Smithfield, London

Smithfield, London

Smithfield (also known as "West Smithfield") is an area in the north-west part of the City of London, mostly known for its centuries-old meat market and its bloody history of executions of heretics and political opponents.

The area and its history

Smithfield was originally the "Smooth Field" just outside the city walls and was used over the centuries as London's main livestock market. Smithfield was also the site of two monasteries - St Bartholomew the Great and Charterhouse - both of which were dissolved in the reformation but both of which have survived in part into the 21st century. St Bartholomew's Hospital was established by the monastery in an area adjacent to Smithfield in 1123.

From 1133 to 1855 Smithfield was the location of the Bartholomew Fair, one of London's preeminent summer fairs, opening each year on August 24th. At once a trading event for cloth and other goods and 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 public disorder and Smithfield Market was built on the site.

As a large open space close to the City it was a favourite place for gatherings such as public executions and jousting.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. [cite journal
last =Lindenbaum
first = Sheila
year = 1990
title= The Smithfield Tournament of 1390
journal= Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies
volume = 20
issue = 1
pages = 1-20
] Jean Froissart, in the 4th 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". [cite book
last = Froissart
first = Jean
authorlink = Jean Froissart
chapter = The Count d'Ostrevant attends a great tournament in London and gets into trouble
title = Chronicles
url =
accessdate: 2008-08-24.
] 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.cite book
last = Thornbury
first = Walter
authorlink = George Walter Thornbury
chapter = XLII. Smithfield
title = Old and New London: Volume 2
pages = 339-344
date = 1878
url =
accessdate: 2008-02-01.
] Geoffrey Chaucer supervised the preparation of the tournament's works as clerk of the king. [cite book
last = Patterson
first = Lee
title = Chaucer and the Subject of History
pages = 93
date = 1991
publisher = Routledge
isbn = 0415073154

Smithfield was for centuries the main site for the execution of heretics and dissidents. The Scottish patriot 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 struck by a dagger here on June 15, 1381. The king's men later removed Tyler from the hospital and beheaded him.About 50 Protestants, dissenters and other religious reformers, known as the Marian martyrs, were executed here under the reign of Mary I. Coin forgers were boiled in oil here during the 16th century.

In 1666 the Smithfield area was left mostly untouched by the Great Fire of London, that 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 and named it after their hometown in England.

Since the late 1990s, Smithfield has seen rapid growth in the number of bars, pubs and clubs locating in the area. Nightclubs such as Fabric and Turnmills were the pioneers of the nightlife in the area. On weekday nights, this nightlife is fed by the many workers based in nearby Holborn, Clerkenwell and the City; at weekends, the nightclubs and bars with late licenses draw people into the area on their own merit.

Until 2002 Smithfield hosted the midnight start of the annual Miglia Quadrato car rally, but with the increased nightclub activity around Smithfield the UHULMC (a motoring club) decided to move the event start to Finsbury Circus. Since 2007, Smithfield is the location of an annual event dedicated to bike racing known as "Smithfield Nocturne". [ [ Smithfield Nocturne official website] ]

The market

The ancient livestock market

Meat has been traded at Smithfield Market for over 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.

Daniel Defoe refers to the market in 1726 as "without question, the greatest in the world". [cite book
last = Defoe
first = Daniel
authorlink = Daniel Defoe
title = A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain
date = 1726
pages = 342
Charles Dickens criticized the location of a livestock market in the heart of the capital in his 1851 essay "" and compared 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. [cite book
last = Dickens
first = Charles
authorlink = Charles Dickens
title = A Monument of French Folly
publisher = Household Words
location = London
date = 1851-03-08
url =
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, making West Smithfield waste ground for a few years. [cite book
last = Thornbury
first = Walter
authorlink = George Walter Thornbury
chapter = The Metropolitan Meat-Market
title = Old and New London: Volume 2
pages = 491-496
date = 1878
url =
accessdate: 2008-02-01.

Victorian Smithfield

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 City 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. The two 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.

The first extension of the meat market took place between 1873 and 1876 with the construction of the "Poultry Market" located 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 1826–30.cite book
author = SAVE Britain's Heritage
authorlink = Save Britain's Heritage
title = Don't Butcher Smithfield. The threat to Britain's finest group of market buildings.
series =
year = 2007
isbn = 0-905978-45-5
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-06
] 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 London's first cold stores to be built outside the London docks and continued to serve Smithfield until the mid-1970s.

Smithfield in the 20th Century

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. [cite journal
last = Gratzer
first = Walter
title = Max Perutz (1914–2002)
journal = Current Biology
volume = 12
issue = 5
pages = R152–R154
date = 2002-03-05
url =
doi = 10.1016/S0960-9822(02)00727-3
accessdate = 2008-01-12
] [cite journal
last = Ramaseshan
first = S
title = Max Perutz (1914–2002)
journal = Current Science
volume = 82
pages = 586–590
date = 2002-03-10
publisher = Indian Academy of Sciences
issn = 0011-3891
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-12
] The experiments were carried by Perutz and his collaborators in a refrigerated meat locker in a Smithfield Market butcher's basement, behind a protective screen of frozen animal carcasses. [cite journal
last = Collins
first = Paul
title = The Floating Island
journal = Cabinet Magazine
issue = 7
date = 2002
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-12
] 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 V2 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. [cite web
title = The V2 Rocket: Smithfield Market.
work = Flying Bombs and Rockets
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-31
] [cite web
last = Grady
first = Derrick
title = The V2 at Smithfield Market.
work = WW2 People's War
publisher = BBC
date = 2003-11-14
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-31

Horace Jones' original "Poultry Market" was destroyed by fire in 1958. The replacement building was designed by Sir Thomas Bennett in 1962–1963, incorporating a dome roof of convert|225|ft|m. [cite book
author = City of London Corporation, Department of Planning
authorlink = City of London Corporation
title = Smithfield: Conservation Area Character Summary
series = Conservation Areas in the City of London
year = 1996
isbn = 0-85203-049-5
url =
accessdate = 2007-10-28

Smithfield today

Smithfield is one of the few of the great London markets not to have moved from its central site to a location further out with cheaper land, better transport links and more modern facilities (compare with Covent Garden and Billingsgate). Since the market is designed to supply inner city butchers, shops and restaurants with meat for the coming day, the trading hours are from 4:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon every weekday. [ Official Market Website] ]

Instead, Smithfield market has been modernised on its existing site; for instance, its imposing Victorian buildings have had access points added for lorry loading and unloading purposes. The buildings sit on top of a warren of tunnels: initially, live animals were brought to the market on foot (from the mid-19th Century onwards they arrived by rail) and were slaughtered on site. This no longer takes place and the former railway tunnels are now used for storage, parking and as basements. An impressive cobbled ramp spirals down round 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 buildings formerly associated with the meat market have now been put to other uses. For example, the former Central Cold Store is now, most unusually, a city centre power station operated by Citigen. Another former cold store now houses the nightclub Fabric.

The public park comprises the centre of the only part of Smithfield which is still open space — this is in effect a large square with the market forming one side and mostly older buildings the other three. 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.

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 convert|350000|sqft|m2 of office space with a retail outlet on the ground floor. [ [ General Market, Smithfields Market] ] Several campaigns, promoted by English Heritage [English Heritage: [ Market Values - Smithfield: present, past & future] ] and Save Britain's Heritage [Save Britain's Heritage: [ Don't butcher Smithfield] campaign] among others, [cite news|first=Paul|last=Curran|title= Demolition of Smithfield Market sparks protest|url=|work=BBC|date=2006-11-20|accessdate=2007-09-28] [cite news|first=Hugh|last=Pearman|title= Smithfield is easy meat for developers|url= |work=The Sunday Times|date=2004-10-31|accessdate=2007-09-28] are being run to raise public awareness on this important part of London's Victorian heritage. In March 2005, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell announced the decision to give 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". [cite news|author=Department for Culture, Media and Sport|title=Decision Announced To Give Listed Building Protection To Red House Cold Store In Smithfield Market|url=|date=2005-03-03|accessdate=2007-09-28] The destiny 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. [cite news|title=Public inquiry into market 'regeneration'|url=|work=Islington Gazette|date=2006-07|accessdate=2007-09-28] The Public Inquiry for the demolition and redevelopment of the General Market Building took place between November 6 2007 and January 25 2008. [ [ Public Inquiry for the demolition and redevelopment of the General Market Building] ] . 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. [cite news|work=BBC News Online|title=Smithfield market plans refused|url=|date=2008-08-07|accessdate=2008-08-09] [cite news|work=English Heritage|title=Smithfield Soul Saved|url=|date=2008-08-07|accessdate=2008-08-24]

Some of the buildings on Lindsey Street opposite the West Market are likely to be demolished to allow the construction of the new Crossrail station at Farringdon. The buildings to be demolished 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. [cite news|title= SAVE highlights threatened London buildings|url=|work=Sapling newsletter|date=2006-06|accessdate=2008-01-17]

Photo gallery

See also

* Farringdon
* Clerkenwell
* List of people executed in Smithfield
* List of markets in London


External links

* [|Victorian London: Smithfield Market] : literary quotations about Smithfield.
* [ 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.
* [ St Bartholomew the Great] church website.
* [ Images of Smithfield circa 1991] black and white images of Smithfield meat market before renovations in the mid-1990s.
*mmuk phoetc|531823|181756|10
* [ 1958 Smithfield Market Fire - London Fire Journal]

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