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.
Matters came to a head in 1855 when the City Corporation closed the market. Initially it planned and built a new cattle market site at Caledonian Road near the Regent’s Canal, replete with a high clock tower (still surviving) to guide drovers as they brought livestock for trading there. A new Agricultural Hall (now the Design Centre) was also built and opened in 1861 in Islington to house the annual Smithfield Show.
Whilst this was happening the arrival of railways across London changed the potential for the Smithfield site – particularly with the building of the Metropolitan Railway and opening of Farringdon Station in 1863. Meat & poultry could now be slaughtered outside London and then rapidly transported to the market for wholesaling. The City Corporation elected to commission new market buildings for Smithfield from its architect, Horace Jones. The easternmost buildings on the site today – the Italian-inspired Central Market arranged either side of a Grand Avenue – were the result and opened in 1868.
The market was unique in having railway sidings running in a 15m high tunnel beneath to bring in meat directly for wholesaling and distribution around the city. Such was its trading success that within three years a new building for the Poultry Market was commissioned and built immediately to the west. After it opened in 1871, a General Market together with a southern annex then followed in later buildings stretching further westwards down to the Farringdon Road (at about the same time, the Holborn Viaduct was built nearby).
With the new Smithfield market fully established, the Caledonian Road site changed to a general local market – i.e. it was never a competitor. The next significant step for Smithfield was technological with the introduction of refrigeration storage. The Port of London Authority opened a new refrigerated warehouse just to the north in the 1880’s, to facilitate imported refrigerated meat from ships arriving at London being sold at Smithfield. These “cold stores” also helped traders store meat when prices were low and release it during more profitable, higher-priced periods.
Modern Day Smithfield –
the market was closed during World War II. The only major damage suffered was caused by a V2 strike on Farringdon Road in March 1945. The General Market buildings at the Farringdon Road end were repaired and partly rebuilt whilst the Poultry Market had to be totally rebuilt. It was designed by T.P.Bennett – to a design which incorporated what was then the world’s largest domed roof - and opened in 1962.
When the railway sidings serving the market were closed in the 1960’s some 4000 jobs were directly based there at the time, with many more in meat industry-related activities (warehousing, etc.) in the surrounding area. The increasing use of lorry traffic which then resulted, taking meat to and from the site during the day and night, caused increasing concern again – particularly in nearby residential areas where market vehicles might be parked and create congestion.
When the Greater London Council published its Greater London Development Plan in 1969 it congestion and disruption they caused on their existing sites. This policy eventually resulted in Covent Garden moving across the Thames to Nine Elms; Spitalfields moving to Its Lower Lea Valley site; and Billingsgate to its current Isle of Dogs site near Canary Wharf. Smithfield remained. The City Corporation and LB Islington produced studies on its future as further changes affected Smithfield – e.g. with supermarkets growing and buying their own meat wholesale and the introduction of EU hygiene regulations in the 1980’s. Gradually meat-industry uses were leaving the surrounding area – and the Poultry and General Markets closed.
The future of the site was in question for many years – with a fight led by the Victorian Society and Save Britain’s Heritage needed at one stage to retain the General Market buildings; they succeeded via a decision taken by Eric Pickles, the then Secretary of State. The City Corporation has allocated periodic funding to keep the market buildings in place – notably with an £80m refurbishment of Horace Jones original Central Market buildings - and meat trading still continues but with a much-reduced workforce from its heyday, now numbering around 400 jobs..
Developer interest has now picked up – first with the opening of Thameslink and now with the coming of a Crossrail interchange at Farringdon. This has resulted in a the General and Poultry Markets’ buildings, involving the relocation of the Museum of London from its current City Wall site to Smithfield in 2023 (see: https://www.stantonwilliams.com/projects scheme for /museum-of-london-west-smithfield/
). It will in particular utilise the vast 10 acres of basement space with a 15m headroom for storage and display of its artefacts.
The Future –
August 2018 saw the City Corporation announce that it was searching for a new single site within the M25 to house all London’s wholesale markets in future. A 42-acre site in Barking has been investigated but no decision yet taken. The aim would be to sell the current Billingsgate and Spitalfields sites for redevelopment. Smithfield’s meat wholesale market would eventually transfer to a new site – but whether the current market use would continue in some form (e.g. perhaps as a new Borough Market to extend the City Corporation’s Barbican Cultural Quarter?) remains to be seen.