Born and bred in Crewe, Peter Andrews has never lived more that ten minutes’ walk from the town centre. Associated with bustling markets, stallholders and, in particular, the fresh meat trade from a young age, when an opportunity to join the market management team arose he didn’t have to think twice. He was made for the role.
“I first came to the market as a kid, shopping with mum. I loved the noise, colour and the smells, and that so many people were chatting and laughing. It was a real social occasion. So it was no surprise that I got my first job helping out on one of the meat counters. Back then there was a full row of butchers inside the hall and it was a very competitive environment. There was plenty of shouting and banter as traders tried to get the customers to their stalls. I worked for Davis & Sons, and Andrews’ Butchers (not related) was nearby. The old guy on their stand – who looked about 90 years old – would fall asleep with a cigarette in his mouth while he stood at the counter. I’d try and convince customers that he was dead and that they should come to us!”
Butchery was Peter’s chosen career, and after college he stayed within the industry as a meat and poultry inspector. Spells with other council departments followed, but joining the market team was an obvious progression in the 1990s. Across the decades he’s seen more change than most. “The layout was different when I was a kid, and there were tin stalls outside – in fact, most of the outdoor structures have now been remodelled. The old Co-op and its car park were next door and there were two white lines that ran across the market and defined the boundary, their right of way if you like. The manager came out each day to check that the traders weren’t crossing the line. So some did just that to wind him up!”
Humour has always played a big part in market life with laughter and practical jokes essential in keeping morale high. “April Fools and, in particular, toilet gags are always popular. One year, the council posted some new regulations up on the main notice board. We adapted one and told the traders that they must bring their own toilet rolls to work. They fell for it. So next year we changed the opening times, pretending that traders could only use them alternate half hours! We were rolling about laughing, but they always get us back.”
Perhaps it’s the camaraderie that keeps the market folk together, despite many challenges over the years. “When the covered Market Centre opened nearby it was full of big-name shops and looked great, but we knew that it would never have the same character as the stalls and old hall. They even rebuilt the front of the theatre but people liked the personal touch that some of the older businesses offered, like the cake shop that used to be on the corner of the square. You could talk and swap stories about market life with the friendly staff. They knew all of the traders and you felt part of a big family. The cake shop, restaurant and market toilets were all huddled together, and we also had some storage space on the first floor above the box office that sold tickets for the shows. It was chaotic, but there was a great feeling about the place. Even the outdoor stalls were tightly packed together, and if it rained you could walk right through the market without getting wet by dodging under the canopies.”
Jostling for trading space and customers, stallholders have always fallen out. However, while many sections of society have become increasingly fragmented Peter believes that the Crewe market community has become closer in recent times. “There’s always been plenty of rivalry around the stalls and numerous disputes have taken place. After certain incidents they wouldn’t speak to each other for weeks. There was a desire to be the best and to make their business succeed. They didn’t want to give each other the edge and they’d argue about an inch of space, the size of advertising boards and who had the most light! Years ago I did a warden’s job, covering some of the really tough Crewe neighbourhoods, but it was nothing compared to some of the arguments I saw on the market. They’d shout, push and shove and sometimes cause a scene to keep customers away from a rival stall. But they rarely came to blows. Things are definitely more chilled out these days. They help each other. You can leave a fellow trader looking after your stall, just as people once left their back doors open. I’d like to think that we help the situation by spreading the stalls evenly and trying to make sure that any newcomers don’t upset the happy balance that exists.”
Maintaining that equilibrium has never been easy, as multiple traders often want to cash in on current trends. The goods sold across the stalls have changed regularly as fashions and crazes come and go. “In the 1980s there were eight or nine material stores selling a fantastic range of fabrics in hundreds of wonderful colours, but now there’s just one or two. People buy on-line and at the bigger discount shops and this has hit some of the traders hard. I remember when unisex sweatshirts became popular and every stall tried to sell them, especially the ones adorned in trendy logos and slogans. They all wanted a slice of the action and it caused friction. We were out almost every day making sure things didn’t get nasty. When it’s your livelihood tempers can flare if someone steps on your patch. Ultimately, they had to get on with it and deal with the competition. We just kept the peace.”
Daily disputes are not always down to the traders, as the Crewe market area sits on a council-run car park. “Somebody from the council came over to me one day and said that his car had been scratched by a trader. Unfortunately, he’d parked his car in the square on market day. That means that it’s not a car park until the market has gone. So I asked him if he thought that it was a market or a car park. He could sense that I was testing him so he kept quiet. I explained that if it was a market he shouldn’t have been parked there, and if it was a car park he’d parked there at his own risk. He walked off in a huff!”
There have been light-hearted moments, too, like nearly delaying a Lyceum Theatre production. “We’d had a market running and we weren’t quite ready to release the square for car parking. One woman asked when she would be allowed on, and I told her that it wouldn’t be long. Then she asked again ten minutes later, looking a little concerned. I hadn’t realised that it was the lead actress from a show that evening and that she had an hour’s make-up to go through!”
So what does the future hold? “The market will survive, because people will want it to survive. It’s like steam trains – they stopped building them but people still want to ride on them. Saturdays are busy because traders can have a job and still run a stall at the weekend. We have also seen more of the Polish people shopping here, as they seem to love the market. So I remain positive. The best bit about the job is the people. Recessions come and go, buildings change and new fads are always popping up. But the people will ensure that markets are always popular…”
Peter’s story appeared in “Crewe And Its People” that was published back in 2009; all forty stories will be posted here between February and June as a permanent series of social history documents for Cheshire. A second volume of fascinating Crewe life stories will be available to buy from September 2016.