John Barber started in business as a surveyor, estate agent, valuer and auctioneer at Mill Bank, Wellington during 1848, one year before the coming of the railway. After the cutting for the station had bisected the centre of town, Barber took advantage of the situation to relocate his business to newly built premises at Number One, Church Street, where it has remained ever since.
The First Smithfield
There can be little doubt that Barber was a hugely influential figure in Wellington’s commercial development during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. In 1852, he opened an ‘Auction Mart’ on ‘The Bury Yards’ (situated in the vicinity of modern day Victoria Avenue and The Parade) where he quickly established the trustworthy and reliable reputation that became his hallmark. Three years later, Barber acquired another strip of land, behind the Duke of Wellington Hotel in New Street (now part of The Parade car park) where, in February 1855, he established a permanent livestock market, possibly the first of its kind outside London.
By providing an alternative to the traditional cattle fairs that had been held at a number of locations around Wellington since medieval times, Barber helped to eradicate several problems. Cattle, sheep and pigs had previously been driven into the town centre from all directions on fair days, fowling the streets and causing a great nuisance to local residents and traders. Furthermore, to avoid paying market tolls many farmers had taken to the practice of agreeing sales outside the tollhouses dotted around the outskirts of Wellington, rather than come into the town itself. Barber’s new railside facility rendered this practice obsolete and ended the stranglehold of dealers who had largely controlled the trade of the old fairs, often through their own sharp practices and corruption.
To Bridge Road
By the 1860s, Barber’s success had attracted the attention of the Wellington Market Company who wanted to open new facilities on Bridge Road where they could collect tolls themselves, having purchased the right to do so from the Lord of the Manor. In return for closing his own market, which had already begun to outgrow its cramped location, Barber was granted sole rights to hold auctions at the new site, partly as a mark of thanks for drawing up plans and helping to obtain an Act of Parliament for the Company’s new market hall. Bridge Road Smithfield Market opened in 1868 and grew to become one the most prominent cattle markets in the country by the end of the Victorian period, ushering in an even greater era of commercial prosperity for the town itself.
Barber's Enduring Influence
Few individuals could claim to have done more to aid Wellington’s growth as a market town in the Victorian period than John Barber. Through the establishment of his own Smithfield, he helped to standardise the sale of livestock in Wellington, improve the cleanliness of the town’s streets and encourage farmers and residents from the surrounding area into its centre, spending their money on local goods and services. Thanks to Barber, the Wellington Market Company was later able to acquire and develop many services that helped to ensure its own longevity and continued existence as a vital part of the local economy today.
The Rise and Rise of Urban Poverty
In 1851, over 50% of Britain’s population lived in towns and cities, the first time in human history that this had happened. In larger areas, this trend had already created public health problems the like of which had not been seen since medieval times. People were literally dying in thousands, as disease spread in epidemic proportions through streets that had neither decent housing, running water, sewers, paving or any proper system of cleansing.
Wellington's Filthy Tenements
Although Wellington’s population did not greatly expand between 1837 and 1901, staying at around 6000 inhabitants, the physical expansion of the town was quite pronounced. This was particularly evident in the New Street area where scores of cheap workmen’s houses were put up to satisfy the demand for labour created by Wellington’s commercial and industrial expansion during the first half of the 19th Century. New Street itself was already built up and, as in many early Victorian towns and cities, existing housing was either sub-divided, or newly built in rows or squares of terraces away from the road. These houses mostly stood behind the yards of existing shops and businesses in the main street, or at the end of small shuts or alleyways. In Wellington, Stone’s Yard, Summer’s Yard, Corbett’s Row and Gloucester Row, which all ran off New Street, were typical examples of this trend. A typical family living here in the 1840s might well have expected to live in a single room, with no ventilation, while sharing washing and drinking facilities, and a common privy or ash pit.
Disproving the Miasma Theory
Although Victorians had begun to realise the link between living conditions and poverty, many people still believed in the erroneous ‘miasma theory’, the idea that disease was carried through the air by fumes from decaying waste. Consequently, they believed that the problems of alleys like the ones in Wellington could be solved by better ventilation and cleansing. It was not until the later years of the 19th Century that reformers began to realise living conditions could only be improved by better sanitation and housing, which led to the introduction of many local rules and regulations to provide new homes for working people. In Wellington, this led to the opening of Victoria Street (now Victoria Road) in 1888 and the town’s first council houses, which were erected in Regent Street during the 1890s.
Smithfield Place and Beyond
Before John Barber opened his Smithfield livestock market in 1855 (on what is today part of The Parade car park) the area now occupied by Victoria Road was the site of a lane linking New Street to King Street. This thoroughfare became known as Smithfield Place in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century and was considered infamous at the time, for its slum tenements and the anti-social activities that took place within them. In 1887, Wellington’s Improvement Commissioners, who were elected to carry out public health reforms in the town between 1854 and 1894, seized upon the occasion of Queen Victoria’s 50th Jubilee celebrations as an opportunity to sweep Smithfield Place away forever, opening Victoria Street in its place. However, it too disappeared, beneath the new ring road in the early 1970s, when the original street was realigned and re-christened Victoria Road.