My London Shoes quest for this week was a bit different from my normal jaunts out, as it was necessary for me to be up and out ‘on the road’ at the crack of dawn, in order to witness the subject matter in all its glory.
The topic in question is actually a place that is up and running at 2am every morning-closing at 7am – but that was just a little too early for an old boy like me, and so I decided to set-off at 5am – still early, but more accommodating to the rail services of “Transport for London”!!!
So – the subject matter this week is “Smithfield Market” –the last surviving historic wholesale market in central London!!
Historically, Smithfield (originally known as Smoothfield), was once a large open space just outside the city walls.
In the 12th Century it was famous for being an area where jousts and tournaments took place. By the late Middle Ages the area had become the most famous livestock market in the country.
There was also a very dark and seedy side to the area, because from the early 13th Century it was one of London’s main sites for the execution for criminals – the most famous probably being old ‘Braveheart’ William Wallace the Scottish hero.
Smithfield was also the location of the notorious “Bartholomew Fair” – an annual ‘public holiday‘ event that was run for 700 years right up until 1855, and comprised of 3 days’ worth of drinking, dancing and debauchery. (sounds a bit like my old Banking career!!)
Because of its size, the land at Smithfield became the ideal site to trade animal livestock – and as a result, sheep, pigs, cattle meat have been bought and sold at Smithfield now for more than 800 years.
Throughout the centuries the Smithfield area became notorious for continual complaints from Londoners about the constant unruly cattle and drunken herdsmen, who would deliberately wind-up the locals and shopkeepers by stampeding cattle through the streets leading to the market – and it is thought that this is where the term ‘like a bull in a china shop’ originates from.
Right up until the early 1850s, live cattle were still being driven to market to be slaughtered on site – causing the streets to be permanently covered with animal blood, guts and entrails.
However, by the mid 1800’s the area was in such a mess that the locals could take no more – and as a result the authorities decided that something had to be done.
In 1866, top City architect Sir Horace Jones was commissioned to design a ‘dead meat’ building to house all the market activity under one roof – and as a result, the Smithfield Market as we know it today was opened in 1868 at a cost of almost £100k.
Its distinct architectural design features included a grand central arcade – statues representing London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Liverpool and at the four corners of the building were distinctive octagonal towers with domed roofs.
The operation of the market was so successful that a poultry market was added to the west side of the building in 1873, all in the same architectural style – and this was shortly followed by the construction of further market buildings for general food stuff like vegetables, fruit and fish.
With the introduction and rapid growth of refrigeration and the ability to freeze meat in the late 1880’s and beyond, this then led to the construction of massive cold storage units on the site – and very gradually all the market buildings were equipped to manage the frozen, chilled and fresh meat and poultry trade.
Today Smithfield Market is still London’s largest wholesale meat market, selling around 200,000 tons of meat annually.
Smithfield today houses 23 trading units in its East building and 21 in its West building.
Inside the main market avenue a magnificent war memorial that commemorates the men, women and children of Smithfield who lost their lives in the two world wars. At the end of the WW2, on 8 March 1945, a V2 rocket hit a building on the corner of Charterhouse Street and Farringdon Road directly opposite the General Market, and very sadly 110 people were killed, with many more injured, including women and children – who were simply just queuing up to buy their meat
All the Smithfield Market buildings are now Grade II listed – which happily means that the site and its significant place in London’s history will always be there for future generations to appreciate and respect.
I dedicate this blog to the late great ‘Wag Barlett’, (the father of my buddy Neil Bartlett, who I’ve known since I was 5 yrs old) – Wag spent over 40 years working at Smithfield Market – and if he were around today I’m sure that he would have loved to of provided me with a few of his stories and tales of what everyday life was like, working at Smithfield!!
Now – although the cafes and pubs scattered around Smithfield are open for business from 2am everyday – it was far too early for me to face a beer – and so instead, before heading off home, I popped into one of the 24hr cafes for a ‘cheeky’ cuppa and a delicious ‘saucy’ egg, bacon & sausage muffin.
Hope you enjoy this blog and its accompanying photos.