The pannier market was built in the 1840s and refurbished in the late 1990s.
Originally, Torrington market traders set up their stalls in the streets and the butchers sold their meat in an open courtyard at the rear of the town hall known as ‘the shambles’.
In 1842 £2,990 was raised and a proper market place was built to provide accommodation for the sale of farm produce, meat and fish which offered protection from the cold and wet days of the winter months. Facing the High Street was added a handsome hall with a gallery above the market arch. This large hall was let for lectures and exhibitions, the occasional ball and concerts, and in 1936 became the public library (until it moved to Castle Hill). The narrow market which was reached by passing under the arch was well used and had a good reputation for meat, poultry, butter and eggs from the two rows of stalls lining the central alley. The iron gates at the entrance were made by local blacksmith, Richard Baker. In 1892 the market was glassed over, mainly paid for by the Hon. Mark Rolle.
In the early days,goods for sale in the pannier market used to be brought in pannier bags slung over the sides of horses. Above the haberdashery to the left of the entrance can be seen the table of tolls and rent (printed in traditional old money).
An elderly lady who was a child in the 1930s remembers Saturday being market day at the pannier market where the farmers’ wives brought their eggs, chickens, rabbits, vegetables, honey, jams and other produce. She says the women were all dressed in their best clothes with spotless white aprons.
The original Victorian structure gradually deteriorated during the first half of the 20th century. Local legend has it that the glass roof was dismantled during the Second World War so that moonlight reflecting on it wouldn’t attract the attention of German bombers but the actual story is rather more prosaic. I was told that the pannier market was a smelly place because it wasn’t cleaned properly and the three butchers’ shops at the entrance added to the general stink. Taking the roof off freshened the market up a bit. After that the market was merely an unprepossessing lane of shabby cabins which were sealed up for much of the week when not open for trade.
In 1996 Torrington won a £1,000,000 award under the government’s Rural Challenge scheme to improve country areas. Torrington’s imaginative Genesis Project (a scheme devised by the Community Development Trust) included refurbishing the Castle Hill Hotel and putting in a Civil War Centre, tourist information centre, modernised library and an IT centre. The Victorian pannier market would be reconstructed and given a new glass roof.
The refurbished pannier market was officially opened in 1999 with about a dozen permanent shops, new public lavatories and a large hall to be used for different events.