Smithfield in London

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Smithfield (also known as West Smithfield) is an area of the City of London, in the ward of Farringdon Without. It is located 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.

The 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.

Religious history

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 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 the district 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 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. 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. 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 have 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.

The market


Meat has been traded at Smithfield Market for over 800 years, making it one of the oldest markets in London. 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 ' 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 (£ as of ). 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 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. 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 350000 sqft of office space with a retail outlet on the ground floor. Several campaigns, promoted by English Heritage and Save Britain's Heritage<ref name="save" /> 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.

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.

See also

  • List of markets in London
  • List of people executed in Smithfield

External links