Two go mad and sell cards and books at a packed artisan market in Victoria Market Hall, Stalybridge
“…But London is out of comparison quite with Stalybridge Market on a Saturday night…”
– Stalybridge Market, The Fivepenny Piece (1973).
Much of the disappointment of some readers or visitors, there were no cockles and mussels for sale. Nor black pudding sausages, cowheels and tripe. There was vegan-friendly bath bombs and hand-crafted pens that you couldn’t get in 1973, let alone 1873. There was probably a good fish stall in 1973 – maybe the same one that yours truly remembers in his formative years in the 1980s.
Twenty years ago today, Stalybridge was in a period of transition. Work had yet to begin on the Armentieres Square section of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. CTP James, the landowners of the former Aerialite/Delta Crompton works at the time, had yet to begin demolishing the site for TESCO. Stalybridge Market, we would later find, was weeks away from closing after attempts to find a third party operator failed.
It was envisaged that the smaller retail hall would be leased to a private sector contractor. At the time, there was rumours of the Victoria Market Hall becoming a Wetherspoons or a new unit for TESCO.
Twenty years ago, the retail hall was in a depressing state. In some quarters, retail markets were seen as a declining market, serving a hard core of local customers. In Stalybridge, many of the stallholders transferred their business to Ashton and Hyde markets. Some took on shop units in the centre of Stalybridge.
Fast forwarding the story to 2019, the people of Stalybridge could have been shopping in a general purpose retail market, had plans to lease the retail hall to another operator succeeded. A stallholders’ cooperative could have been considered. This was the case with Grey Mare Lane and Newton Heath open markets, though a short lived one.
In Heywood, they succeeded when a trust was set up to save the town’s indoor market from closure. As Heywood MAGIC Market, the traders’ trust was set up in 2003. It is still going today, open three times a week (their story is also worth a read). Had this been the case with Stalybridge Market, we probably would have been talking about Brexit or The Mighty ‘Bridge over a bacon butty and Horlicks in the café by the third entrance.
On the other hand, we wouldn’t have been able to talk about what has been up to now a great year for the Victoria Market Hall. The Royal Exchange’s pop-up theatre was among this year’s highlights. There has also been a few Artisan Markets in the hall this year, but today’s market was something special.
There are two reasons as to why today’s market [16 November 2019] was special. Firstly, today was Stalybridge’s turn for its Christmas lights switch-on. The market was a focal point of today’s extravaganza, which included fairground rides, live music, and the Lantern Parade.
My second reason is partly a personal one. I was in the Victoria Market Hall from 11am to 5pm with a cousin of mine who was selling four books she had written. Two of which focused on Robert Reschid Stanley, a working-class Northern man who became the Mayor of Stalybridge from 1874 to 1876. A Conservative mayor, back when Benjamin Disraeli instead of Boris Johnson was the intellectual heart of a then, more paternalistic civic-minded party. Also one of the earliest English converts to Islam.
Robert Reschid Stanley is the three-times great grandfather of author Christina Longden, and the subject of two books (His Own Man: A Victorian ‘Hidden’ Muslim and Imagining Robert). Whilst Mayor of Stalybridge, his own legacy includes the Victoria Market Hall and the John Nield Conservatory in Stamford Park.
Here’s where I come in.
Apart from the family ties, I was asked to design a Christmas card for a local group that aims to save the John Nield Conservatory from demolition. They were sold in packs of ten for a fiver. By 4.40pm, the last pack of ten cards was sold.
With the three-times great granddaughter of Robert Reschid Stanley (and her cousin) selling their wares, this would be described as ‘meta’ in today’s parlance. In the same way as The Pet Shop Boys’ I Want A Dog would be described as ‘meta’. Or Ian Moor impersonating Chris de Burgh in the Stars In Their Eyes Grand Final, whilst Chris de Burgh himself makes a cameo appearance in Granada’s Quay Street studios.
Iiiiiit’s (not quite) Christttttmaaaaaassss (yet)…!
Apart from being a good day for the sale of campaign-led Christmas cards and my cousin’s four books, there was a fantastic atmosphere in the Victoria Market Hall. From 11am up to 5pm, it was all go. The café, opposite our stall, was by far the busiest stall and sold deli-style food at Stalybridge prices instead of Altrincham prices. There was also bottled beer for sale – again at realistic prices alongside the mulled wine.
Whether you like chocolates with a badge of your favourite football team or fancy a hand-crafted ballpoint pen, there was plenty of scope for unique Christmas gift. Jeni Harney’s photographic prints (using proper film – 35mm, medium format and sheet film) were fantastic. The vegan-friendly bath bombs were at least the equal of some by a well-known organic beauty store chain.
Deservedly so, the stallholders were rewarded with high footfall. Many of the gifts, as well as being on the right side of affordable for many shoppers, were unique. You could be sure that hardly any of the items at Stalybridge Artisan Market would have been seen on The World’s Favourite Tax-Dodging Online Retailer and Media Player.
More so than anything, the people made November’s Artisan Market a special occasion. It gave the shoppers a suitable alternative to out of town shopping centres, to staying at home, or going to Ashton. With the fairground on Armentieres Square, Lantern Parade and the lights switch-on, it was great to see Stalybridge in the spotlight.
Stalybridge is for life, not just for Christmas…
With its phenomenal history, Stalybridge has to lot to offer. Today, its latest artisan market coupled with Christmas events proved that people would come to the town if there’s enough events on to hold their attention. The town that Does Things Differently To That Other Place That Does Things Differently is at its best when offering a unique visitor experience. One that enhances the town’s distinctive identity, commercially and historically.
The Victoria Market Hall – Stalybridge Civic Hall if you prefer – should play a key part. From what I have seen today, there is clearly a market for a weekly Saturday market. An artisan market on a once-monthly basis is a little infrequent for casual visitors. What about the other three Saturdays in a lunar month where the exhibition hall of Stalybridge Civic Hall is empty? Perhaps we could consider this possibility, using June 2020 as an example:
- 06 June 2020: Collectors’ Market;
- 13 June 2020: Artisan Market;
- 20 June 2020: Farmers’ Market;
- 27 June 2020: Book Market.
The first three have been held in Stalybridge over the last five years. Historically, Stalybridge’s Farmers’ Market (like its more illustrious neighbour in Ashton-under-Lyne) has been held on Sundays. As there are fewer shops open and fewer buses in Stalybridge during shopping hours on Sundays, this limits footfall. Whether Little Owl Events’ present markets or MWL Events’ previous ones in 2013 and 2014, Saturdays have been advantageous to the success of Stalybridge’s craft markets.
Collectors’ and antiques markets were held in 2014. Sadly, they didn’t have the same staying power as the Farmers’ and Artisanal markets have done. With the town’s more recent appearances on Dickinson’s Real Deal (and a future Historical Quarter), this idea may be worth revisiting.
As far as I know, I don’t think that Stalybridge, nor the rest of Tameside has ever had a one-off market for bibliophiles. As well as the sale of new and used books by various stallholders, there could be scope for live poetry readings. Or the reading of children’s books outside library hours. Also a marketplace for up-and-coming local authors or more established ones and, potentially, cross-promotion with Tameside Libraries. With the lack of bookshops in Tameside, the borough’s bibliophiles need a bit more love.
From my observations, a weekly Saturday market – offering something totally different to Ashton and Hyde markets – would be a suitable option for Stalybridge. Today’s shoppers fancy something different to the usual fare, albeit at a most affordable price. A revived, once weekly Stalybridge Market could be a start.
For another chance to purchase my commissioned Christmas cards, you can visit the Dukinfield Allotments Indoor Craft Fair, off Lodge Lane on the 23 and 24 November 2019 (11am to 3pm). If you are catching the bus, the 41 and 346 routes stop outside the venue; it is the stop after the Albion Hotel (to Hyde or Yew Tree Estate) or after The Lodge Hotel (to Ashton).
S.V., 16 November 2019.