Birkenhead's Famous Indoor Market

Birkenhead’s original Wirral Markets was opened on what is now the site of the Town Hall, on 10th July 1835. The land was kindly donated by Francis Price, the building costing £4,400. The Market was then adequate for the town’s population of 2569. By 1841 the population had seen a dramatic growth to 8223, necessitating the opening of the ‘Old Market’ on 11th July 1845. The council paid £8154 for the land with a further £23,735 being spent on what was then Europe’s second largest market (St John’s in Liverpool being the biggest). The Market was constructed by Fox, Henderson & Co. who, six years later (1851), completed the Crystal Palace. Both splendid buildings, supposedly fireproof, came to the same end, the Crystal Palace caught fire in 1936 and the Market in 1969 and then again on 9th November 1974. The ‘Old Market clock’ faces were totally destroyed in the fire, but the original movement was saved and fully restored. The clock, dating back to when the ‘Old Market’ first opened, is once again the centre piece of Birkenhead Shops, starting up again 157 years to the day.  On either side of the clock can be found the Wirral coat of arms (Motto: By Faith & Foresight) and the Birkenhead coat of arms (Motto: Ubi Fides Ibi Lux Et Robur – Wherever there is faith there is also light & strength). Written by Chris Steele.

The Illustrated London News on April 3rd 1847 tells us that:

Meanwhile, we present our readers with a substantial specimen of the Birkenhead progress - the New Market, nearly approaching in extent the vast market of St. John's at Liverpool. In the Birkenhead structure, iron has been employed wherever available; and the result is great security combined with a more ornamental character than, under normal circumstances, have been attained.    

This is to the rear of the Market and was the outdoor section


Wirral councillors and officials met more than 100 shocked stallholders at a hurriedly called meeting at Birkenhead fire station last night following one of Merseyside's biggest ever blazes which totally destroyed the town's 129-year-old market hall on Saturday night.    No one was injured in the blaze which caused damage estimated at £2 million, but some of the traders - originally due to have been rehoused three years ago in the still uncompleted Grange Shopping Precinct - have lost stock worth thousands of pounds. It was in an attempt to keep in business that they met with council chief executive Mr Ian Holt and other representatives last night.

Alternative sites from which they could operate - including Woodside Lairage, Grange Road Sports Centre and the bus depot at New Ferry - were offered to the traders but they refused to make any decision and will meet again an Wednesday.    An inquiry is to be held into the cause of the fire which swept through the building on Saturday night. Arson has been ruled out but investigations are continuing. The alarm was raised shortly before 10 p.m. by two girls who dashed into the Hamilton Club below the market. More than 100 people were evacuated from the club while 14 fire-fighting appliances from all over Merseyside raced to the scene. But by the time the blaze was brought under control, only the shell of the building remained.

Hundreds of spectators turned up to watch the fire fighting and damping down which went on until mid-day yesterday. At the height of the blaze masonry and glass showered into the streets nearby. According to a fire brigade spokesman there was never any hope of saving the building which was also damaged by fire in 1969. "The fire had got a good hold when arrived." he said "It obviously spread rapidly before penetrating the outer walls and being spotted." 

Last night all entrances to the market were sealed off by the police because of a danger of the outer walls of the building collapsing. The Hamilton club was flooded with six inches of water and the owners said it was unlikely they would be reopening there. The market hall was equipped with fire alarms but these were not of the automatic type and would have to have been set of manually and there was no automatic link between the building and Birkenhead fire station.  Provision is to be made for such a link in the multimillion pound Grange centre which is due to open in 1976. 

A catastrophe, say the stallholders

As stall-holders begin to count the cost of the fire which destroyed Birkenhead's historic market hall, investigations will continue today into the cause of the blaze.  Scores of stalls and tons of produce were destroyed at a time when the traders would be hoping to take advantage of increasing business during the Christmas build-up. Traders at the market last night described the fire as 'catastrophic' and many were too shocked to discuss their future. One, Mr Charles Russell, of Upton, who ran a cooked meat stall, said: "I feel as though I were in the middle of a nightmare. I have lost in the region of £6,000 in stock and equipment, but the fire brigade managed to save £200 in cash from a safe at my stall."  Butcher, Mr Bill Baker, of District Butchers who operate several stores on the market, was last night desperately trying to get in touch with his company director who is abroad at a business conference.  "I don't know how much we have lost as yet" he said. Another butcher only last week stocked his stall with extra meat for the Christmas period. "I have now lost it all and it has cost me about £5,000" he said.  Urgent efforts are being made to find alternative accommodation for the traders.  But after the meeting last night between the traders and Wirral council representatives at which no agreement was reached, the stallholders will discuss the situation again on Wednesday and will have another meeting with the council at the end of the week.

Memories of blitz as wind fanned the flames

A DAILY POST reporter watching from the roof of a building only ten yards from the blaze as firemen fought it said "This was the biggest fire I have reported in more than 40 years experience.  It reminded one of the wartime blitz fires and, in particular, the one which engulfed the old Custom house in Liverpool which could be seen for miles.  "The glow from the blazing market could be seen from all the high points in Wirral and the bird's-eye view from short range was astonishing. "The one-acre area of the market hall was literally a sea of flame and at times the water sprayed down by firemen gave the effect of geysers in action with steam and smoke rising more than 50 feet into the air.  "While firemen battled to control the blaze from all vantage points, some of them perched on turntable ladders within a very short distance of the doomed building, were eerily lit against the orange background. "A near-gale wind carried the flames from the old Haymarket area of the town diagonally across the market hall, one of the town's prized Victorian buildings and an outstanding example of the brick architecture and design of that period."  


Fortunes have been made and found on market stalls, but one of the most famous success stories must be that of Marks and Spencer, who were tenants in the market hall at Birkenhead for years. Michael Marks first set up a market stall at Leeds in the 1890's and moved to Birkenhead open market in 1901. He amalgamated with Spencer and they were allocated stall numbers 11 and 12 in the centre aisle in 1903. There they opened the famous Penny Bazaar which eventually led to Marks and Spencer. The company left the Birkenhead stalls on February 24, 1923.