Auctions in Greyfriars

Leicester Greyfriars Heritage Initiative

Types of Auctions in England

Auctions became popular in England in the 18th century. They were a form of spectacle and entertainment, attended by all social classes, as well business transactions. The ‘English-style auction’ is the format most of us will be familiar with- the ‘going-going- gone’ type, where the auction finishes with the item being awarded to the highest bidder who shouts out their offer. This is not the only format of auction.

Other earlier forms include silent paper bids and candle auctions amongst others. However, the information that survives shows only the ‘English- style auction’ being practised in Leicester. In Leicester, records suggest that auctioneers had been operating since at least the early 19th century. As demonstrated by the terms of conditions from the Auctioneers’ and Appraisers Protective Society for the Midland Counties, it was a well- established industry by the mid- 19th century (the society established in 1848).

Today we may associate auctions with specially equipped auction houses, but this was not always the case. The auctioneers would have their headquarters in the commercial district of Greyfriars, specifically Friars Lane, and sell their items or estates out of taverns and inns.

It was possible for people to make offers before the sale for particular items, or in this case, estates or houses. In terms of the Greyfriars area itself, it was a busy centre for commerce with auctioneers, accountants and merchants all working within close- proximity of each other.

It is not hard to imagine the bustling nature of the area, with most auctions being split into at least three days, attracting large crowds of people. In the 1820s there was one auction house in New Street. By the end of the 19th century this number had increased substantially to over ten. The Greyfriars area was well known for being a hub of legal business and practises, referred to as the ‘legal ghetto’, a tight knit community of lawyers.

William H Maris, Auctioneer

The story of William H Marris highlights the changing fortunes an auctioneer may experience over his career. Marris was born in 1831 and Christened at St Marys, Leicester. An auctioneer and later an accountant, he moved his businesses premises from Loseby Lane to 6 Friars Lane sometime before 1855 when his business first appears in the Trade Directories.

By 1877 he was working from 6 Friar Lane, the building plan of which survives. Some time in the later 18th century Marris changed profession to become an accountant and an auctioneer, before eventually becoming just an accountant. This demonstrates the varied histories of the buildings in the Grey Friars area, with 6 Friars lane still standing today.

The Workings of an Auction

An auction house would produce a catalogue or a ‘sale particular.’ Those that survive show a huge range of items for sale. Land was sold at auctions as well as houses, horses, furniture, large quantities of alcohol (one individual had over 70 bottles of port!) and large collections of books.

The public could obtain a copy and browse at their leisure. These would be collected from the auction house. Sometimes a fee was required to purchase a catalogue. They were very detailed, listing specifics of the items including appearance, quality, age and use. Sometimes the auction house would put its wares on display for viewings for a set time before the auction, in some cases one or two days before the first sale.