The Square
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The Square - Michael Tighe

THE SQUARE AND THE MARKET PLACE

We tend to think of the square in Mere as being the shopping centre but this is a fairly recent trend. For most of Mere's history people where largely self sufficient and in little need of retail shops. Originally it would have been the site of the agricultural market, then the centre of the stage coach trade and not until the last two centuries did shops proliferate.

In 1408 the King granted the right to have two week-long annual fairs at Mere.   But more importantly, the charter provided for a weekly market which established  Mere as a market town. A market house dominated the centre of the square and documents from the time suggest that he market house had a chapel, a shop and shambles - implying retail trade including the slaughter of cattle and the sale of meat.

A 19th C illustration of the Square

Showing the Market House in the middle of the square (later replaced by the Clock Tower), The Talbot Inn (the George) behind (rendered but without the later fake wood framing), the White Hart Inn on the right.

Photo: Mere Museum

The market house was a rectangular two-storey building with with substantial buttresses at the four corners.  At ground level were open archways which suggests that the ground floor may have been a covered market.

The first floor has a chimney and a triple window with a highly decorative panel above suggesting this may have been the chapel (later a school).

The fortunes of the corn and cattle market varied due to competition from nearby markets at  Gillingham, Shaftesbury, Wincanton, Warminster and Hindon. Perhaps as an inducement to attend, in 1800 the Old Ship offered a good 'ordinary' (for farmers?) lunch on market day at 1pm.

By the mid 19th C the market house was a ruin and was demolished and replaced by the present clock house.

 

 

Mere Market Place c. 1850

Based on an image by Colin Anderson

From about 1700-1850, the Square took centre stage when Mere became an important stop on the coaching route from London to Exeter. In 1760 an advertisement stated : “A Turnpike Road now runs through Mere and is the great road from Taunton and Exeter to London and is the nearest cross road from Blandford and Shaftesbury to Frome and Bath.” 

We know from Pigot's Directory of 1830 that the three coaches from London called at the Ship between 3 & 3.30 in the morning, and those from Barnstaple and Exeter to London at 10 pm & 1 & 4 am. Mere's position on the route was such that this was inevitable if departures from the termini were to be in daylight.  As a result, there must have been disturbed nights for those living in the Market Place, with the bustle of arriving and departing passengers, offloading of mail and the feeding and watering of horses and riders.

Four inns provided refreshment and accommodation to travellers. The George dates from the the 17th century; only recently has it acquired the mock Tudor facade we know. 

The White Hart Inn was a hostelry on and off between 1663 and 1860 (the site is now a Chinese takeaway). 

The Old Ship Hotel dates from 1711 and has a magnificent wrought-iron sign made by a local blacksmith and clockmaker. 

The Angel Inn occupied all the frontage from what is now the antique shop to the corner of Angel Lane. The Angel closed following  the collapse of the coaching trade in the mid 19th C.

This photograph, probably from the early part of the 20th C shows the cattle market with a weighbridge installed adjacent to the clock house.

Photo: Mere Museum

On the west side of the square stood the village stocks and a lock-up for keeping people overnight.

With increasing affluence traders forsook the simple weekly stalls around the Tower for permanent shop-buildings, usually having their living quarters behind and above.   These shops were naturally grouped around the original market area, and have continued  so to this day.  The centre of  Mere, however, from 1815 to the 1950’s, came to be dominated by a phenomenon almost unique for a small country town - the department store of Waltons’, which gradually absorbed most of the different shops in the Market Place.