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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Market Square in Cambridge

What is Market Square?

Market Square is a historic cobbled square in Cambridge where a market has operated since the Middle Ages.

Market Square Cambridge

Market Square History

Brightly coloured fruit glisten on the market stalls, stacked in gleaming rows. The smells of roasted coffee, steamed dumplings, and freshly baked bread waft over as you approach. The sounds of people browsing arts and crafts, fixing bicycles, and leisurely lunching percolate around the square. You’ve arrived at Market Hill. The square commands the centre of Cambridge, and its outdoor market has existed since the early medieval Saxons, and it continues to be the city’s beating heart.

On its west side is Great St Mary’s, Cambridge University’s church. Note the university’s clock, set above the West Door, which chimes ‘Cambridge Quarters’, the melody that was later used by Big Ben in Elizabeth Tower in London. On the square’s south side sits the 1939 Guildhall, the city’s seat of government. Above this door, you can see the city’s coat of arms, with its distinctive seahorses. In the 13th century, the site was used as a prison, a synagogue, a Franciscan convent, and finally a tollbooth, charging those entering and trading in the city. The current structure replaced two buildings that were connected by a wooden bridge which crossed Butter Row, a lane where the stalls for dairy produce stood.

Two streets, in particular, retain the area’s historic links to food: Peas Hill on the west side of the Guildhall going south; and Petty Cury on its east side, continuing east to the modern shopping mall, Lion Yard. Peas Hill is most likely an evolution from pisces (‘fish’ in Latin), as the slope led to the city’s fish market on the river. Cury refers not to an Indian dish, but the medieval English term for cooking. Petty Cury, referenced by the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys, probably refers to ‘Petit’, or little, ‘cooks’ row’, and was where numerous bakers’ stalls were situated. Butchers’ Row, which contained the city’s meat market, is now called Guildhall Street.

The most interesting feature of Market Square is nestled amongst the stalls. In the middle is a low inconspicuous fountain, but you’d be unable to wash your hands or drink the water: the flow has been cut off since the mid-20th century. You may also be a little underwhelmed by what remains of this once ornate neo-Gothic gabled fountain, erected in the mid-19th century and pulled down 100 years later after the stone canopy became unstable. The original fountain was completed in 1614 and was part of the celebrated Hobson’s Conduit. Thomas Hobson, the enterprising businessman who operated a profitable livery stable and managed the mail and passenger carrier route between London and Cambridge, has gone down in history a miserly penny-pincher. However, though miserly, Hobson also bequeathed a manmade watercourse to provide fresh drinking water to the city. You can still see it running in sluices alongside Trumpington Street, though it used to flow all the way to Market Hill. The original hexagonal fountain was removed after a fire in 1849 and can now be seen at the corner where Trumpington Road turns onto Lensfield Road.

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