The earliest settlement in the region was probably established on dry raised sites amongst the carrs and salt-marshes. The town of Howden was first recorded in 959 and was the centre of a large 51-carucate estate recorded in the Domesday Book. The earliest settlement in Howden was probably centred on the church and manor house. Small amounts of 9th, 10th and 11th-century pottery recovered during excavations at the Bishops manor House imply that there was a late Saxon settlement in the immediate vicinity. A church and a priest were recorded on the Bishop of Durham’s Howdenshire estate in 1086, presumably in Howden.
Occasionally referred to as a borough, Howden was the only large settlement and only market in the area. In 1200, a September horse fair was granted to Philip, Bishop of Durham, and the market mentioned in 1296 no doubt took place in the market place laid out by the Bishop in the area north of his manor house, which was previously much larger.
Buildings on the Market Place included the White Horse Inn, the Moot Hall and the Shire Hall. The Moot Hall was a half-timbered building where the Bishop’s halmote court was held, with shops below the hall by 1760. It was demolished in 1815 when the court was moved to the court house in the vicarage grounds. The Shire Hall was located on the west of the Market place, on the site of three shops which were demolished prior to the construction of the hall in 1871. There are also two other triangular spaces in Howden’s street plan which possibly accommodated specialised markets.
The annual market was in decline by the 18th century and had apparently been discontinued by 1751. By the 19th century, Howden had been eclipsed by Goole and Selby as a market centre. This said, a successful annual horse fair had been established by the end of the 18th century. In both 1807 and 1850 the September horse fair was said to be the largest in England. Horses were brought to and from the fair by train in the 1860s, but the fair was later adversely affected by the decline in coaching traffic. The fair was much contracted by the turn of the 20th century.
Bi-weekly cattle and horse markets were also held in Howden and a Christmas fat-stock market was held in the yards of the Wellington, Bowman’s and Half Moon hotels between 1869 and the Second World War.
An annual hiring fair was held in Howden at martinmas (23rd November) between the mid-19th and early 20th century.
There were other more isolated areas of settlement in Howden township including the Groves, a farm south of Howden. There were also at least three isolated settlement sites to the north-west of Howden, all probably representing pre-Conquest and medieval reclamation of the waste. The settlement at Barnhill was first recorded in 959 and a moat was later dug around the house, while the Bishop of Durham’s deer park was probably enclosed from the waste in the 12th or 13th century.
Irregular field boundaries in the area to the east of the park suggest this area was also brought into cultivation long before the enclosures of the 1770s produced the regular field patterns further north in Howden Common. The land east of the park was known as Ringstone Hurst, and was the site of a hermitage and a moated chapel dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, from at least 1284 and the 15th century respectively. Later isolated settlement in Howden township includes the house and orchard known as California, which occupied a site east of the town by 1879. It was later occupied by the Hall family, who established the nursery and garden centre on the site now known as California Gardens.
Howden itself was more densely populated in both 1672 and 1764, as were some of the townships in its immediate vicinity. Like other market towns in the Vale of York, Howden’s population continued to grow throughout the early 19th century. Between 1801 and 1851 the town’s population was swelled by almost 1,000 persons, reaching 2,491 in the latter year. Its success may have been partially at the expense of surrounding villages: the compilers of the census noted that the growth between 1811 and 1821 could be attributed to the opening of a sacking factory in the town and “the demolition of cottages in adjoining villages”. Migration probably affected individual villages differently depending on their agricultural and economic circumstances.