Durham Market Place
Durham Market Place, the focal point of Durham City has medieval origins but features buildings of later periods. It is joined by Silver Street, Saddler Street, Claypath and the modern ‘High Street’ and hosts the Town Hall, Guildhall and three prominent statues reflecting aspects of Durham’s history.
The most prominent features are the Town Hall and Guildhall; church of St Nicholas and statues of Neptune and the third Marquess of Londonderry.
The spire of St Nicholas Church dominates the eastern side of the market place. It was built in 1858 by J.B. Pritchett, a Darlington architect and described by the Illustrated London News of the time as “the most beautiful specimen of church architecture in the north of England”.
This Victorian church of St Nicholas replaced an earlier church of St Nicholas that dated from the early part of the twelfth century. Unlike the present church this building had a tower rather than a spire.
In the early part of the nineteenth century its south front was covered by a market piazza. Part of the former cemetery of the church lies beneath the market place.
Neptune and the Marquess
The bare-bottomed statue of Neptune was originally placed in the market place in 1729 to cover an octagonal pant which provided water for the people in the city centre area. Water for the pant was supplied by pipe from the Fram Well at Crook Hall, which is across the river to the north east. Neptune was gifted to the City of Durham by George Bowes, MP of Streatlam and Gibside.
Neptune, the mythical Roman god of the sea, symbolised an ambitious plan to turn Durham into an inland sea port by altering the course of the River Wear. In 1720 the plan was to construct a canal north to join the River Team, a tributary of the Tyne near Gateshead. If the plan had got beyond the drawing board it would have resulted in the joining of the Tyne and Wear which was not what nature had intended.
In 1759 another plan was made to bring ships to Durham by making the river navigable from Durham to Sunderland. This would have needed considerable alterations to the river course, but in the event the increasing size of ships made the plan impractical so no work was ever carried out.
Today the only vestige of Durham as a potential sea port is the statue of Neptune who returned to his market place home in the 1990s. In 1923 the pant on which Neptune stood had been demolished and he was moved to Durham’s Wharton Park where he remained neglected for many years until his restoration and return to the market place in 1991, sixty eight years later.
Neptune’s equestrian neighbour in full view of the Town Hall and church is the electroplated-copper statue of the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. Unveiled on December 2nd 1861, it depicts the Marquess on horseback in grand hussar uniform.
The third marquess owned collieries in the vicinity of Durham City, owning land in the Gilesgate and Old Durham areas of the city, but he is principally famous as the builder of the Durham coal port of Seaham Harbour. The port of Seaham Harbour was founded in 1828 as a rival to Sunderland.
The Marquess of Londonderry’s full name was Charles William Vane Tempest Stewart and the sculptor of Londonderry’s statue in Durham was Signor Raphael Monti (1818-1881). Signor Monti did not, as is often thought, commit suicide following the discovery of a flaw in his creation by a blind beggar man.
Legend has it that Monti boasted that no one could find fault with his statue until one day a blind man pointed out that the horse had no tongue by feeling inside its mouth but this legend is precisely what it is: a legend, and the horse does actually have a tongue.
Town Hall and Guildhall
Durham Town Hall is modelled on a medieval hall and has an impressive hammerbeam roof but it is actually of Victorian origin (1851). The interior of the Guildhall to the left (the building with the balcony) dates partly from 1665 during the time of Bishop John Cosin but the first Guildhall had been built on this site in 1356.
From medieval times guild members adhered to strict rules and had certain ceremonial duties to perform such as parading in the annual Corpus Christi procession. They paraded their banners in the market place and then formed a procession to Palace Green where they were met by the prior and monks of Durham for whom they performed religious plays.
Durham received its first known city charter in 1179, followed by a second charter in 1565 and then a charter in 1602 that introduced the office of mayor who was elected by the guild members called Aldermen.
Inside the Guildhall are kept the ceremonial sword, city charter and official weights and measures of Durham City. Also here are the pikes of the mayor’s bodyguard, the Durham mayor being the only English mayor other than the Lord Mayor of London to have an appointed band of bodyguards.
Linking the Guildhall to the Town Hall is the Mayor’s Chamber, an oak panelled room with portraits of former mayors and dignitaries. The chamber dates from the 1500s and the panelling was added in 1752 by an Alderman George Bowes, who later became mayor. Bowes was an ancestor of our present Queen. The fireplace in the chamber dates from the 1600s and was originally in Durham’s Red Lion Inn, now Hatfield College in the Bailey.
Durham Town Hall and the neighbouring Market Hall stands on the site of New Place, the town house palace of the Neville family that stood here in medieval times and sometimes known as the Bull’s Head from their family emblem of a bull.
The Town Hall was built 1849-1851 along with the adjoining indoor markets by London architect Philip Charles Hardwick at the instigation of the then mayor, William Henderson, who owned Durham’s lucrative carpet weaving business.
Inside, the 72 feet long wood panelled hall of the Town Hall with its medieval looking hammerbeam roof 56 feet above is impressive inside. There are plaques all around the hall, the coats of arms of influential Durham families and several large portraits of mayors and other notables.
There’s also a striking stained glass depicting the guilds of the city in a Corpus Christi procession and another depicting the visit of Edward III to Durham Market Place where he show distributing money to the populace.
The Town Hall contains a case displaying some items of clothing and a violin which belonged to the Polish born ‘count’, Joseph Boruwlaski who was remarkable for many reasons, including the fact that his height from head to toe was only three feet and three inches.
Boruwlaski travelled widely throughout Europe in his early life. His ready wit, gift of mimicry and musical talents always attracted him friends and admirers including the young Marie Antionette who gave him a diamond ring while he entertained the court of the Austrian empire in Vienna. Boruwlaski made a number of visits to England and gained a particular affection for Durham which he called his “quiet place”.
In 1790 he finally retired here and quickly became one of the most notable members of Durham society making friends with a Shakespearian actor by the name of Stephen Kemble who was a resident of Durham. Kemble was a very big man who needed no padding when he played the part of Falstaff.
In each other’s company Boruwlawski and Kemble must have been something of a local curiosity. Count Boruwlawski died in Durham on the 5th September 1837 at the grand old age of ninety seven. For his fame he was granted burial in Durham Cathedral where his grave is simply marked with his initials ‘JB’.
Market to High Street
Associated with the development of the Victorian Town Hall in Durham Market Place was the opening of the indoor market and neighbouring Market Tavern. Both of these are still a feature of the market place today.
The Market Tavern, which faces out to the statue of the coal owning Marquess of Londonderry was the birthplace of the Durham Miners’ Union which was founded at a miners’ meeting held here on November 20, 1869.
Standing outside the Guildhall and near the market entrance is a statue dedicated to all the soldiers who served in the Durham Light Infantry. On the reverse of the plinth is a quote from General Montgomery of Alamenin: “There may be some Regiments as good but I know of none better”
Branching off from the Market Place are the historic streets of Silver Street and Saddler Street on one side and Claypath and High Street on the other. Saddler Street and Silver Street are historic streets connected to the market place but in truth Claypath has been slightly disconnected since the 1960s road developments and is linked to the market place today by a short bridge across the A690.
The nearby High Street is directly linked to the market place taking a V-shaped course that links the Claypath end of the market place to Saddler Street near Elvet Bridge. However, High Street is very much a street of modern origins, built as the focus for the Prince Bishop Shopping centre (now called Prince Bishops Place), as recently as 1999.
Saddler Street and Fleshergate
Saddler Street, known historically as Saddlergate joins the market place from the south and is the main route for tourists heading for Durham Cathedral.
Saddlergate was presumably the street where saddles were made and sold for horses but the lower part of the street which joins the market place was originally called ‘Fleshergate’ or ‘Flesh-Hewer-Rawe’.
This was the street that contained the butcher’s shambles as ‘flesh hewer’ was an old name for a butcher. In days gone by the flesh hewers slaughtered their cattle in this narrow street – a very unhealthy practice. Saddler Street does not really begin until a little further up where it splits into two, either side of the Magdalen Steps.
Up to this point the street should really be called Fleshergate. Saddler Street is in fact the street on the right hand side of the steps, while the street to the left leading to Elvet Bridge was known historically as Souter Peth. A souter was a shoemaker, so this street was the street of the cobblers.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Saddler Street was home to a succession of three theatres. The first and second of these were situated on the east side of the street accessible by an alleyway or ‘vennel’ that was named Drury Lane.
The rake of the auditorium followed the slope of the lane down to the river bank. The first theatre opened here in 1722 and was succeeded by a new one in 1771 which operated until 1785 when its lease was not renewed.
The third theatre was on the opposite side of the street and opened in 1792. It was also accessible by a vennel and opened behind an inn called The Lord Nelson, which was later renamed The Shakespeare. Its managers included the famed actor Stephen Kemble, who came to live in Durham.
He last performed at the theatre in 1822, shortly before his death. The theatre was destroyed by a fire in 1869 and was not reopened, but the Shakespeare pub which recalls its location is a still a familiar feature of Saddler Street.
In the eighteenth century the western side of Saddler Street near the entrance to Saddlers Yard was the site of a factory which produced the famous Durham mustard which was highly esteemed throughout the country for its pungency.
Its strength and taste were far superior to any mustard that had been produced before and this was all due to the discovery by an old Durham woman of the name Mrs Clements.
In 1720 Mrs Clements discovered a method for extracting the full flavour from mustard seed by grinding the seed in a mill and subjecting it to similar processes used in the making of flour from wheat. Mrs Clement’s mustard which was grown at Houghall, gained huge popularity throughout the country and after obtaining a patent from King George I she travelled to all the great towns of England to collect orders for her product, visiting London twice a year.
Later Mrs Clements mustard business passed into the hands of a Durham stationer called Ainsley but by this time Durham Mustard was facing increasing competition from cheaper brands like condiments imported from Germany.
Despite the foreign competition two other firms were producing mustard in Durham; J Balmborough in Silver Street and Simpson and Willan of Station Lane, Gilesgate. Later, by the 1870s mustard was made by another member of the Ainsley family in Waddington Street. Mustard is no longer produced in Durham today as the production of the original Durham mustard has passed into the hands of Colmans of Norwich.
The western side of Durham’s market place is joined by Silver Street which is one of the busiest shopping streets in the town. Today it is dominated by modern shop fronts but its narrowness is a reminder of its medieval origins.
Silver Street is said to acquire its name from being the one time site of a mint where unique Durham coins were produced in the days of the Prince Bishops although a mint is known to have existed at Palace Green.
Originally it may not all have been called Silver Street however, because lower down where it joins Framwellgate Bridge beneath the castle which towers above, it is thought to have been originally called Smith Gate – the part of the city occupied by blacksmiths.
Silver Street was once home to one of the wealthiest citizens of Durham called John Duck, whose house was demolished in 1963. His story closely resembles that of Dick Whittington. Duck’s early life remains a mystery but he is known to have arrived in Durham in 1655 with the intention of becoming a Butcher’s apprentice.
Duck approached every butcher in Durham but was refused work because he had no details of his place of birth. The concern seemed to be that he may be a Scot, and the employment of such was forbidden by the butcher’s guild.
When one butcher finally accepted to take Duck on, the Butcher’s Guild persuaded him to change his mind. Legend states that the dejected Mr Duck, in a state of misery was wandering by the river side in Durham pondering over his failure to gain an apprenticeship when a passing raven dropped a coin of gold at his feet.
Surtees, the Durham historian tells us that this coin was ‘to be the mother of a dozen more’ as with this gold coin John Duck went on to make his fortune, through how exactly is not altogether clear.
Evidence suggests that Duck was not always law abiding in the way he accumulated his wealth. He is known for example to have bought cattle from a livestock thief but we do not know enough to pass judgement on him as being corrupt.
By whatever means he made his fortune Duck went on to become one of the wealthiest men in Durham, owning both land and collieries in the area such as the Duck’s Main Colliery near Rainton. In 1680 he became the Mayor of Durham and ultimately progressed to the rank of a baronet when he became Sir John Duck of Haswell on the Hill.
Vennels, Back Lanes and Indoor Market
Narrow side passageways between buildings leading to yards or forming secret short cuts through the centre of town were once a common feature of Durham’s central area. Several still survive, some leading down to the river banks.
Most of the narrow alleyways in Durham are called ‘vennels’, an unusual old word that also crops up in parts of Scotland. Two narrow vennels on the north side of Silver Street lead into Back Silver Street and the associated Fowler’s Yard to the rear of the market place which can in turn be accessed by another narrow vennel near Walkergate in the north west corner of the market place near St Nicholas’ Church.
Fowler’s Yard is an attractive location that hosts a collection of independent outlets, mostly of the creative kind as well as an eating establishment and a tiny theatre utilised by a local dramatic society. Nearby are riverside houses and a back entrance to Durham’s indoor market.
The Durham indoor market occupying the New Place Town House of the Nevilles, Earls of Westmorland was built in 1849-51. In 1851 the Durham Markets company was established by Act of Parliament in 1851 and the market opened in 1852.
There are two entrances to the indoor market from the Market Place but the entrance from Fowlers Yard is less well-known. Although the old town house of the Nevilles was demolished to make way for these markets you almost get a sense of entering a great fortified stone house when you enter the markets here and ascend the stairs.
Heading back into Silver Street, the south side of the street has a further two vennel entrances that form Moatside Lane. This back lane runs along the outer edge of Durham Castle that looms high above the lane.
Moatside Lane links Silver Street to Saddler Street and bypasses the market place emerging next to Saddler Street’s Shakespeare pub. Nearby Moatside Court, in Saddler Street was another former entrance to this route.
Perhaps a better know vennel is the vennel near Vennels Café which leads into Saddler’s Yard. The yard has has two vennel entrances in Saddler Street and together form a quiet location of great character.
A little further south on the opposite side of the street is Drury Lane, the vennel connected with Durham’s former theatre. It descends steeply towards the river.