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How the King’s Lynn Mart was placed in peril by past plagues

todayFebruary 13, 2021 10

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Today should have seen hundreds gather in the Tuesday Market Place to celebrate the opening of the 2021 Lynn Mart

Like many other major public events planned over the coming months, it has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But, although it’s the first time the fair has been cancelled since the Second World War, it certainly isn’t an unusual occurrence throughout its long history.

The Mart in King's Lynn.. (29896373)
The Mart in King’s Lynn.. (29896373)

Here, in this special feature, Lynn historian DR PAUL RICHARDS looks at how past plagues placed the Mart in regular peril.

When Bishop’s Lynn became King’s Lynn by Act of Parliament in 1537, its two medieval fairs were not forgotten. The Corporation was given the right to hold a fair on 3rd February and another on 16th August (both Christian or Holy Feast Days).

All shops not hired by traders were closed during the fairs which both lasted six days.

How Lynn's Tuesday Market Place looked during the Mart of 1690 (44370592)
How Lynn’s Tuesday Market Place looked during the Mart of 1690 (44370592)

Their opening by the mayor and Corporation in “comely” black gowns were major civic events as the town’s population probably doubled from about 5,000 to 10,000 for the duration. An ideal scenario for spreading the plague!

Though fairs included a variety of entertainments, they were mainly commercial events until the 19th century, where traders sold household goods, clothing, ironware and luxury items.

Between 1570 and 1670 the English population increased from around three to five million but it is estimated that 650,000 died of the plague.

As a large port town Lynn frequently suffered from outbreaks which could last several months. The Corporation responded to the epidemics by closing the town gates to all inward traffic and isolating victims in their houses (stay at home) as well as organising food supplies (especially rye bread) to sick and impoverished townspeople.

Lynn's old East Gate, shown here before it was demolished in 1800, was closed to traffic during times of plague (44398023)
Lynn’s old East Gate, shown here before it was demolished in 1800, was closed to traffic during times of plague (44398023)

The dead were buried as soon as possible. Cats and dogs were shot as likely to spread the plague (guard dogs excepted).

The Town Hall appointed wardens to enforce official regulations and the bellman patrolled the streets to warn residents.

The onset of the plague was naturally a disaster for the town’s economy as death rates and sickness increased with unemployment as workplaces and taverns closed.

Part of the old Lynn town wall (44398043)
Part of the old Lynn town wall (44398043)

Lynn’s weekly markets seem to have continued for healthy citizens who had no other access to food supplies (daily fish catches by the Northenders were invaluable).

Neither of Lynn’s fairs were held in 1540 because of the plague as the town was “greatly afflicted” with “hot burning agues and fluxes”. In 1541 an Act of Parliament supported by Cambridge and other inland towns suppressed both Lynn fairs seen as causing too much economic damage to others.

But in 1559 another Act restored the February fair after the Corporation petitioned the Crown. It became known as Lynn Mart.

By the 1560s the whole length of Norfolk Street from High Street to the East Gate was occupied by booths and shops rented to traders from all over eastern England. In his 1577 Description of England, William Harrison compares “Lin Mart” with St Bart’s in London and Sturbridge near Cambridge as amongst Europe’s greatest fairs.

How the Tuesday Market Place looked a year ago at the start of the Mart.
How the Tuesday Market Place looked a year ago at the start of the Mart.

Following an outbreak of the plague in 1584 the aldermen were requested to report the needs of plague victims to the mayor and a tax levied for their relief to include fees for a surgeon.

Because of the overcrowding in Norfolk Street the February Mart was moved to the Tuesday Market Place (it is not clear whether it took place in 1585). Social distancing was not invented by local authorities in 2020!

Plague struck the town again in 1597/98 and probably 10 per cent of its population of around 6,000 died as a result. Over 200 citizens were interred in St James burial ground alone.

Here was the town workhouse where the sick were hospitalised (an old window stands in the nursery school playground in St James Park). No Mart could have been held in February 1598.

Dr Paul Richards, left, and Nipper Appleton at the opening ceremony of an exhibition on the King's Lynn Mart at True's Yard Fisherfolk Museum in 2019.
Dr Paul Richards, left, and Nipper Appleton at the opening ceremony of an exhibition on the King’s Lynn Mart at True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum in 2019.

In 1602 the plague revisited Lynn, though it was concentrated in the North End near St Nicholas Chapel. In October the Corporation ordered that residents in the area must remain isolated and food conveyed to them. The epidemic seems to have disappeared to allow the February Mart in 1603.

The plague returned in July 1610 when the Grammar School was “broken up” to stop the spread of the disease.

H.J. Hillen, in his 1907 borough history, tells us that the Lynn Mart in 1625 was “discontinued” because of the plague. Yet alarm at the approach of the epidemic is not recorded in the Corporation minutes until July with news from London.

The mayor ordered the town gates to be closed to likely plague carriers and a watch kept at the waterside to prevent sailors disembarking from vessels. The innkeepers were told not to accommodate people from other towns or their premises would be “shutt up”. Special prayers were to be said in the churches on Mondays for deliverance from the disease. Once the epidemic had ceased the Lynn Corporation invited London wholesalers to attend the February Mart in 1626.

Opening of King's Lynn Mart. (6729269)
Opening of King’s Lynn Mart. (6729269)

In April 1630 the outbreak of the plague in Cambridge and other towns caused the Corporation to close the town gates to all incoming traffic. In June the epidemic arrived in Lynn but by November it had gone.

In 1636 the February Mart took place but in May the Corporation received the alarming news that “the pestilent sickness” was raging at Newcastle. Its colliers sailed to Lynn in convoy to deliver their cargoes for distribution up river by boat to eight English counties.

For the town’s protection no person from Newcastle or other “infected place” was allowed to come ashore for 14 days.

The porters employed by the Corporation to load and unload ships kept watch to prevent the landings of both sailors and goods. Ships were taxed to help pay for the relief of Lynn’s poor. The Corporation appealed to the King’s Privy Council not to demand money for royal navy ships as the town was “distressed”.

In the summer of 1636 pesthouses or wooden booths were erected outside the town walls for plague victims. A doctor “of physic” called Samuel Barron was paid by the Town Hall to treat the sick until it “pleased God” to end the epidemic.

Traders from London and other towns were told not to travel to Lynn Mart. In January 1637 the Corporation confirmed that it was to be “put off this year”. Not until May 1637 had the plague sufficiently subsided for all orders to contain it to be cancelled.

The Mart as seen from the Booster ride in 2008.
The Mart as seen from the Booster ride in 2008.

During the Civil War the town was besieged by the Parliamentary army in August and September 1643, but the February Mart was held in 1643 and 1644.

In February 1645 armed guards were stationed at the town gates to keep out “rogues and vagabonds” as well as sick people at the time of the Mart. Not until April 1645 did news come of the outbreak of plague in Sunderland whose colliers frequented Lynn.

Ships arriving at Lynn from home and foreign ports were being quarantined by September either in the River Nar or along the west bank of the Great Ouse. Sheds or booths to house the sick were again erected against the town walls and in December the Corporation noted that traders were “forsaking” the town. No Mart could have been held in February 1646.

The epidemic persisted over 1645/46. On 14th October 1646 church bells throughout England rang out on a designated “thanksgiving day” as the plague had finally disappeared from the Kingdom.

Lynn was no exception. It had struggled to maintain the garrison stationed in the town following the surrender to the Parliamentary army in 1643 as well as the hundreds of sick poor. The Lynn Mart was back in February 1647.

The Mart in King's Lynn.. (29896370)
The Mart in King’s Lynn.. (29896370)

The Lynn Mart was held in February 1665 but by June the plague had devastated the City of London with 10,000 dead by December. The epidemic had engulfed the town by September and its gates were shut to all incoming traffic.

Boats from Cambridge and Peterborough were prevented from landing goods on Lynn’s quays. Sheds and booths were again erected against the town walls “to entertayne” infected people. Their relatives were warned to stay away to stop the spread of the disease and Moses Hurst was one of the guards armed with a musket to deter such visitors. London traders were informed in October 1665 that there would be no Lynn Mart in February 1666.

Apart from 1597/98 and 1665/66 the death rate in Lynn during the frequent epidemics was not high but hundreds fell sick and the labouring poor suffered even more from want.

The Corporation organised emergency food supplies. The great February Mart was a not infrequent casualty.

English urban populations were traumatised by the plague. The last major outbreak was in 1665/66 but as late as September 1743 the Corporation was alarmed that ships were sailing to Lynn from European ports affected by the plague so measures were immediately taken to quarantine vessels.

The mayor declared that “the inseparable companions” of the plague were “famine and desolation”.

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