The Cheese Market was built around 1835 on the site of a pre-17th century guildhall. At that time, the castle steps ran from the Norman tower to the street and people walked through the market hall down into High Town. Cottages and shops extended up Castle Street from the hall and a tavern dominated what is now Memorial Square.
Hay was founded by Bernard de Neufmarché as a fortified town, taking its’ name from the Norman French ‘La Haie’ meaning hedged enclosure; the Welsh Y Gelli means copse or wooded enclosure. The borderlands were ruled by independent lords until Wales and England united in 1536. The town of Hay stands within ancient walls extant in several places, built circa 1236, after two centuries of border battles.
Stone lithograph of Hay, 1830
Cheese Market steps, Market Day, c1885
The Industrial Revolution in Hay
Sir Joseph Bailey (1783-1858), wealthy baronet, iron-master, landowner and MP, resided in Hay Castle and later became Lord of the Manor of Hay. In 1826 he bought the Glanusk Estate, where his descendants still live.
In 1833 he commissioned the rebuilding of the Town Hall, described as a ‘neat and substantial building … which consists of an upper room with an open space below, supported on pillars, used as a cheese market’. Bailey also bequeathed to Hay in 1887 a riverside walk, still popular today, following the Wye upstream from Hay Bridge to the conservation area at The Warren.
The Bailey Family coat of arms
A Multi Purpose Venue
The building was constructed as a twin-arched market hall, with a meeting room upstairs. Here, the Lord of the Manor’s Court received taxes and fines from tenant farmers and market traders. Events such as a ventriloquist show in 1839 and its use as a theatre from 1841 indicate that it was enjoyed as an arts and entertainment centre from its inception.
Between 1842 and 1845 it became a chapel used by a missionary from Madagascar, Mr Griffiths. In 1861 a public meeting to discuss the demolition of the Hay Bridge toll gate broke up in pandemonium. From 1895 it operated as a Masonic Hall and later a Catholic Church. The first floor meeting room has now been converted into holiday accommodation.
Poster, January 1841
The Age of the Train
While Sir Joseph Bailey was rebuilding the Cheese Market, great changes were happening. In 1837 the workhouse was built near St Mary’s Church and the National School set up next door.
From 1849 pauper children were accepted there instead of going to the workhouse which today are the flats at Union Mews. In 1864 the Kington to Brecon horse-drawn tram was replaced by the Hereford- Hay-Brecon railway, which offered easier transport but had a detrimental effect on the local economy.
Plentiful manufactured goods from the cities forced the closure of several small family businesses, cheap leather goods meant the tannery was no longer viable and allied trades such as saddle-making declined. River trade was intermittent and after 1900 commercial flour production and beer-brewing in Hay ended.
Horse-drawn tram, c1830
Hay railway, 1880
Market days in Hay
Hays’ weekly produce market has been held with few interruptions, for over 700 years. In Victorian times, people walked in from miles around, leading pack ponies or riding with panniers full of goods for sale. The town had 41 inns, many offering stabling. Livestock sales continued in the streets until 1919 when the cattle market was built.
Pigs were sold in Pig Lane (now Chancery Lane), cattle and sheep in Broad Street and, near the Clock Tower, live poultry was displayed in wicker baskets. In the Butter and Cheese Markets, dressed poultry, eggs, butter, cheese, rabbits and pheasant were sold, mainly to dealers from the valleys who supplied urban centres. The Christmas meat and poultry markets, held in the second week of December, were huge affairs.
The China Market, 1900
Broad Street on Market Day, 1921
The Hiring Fairs
These were large social occasions, in May and November, when the streets of Hay were filled with farm workers, maids and other service staff looking for employment.
The streets were packed with people and the shops enjoyed their busiest trading days, with bills paid off weekly or monthly when workers next travelled to town. The May Hiring Fair included side-shows of boxing in the Bull Ring, music, skittles, Aunt Sally booths, swing-boat rides, merry-go-rounds and dancing bears (which were penned overnight inthe Bear Pit beneath the Pavement, now a shop).
The Cheese Market Project has worked with the Rural Media Company, Llanigon Young Farmers and Hay Youth Club to capture memories of these days in short films.
Dancing bear outside the Blue Boar, 1910
May Fair, Broad Street, 1890
The Martyr of the Storm
Hill farmer Rosa Blanche Williams rode 12 miles to Hay Market every week. Returning to Rhulen on 22 December 1925, she was caught in a snow blizzard, her horse fell on remote Llanbedr Hill and she broke her ankle. Unable to reach home three miles away she froze to death, aged 39, leaving six children. A memorial stone marks the site.
Her remarkable life involved scandal when, unmarried, she became pregnant and was sent to Australia. There, she and her husband established a successful business and had another three children. They eventually returned home, bought a farm and had two more children. Rosa is buried at Painscastle Chapel and her granddaughter has worked with the Project to keep Rosa’s story alive.
Rosa riding home from Market, Hay Bridge, 1920 Photo credit: Ken Jenkins' Estate
Memorial stone on Llanbedr Hill
The Cheese Markey Today
The Cheese Market Project began in 2008 when local people campaigned to save the derelict Town Hall.
They discovered a covenant stating that if the building were sold, it must be offered back to the original owners, Sir Joseph Bailey’s Glanusk Estate, at half the initial price – just £200! The Estate gave permission to restore the building and return it to public use.
The group, formalised as Hay Community Enterprise CIC, successfully applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant, which complemented local fundraising, a private donation and sales of mosaic pieces and frieze tiles. Hay Community Enterprise retains the building on a 99-year lease from Powys County Council. The Market Hall and holiday accommodation above are available to rent.
Maps of Hay on Wye
The first OS map of Hay, 1889. Notice the Toll House on Hay Bridge, the railway, tannery, Town Hall (Cheese Market), corn mills and Hay Union Workhouse.
Housing now occupies the site of Hay Castle kitchen gardens and the main car park is located on the old Castle Orchard. In 1889 there were many ore inns in Hay, offering stabling for horses and accommodation for travellers.
The modern map of Hay displays the route of three short walks. The Hay Heritage Trail offers an historic tour of the town, with a longer loop following the Wye Valley Walk, along the old, medieval town walls, or a shorter route that keeps to the pavements and the town centre.
The Hay Heritage Trail is available to download as an app. Search ‘Trails Mid Wales’ on the App Store or on Google Play. The Bailey River Trail follows the old railway line upstream towards the conservation area at the Warren. Both routes are illustrated with archive photographs and modern pictures to help you find your way. The Bailey River Trail is written as a story that will appeal to children and families.
From this project Hay History Group have established Hay Tours, who run guided cultural heritage tours of Hay. If you would like to do the Hay Heritage or Bailey River tours with a local guide, who can talk to you about the history of the town while you stroll through the streets please book a tour. Tours run year-round with a range of routes, all of which are non-strenuous, friendly and informal.
Old map of Hay, 1889
Modern map of Hay, 2014
These old photographs of Hay really help to bring the history of the town to life.
They come courtesy of Eric Pugh who is the Curator of Hays' photographic archive. Sincere thanks to Eric for allowing us to use these fantastic pictures.
Eric has published several books of photographs, including Old Hay in Pictures and Prints (2002) and The Town of Hay Then and Now (2013).