Celebrating Guyana's built heritage: Stabroek Market, a brief history
History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
Stabroek News
April 14, 2005

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From the earliest days of civilisation markets have existed. They are continuously dictated by evolving economic factors and throughout the Caribbean region they are being replaced at a rapid pace by supermarkets and malls.

The Stabroek market, Guyana's oldest market, which was named by the Dutch in honour of the director of the Dutch West India Company, Nicholas Van Gleenisnk Lord of Castricum, Bahim and Stabroek, stands as an eloquent reminder of the nation's cultural and social heritage.

The First Market

The present market is the third market and the second structure erected. Historians have given different accounts of the existence of a market in 1792 where the enslaved Africans sold their products, primarily plantains and other staple foods, on Sundays. Though this was one of the earliest references to the market, it is possible that indigenous Indians and enslaved Africans may have operated little markets along the banks of the Brandwaght, which was erected by the Dutch to secure the activities of the river.

The Essequibo Ordinance of 1765, which prohibited the interaction between the sailors and the indigenous Indians and the enslaved Africans, indicates that trading of goods was practised. One can well imagine a sailor tempted by fresh eggs and fruit after an arduous journey with a staple diet of biscuit and salted beef.

The first market was, according to one report, located slightly west of the present site of the St. Andrews Church, opposite the present site of the Parliament building, which housed the Court of Policy and church on Sundays. However, the market was removed in 1793 to the present site of Smith Church, and then to several other areas along the banks of the river. It is possible that this was done to prevent the disturbances of church services by vendors selling their produce at the market. The attempt to relocate the market appears to have been unsuccessful, as the market was soon returned to its original location.

Henry Bolingbroke, an English traveller, upon his arrival in the colony of Essequibo and Demerara in 1799 provides a very interesting description of the Stabroek market.

"There is a market place where the Negroes assemble to sell their truck such as fruits, vegetables, fowls and eggs and where hucksters expose for sale articles of European manufacture in addition to salt beef, pork, fish, cheese, pipes, tobacco and other articles. Hucksters are women of color who purchase their commodities from merchants at two or three months credit and retail them out in the same manner. Many of them are indeed wealthy and possess ten, fifteen and twenty Negroes, all of whom they employ in this trade."

The First Structure

As Georgetown developed and extended, it was soon realized that there was need for the construction of a proper market, as the area was said to have been congested and unsightly. In the circumstance, the office of the Mayor and Town Council soon passed regulations on 23 April 1843, to erect a proper building for the operation of a market.

Constructed of local hardwoods, the market was described as "the best in the West Indies". A visitor in 1851 described the new market "as a sight which a European might walk some distance to see", noting the mingling of sailors, merchants, clerks, porters and butchers.

Calls for a new market

By 1870, the market appears to have outlived its usefulness, as the area was described as one, which was inadequate, unable to accommodate the growing number of vendors. Mr. Francis Conjers, a councillor, recommended that a new market be built. His proposal was endorsed by the council and in 1879, a committee, consisting of His Worship Mayor G. A. Forshaw, B.S. Bayley, J.C. Whitehead, H.S. Sprotson Innis, Mr Conjers and Luke M. Hill, the Town Superintendent, was appointed to examine and approve the plans submitted by the prospective construction agencies for the erection of a market house.

Design selected

On 29 July 1879, the committee submitted their report to the Mayor and Town Council. It noted that a total of six plans had been submitted. These included two by the Edge Moor Iron Company of Philadelphia, USA the Clark Reeves Company represented by agent Mr. Nathaniel McKay, Sam Woodhall, Henry Rogers Sons & Company, represented by the agent Mc Fan Trotters Holdings, and one by Peter Mc Lellaw.

Attached to each plan were the estimates. These included

* The Edge Moor Iron Company Plan A $132,855.00

* The Edge Moor iron Company Plan B $103,759.00

* Samuel Woodhall $ 80,473.00

* Peter Mc Lellaw $ 68,735.00

Each of these figures included the freight and the erection of the building in the colony of British Guiana. Despite the considerably high cost of construction, the committee recommended to the Council Plan A by the Edge Moor Iron Company.

The plan was modified at the request of the committee and was favoured on "account of its foundation and ornamental appearance and very perfect system of ventilation in the roof the latter being especially suited for the tropical climate."

They noted the increased cost of the plan was, "due to the fact that the entire structure was made of wrought iron and also that the total weight of the iron far exceeds that of the other designs submitted."

The plans submitted for the company on behalf of Mr. Nathaniel McKay also provided for the personal supervision of the manufacturing and the erection of the building as

"The other tendencies also offer to erect the building, but they require payments to be made in such a manner as that the whole amount would be paid before the building was shipped or erected, where as Mr. McKay is willing so as to arrange the payments to them only a small proportion should be paid before the building was completed and handed over to the corporation."

The committee also noted that another advantage in the selection of the design of the new market was the resistance of a metal structure to the possible damage by a fire. On 8 September 1828 and 29 December 1864 fires had destroyed large sections of the city and the vulnerability of a wooden structure was observed.


The agent for Sam Woodhall and Mc Fan Trotters & Holdings objected to the recommendations of the committee. On 30 July 1879 a letter was forwarded to the Town Council requesting that the plans submitted by Sam Woodhall be reconsidered. The availability of Mr. Woodhall to superintend the construction of the market and the credibility of the architect, Mr. Skekel, who had designed a number of buildings and structures in the colony of British Guiana, including Messrs. Booker Brothers & Company stores. The Cimburatum buildings of Messrs. S. Barbers Company, the new engine at Plantation Lusignan and the commodious new wharves at La Penitence, were listed as reasons why the committee should reconsider their recommendation.

A second letter was forwarded to the Council, one day before the committee was scheduled to meet and vote for or against the recommendations made. The agent outlined the willingness to have whatever alterations the Council required in order to have their plans approved.


Despite these objections, the amended plan A of the Edge Moor Iron Company at a cost of $132,855.00 was accepted on 31 July 1879. The Honourable Mr. Dupsdale, a councillor, moved that the motion be accepted and Mr. Ritcher, another councillor, seconded this. Four members of the committee, Mr. Bayley, Mr. Whitehead, Mr. Sproston, Mr. Ritcher and The Mayor G.A. Forshaw, voted in favour of the plan, Mr. Conjers voted against and Mr. Innis declined to vote.

In approving this plan, it was noted that an additional $75,000.00 would be required to finance the construction of the new market. The Mayor and Town Clerk were charged with the responsibility to apply to the Governor and Court of Policy for the additional loan of $75,000.00 to finance the new market's construction. On Tuesday, 5 August 1879 the Mayor, Mr. G. A. Forshaw, was authorised "to sign and secure a contract between Mr. Nathaniel McKay and the Council for the erection of a Georgetown market house".

Work commences

On 17 August 1879 the levelling of the foundation of the river wall at Stabroek commenced. Initially the government had agree to build a portion of the wall but the Edge Moor Iron Company had to execute this task of reclaiming wall on the southern boundary of the market as well as on the northern side, a total of 175 feel in length.

The building of the wall, to reclaim to portion of the river's foreshore to the extent of 50,000 square feet had to be completed before the foundation of the market could be laid. This resulted in the cost rising as high as $236,000.00.

Mrs. Kortwright, wife of the Governor Cornelius H. Kortwright, laid the foundation stone of the new market. It was emblazoned with the inscription "A.D 1880, G.A. Forshaw, Mayor Stabroek market." Under this stone, a zinc canister containing the original documents of the market's plans impressed with the seal of the corporation, several coins and copies of the Royal Gazette and the 'Colonist newspaper, was deposited. The Council's application for an additional loan was soon approved and on 17 July 1880, under the supervision of the Town superintendent, Mr. Luke M. Hill, the construction of the market began.

The market was completed and declared open on 1 November 1880 by the Governor. A report in the Royal Gazette notes that

"The market was opened this morning without any ceremony what so ever, the only signs of festivity being the flags disposed about the buildings and on the stalls. In the course of the day however a band of music made its appearance and discoursed sweet strains of music to the intense satisfaction of the mob, which had gathered. Some ladies keeping their stalls forgot their dignified station so far as to indulge. The carousel representing the Steam baking Company performing a 'pan Seoul' in a manner which excited universal applause."

The original plans of Mc Kay differed greatly from that of the present market. One example of such is the shed that runs horizontally along the side of the bell tower; his plans had stipulated a classic Tudor cast iron balcony extending from one side to another. However these were substituted for the sheds as a result of financial constraints of the council.

Almost anything can be purchased inside the market as one West Indian politician stated, "the only thing missing is a church". In the earliest days the market was known as the 'Mc Kay market' and is today known as the 'Big Market'. It continues to be a centre of economic activity.

An engineering feat

Covering an area of 76,728 square feet with a total weight of 635 tons, the structure, built partly on land and water, may well be the largest public market in the Caribbean and the world.

The building is essentially a steel framed structure, with the connected frames fabricated from sections and rolled into shape by ingots of hot steel with the application of the 'Bessemer process', the first known method used for the mass production of steel by Henry Bessemer in 1865.

In 1881, the year of the market's completion, the use of steel was not a widely accepted method in the construction of buildings. As a constructor of locomotives and bridges, it is possible that Mr. McKay may have influenced the choice of materials for the construction of the market.

Of interest: The Clock:

The Stabroek market's imposing four-dialled clock, which resides some sixty feet above the ground in its main tower, located centrally above the main entrance of the market, was ordered from the E. Howard Company of Boston, Massachusetts on 1 July 1880. The white painted sheet iron dials are each 12 feet in diameter. Three are aligned with a grid pattern of the streets of the city, while the other gives time to the ships and vessels along the Demerara River.

The weight-driven clock mechanism was designed to operate for up to eight days between windings and permitted the hours and half hours to be struck on a large steel bell exposed on the top of the tower beneath a canopy. The clock is housed within a well-built wooden structure in the middle of the market's tower some 20 feet below the centre dials. The weights are led over pulleys to descend through the tower's two southern columns.

The mechanism is divided into two gear trains, one within the upright frame for timekeeping, and the other set out horizontally on top of the base to govern the striking of the bell. The time keeping train is fitted with a Graham pattern deadbeat escapement regulated by a pendulum beating once every second. The pendulum has a wooden rod and a cylindrical cast iron bob. An automatic maintaining power device protects the teeth of the escapement while the clock is being wound. The striking rein uses Howard's own design of the rack striking system to sound the hours and half-hours.

The Bell

The cast iron bell housed in the tower of the market was manufactured in Sheffield, England. Due to its size it is classed as a one-ton bell, but the actual weight is not known. Suspended by a yoke bolted on to four hanging rods secured to the main frame of the tower, the bell is surrounded by a large steel hammer mounted on a wooden stand on the West Side of the bell. This hammer is directly connected to the clock mechanism by a single wire linkage, which alternately lifts and releases it to sound the bell.


The market was originally an open structure without barriers. However, there were numerous problems of birds entering the markets and stealing meat from butchers and robberies. In the circumstance, the Council decided to erect a large iron fence in 1900.


The entrance to the market was not as untidy and congested as it is today. It was once adorned with a small garden, neatly landscaped with the Russell Memorial, which is today located on the lawns of City hall.

Though the market is strategically located within Georgetown's historic corridor, in close proximity to the Parliament Buildings, The High Court and the St. Andrews Kirk, its economic potential as a major tourist attraction has been hindered by the chaotic situation that exists today.

Such actions would lead to the favourable development of this area. Stabroek Market was one of the 12 selected sites identified by Dr. Ron van Oers, of the World Heritage Centre, In 2000, to be included in the nomination dossier when Georgetown, will sometime in the future, be submitted to the World Heritage Centre for inscription to their prestigious list of sites of universal and outstanding value reflecting a unique and diverse craftsmanship.

For this to be achieved it is necessary that the area be properly managed and maintained. The Greater Georgetown Development Plan 2001 - 2010 proposal to relocate the minibus parks sparks a glittering promise to transform the area into one that can be enjoyed by all. This, however, would be well complemented, sometime in the future if the Council would relocate the vendors around the area.