Shambles Fire

The Shambles Fire 1896
Biggleswade Market Square

King Henry I granted the manor of Biggleswade and Holme to the Bishop of Lincoln in 1132. There was a Town Development Scheme between 1190 and 1200 when burgage plots rented at one shilling per year. These plots can still be identified on the modern Square.

There were two blocks of buildings in the centre known as The Shambles; one was of brick construction and the other wooden.

1896 started with the usual Horse Fair on 14th February. Unusually, there was no report in the Chronicle for this year so it can be assumed that everything passed off peacefully. The Great Northern Railway provided special trains for horses and people. With the town centre filled with horses, dealers, buyers, sellers, cheapjacks and onlookers, it must have been a very lively day.

The Shambles fire on 28th March was a significant event in the town’s history. It was thought to have been caused by an explosion of gas. The principal losers were Caleb Soundy who had a bootmaking factory and Robert Holmes a butcher were the principal losers.. The well under the town pump on the Square ran dry and hoses had to be connected right back to the river. At first it was thought to be a disaster but attitudes soon changed.

After the fire Ebenezer Chew photographed a wooden panel on the outside of the Shambles. It read as follows:

In the 12th year of the Reign of Charles II (1661). Account of Tolls payable at the Markets and Fairs of Biggleswade.

Upon Sale of every Horse on a Market or Fair within the Town Manor  4d

Upon every exchange of Horses                                    8d

Upon Sale of every Bull                                                     4d

Upon Sale of every Ox, Cow or Calf                              2d

Upon Sale of every score of Sheep                               4d

Upon Sale of every Sow and Pigs                                 4d

And on all Pigs each                                                           1d


According to size from 3 pence per foot upwards Two pence for pitching every sack or basket of Garden Stuff or any other

Commodity whatever set up upon the Market for Sale (except Grain)


Persons Hawking about any Commodity whatsoever on Market or Fair Day for sale. One penny each and if pitched Two-pence each. Also all Publick Notices whether Oral or Written, on every Market or Fair day within the said Manor to be by the Toll-Man Who is to clear away the Straw &c. Left on the Market Day.

At a Town Meeting in late September 1896, Charles Lindsell, Chairmen of the Urban District Council said that “from time immemorial these old buildings on the Market Place, the Shambles had been a great eyesore and a great nuisance to the parish (hear hear and applause). When the fire took place and they were partially burned down it was considered that it was a most convenient time to obtain the property for the parish”.

The Biggleswade Chronicle reported that the shambles and market rights had been purchased for £430.

When the Urban District Council were discussing the purchase of the Market Place the Clerk, Mr Hooper said that the shambles were in time past used as place where corn was deposited and sold at market and what remained unsold was stored till the following week, but latterly since corn had been sold by sample they were let permanently to people for purposes of trade. Included in the cost of making up the Market Place, which was lower than the surrounding ground and cesspits cellars and a well belonging to the buildings had to be filled in.

This poem was published on 26th December 1896:



For ages past, from time unknown,
Have stood the Shambles “on their own”
And like a cat, with nine lives good,
They lived them all and “still they stood!”

With tempers that have risen high,
And tradesman that have passed a sigh!
All, all, in vain, as though ‘twould
Be said in rhyme, that “still they stood!”

Hurrah! hurrah! the truth to tell!
One morn the cry of fire befell-
The time had come, the Shambles fire!!
You should have seen the Market Square!

And then the Town’s glad Council met
The opportunity to get!
To clear away those structures bold
And opportunities unfold.

Now comers, and the natives too,
Will compliment the Council’s view,
To open up what should have been.
The Shambles are at last, unseen!!

Who says not, “Hurrah”!


At the end of March 1897, there was reported

“The work of removing the woodwork of the Shambles has been speedily completed and about a dozen men have been employed in levelling the Market Place with the brickwork and brick rubbish and a large quantity of gravel. It now presents a neat and tidy appearance-in pleasing contrast to the recently existing unsightly erections.”

The first person to take advantage of this was James Harris the local showman who staged the Low Saturday Fair on April 24th1897.


will be held on the


On SATURDAY, APRIL 24th, 1897


Then followed a succession of fairs and circuses on the Market square until 1937 when the Square was improved for better traffic flow and the useful area reduced. A new enhancement scheme was completed in October 1988

Ken Page

20th August 2005