In documents dated 1249 the town was known as ‘Villata de Chepyng Toriton’ (market town of Torrington) so there was already an officially recognised market at that time. The weekly Saturday market became widely regarded as one of the best in Devon.
An unattributed piece about Torrington in Tudor times describes the bustling market being full of vitality with ‘… good-humoured, noisy country folk selling their eggs and cheeses, apples and vegetables. Travelling tinkers and button-sellers, piemen, cider-sellers, showmen, bakers, cobblers, wool merchants, farmers hiring help, tricksters, thieves, fishmongers, scribes, barbers, tooth-pullers, apothecaries, carpenters – all these and more, drawing trade and wealth into the town.’
Before 1842 the pannier and cattle markets were held in the streets. New Street was converted into a cattle market and the iron rings to which animals were tied can still be seen fixed in the wall of the churchyard and some of the older houses. There also used to be strong wooden posts with cross-bars in front of many of the houses to keep the animals which were penned on the pavement from breaking the windows. George M. Doe, writing in the late 1920s, describes the scene: ‘Pandemonium reigned in the street – sometimes a bullock or cow ran amok through the crowd of dealers and others, scattering them in all directions.’
In the 19th century there was a Torrington Agricultural Association which organised shows known as the ‘Torrington Agricultural Exhibition’. In 1895 this was merged with the Devon County Show which used to be held in different venues around the county. In Torrington the show was held at Town Park (now built on) from 22nd – 24th May and the town council was paid two guineas for the use of the fields. The early years saw classes for cattle, horses, sheep (including shearing), pigs and a poultry show.
By the end of the 19th century both market traders and livestock dealers had proper permanent premises. In 1842 the pannier market was built at the southern end of the square and in 1890 part of the glebe land behind the vicarage and alongside School Lane was sold to the corporation for £120 and a cattle market was built at a cost of £1,000. This market was opened in 1892 for the regular monthly sale of livestock by Henry Slee, then mayor of the borough.
John Down remembers, when he was a boy, bringing his father’s sheep into the market from Chapple Farm out on the South Molton road between High Bullen and Atherington. On the day before market, it would take John and a farm worker around two and a half hours to walk about a hundred sheep to a field at Hatchmoor where they would leave them for the night. Then the following day they would bring the flock the rest of the way into Torrington along Calf Street to the market.
The swimming pool was built on the site in the early 1970s.