A Potted History of Smithfield Market | John Morgan

Local historian John Morgan delves into Smithfield’s long and bloody past, from grassy field to rambunctious meat market…

Horse and Cattle at Smithfield Market by JL Agasse (1767-1849)

“The ground was covered, nearly ankle deep, with filth and mire: A thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle.”

So wrote Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. He was referring to the Smithfi eld of the 1830s: with its “unw ashed, unsha ven, squalid and dirty figures”, the market was “a stunning and bewildering scene which quite confounded the senses”.

These words from Dickens give a good idea of what Smithfield must have been like when it was still a ‘live’ meat market. It was not until 1855 that the ‘live’ market was moved further north in Islington to Copenhagen Fields. In 1868 the current building was opened as a ‘dead’ meat market which it remains today – as the last surviving historic wholesale market in central London.

Smithfield’s history has always been closely linked to that of Clerkenwell. Smithfield (Smooth field) and Clerkenwell (Clerk’s Well) were two districts on the northern boundaries of the City of London.

In the Middle Ages Smithfield was a wide grassy space, just outside the northern wall of the City of London on the eastern bank of the River Fleet.

Due to its access to grazing and water, it was used as London’s principle livestock market. Meat has been bought and sold at Smithfield for more than 800 years. As early as 1174, the chronicler William Fitzstephen observed “a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold”. Sheep, pigs and cattle were also traded. Some street names associated with the market are still in use, such as Cowcross Street, but many others, such as Duck Lane, Chick Street and Goose Alley, disappeared as the Victorians redeveloped the area.

In 1615, railings and sewers were provided in an attempt to bring order at a time when fighting and duelling were commonplace. Twenty-one years later, the Corporation of the City of London formally established a cattle market by means of a royal charter.

At the beginning of the 1700s complaints were made against unruly cattle and drunken herdsmen. Drovers, often the worse for drink, would have some fun by stampeding cattle on the way to market. The angry cattle would invade shops and houses, probably giving rise to the phrase ‘like a bull in a china shop’.

As the City of London expanded, so the need for meat grew and so did the market. By the middle of the 1700s, around 75,000 cattle and over 550,000 sheep were sold each year. A hundred years later, these numbers had increased to 220,000 cattle and 1.5 million sheep.

By the early 1850s, live cattle were still being driven to market to be slaughtered on site. The streets flowed with blood, as guts and entrails were dumped in such inadequate drainage channels that did exist. This was the scene that Dickens described in Oliver Twist.



A bird’s eye view of the market (unknown)


The old Smithfield market that Dickens wrote about ceased in 1855. When the new market opened in 1868, it came with its own underground railway linking Smithfield to other mainline stations. The new structure was designed by the City of London Corporation architect Horace Jones in his first major commission (he went on to design Billingsgate Market (1875) Leadenhall Market in City (1881) and Tower Bridge (completed after his death in 1887), amongst other buildings).

It was deliberately built on the top of a small hill (which is difficult to tell at ground level today) so that it caught the breeze. It was built when there was no refrigeration and it was designed to be cooler inside the market than it was in the shade outside. The combination of open ironwork to let the air and light in and louvered roof to keep the sun off enabled this.

The new Smithfield Market continued to remain busy for most of the 20th century, despite closure in WW2 and some near misses: a V-2 rocket hit nearby Charterhouse Street in 1945, causing damage to several market buildings and over 110 casualties, and the original Poultry Market building w as destroyed by fire in 1958.

In the 1990s the market was modernised to meet EC regulations, with new loading bays and chiller rooms added. In the 21st century however, the market has faced the constant spectre of redevelopment. Perhaps it has only survived as long as it has because it works at night time and very early in the morning. All other wholesale markets have gone from central London, so there will always be pressure on Smithfield Market to end its current trade.



Left: A plaque at Barts Hospital marks the death of Sir William Wallace in 1305

Right: The market today, pictured after the end of morning trading



In parallel to its life as a market, Smithfield has had an extremely varied and bloody history – from jousting tournaments on the ‘smooth field’, to revolts, to executions. Along with Tyburn (now Marble Arch), it was one of London’s main sites for the execution of criminals and dissidents.

In 1305, Scottish patriot William Wallace, a.k.a. ‘Braveheart’, was killed here. He had been fighting against English rule in the time of Kind Edward I, but was captured and put to death at Smithfield. A large plaque in Gaelic marks the event.

In 1381, long before Margaret Thatcher’s day, there were protests about a poll tax held at Smithfield. During this unrest, Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, was killed in Charterhouse Square by the Lord Mayor of London for apparently threatening the life of the 14-year-old King Richard II.

Later, during the religious battles of the Tudor era, hundreds of people were put to death at Smithfield. These ‘dissenters’ were both Catholic and Protestant, depending on the monarch of the day, but also belonged to other minority religious sects, such as Anabaptist.

During the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I, more than 200 Protestant martyrs were burnt in Smithfield. However, in November 1558, a group of Protestants were saved from execution by the death of the Queen. The bonfires were ready to set alight when news of Queen Mary’s passing reached Smithfield. Royal death warrants became invalid on the death of the monarch who had signed them.

In the 16th century, swindlers and coin forgers were boiled to death at Smithfields. The diarist John Evelyn records that in 1652, a woman was burnt on the site for poisoning her husband. But by the 1700s, Tyburn had taken over as the main place for execution. In turn, after 1785, Tyburn ceded its position to Newgate Prison – just to the south of Smithfield.

Adding to the insalubrious nature of the area, for centuries Smithfi eld w as one of London’s first red-light districts. Banned from soliciting within the walls of the City, prostitutes were encouraged by the authorities to live in the aptly named Cock Lane, which became famous for its brothels.



View of Smithfield Market with figures and animals by GS Shepherd (1786-1862)



Today Smithfield Market is still London’s wholesale meat market, selling around 150,000 tons of meat annually. Its buildings are Grade II listed, and the area around the market is filled with bars, clubs and restaurants. The advent of Crossrail in a few years’ time is likely to add to the Smithfield area’s popularity, although by then the market’s future will be decided. Redevelopment could drive the meat market out to the edges of London, once more.

John Morgan is a volunteer guide for the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides Association. Its tour: Murders, Monastries and Martyrs: A Walk Through Smithfield meets every Sunday at 11am outside Barbican tube station. The Association can also organise private group and bespoke walks of the area.