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Spalding's Butter Market

Down the side of Spalding's Civic Centre is a passageway called The Butter Market. Here is some of the history and the context in a Britain that by the early 20th century was nearly 40 years behind in the development of its dairy industry.

Dairy produce was primarily in the form of butter in market towns. If you cannot sell milk for immediate consumption it needs to be produced into butter or cheese to prevent waste and still have a marketable product. This meant that butter was the primary product produced from cows and we see yield often measured in butter rather than milk until the late 19th Century as in this example from 1796:

“The six days milk of one cow, the property of Mr. T. Norman, inn-keeper, in Carlisle, lately yielded twenty-six pounds of butter a product scarcely to be equalled in any part of the Kingdom.”[i]

The amount of milk required to make a pound of butter varies according to the cream content of the milk. As an indicative rule of thumb it takes a gallon of milk to produce a pound of butter.

The quality of grazing on the Washlands and marshes was of good quality in Spalding and the surrounding district and the butter sold in Spalding in 1767 had a premium of about a penny for each pound weight over other areas:

“We are informed from Spalding in Lincolnshire that the best Butter sells in that place and in many other market towns in Lincolnshire, at five-pence and five-pence-half-penny per pound.”[ii]

The importance of butter to the rural economy of a market town is indicated by the fact that from medieval times we see market crosses called butter crosses. The calling of a market cross as a butter cross is possibly due to butter and eggs being the items that people sought to sell every week, especially in summer when the “shelf-life” of the product would be reduced at the same time as milk yield being higher. In some towns the butter cross would have a cover built over them to protect produce from the sun and the rain. Those surviving covered crosses in England tend to be from the 16th century onwards. The absence of such crosses in Fenland market towns of Lincolnshire is possibly due to the practise of selling products in church yards being adopted. This ties in with the theory that the cross was to remind people to trade honestly as they should in a church yard.

In Spalding, from the sixteenth century, it is clear that butter was traded in the Market Place alongside the poultry sellers, corn dealers and any other stalls.

The good fortunes of Agriculture prompted Spalding to seek a building to house corn traders with their samples as well as other traders of value, and to provide a public meeting place that befitted the growing town. In 1850 speculation about the proposed Corn Exchange prompted this appeal:

“The merchants who assemble in the Market-place are subjected to the gaze of every rude interloper and are annoyed by every vehicle passing to and fro that well-frequented part of the town. And that a Butter Market should be included in the new building, no one will deny, who has the least respect for woman. Why this tender part of our nature should so long have to submit to the scorching sun or pelting showers of summer and to the furious freezing blasts of the winter, unpitied and uncared for – their little all often being wholly destroyed by dust or heat – is surely not to be attributed to the inhumanity of Spaldonians so much as to their want of thought.”[iii]

It has to be understood that the production of butter was time consuming and its production and sale was largely by the wives and daughters of smallholders in the district. Milk as a product was not marketed in anything other than the immediate vicinity of the farm. Where a farm was in the vicinity of a town it could sell milk by going around two or three times a day with milk in pot jars to be ladled out and sold to people outside their homes. In the 1880’s this started to become more organised and dairies would load twelve gallon lidded churns with milk to be collected by the dairy cart from the farmer on the way into town, where it would be delivered by a round through residential areas to be bought ad hoc with milk ladled into the buyers own container. This method of selling milk was only viable near a populous town or city. Surplus milk could only be disposed of by making butter and feeding the remainder to pigs or calves.

It needs to be considered that in the Fens of that era the cow was typically a source of extra income for the smallholder with, as I have already mentioned, the milking, care of the animal, and production of butter being done by the female members of the family. It was a lot of manual work for a low return. If you were fortunate enough to be able to sell milk it often had a value that equated to being three times the value of butter with less effort required.

Whilst Spalding’s Corn Exchange did get built in 1855 the planned butter and poultry market was not incorporated in it due to a dispute with the neighbouring property not allowing a cellar to be built over. This meant that the butter market was effectively added two years later as an afterthought and was shared with the sale of poultry up to 1910.

The butter market was effectively accessed via a passageway to one side of the Corn Exchange. That passage from the Market Place in Spalding through to the river still exists and throughout my life time has been somewhat abused as a drunkards lavatory.

By the 1870’s some butter was starting to be sold via grocers shops in Spalding. This could be sourced from local producers or in some cases from the new creameries that were developing in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. We also see imports of lump butter – a blended butter lumped together from various producers and marketed by merchants from Ireland.

December 1876 saw the supply of butter and eggs in the Spalding district being very low. This increased prices to the benefit of smallholders. Unfortunately this was taken advantage of by some vendors:

“It is almost too bad, during the present prohibitory prices of butter and eggs, to hear that a host of ladies have been brought to task for selling butter at Spalding market lighter than the registered weight. Too much credit cannot be paid to the market inspector and the police for bringing these cases forward. They will undoubtedly act as a deterrant in the future, and the public will therefore reap the benefit. When we remember the heavy restrictions under which the grocers are placed in selling these articles, it is only right that the public should be protected against the duplicity or culpable ignorance of those who ought to know better than render themselves to such an exposure.”[iv]

The Butter Market of the 1870’s was recalled with the following account of skullduggery in the sale of butter:

“Spalding butter market was attended by large numbers of farmers wives and farmers’ daughters, selling butter. They had chairs for stalls, and the butter was placed on the chairs in a large basket, and the farmer’s wife or daughter stood behind the chair to dispose of her wares. A penny toll was charged for the privilege of so standing in the market.

The Market Inspector at that time would make periodical visits to the butter market to test the weights of the butter. He was accompanied by a man bearing weights and scales. The visit he would make would only by about once or twice a year, and no notice was given whatever of his coming. The sellers would suddenly find that the gates leading into the market were locked, so that no one could pass out. Then one pound in each bucket would be tested, and if found correct, it was decided pn the principle that “of one judge all” that the bulk might be passed.

On the occasion of one of these raids a lady, doubting there were sixteen ounces avoirdupois in her pounds, thrust half-a-crown into the top pound in her basket and awaited results. She thought she had not been observed, but her neighbour had witnessed the act, and later on came to her, picked up this particular pound of butter, and purchased it. It was in vain that the other protested she had better quality lower down the basket – the purchaser was satisfied with that particular one – and would not have another!

In the case of any short weight being discovered, the whole basket of butter was seized, but the sellers were never proceeded against. The confiscated butter was given to the poor.”[v]

By 1910 the processing and sale of milk and dairy in Britain was nearly thirty years behind other countries such as America, Holland, Germany and New Zealand despite some of the technology being used to milk cows and process dairy at scale being manufactured in Britain.

In 1911 we see Smiths at Monks House Farm, on the edge of the town of Spalding selling dairy as follows:

“For Sale, New Milk, wholesale and retail, to be fetched from the house at 8 o’clock in the morning and at 6 in the evening, for cash only; also fresh Butter and eggs – SMITH, Monks House, Spalding.”

The selling of butter and eggs in Spalding’s butter market is recalled by David Drury, born 1903 in Cowbit, recalling his childhood:

“Most people in Cowbit had a couple of cows, a few ducks and chickens. Travel in those days was by a horsedrawn coach which ran from Crowland to Spalding. They would go to Spalding Butter Market to sell their produce, eggs and butter, they would sit most of the day to get an extra ½ d. on a 1 lb. of butter or a dozen eggs.”

The selling of milk in bottles and pasturisation of milk did not establish themselves until the 1920’s, nearly forty years behind many countries as post War Britain sought to modernise its food.

The last accounts of butter being sold in Spalding Butter market that I have found have been in 1942 – I suspect that butter rationing in 1943 would see this end. I get the impression that this market space, whilst managed by men, was female dominated. As such, during May hirings, it was an ideal area for “all classes of maids” to be hired by Mrs Skinner’s Domestic Agency in 1922. Like all markets, it did not just supply an area for commerce, but also for social interaction. The decline of such places with their characters and dramas are a loss to society that rarely get replaced by an equivalent.

[i] The Complete Grazier 9th September 1796 [ii] The Complete Grazier 16th April 1767 [iii] Free Press 27th August 1850 [iv] Free Press January 18th 1876 [v] Spalding Guardian 1910

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