A brief history of Smithfield

By alex werner, head of history collections on 26 Mar 2015

Painting of 'A Bird's Eye View of Smithfield Market taken from the Bear and Ragged Staff'

Smithfield is one of London’s special places. Its lanes, alleys and courts on the edge of the market still follow a medieval street plan. Smithfield has its own distinctive character and feel. The bumarees or market porters with their white coats and hats, often smeared with blood, mingle with office and hospital workers. It is a locality at work both day and night. In the evenings, crowds spill out from the pubs and bars, while drivers park lorries laden with meat ready for the early morning market.

Smithfield has a long history and there has been a market here for over 800 years. The name is a corruption of the words ‘smooth field’ reflecting its natural topography as a flat and open area. Located to the north-west beyond the walls and hustle and bustle of the city, it became a popular meeting place. It was a venue for weekly sales of horses and other animals from at least the late 12th century. It was where royal tournaments and jousts were held as well as St Bartholomew’s Fair in August, one of England’s largest annual public events. However, the locality had a darker side, and was where heretics were burnt at the stake. The Scottish patriot, William Wallace, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield and Wat Tyler, leader of the peasant’s revolt, was killed here in front of Richard II.

A number of important religious foundations surrounded Smithfield. To the north, there was the nunnery of St Mary Clerkenwell, the Knight’s Hospitaller priory of St John Clerkenwell and the Carthusian Charterhouse while to the south the Augustinian priory and hospital of St Bartholomew. These religious houses and their precincts have shaped the locality and even after the dissolution of the monasteries, their presence has been retained through roads and boundaries lines as well as a number of spectacular buildings.

As London’s population grew so the livestock market expanded. Smithfield became enclosed on all sides by buildings and by the early 17th century the space had been paved. Congestion in the streets became intolerable as herds of cattle and sheep were driven to the market, there was stench from the slaughterhouses in the vicinity and a cacophony of cries from both animals and market traders.

Engraving of Smithfield Market, from the Barrs

It was a scene described vividly by Charles Dickens in this famous passage from Oliver Twist:

“Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.”

In 1855, the livestock market closed and moved out to the Metropolitan Cattle Market just off the Caledonian Road, and in 1860 the Corporation of London embarked on a massive construction project at Smithfield. Designed by the City’s architect, Sir Horace Jones, a vast new meat market was opened in 1868. Its impressive central arcade was marked with statues representing London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Liverpool and at the four corners of the building stood octagonal towers with domed roofs. Underground were railway sidings where meat, discharged from railway wagons, was lifted up on large hydraulic lifts to the market floor. This was certainly a market of the industrial age.

Such was the success of the operation that a large poultry market was added to the west in 1873 in the same architectural style followed by further market buildings in the 1880s for general produce including vegetables, fruit and fish. The growth of the frozen meat trade which expanded rapidly in the late nineteenth and early twenty century led to the construction of enormous cold stores in the vicinity of Smithfield. Gradually all the market buildings were given over to the frozen, chilled and fresh meat and poultry trade.

Detail of Smithfield General Market, showing 1881 sign

A war memorial at Smithfield Market commemorates the memory of the men, women and children of Smithfield who lost their lives in the two world wars. At the end of the Second World War, on 8 March 1945, a V2 rocket hit a building on the corner of Charterhouse Street and Farringdon Road opposite the General Market. The damage was extensive and 110 people died with many more injured, including women and children queuing up to buy meat.

The Smithfield market has been modernised in recent years. A serious fire destroyed the Poultry Market in 1958 and a new building was opened in 1963 with the largest clear spanning concrete dome roof in Europe. The main East and West Market were renovated in the 1990s by the Corporation of London to meet stricter meat cutting and operational practices with sealed loading bays, new stalls and chiller rooms. The Grade II* listed building has been painted in its dramatic original Victorian colours of pink, blue and purple.

3 thoughts on “A brief history of Smithfield

  1. Odette Nelson says:

    When Londinium took over as main ‘capital’ from Camelodunum, could there have been a circus built here? There is an amphitheatre, so why not a circus?
    The obvious site would be a large, flat area near the settlement, such as, say, a smooth field? Smithfields ticks all the boxes. I put this idea forward when doing a Masters in Archaeology of London, but with no proof from excavation, it’s hard to add any more to the theory!

    1. Roy Stephenson says:

      Dear Odette

      If Londinium was to confirm to an identikit set of characteristics, we are certainly missing a theatre and circus, we have the amphitheatre and the forum/basilica, possibly too much forum/basilica! The area between the city wall and the Fleet valley is relatively underexplored archaeologically, the western cemetery is roughly within the area of what is now Barts, so the area beyond this where the markets are now could be fruitful in terms of further investigation. Having said there are a number of very deep multi-storey basements in places, and further excavation would only be undertaken in case of major development. There are a number of scheduled buildings and all within a conservation zone, so further major archaeological intervention is unlikely in the near future. So the mystery of where the theatre and the circus will be a great story to tell in the ‘New Museum’.

  2. Valeria says:

    “The few traces of Roman occupation that have been found point to a largely agricultural character. There seem to have been a good number of Roman burials on the site now occupied by St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, as burials within the city walls were not allowed.”
    Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/services/environment-and-planning/environmental-enhancement/strategies/Documents/2-west-smithfield-area-introduction-and-historical-overview.pdf

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