According to the September 1839 edition of Pigot and Co.’s Royal National and Commercial Directory and Topography of the counties of Essex, Herts and Middlesex, Wickford was simply a small village. Of trade “Wickford is destitute of interest, nor does it present anything to gratify curiosity”. Listed in the directory are a straw hat maker, bricklayer, shoemaker, boot maker, plumber and glazier, baker, blacksmith, wheelwright, veterinary surgeon, two shop keepers, a butcher and one combined shopkeeper and butcher. There was also a postmaster and the Castle Inn, but no market. By comparison the nearby market town of Billericay had seven bakers and Rayleigh had six. Of course, it is unlikely every trade person was listed, but that is probably true of all places. In 1831 the populations were 1977 for Billericay (with Great Burstead), 1339 for Rayleigh and 402 for Wickford. Wickford therefore appears to have been left behind in the growth stakes. In 1861 the population was still only 462 according to the Post Office Directory for 1867.
The future expansion of Wickford village, however, may have been helped by the 1860 sale of a stretch of land on what is now the east side of the High Street. The land covered the distance from the Castle Inn to the London Road and was divided into eleven plots deemed suitable for building, although the first buildings erected appear to have been mainly for residential use. The main catalyst for growth was the arrival of the railway from Shenfield which was opened to freight on November 19, 1888 and to passengers on January 1, 1889. The Southminster line was open to freight on June 1 the same year and the first passenger train ran on July 1. A few months later, on October 1, 1889, the Southend line opened to passengers as did the Maldon line. It then became possible to travel by train from Wickford to Maldon, via Woodham Ferries. The sleepy village of Wickford became more accessible.
A few years later, in 1894, a young Albert Ernest Clear, an enterprising auctioneer and estate agent based at the High Street in Maldon, saw the opportunity to set up a regular stock sale near the station at Wickford and a decade later traded as the Wickford Stock Sale Ltd. The son of Albert Prime Clear, also an auctioneer and estate agent, he had already been successful with stock auctions at Southminster and Witham. The site he had chosen was meadow land opposite the Castle but now the site of the arcade opposite the Aldi car park. Trading began on 17 September. There were 44 beasts and cows, 12 calves, 477 sheep, 17 horses and 23 pigs. The number of entries exceeded expectations and it was decided all future Wickford cattle markets would be held fortnightly. The venture went from strength to strength.
Shortly after Clear had established himself in the town, Thomas William Offin of Rayleigh began to trade at Wickford, too. Clear apparently tried to compete with Offin in Romford where Offin had traded for some 34 years. Offin was not impressed, took great exception to this, and, by his admission, decided to take on Clear at Wickford. Offin had sold cattle at Wickford as early as 1881 but on an ad hoc basis rather than at any regular market. He began trading regularly at Franklin’s Meadow on Monday 20 May 1895. It is not entirely clear where this was. At one time a member of the Franklin family had a meadow in the Runwell Road but the sales yard was adjacent to the railway station. It is unlikely Offin traded from the area opposite the Castle, as this was used by Clear. They both traded fortnightly, on a Monday. However, from July 14, 1902, Offin traded at Wickford every week. Clear did likewise from July 21. Monday was still their trading day. It would therefore appear that 1895 is the year when the market south of the railway came into being. It may have been 1902, but no evidence has come to light to suggest Offin had moved his enterprise. Certainly there were two cattle markets at Wickford in 1905 and this is supported by the number of cattle passing through the railway station (6,588). Passengers numbered 30,397.
Unfortunately Albert Clear met with a riding accident at Cold Norton on December 8, 1905. He was out riding with the Essex Hunt when his horse landed on him while jumping a five barred gate. Albert died a few days later on the 12th. Wickford Stock Sale Ltd, which was incorporated in 1905, continued to trade after Clear’s death until it entered voluntary liquidation on 13 November 1922 with H. V. Sorrell being appointed the liquidator. He traded from 38 Clarence Street, Southend. 1905 was also the time Thomas William Offin went into partnership with his old friend Herbert Arthur Rumsey, trading under Offin and Rumsey. That partnership was dissolved in 1913 when Thomas died. His son, Albert Wallis Offin took over the business. At the time he lived in Rayleigh but he later moved to ‘The Dingle’, Belmont Avenue, Wickford, which was his private residence when he died in 1934. Albert had farming experience, having farmed in South Africa during the 1890s.
The market site used by Offin and Rumsey, although originally rented to Franklin, was owned by George Alfred Brunwin, a landowner and farmer of 400 acres (1871) who was born at Wickford in 1835. His father was Samuel Brunwin, who had Stileman’s farm on lease. Samuel died in 1865. A memorial stone was erected in the Congregational Church graveyard, Runwell Road. George Brunwin lived at Rayne Braintree, and after his death his estate was auctioned with several of the Wickford lots bought by the Reverend David Jones Davies, the rector of North Benfleet. The lots included the weather boarded buildings on the west side of the High Street, east of the market and immediately south of the railway bridge. The occupants included Jephson (saddler and harness maker) and May (boot maker). Davies died in 1910 and the properties, including the cattle market area, were again put up for auction. Market Road, incidentally, giving access to the market, was in existence at least as early as 1911 and was probably there when Davies died.
Before Davies died, however, a furniture market was established next to the cattle market and the Chelmsford-based Rodd and Slipper set up a thriving poultry market. It was 1909 and the market area was described as ever-expanding, giving further indication the market site had been in existence for some time. By 1922 the average number of lots sold at the poultry market was 450 and the supply of eggs ran into the thousands. Wickford was seen as a main trading hub with sellers and buyers reported to have come from just about everywhere between the River Thames and the River Blackwater. Other notable sellers at the market were the Chelmsford based J. Brittain Pash Ltd (agricultural, dairy and tractor engineers) and H. and T. Godfrey (ropemakers). By this time the market had its stalls too, displaying food and clothing.
Interestingly, in 1929, a man from Plymouth found an unusual item on one of the Wickford stalls. This was an electro plated spade on which was carved the name of Mayor Edward James, with the date 1885. The spade was presented to him to commemorate the completion of the building of Roborough reservoir. No one knew how it got to Wickford. According to The Western Morning News and Mercury, it was hoped the spade could be recovered and placed in the Plymouth Room of the Municipal Museum. The man who discovered the spade at Wickford had actually attended the presentation ceremony when the Roborough reservoir was completed, which is how he came to recognise it.
Nearly a decade later it was thought the cattle market was under the threat of closure. In 1938 a meeting was held at the Public Hall in Wickford, where members of the Essex County Farmers Union and others were concerned by the introduction of the Livestock Industry Act and its implications for the Wickford Cattle market. At the time it was considered that in Great Britain 25,000,000 head of livestock were put through some 1,100 markets each year, with the average number passing through each market being less than 500 head per week. The Reorganising Commission stated that “one weakness of the existing system lies in the fact that competition for supplies is dispersed over too many places of sale, e.g. over too many farms, too many markets, too many auctioneers. Thus, too many livestock selling centres are not real and effective markets.” John Nesbit and John Gill, the chairman and secretary of the Wickford branch of the Union, said at the meeting that the market was an asset to Wickford, serving many smallholders and the business community in general. There was no evidence Wickford had actually been targeted for closure, which would have needed parliamentary approval, but it was suggested at the meeting that Wickford should act proactively and put a case for the market’s retention to the Ministry of Agriculture. A vote was cast for the same and this was approved unanimously. Wickford market survived, which may have been due their efforts or perhaps due to the start of World War II the following year.
However, shortly after the beginning of the war, in January 1940, and at a meeting of the Rayleigh Urban Council, a Mrs Cottee raised the issue of the alleged cruelty to the pigs at the Wickford Market on the first day they came under Government control. Councillor Cook, a farmer, said in order to allocate a number to each pig, pincers were applied to their ears. The pincers had between 40 to 60 half inch long needles in the form of numbers. Cook described the numbering process as barbaric and added the place looked like a slaughter house. Sir Robert Vaughan Gower, the chairman (and later president) of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), raised a question in the House of Commons. He asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he was aware of the alleged cruelty inflicted on the pigs at Wickford Market which were under the control of the Government. William Shepherd Morrison replied that inquiries were being made and that he would communicate with his honourable friend on the matter when he was able to do so.
The cattle market traded for another quarter of a century or so, alongside the general market which, after the closure of the cattle market, was replaced by Willowdale Centre and the car park in the early 1970s. The general market moved to a site immediately west of the High Street, behind the building which is now Poundland, but at the time Woolworth, and extended north to where the London Road Surgery is today. Market stalls are now set up in the busy High Street which was once a quiet village street. The Wickford landscape has changed considerably in the 181 years since the publication of Pigot’s directory.