Peter Murray

Thanks to Studio Egret West for hosting Alec Forshaw’s talk on Smithfield. Brian Whiteley reports on the evening’s talk.

Historical Background / Evolution – Smithfield (originally “smooth field” in old English) started out as a Friday livestock market outside the Roman city walls – probably around 1000 years ago – making it the oldest surviving London market still trading in its original location. By the Tudor period, it started to expand to eventually trade five days per week, dealing in livestock, meat and vegetables. The land for the market was given to the City Corporation by the Crown in a Royal Charter of 1638. Today the land could still revert to Crown ownership if a market ceased to permanently operate there.

Its location outside the original city walls probably saved the market from the 1666 Great Fire and by the early 19th century, it found itself at the centre of a rebuilt and rapidly expanding city. Such was demand from London’s growing population that animals were being driven increasingly great distances (e.g. Scottish cattle) to be marketed there and then slaughtered and butchered. At the time, a common sight on the suburbs’ main routes was of cattle, horses, geese, etc. being herded down, e.g. along Edgware Road or Holloway Road en route to Smithfield.

By the mid 19th century writers such as Charles Dickens were highlighting the market’s ramshackle buildings, the dirty and dangerous conditions there for animals and humans and in particular the unsanitary conditions the meat slaughtering was having at the heart of the city in Newgate Street – with waste going directly into the Fleet and Thames. The noise and bustle of livestock and traders assembling there, together with the associated streams of animals coming through the suburbs was causing widespread concern. A major public gathering – St Bartholomew’s Fair every August – was also held at Smithfield. The noise, drunkenness and misbehaviour it brought merely added to public concern about the need to take action.

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