2jd; 1292, Barley l|d, Oats, fd;Peas, 2d;Winnowing(separating chaff)ld/quarter.
The prices of the produce may seem cheap to us now but need to be matched against the daily wages of 1d a day for ordinary labourers and 2d a day for craftsmen in the 13th century, being doubled by the late 14th century when labour was short after the Black Death. It is significant of the prosperity of North Walsham at that time that there were 12 butchers stalls in the market at a time when many peasants rarely ate mea: in other parts of Europe.
Three centuries later, Daniel Defoe passed through the district on his travels and noted the following:
Farther witfiin tne ±and and between this place and Norwich, are several good market-towns and innumerable villages, all diligently applying to the woollen manufacture, and the country is exceeding fruitful and fertile, 88 well in corn as in pastures, particularly (which was very pleasant to see) the pheasants were in such great plenty as to be seen in the stubbles like cocks and hens; a testimony though (by the way) that the county had more tradesmen than gentlemen in it; indeed this part is so entirely given up to industry, thst what with the seafaring men on the one side and the manufactures on the other, we saw no idle hands here, but every man busy on the main affair of life, that is to say, getting money. Some of the principal of these towns are Alsham, North Wlsham, South >felsham, Wirsted, Caston, Reepham, Holt, Saxthorp, St. Faith's, Blikling, and many others. Near the last Sir John Hobart, of an ancient fam* ily in this county, has a noble seat, but old built. This is that St. Faith's, where the drovers bring their black cattle to sell to the Norfolk graziers, as is observed above.
This was the basic pattern of the local economy until the late 18th century when changes in farming and competition from the textile industries of the North started the decline oi he local industry. There was no sudden slump and until the 1830s there were still prosperous weavers in the district, but thereafter, apart from a brief revival in the 1850s and an attempt to set up a local flax industry by Mr Deman in 1845, North Walsham, like Worstead, ceased to be a textile town. As can be seen from the directory entries which follow,there was still much small scale industry, making the town much more self-supporting than it is today,but it had lost an industry of national importance and was slow in gaining the engineering which was to become its new characteristic industry. The milling, brick-making, sawmilling, tailoring and brewing all served a local market. Indeed one can regard the mid-19th century as a low point in the town's economic history.
The industries which grew in the later 19th century were:the making of farm equipment by Randell's and Cubitt's. Both were at work in 1845 but their main expansion came when they could serve a regional market after the arrival of the railway in 1874. Cornish & Gaymer were a remarkable firm of builders and restorers who by the 1880s were employing 200 men in North Walsham on joinery, masonry and other detailed work and another 800 on sites further afield. One of their largest jobs was the building of Hellesdon Hospital, but many local churches including North Walsham and Northrepps were restored by this firm. The Press family constituted the other driving force in the towns economy, owning mills, the steam joinery works in New Road and a brewery as well as the "world's tallest windmill" in Yarmouth, a boatyard at Ebridge and a fleet of pleasure wherries as well as the North Walsham & Dilham Canal. Despite competition, North Walsham has subsequently continued to grow as an industrial centre Canning from 1930, a large laundry from the turn of the centuryas well as Wall Engineering, Crane Fruehauf and Ladbrooke's have enabled the town to maintain itself despite closures of some of the older industries.
The market function of the town increased in the 19th century, North Walsham being far enough distant from Norwich for its market to develop in several directions. Cattle auctions continued at the Yarmouth Road site until about 1970, although the annual fair ceased much earlier. Auctioning of items large and small has continued to the present, while the most obvious part of the market, the stalls, has changed little over the centuries. It is primarily as a shopping centre that North Walsham is most important today.
Lying as it does within easy reach of much of North-East Norfolk, the town now has about 7000 population and also draws on a rural population of 15,000 potential customers within a 7 mile radius (see map). In addition there will be the addition of many holiday-makers, often self-catering.
In a recent survey by High School pupils of 200 shopperfl it was found that 60%of the shoppers in North Walsham lived within 1 mile of the town centre, whilst only 12. 5% travelled over 5 miles to the town. Nearly §Q3k)f tjie, shoppers interviewed visited North Walsham several times weekly and another 20% came weekly. AH mentioned their intention of making grocery and, household purchases. Only a small percentage intended makfng specialist purchases such as clothing, shoes,books or gifts, for which they would tend to visit a larger centre such as Norwich which has a wider range of chain and department stores. However it has been said of North Walsham that "you could live in the town or work the land around and never need to go further than the old Market Cross for your lifetime needs(E. D. P. 11-7-74).
North Walsham has quite a wide range of shops but there tends to be a greater selection in the household and grocery category with 3 supermarkets, 2 grocers, 4 greengrocers, 3 bakers, 6 butchers, 3 chemists, 4 hardware shops and branches of the main banks. In addition it still ma intains its Thursday market from the Middle Ages and has late night shopping on Fridays, these being the peak shopping days.
Access to the town is fairly easy. It lies at the junction of 7 main roads and has reasonable bus and train services. 1. 5% of those interviewed came by train to shop, 10% by bicycle, 10% by bus, 32% on foot and 43. 5% by car. The town has many attractions to the shopping motorist. Its traffic system is relatively freely moving and there is plenty of convenient free parking, an advantage over its rivals. Within the town there a purpose-built pedestrian precinct which was designed to add to the shopping facilities without destroying the compact character of the Market Place. Since 1968 more attention has been given to catering for the pedestrian shopper. Plans are under consideration by the local council to make the centre of the town traffic free. Already most parking is kept to the fringe of this area to facilitate the movement of pedestrians. Many local shoppers would welcome this development, which would increase the popularity of the town as a shopping centre.