Smithfield Market in Farringdon is in many ways a relic of the past, which has survived – very much against the odds – to continue trading in London today. Though this humble meat market might not be the most appealing of the myriad markets in London, it’s certainly worth taking a turn around for its wonderful and bloody history.
Meat and formerly livestock have been traded on the same patch for over 800 years, beginning in the 10th century when the area of grassy space then known as Smooth Field was selected as the best spot for grazing. It was also the site of many a jousting tournament, as well as more debauched events such as Bartholomew Fair which involved three days of drinking and dancing.
As the city grew, so too did the traffic of animals – to the point where city folk could barely move for the hordes of cattle crowding the London streets. The Victorians, being fanatical on the new-found matter of hygiene as they were, became horrified by the chaotic market. The mayhem of the market, which had begun to encroach on the surrounding streets and houses, was ill-fitting with their neat-and-tidy views on cleanliness and order in public spaces. Indeed, Max Schlesinger declared Smithfield Market “the dirtiest of all the dirty spots which disgrace the fair face of the capital of England” in his 1853 musings on London, and his harsh words were echoed by the masses. Pamphlets and petitions led to an Act for the market’s removal, and the future of Smithfield hung uncertainly in the balance.
But it’s lucky, really, that our Victorian predecessors were so concerned with the ‘filth and mire’, because their complaints led to the transformation of Smithfield from a cow-crowded field into a far more refined meat and poultry market. Sir Horace Jones was the man made responsible for that task, and he created impressive Italian-inspired buildings of cast iron, glass, stone and slate, which were completed in 1868. The transformation cost a whopping £993,000 – the equivalent of £66 million today.
The test of endurance for Smithfield Market did not end with the tenacious tidiness of the Victorians. Second World War bomb damage was followed by a destructive fire in 1958, and since 2005 the Market has faced threat of demolition and redevelopment into office blocks. But people rallied once again – this time to protect Smithfield Market and its particular cut of London’s heritage – and traders still flog their meaty wares there every day.
Though the raucous days of the livestock market may have been relegated to the pre-Victorian era, in the wee hours of this morning Smithfield Market was very much present and alive with activity. Lorries battle for space in the middle of the market, while the dozens of traders are just beginning to pack away – the best time to see them in full swing is at around 7am, apparently.
My new butcher friends are a jovial bunch, and tell me they’ve been trading here for years and have never felt that Smithfield has been seriously threatened. They source their meat from all over the world, explain the different cuts, and tell me about who they sell it to – everyone from posh hotels and catering companies, to the general public. They even invite me to take a tour behind the scenes with my very own white coat, but I politely decline – I expect it’s a little too bloody for this time in the morning.