In the 13th century Wolverhampton became a prosperous market town catering for the surrounding area. A market has been in existence in the town since before 1204 when the market day was moved from Sunday to Wednesday. In 1258 King Henry III granted the town the right to hold a weekly market every Wednesday and an annual fair. The Charter was confirmed some years later by Edward III.

The market was a great success and large numbers of sheep and cattle were regularly herded into Wolverhampton. By the 19th century overcrowding was becoming a big problem due to the lack of suitable accommodation for the livestock that choked the town centre during market days. Cattle were herded into High Green, which was already overcrowded with market stalls and greatly added to the general chaos.

The Wolverhampton horse market was held in Horse Fair, which ran along present day Wulfruna Street, turned right into St. Peter’s Square and then left behind the Civic Centre into North Street opposite Giffard House. Horse Fair was a street full of ale houses and against St. Peter’s Church wall stood the parish stocks. Drunkenness and brawling were common events and on market days the parish beadle, dressed in official livery, oversaw the drunks who would usually be secured in the stocks for several hours.

The sheep and pig market was held in Dudley Street. Droves of Irish pigs and Welsh sheep filled the street making it almost impossible for anyone to get to the market. To remedy this problem the Town Commissioners purchased a piece of land called “The Fenlands”, which ran between Dudley Street and Queen Street, and the sheep and pigs were moved there.

Because of the cramped conditions in High Green, the market expanded into Lichfield Street and Darlington Street, and both of these streets were blocked by butcher’s stalls and a poultry market. Large quantities of bad meat was on sale, particularly veal, and horse steaks which were sold as prime beef, clearly something had to be done to resolve the situation.

In order to alleviate the problem, the Duke of Cleveland approached the Town Commissioners with a proposal for a cattle market on open land in Cleveland Road, next to St. George’s Church, where the ring road is today. 

He proposed that the market would be for all types of livestock, which in an average month amounted to 3,400 sheep, 2,600 pigs, 1,000 cows and calves, and 600 horses. 

The proposal, made in 1847 was accepted and a new cattle market, designed by Edward Banks was opened in time for the July 1848 fair. In 1856 the Fat Pig Market was opened on adjoining land. It had stabling for 800 pigs.  

The market was very successful until 1865 when there was an outbreak of cattle plague throughout the country. As part of the preventative measures, cattle dealers had to obtain a certificate showing that the cattle they wished to bring to market were plague-free; and when cattle were brought to market they had to be slaughtered before they were removed. When these regulations came into force, trade at the cattle market almost ceased and the market was soon in a deep financial crisis. The Mayor, Alderman Crowther Smith called a special meeting of the Council and expressed his anxiety for the future. A deputation was sent to the Home Secretary and he was persuaded to alter the legislation so that cattle brought into Wolverhampton could be removed to a neighbouring town for slaughter. This resolved the situation and the disease finally disappeared in1866.

The Market was held weekly for the sale of Horses and Cattle and in its earlier years was reputed to be one of the largest and best attended in the country. In the early 1870s as many as 220 Horses, 550 Cows, 3,000 Sheep and Lambs, 1,500 Pigs and 900 Calves were sold weekly.

In 1929 the Municipal Abattoir, covering a little over one and a half acres and costing just over £72,000, opened on part of the site. 

The Cleveland Road entrance in the 1970s. Courtesy of David Clare.
At this time the Municipal Cattle Market was in decline and it eventually closed, but its role was taken-over by two privately owned concerns in Bilston Street, near the abattoir.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday cattle would be unloaded from trains at the Great Western Railway Goods Yard. The horses, cows and pigs were driven up Stafford Street and through the town. On Wednesday, which was market day, cattle could be coming and going all day and sometimes they got out of control and ran wild through the town centre. Cattle didn’t only arrive by train, many arrived in cattle waggons which would choke the surrounding streets.

The abattoir included a by-products plant, cold store and ice making plant and was responsible for providing slaughtering facilities, processing meat for human consumption, handling inedible offals and condemned meat, and the proper storage accommodation for carcases, particularly during warm weather. Accommodation was also available for cattle awaiting slaughter and by-products were manufactured using a waste elimination plant.

The carcase store at the Corporation Abattoir.

The animals were humanely despatched with the aid of mechanical devices and after being dressed, electrically operated winches and hand hoists provided a means of conveying the carcases by an overhead track system to the different parts of the slaughterhouse and market. Hot water used in the slaughterhouse during the dressing process was provided by a Lancashire boiler, which also supplied the canteen and the by-products plant.

The by-products produced were fertiliser from dried blood, fat and grease for the soap industry, commercial grease, and animal foodstuff made from powdered meat and bone. In the cold store, refrigeration was carried out using an ammonia compressor. There was a cold storage space of 80,000 cubic feet, which was mainly used for storing meat, butter, cheese, eggs, fruit juices and dried milk. Facilities for the storage of fruit, vegetables, milk, steel cylinders for export, and machinery were also available. There were also special low temperature facilities for the storage of organs for further processing into medical supplies and an area for the private storage of poultry, game, etc. Bacon curing was undertaken and an ice-making plant manufactured ice for commercial use.

The cattle market and abattoir were a well known feature on the eastern side of the town centre until the early 1970s, when the whole area was redeveloped to make way for the ring road. The last auction was held in November 1970. When the market and abattoir finally closed their doors for the last time, the long tradition of cattle trading in Wolverhampton was lost forever.

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