Smithfield (also known as West Smithfield) is an area of the City of London, in the ward of Farringdon Without, and where the present Haberdashers' Hall is located. It is situated in the north-west part of the City, and is mostly known for its centuries-old meat market, today the last surviving historical wholesale market in Central London. Smithfield has a bloody history of executions of heretics and political opponents, including major historical figures such as Scottish patriot William Wallace, Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants' Revolt, and a long series of religious reformers and dissenters.
Today, the Smithfield area is dominated by the imposing, Grade II listed covered market designed by Victorian architect Sir Horace Jones in the second half of the 19th century. Some of the original market buildings were abandoned for decades and faced a threat of demolition, but they were saved as the result of a public inquiry and will be part of new urban development plans aimed at preserving the historical identity of this area.
In the Middle Ages Smithfield was a broad grassy space known as Smooth Field, just outside the London Wall, on the eastern bank of the River Fleet. Due to its access to grazing and water, it was used as the City's main livestock market for nearly 1000 years. Many toponyms in the area are associated to the trading of livestock: while some of these street names (such as "Cow Cross Street" and "Cock Lane") are still in use, many more (such as "Chick Lane", "Duck Lane", "Cow Lane", "Pheasant Court", "Goose Alley") have disappeared from the maps since the major Victorian redevelopment of the area.
In 1123, the land closest to Aldersgate was granted for the foundation of St Bartholomew's Priory by Rahere; as thanks for surviving an illness. The Priory enclosed the land between Aldersgate (to the east), Long Lane (in the north) and the modern Newgate Street (to the south). The main western gate opened on Smithfield; and there was a postern to Long Lane. The Priory was also granted the rights to a weekly fair; and this was established within the outer court along the line of the modern Cloth Fair; leading to a Fair Gate. A further annual fair was added in 1133, the Bartholomew Fair, one of London's pre-eminent summer fairs, opening each year on 24 August. A trading event for cloth and other goods as well as a pleasure fair, the four-day event drew crowds from all classes of English society. The fair was suppressed in 1855 by the City authorities for encouraging debauchery and public disorder.
In 1348, Walter de Manny rented 13-acre (0.05 km2) of land in Spital Croft, north of Long Lane, from the Master and Brethren of St. Bartholomew's Hospital for a graveyard and plague pit for victims of the Black Death. A chapel and hermitage were constructed, renamed New Church Haw; but in 1371, this land was granted for the foundation of the London Charterhouse, a Carthusian monastery.
A little to the north of this demesne was established the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, an Order of the Knights Hospitallers. This was in existence by the mid 12th century, but not granted a Charter until 1194. To the north of the Hospitallers was a Priory of Augustinian Canonesses; the Priory of St. Mary at Clerkenwell.
By the end of the 14th century, the religious houses were regarded as interlopers — occupying what had previously been public open space near one of the City gates. On a number of occasions the Charterhouse was invaded and buildings destroyed. By 1405, a stout wall was built to protect the property and maintain the privacy of the order, particularly the church where women had come to worship.
The religious houses were dissolved in the reformation, and their lands broken up. The priory church of St John's still exists, a little to the north of Old Street, and is now the chapel of the Order of St John. The St John's gate remains, forming the boundary between Smithfield and Clerkenwell. John Houghton, the prior of the London Charterhouse, went to Thomas Cromwell with priors from two other houses to obtain an oath of supremacy that would be acceptable to their communities. They were flung in the Tower of London; and on 4 May 1535, they were taken to Tyburn and hanged — becoming the first Catholic martyrs of the Reformation. On 29 May, the remaining twenty monks and eighteen lay brothers were required to take the oath; those ten refusing were taken to Newgate Prison and left to starve. With the monks expelled, Charterhouse became a private house, before the foundation by Thomas Sutton in 1611 of a charitable foundation forming the school named Charterhouse and almshouses known as Sutton's Hospital in Charterhouse on the site. Some of the buildings were damaged in The Blitz. The school moved to Godalming in 1872, and the site is now occupied by a part of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. Charterhouse was an extra-parochial area, becoming a civil parish in its own right that was incorporated into the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury in 1899.
From its inception, the priory of St Bartholomew had treated the sick. The Reformation left it with neither income nor monastic occupants. After a petition by the City authorities, Henry VIII refounded it in December 1546, as the "House of the Poore in West Smithfield in the suburbs of the City of London of Henry VIII's Foundation". Letters patent were presented to the City, granting property and income to the new foundation the following month. The King's own sergeant-surgeon Thomas Vicary was appointed first superintendent of the hospital The King Henry VIII Gate, constructed in 1702, still forms the principal entrance to the hospital.
The principal church of the priory, St Bartholomew-the-Great, was shortened, losing the western third of the nave, and became the Anglican parish church of a parish that followed the former boundary of the priory and the thin strip between the church and Long Lane. This parish was a liberty, and until 1910 maintained its own gates, which were shut at night by watchmen. The provision of street lighting, mains water and sewerage were beyond the means of such a small parish; and in 1910 the parish was reincorporated into the City of London. The boundary of the parish extends about 10 feet into Smithfield — possibly marking the site of a former road. The hospital formed its own separate parish, around the parish church of St Bartholomew-the-Less — unique amongst English hospitals. In 1948, the hospital became part of the National Health Service and adopted the name St Bartholomew's Hospital.
The status of the former priory created the two parishes of St Bartholomew's. These had historically been associated with the parish of St Botolph Aldersgate — leading to disputes over the tithes and taxes due from lay residents, after the dissolution. Smithfield and the market was part of the parish of St Sepulchre. It was founded in 1137, with a benefice granted by Rahere. This parish extended from Turnmill Street in the north to St Paul's Cathedral and Ludgate Hill in the south, along the banks of the Fleet (now the course of Farringdon Street). The church bell tower holds the twelve "bells of Old Bailey" from the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons. Traditionally, the Great Bell was rung to announce the execution of prisoners at Newgate.
As a large open space close to the City, Smithfield was a favourite place for public gatherings. In 1374 Edward III held a seven-day tournament in Smithfield, for the amusement of his beloved Alice Perrers. Possibly the most famous tournament in medieval Smithfield was the one ordered in 1390 by Richard II. Jean Froissart, in the fourth book of his Chronicles, reports that sixty knights would come to London to tilt for two days, "accompanied by sixty noble ladies, richly ornamented and dressed". The tournament was proclaimed by heralds in England, Scotland, Hainault, Germany, Flanders, and France, to rival the jousts given by Charles of France into Paris a few years earlier, on the entry of his consort Isabeau de Bavière. Geoffrey Chaucer supervised the preparation of the tournament as clerk of the king.
Along with Tyburn, Smithfield was for centuries the main site for the public execution of heretics and dissidents in London. The Scottish nobleman William Wallace was executed here in 1305. The market was used as a meeting place for the peasants in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the revolt's leader, Wat Tyler was killed there after being stabbed by William Walworth, the Mayor of London, and a squire on 15 June 1381.
Religious dissenters (Catholics as well as different Protestant denominations such as Anabaptists) were put to death at Smithfield in the course of the changes in the religious orientation of the Crown, since King Henry VIII. About fifty Protestants and religious reformers, known as the Marian martyrs, were executed here during the reign of Mary I.
Chesterton comments ironically
"It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object."
On 17 November 1558, several Protestant heretics were saved from the Smithfield stake moments before the wooden faggots were lit after a royal messenger announced the queen's death. Under English law all royal death warrants were signed under the royal sign-manual, the personal signature of the monarch, on the recommendation of their governments. But the warrants abated (lost their force) on the sovereign's death if they had not already been executed. Elizabeth I did not reinforce the death warrants so all the Protestants were set free. During the 16th century, Smithfield was also used to execute swindlers and coin forgers who were boiled to death in oil. However by the 18th century the "Tyburn Tree" (near the present-day Marble Arch), had become the main place for public executions in London. After 1785, they were again moved, this time to the gates of Newgate prison — just to the south of Smithfield.
In 1666 the Smithfield area was left mostly untouched by the Great Fire of London, which stopped near the Fortune of War tavern, at the junction of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, where the statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner is located. In the 17th century, several residents of Smithfield emigrated to the United States where they founded the town of Smithfield, Rhode Island.
Since the late 1990s, Smithfield has seen many new bars, pubs and clubs. Nightclubs such as Fabric and Turnmills were the pioneers of the night life in the area, patronised on weekday nights by the many workers in nearby Holborn, Clerkenwell and the City; at weekends, the night clubs and bars with late licences draw people into the area on their own merit.
At weekends, and from early morning, the business of the market is concluded and the area has become a popular venue as the start for sporting events. Until 2002 Smithfield hosted the midnight start of the annual Miglia Quadrato car rally, but with the increased night club activity around Smithfield the UHULMC (a motoring club) decided to move the event's start to Finsbury Circus. Since 2007, Smithfield has been the location of an annual event dedicated to bike racing known as Smithfield Nocturne.
1, West Smithfield is the Head Office of the Churches Conservation Trust.
Meat has been traded at Smithfield Market for more than 800 years, making it one of the oldest markets in London. A livestock market occupied the site as early as the 10th century. In 1174 the site was described by William Fitzstephen as:
a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold, and in another quarter are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk.
The livestock market expanded over the centuries to meet the demands of the growing population of the City. In 1710, the market was surrounded by a wooden fence to keep the livestock within the market; and until its abolition, the gate house of Cloth Fair was protected by a chain (le cheyne) on market days. Daniel Defoe referred to the livestock market in 1726 as "without question, the greatest in the world". and the available figures appear to support this claim. Between 1740 and 1750 the average yearly sales at Smithfield were reported to be around 74,000 cattle and 570,000 sheep. By the middle of the 19th century, in the course of a single year 220,000 head of cattle and 1,500,000 sheep would be "violently forced into an area of five acres, in the very heart of London, through its narrowest and most crowded thoroughfares". The volume of cattle driven daily to Smithfield started to raise major concerns.
The Great North Road traditionally began at Smithfield market and mileages were measured from here. The specific start was Hicks Hall, and its former location continued to be used for mileages even after it was demolished, soon after 1778. The road followed St John Street, and continued north, eventually leading to Edinburgh. This ended in 1829, with the establishment of the General Post Office at St Martin's-le-Grand, which became the new starting point.
Growth and decline: End of the cattle market
In the Victorian period, pamphlets started circulating in favour of the removal of the livestock market and its relocation outside of the city, due to its extremely poor hygienic conditions as well as the brutal treatment of the cattle. The conditions at the market in the first half of the 19th century were often described as a major threat to public health:
Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed, there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined; and this abomination is suffered to continue year after year, from generation to generation, in the very heart of the most Christian and most polished city in the world.
In 1843, the Farmer's Magazine published a petition signed by bankers, salesmen, aldermen, butchers and local residents against the expansion of the livestock market, arguing that livestock markets had been systematically banned since the Middle Ages in other areas of London:
Our ancestors appear, in sanitary matters, to have been wiser than we are. There exists, amongst the Rolls of Parliament of the year 1380, a petition from the citizens of London, praying- that, for the sake of the public health, meat should not be slaughtered nearer than "Knyghtsbrigg", under penalty, not only of forfeiting such animals as might be killed in the " butcherie," but of a year's imprisonment. The prayer of this petition was granted, audits penalties were enforced during several reigns.
Thomas Hood wrote in 1830 an Ode to the Advocates for the Removal of Smithfield Market, applauding those "philanthropic men" who aim at removing to a distance the "vile Zoology" of the Market, and "routing that great nest of Hornithology". Charles Dickens criticised the location of a livestock market in the heart of the capital in his 1851 essay A Monument of French Folly comparing it to the French market outside Paris at Poissy:
Of a great Institution like Smithfield, [the French] are unable to form the least conception. A Beast Market in the heart of Paris would be regarded an impossible nuisance. Nor have they any notion of slaughter-houses in the midst of a city. One of these benighted frog-eaters would scarcely understand your meaning, if you told him of the existence of such a British bulwark.
An Act of Parliament was passed in 1852, under the provisions of which a new cattle-market should be constructed in Copenhagen Fields, Islington. The new Metropolitan Cattle Market was opened in 1855, and West Smithfield was left as waste ground for about one decade, until the construction of the new market .
Victorian Smithfield: Meat and poultry market
The present Smithfield meat market on Charterhouse Street was established by an Act of Parliament: the 1860 Metropolitan Meat and Poultry Market Act. It is a large market with permanent buildings, designed by architect Sir Horace Jones, who was also responsible for Billingsgate and Leadenhall Markets. Work on the Central Market, inspired by Italian architecture, began in 1866 and was completed in November 1868 at a cost of £993,816 (£66 million as of 2013). The Grade II listed main wings (known as East and West Market) were separated by the Grand Avenue, a wide roadway roofed by an elliptical arch with decorations in cast iron. At the two ends of the arcade, four huge statues represent London, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Dublin and bronze dragons hold the City's coat of arms. At the corners of the market four octagonal pavilion towers were built, each with a dome and carved stone griffins.
As the market was built, a cut and cover railway tunnel was constructed beneath the market to create a triangular junction with the railway between Blackfriars and Kings Cross through the Snow Hill tunnel — closed in 1916, but now used for Thameslink services. This allowed the construction of extensive railway sidings, beneath Smithfield park, and the transfer of animal carcases to the Cold Store building, or direct to the meat market via lifts. These sidings closed in the 1960s, and are now used as a car park, accessed through a cobbled descent in the centre of Smithfield park. Today, much of the meat comes to the market by road.
The first extension of the meat market took place between 1873 and 1876 with the construction of the Poultry Market immediately west of the Central Market. A rotunda was built at the centre of the old market field, with gardens, a fountain and a ramped carriageway to the station beneath the market building. Further buildings were added to the market in later years. The General Market, built between 1879 and 1883, was intended to replace the old Farringdon Market located nearby and established for the sale of fruit and vegetables when the earlier Fleet Market was cleared to enable the laying out of Farringdon Street in 1826–1830. A further block (also known as Annexe Market or Triangular Block) consisting of two separate structures (the Fish Market and the Red House) was built between 1886 and 1899. The Fish Market, built by John Mowlem & Co., was completed in 1888, one year after Horace Jones' death. The Red House, with its imposing red brick and Portland stone façade, was built between 1898 and 1899 for the London Central Markets Cold Storage Co. Ltd.. It was one of the first cold stores to be built outside the London docks and continued to serve Smithfield until the mid-1970s.
During World War II, a large underground cold store at Smithfield was the theatre of secret experiments led by Max Perutz on pykrete, a mixture of ice and woodpulp, alleged to be tougher than steel. Perutz's work, inspired by Geoffrey Pyke and part of Project Habakkuk, was meant to test the viability of pykrete as a material to construct floating airstrips in the Atlantic to allow refuelling of cargo planes in support of Lord Louis Mountbatten's operations. The experiments were carried out by Perutz and his colleagues in a refrigerated meat locker in a Smithfield Market butcher's basement, behind a protective screen of frozen animal carcasses. These experiments became obsolete with the development of longer range aircraft and the project was soon abandoned.
At the end of World War II, a V-2 rocket struck at the north side of Charterhouse Street, near the junction with Farringdon Road (1945). The explosion caused massive damage to the market buildings, extending into the railway tunnel below, and over 110 casualties.
Horace Jones' original Poultry Market was destroyed by fire in 1958. The Grade II listed replacement building was designed by Sir Thomas Bennett in 1962–1963. It has a reinforced concrete frame, with external cladding of dark blue brick. The main hall is covered by an enormous concrete dome, shaped as an elliptical paraboloid, spanning 225 feet (69 m) by 125 feet (38 m) and only 3 inches (7.6 cm) thick at the centre. The dome is believed to be the largest concrete shell structure ever built in Europe by that time.
Smithfield is the only great London market (not counting lesser markets such as Leadenhall Market and Spitalfields) not to have moved out of central London for cheaper land, better transport links and more modern facilities (compare with Covent Garden and Billingsgate). The purpose of the market is to supply inner city butchers, shops and restaurants with meat for the coming day, so the trading hours are from 4:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon every weekday. Instead of moving away, Smithfield market has been modernised on its existing site: its imposing Victorian buildings have had access points added for the loading and unloading of lorries. The buildings stand on top of a warren of tunnels: previously, live animals were brought to the market on the hoof (from the mid-19th century onwards they arrived by rail) and were slaughtered on site. The former railway tunnels are now used for storage, parking and as basements. An impressive cobbled ramp spirals down around the public park now known as West Smithfield, on the south side of the market, to give access to part of this area. Some of the buildings on Charterhouse Street on the north side have access into the tunnels from their basements.
Some of the former meat market buildings now have other uses. For example, the former Central Cold Store, in Charterhouse Street is now, most unusually, a city centre cogeneration power station operated by Citigen. Another former cold store now houses the night club Fabric.
Part of Smithfield is still open space: a large square with the market on one side and mostly older buildings on the other three. A public park is at the centre. The south side is occupied by St Bartholomew's Hospital (frequently known as Barts), and part of the east side by the church of St Bartholomew the Great. The church of St Bartholomew the Less is just inside the hospital's main gate. The north and south of the square are now closed to through traffic, as a part of the City's security and surveillance cordon known as the Ring of steel. Security for the market is provided by the Market Constabulary.
Demolition and development plans
Since 2005, the General Market (1883) and the adjacent Fish Market and Red House buildings (1898), part of the Victorian complex of the Smithfield Market, have been facing a threat of demolition. Their owner, the City of London Corporation, intends to replace them with office blocks. Property developers Thornfield Properties plan to demolish the historic site and build a seven-storey office block, offering 350,000 square feet (33,000 m2) of office space with a retail outlet on the ground floor. Several campaigns, promoted by English Heritage and Save Britain's Heritage among others, are being run to raise public awareness of this important part of London's Victorian heritage. In March 2005, then Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell announced the decision to give Grade II listed building protection to the Red House Cold Store building, on the basis of new historical evidence qualifying the complex as "the earliest existing example of a purpose-built powered cold store". The future of the adjoining buildings, in particular the General Market, remains unclear. Development plans have been postponed after government planning minister Ruth Kelly decided to call a major public inquiry to be held in 2007. The Public Inquiry for the demolition and redevelopment of the General Market Building took place between 6 November 2007 and 25 January 2008. In August 2008, Communities Secretary Hazel Blears announced that planning permission for the General Market development had been refused, stating that the threatened buildings made "a significant contribution" to the character and appearance of Farringdon and the surrounding area.
On the 12th of October 2012, Australian fund manager Henderson unveiled £160 million plans for the western edge of the site. Henderson’s proposals would see the fish market, general market and Red House buildings, all more than a century old, make way for restaurants, retailers and office buildings while retaining and restoring most of the original perimeter walls. A new piazza will be created in the general market.
Some of the buildings on Lindsey Street opposite the West Market were demolished in 2010 to allow the construction of the new Crossrail station at Farringdon. The demolished buildings include Smithfield House (an unlisted early 20th century Hennebique concrete building), the Edmund Martin Ltd. shop (an earlier building with alterations dating to the 1930s) and two Victorian warehouses behind them.
The Port of London Authority building
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- Smithfield Market page on the City of London website
- Victorian London: Smithfield Market: literary quotations about Smithfield.
- St Bartholomew the Great church website.
- Aerial photo of Smithfield, London. Other map and aerial photo sources.
- 1958 Smithfield Market Fire - London Fire Journal
- Historic picture of Smithfield Market circa 1830 featuring St Bartholomew's Hospital (the centre building in the background) and the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral behind that.
- Images of Smithfield Market circa 1991 - the black and white images in the gallery at this link provides a useful "day in the life of..." insight of a working market, this before the extensive renovations of Smithfield Market in the mid-1990s.