Tales from ringsides past chart rise and fall of marts

Mervyn Lister who has written a book about livestock markets in Otley, pictured at the Otley Showground. Pic: Simon Hulme
Mervyn Lister who has written a book about livestock markets in Otley, pictured at the Otley Showground. Pic: Simon Hulme
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IT IS all too easy to rattle through a list of all the livestock markets that have closed without giving a thought for the significant role they once played and the people who led them.

Some perished due to disasters such as Foot and Mouth disease restrictions on trade in 2001, but many closures over the past 30 years have been down to local considerations, internal machinations and changing times rather than governmental regulation, poor prices and livestock disease scares. Thirteen regular livestock markets remain in Yorkshire today and they are largely performing well but the stories behind those that have been and have, until now, remained untold.

Mervyn Lister’s family has been linked to livestock auctioneering in Otley since 1885. The family business, FM Lister & Son, still trades from its town centre premises and a brass plaque outside their building carries the name Otley Cattle Market Auction Ltd even though no trading has taken place at the former and now demolished Bridge End Market since 2000.

At today’s Otley Show, held behind where Bridge End was home to what Mervyn describes as once the country’s leading dairy cattle market, he will be signing copies of his new book, ‘On This Day At The Auction Mart’. It details the rise and eventual demise of two livestock markets in Yorkshire - Otley Bridge End and Bingley - and its preface is indicative of Mervyn’s understanding and love of a world that he served for nearly 50 years. It includes this paragraph: “An auction mart is not just a group of inanimate buildings; nor is it those premises plus the staff who operate it. They, together, make up only about 40 per cent of the ‘auction mart’. Another 50 per cent comprises the supporters who produce the goods for sale and the buyers who regularly attend and bid for everything. The other 10 per cent is the marriage value of all those elements working happily together; the buzz!”

It was Mervyn’s father Willie Lister who, aged 23 in 1932, became the company secretary of the new Otley Cattle Market Auction Ltd that was to set up Bridge End in direct opposition to Wharfedale Farmers Auction Mart at the other side of town. Mervyn has been company secretary ever since his father relinquished the role. This week he talked about the highs and lows both marts experienced.

“Otley was the last town in England to have two markets running and mostly the competition was friendly. Many farmers were shareholders in both but there had been a desire amongst some of them to have an alternative auction mart company to Wharfedale Farmers at the time.

“My grandfather Fred Margerison Lister had been the former proprietor of a livestock mart in Station Road, Otley from around 1898 to the early 1920s so my father came with a good pedigree. Farming was in a terribly depressed state in the early 1930s. It was a time when agricultural land was being sold for just £4 per acre and farmers could rent a farm for no payment at all for two or three years. My father and a very well respected cattle trader Stanley Wilkinson of Pannal were the principal men behind the building of Bridge End Market. What they succeeded in doing probably couldn’t be undertaken now by just two men.”

The first attempts at building the new market quite literally saw the tide running against them.

“The new market directors had engaged local contractors Barkers to construct it and in 1935 they were part way through when a massive flood took all their equipment. They went into liquidation (no pun intended) afterwards and couldn’t finish it. That’s when my father and Stan began working on it themselves. Stan had stock in the market at every sale until he passed away.

“I came into the business at 16 in 1952. At the time the market only had dairy cattle and breeding stock sales. Meat rationing was still around. All livestock markets were banned from selling fatstock by auction; and the slaughtering facilities were controlled by the government. The Ministry of Food bought all fatstock and it was Wharfedale Farmers, being the larger of the two in Otley for fatstock, who got the job as the collection centre.

“The business grew in size as the Bingley Mart was acquired in 1954. My Uncle Tom was the principal auctioneer at Skipton and sold in Otley on a Friday. I began selling when I was around 20 and took over as company secretary in 1974. My son Martin followed me into the business.

“Our high points were in the halcyon days of the dairy cattle trade when we would sell 400-plus newly calved cattle a week. It was a very big dairy area in those days and farmers would travel down from as far as Perthshire with their stock. Wharfedale was the centre of the world for Dairy Shorthorn cattle at the time and about 80 per cent of what we sold, mainly Dairy Shorthorns and Ayrshires went south of here to all of the big dairy areas. Bingley Market was a tremendous success too for fatstock and stores.

“I miss the passion and life of the livestock market world enormously even 15 years on although it is perhaps fortuitous the way things happened because the year after Bridge End finished Foot and Mouth disease came.”

If you want to find out the real story behind the rise and fall of two livestock markets this will be more than worth your while.

The book also includes many photographs of those who attended the markets to buy and sell. I would heartily recommend it to you as not just history and reminiscence but as a record of an era when Yorkshire had 54 livestock markets.

‘On This Day At The Auction Mart’ is available at Otley Show today for £15 or direct from the Otley Cattle Market Auction Ltd office in Otley. You can also purchase by post for £18 marking your cheque payable to Otley Cattle Market Auction Ltd at 6 Manor Square, Otley, West Yorkshire, LS21 1QR.