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Celebrating 250 Years of Oxford’s Historic Covered Market

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Oxford City Council is celebrating a monumental milestone this year as The Covered Market celebrates its 250th anniversary, making it one of the oldest continually operating markets in the country, and older than the modern bicycle.  

To commemorate this historic event, the Council collaborated with local designer Big Top Design to create special edition branding, displayed throughout the market and on the collectable 250th tote bags, and is working with current traders to plan a series of celebrations throughout 2024. Some highlights include: 

  • an anniversary edition of the popular Easter Egg Hunt  
  • a May Morning event, in collaboration with The Market Tap by Tap Social  
  • a birthday event to coincide with this year’s Oxford Open Doors  
  • a ceremonial cake cutting to mark the anniversary of opening day – 1 November  

The events will showcase the market’s evolution over its 250-year history and lay the foundation for a thriving future, attracting new visitors from far and wide.  

History  

In 1771, the Oxford Improvement Act was passed and plans for a covered city market were proposed to bring disparate street traders under one roof and improve public health. A market committee was established, bringing City and University together, and John Gwynn, the architect for Magdalen Bridge, appointed.  

On 1 November 1774, The Covered Market officially opened in a way that we could recognise today, albeit smaller and with timber stalls. In the 1840s, there was a partial expansion of the market. During this expansion, the market transformed into its current form, and the Market Street entrances were added. The variety of traders also started to change. 

Originally thought of as a meat market, throughout the 19th century fruit, vegetables, fish and cheese joined the traders. By the end of the 19th century, cafes and other eateries, as well as non-food outlets, began to emerge. In more recent years, the market has remained a much-loved part of the city. It survived a post-war proposal to knock it down and move it, and in March 2000 it was listed as grade II. 

Response

Councillor Susan Brown, Leader of Oxford City Council and Cabinet Member for Inclusive Economy and Partnerships said: “It is amazing to think of the 250 years of history of our lovely Covered Market in Oxford. As we all celebrate this year, I, like many other residents of Oxford, have childhood and more recent memories of the market. As we celebrate the new life and businesses alongside the traditional, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to be part of its history. 

“The Covered Market has not only survived all this time, but it has evolved and changed to keep up with the times. It is now one of the UK’s oldest continuously trading markets. There will always be businesses we miss but it’s great to see fantastic new ones spring up alongside those that have been at the heart of the market for years such as Cardews, Brown’s Café, Georgina’s, The Garden and David John. I’m proud of the work we’re doing to ensure it stays at the heart of our city for generations to come and look forward to the celebration planned for this year.” 

Looking to the future  

Throughout its lifetime, the market has always evolved to stay relevant and thriving. The Council continues to work hard to ensure it keeps up with the times whilst retaining its focus on high-quality traders. 

In 2021, a new Leasing Strategy was adopted for the market. The strategy focuses on ensuring there is the right mix of businesses and spaces available and emphasises attracting high-quality, specialist, locally owned or independent retailers. The market currently offers the widest-ever selection of specialist artisan produce, cafés, bars, gifts, experiences, fashion, and lifestyle products. As well as this, in 2023 the Council approved almost £7m of investment to revitalise the historic market, launched a trial of later opening hours and announced plans for a trial of pedestrian-friendly changes to Market Street.  

Since April 2023, footfall in The Covered Market has been consistently above 2022 and pre-pandemic levels. Informal consultation on the changes to Market Street’s use is open on Oxfordshire County Council’s website. The trial will help the City Council understand how any regeneration may encourage more people to visit the market, future proofing it for the next 250 years, and beyond. It is expected to start later this year, coinciding with 250th celebrations. 

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