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Market Drayton is a wonderfully compact town lying almost completely between the River Tern, a subsidiary of the Severn, and the A53 bypass to the north, with a core of attractive historic buildings, a wide variety of retailing and some light industry. The Shropshire Union canal runs through it from north to south. It is in a predominantly rural area in the north east of Shropshire on the border with Staffordshire; a few miles to the north is Cheshire. It has a Town Council and comes under Shropshire Council. The population is around 11,000.
Drayton’s first settlers chose to raise their church on this red sandstone precipice above the River Tern around the year 950AD. It could be easily defended and had access to water and arable land all around. The ‘dray’ element of the town’s name is related to the word ‘drag’ and suggests that it was known as a place where either boats had to be dragged over an obstruction or carts dragged uphill. Whatever the origins of the name, we assume these first settlers were Saxons because but no evidence has come to light of any Roman or British (Celtic) occupation at Drayton itself.
Great Drayton and Little Drayton (the western portion of the present-day town) are listed as separate ‘manors’, or estates, in the Domesday book of 1086.. The manor of Great Drayton had been awarded by Williamthe Conqueror to the Abbey of St Evroul in France who was leasing it to William Pantulph of Wem at the time of Domesday.
St Mary’s Church at Great Drayton commanded a parish far in excess of the manor in which it stood. The parish lay in a still wider area called “Hales” which has led to Market Drayton sometimes being called Drayton-in-Hales.
The inhabitants of the surrounding manors in St Mary’s parish would have tramped the same routes on Sundays and holy days to worship at the church, and these became known as church ways. Longslow Road is an extant example. Parishioners would have also used days of worship as an opportunity to barter goods in the shadow of the church, and from this practice we can trace Drayton’s role as a market town. In 1112 the manor of Great Drayton was given to the monks of Combermere Abbey north east of Whitchurch (Little Drayton was controlled by Shrewsbury Abbey).
The monks sought to formalise Drayton’s role as a trading station and thereby assure themselves of a handsome income. Markets were the chief means of distributing goods and bringing buyers and sellers together in medieval society; the rights to hold them were a source of great wealth and jealously guarded. In 1245 Henry III granted Combermere Abbey a charter to hold a weekly market in Drayton on Wednesdays and a fair on the feast of the nativity of the Virgin Mary in September.. Drayton probably came by the epithet ‘Market’ as a publicity stunt to assert its dominance over other towns.
There is a reference to Drayton as a ‘borough’ in 1292 which usually indicated a settlement with special rights such as a degree of self governance, although there is no indication that it had “burgesses” in residence, usually the sign of a borough. The residents appear to have been of lower station, but still would have brought to the town specialist skills that would have stimulated trade. They occupied long and narrow plots fronting the main commercial streets which equate to the modern-day Cheshire Street, Queen Street, Shropshire Street and Stafford Street. Banned from the churchyard, it is assumed the traders established their marketplace in a wide street covering the area where Cheshire Street, Queen Street and High Street now are. Thus the original market street would have been easily wide enough to accommodate livestock as well as other produce.
As well as agricultural connections, Drayton has amassed a series of military connections over the ages. In 1459, the first battle in the Wars of the Roses was joined at Blore Heath (on the road to Loggerheads). The Yorkist Earl of Salisbury trounced the Lancastrian Lord Audley, who had been sent to arrest him, and destroyed his army. The hill where Salisbury camped is called Salisbury Hill. There were several skirmishes in the town during the Civil Wars of the 17th century, and Tern Hill Barracks have been here since the First World War. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the lordship of the manor was sold to Sir Rowland Hill, a London textile merchant and previous mayor of the city, who went on to found Market Drayton Grammar School in 1555, and in 1562 it passed by marriage into the Corbets of Adderley.
By the 17th century, Drayton was a prosperous town made up predominantly of half-timbered buildings, many of them with thatched roofs. Then disaster struck. In 1651 when Drayton had its own great fire. Most of the buildings were destroyed – a rare survivor from before this time is Cotton’s House on Shropshire Street, built around 1600. The town had to be rebuilt, and half-timbered buildings such as the Cheshire Cheese Inn (now Mincher-Lockett opticians) at the Buttercross became rare. Evidence of the continued prosperity of the town, however, are the many fine brick houses dating from the Stuart, Georgian and Victorian periods. A sign, too, that the market was never forgotten is the Buttercross market shelter which replaced an actual cross in 1823.
The 19th century was a period of great expansion in communications. In 1835 the Birmingham and Liverpool Canal was built past Drayton, carving one of the deepest canal cuttings in the country through red sandstone at Tyrley Locks. Later part of the Shropshire Union Canal, it has gone through a revival as a major leisure resource. Railways from Drayton to Stoke, Nantwich and Wellington were built during the 1860s. It was soon after this that the cattle market was moved from the centre of town to Maer Lane in order to be near the station. (The market is now on Adderley Road).During the second half of the 20th century the population expanded greatly. The A53 bypass has now defined a northern boundary for the town, but as development land within the parish boundary becomes ever scarcer, the development pressures to build beyond its boundaries will become intense.