The South Trafford Archaeological Group (STAG) has been exploring the historic Old Market Place in Altrincham since it was founded in 1979. STAG has excavated in several locations and recorded many historic buildings in this area, and I have been lucky enough to have been involved in a number of these pieces of fieldwork. One of the buildings that has intrigued me since I first started to explore the old market place in the 1990s is, ironically, no longer there. Yet the empty space where it stood, No. 20 Old Market Place on the corner of Victoria Street, often fills my thoughts when I walk or drive past the spot. Lockdown has provided an opportunity to pull together the evidence for its history and to attempt a reconstruction of this lost building, and to fill that empty space.
What caught my attention in the 1990s when Pat Faulkner, then secretary of STAG, was researching a book on the archaeology of Trafford was a collection of photographs showing a timber building being demolished. These were taken in 1932 and some swift cross checking showed that is was No. 20 Old Market Place. Other images were located and it became clear that it was not the usual box-framed building design that is regularly encountered in the area, but a very specific type of structure: a cruck framed timber building. This is a building type most commonly found in the late medieval to 17th century period in Britain, with over 5,000 examples known in Britain and more than 300 hundred known from North West England. They are far less common than box-framed buildings, and in late medieval towns they are comparatively rare. In the Manchester city region there are single examples known from the late medieval towns of Bolton, Salford, and Stockport. Altrincham, a medieval market town in North West England with a charter from 1290, has two examples. Why is unclear.
The site of No.20 Old Market Place now lies partly under the road junction of Victoria Street and the Old Market Place, and partly under the pavement and grass verge running along the southern side of Victoria Street. There is little chance of a dig here any time soon, so the only way to explore the building is to bring together the documentary records for the site, from historic maps and census records, to contemporary accounts and photographs. With the help of the STAG archives, and material form the local studies library in Sale, its now possible to reconstruct the building’s history, layout, and form, at least in outline.
The building appears to have been owned by the Brundrett family in the 18th and early 19th century, and then owned and occupied by the O’Kell family in the mid-19th century. As for its structure, the building was two-and-a-half bays long, one bay wide, one-and-a-half stories high, and thatched. The western gable of the building was aligned with the Old Market Place to the west, whilst its long axis fronted Victoria Street to the north. The exterior walls were box-framed, the timber resting on a sandstone base. Later rebuilding saw the property altered with the addition of casement and bay windows in the western and northern elevations, and rendering to hide most of the external timber-framed panelling. Old photographs indicated the presence of three cruck-trusses at the time of demolition in 1932. The blades of the western two crucks were braced by a tie-beam and a collar beam, and were at ground floor level roughly 5m apart, resting on sandstone blocks. The apex of the middle cruck-truss was just over 5m above the contemporary ground level, although the style is unrecorded.
A two-storey brick bay, with a cellar, was added at the eastern end of the property some time during the 18th century. It is first recorded on the 1799 estate map for Altrincham and was used as shops during the 19th and early 20th centuries, although the basement is recorded as a cellar dwelling in 1855. The building was demolished in 1932, along with all the properties on the southern side of Victoria Street. This was part of a scheme by the local borough council to widen Victoria Street and improve the drainage form and the access into the Old Market Place.
No. 20 Old Market Place is not the only cruck building known from Altrincham Old Market Place. Nos 8 to 10 Old Market Place also contains the remains of a cruck-framed building. Other box-framed timber buildings are known to have existed in the Old Market Place area of Altrincham, including No 6 Old Market Place (demolished in 2004) and the Orange Tree pub on the western side of the Old Market Place, opposite No. 20 Old Market Place.
The local historian Charles Nickson, writing in his 1935 book ‘Bygone Altrincham: Traditions and History’, noted that ‘The widening of Well Lane or Victoria Street, has already been accomplished by the demolition of the old cottages…The widening of the street also involved the removal of the sixteenth century cottage in the Old Market Place, at the corner of Victoria Street [this is No. 20 Old Market Place]. The disappearance of the ancient landmark need cause no regret. Stained with the hand of time, and unrelieved by a single feature of interest, the old house made no claim on the public regard, and no sigh was heard when its crumbling walls, little more than wattle and daub, fell under the blows of the house-breaker’. His view of the lack of importance of the cruck building may have been coloured by Altrincham’s poor record of sanitation and hygiene in the mid to late 19th century: it was bad enough o receive national attention and the problems of fresh water and sewer drainage were still being dealt with by the council in the early 20th century. In Nickson’s view No. 20 Old Market Place stood in the way of progress, being of little value.
Not surprisingly, I disagree with this assessment of the building’s importance. Rather, it’s an example of a late medieval building type that is rarely found within market boroughs of the region. Whether its construction is a sign of higher status is unclear, but it would have required the use of mature oak trees several hundred years old, which might have proved difficult to source for an ordinary burgess (landholder) in the town. Its loss deprives the Old Market Place of part of its character as a late medieval town and makes the retention of similar buildings even more important as testimony to the more than seven-hundred years of development of the old borough.