The anniversary of London’s oldest meat market – 7th September

I live by Smithfield Meat Market and this year it is celebrating its 150-year anniversary. Animals have been traded and slaughtered on this spot for nearly 1,000 years.

I’m writing about this market because it would have been one of the most wild and savage places in London. In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (written in 1838) it was described as a place where “hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass”.

It was here that terrified animals were herded through the city before being slaughtered. One of the main roads leading to Smithfield is St John Street which was an ancient highway used by drovers coming from the north. It would have been soaked with blood, faeces and urine. Sometimes animals would walk in from hundreds of miles away and be fattened on pasture outside the city to gain weight before slaughter. In 1855 an article in The Times said that ‘at 3 o’clock in the day a gentleman who was driving his gig [a carriage pulled by one horse] was exposed to imminent risk of life by coming into contact with 100 head of cattle’. The picture below was also done in 1855.

It was a wild mix of noises, smells and fluids that horrified early Victorian animal rights campaigners (along with most other Londoners too). Even Charles Dickens wanted to close it down with all its ‘filth and fat and blood and foam’. Despite the squalor, it was one of the most lucrative meat markets in the world which was probably why the government ignored complaints and kept it running.

smithfield 1

The history of the market starts in the Middle Ages when the site was six acres of open grassland with good access to the River Fleet. The names of streets – for example Cow Cross Street and Cock Lane are a reminder of the sorts of things these early traders were selling. Chick Lane, Duck Lane and Pheasant Court are other names of streets that disappeared during Victorian times. I live off Cloth Fair which is home to the oldest residential dwelling in London (where the poet John Betjeman also lived for 20 years from 1954). The whole area was a massive hub for trade.

Over the years the market grew and by 1710 authorities built a wooden fence to contain the four-legged commuters. In 1740, 74,000 cattle and more than half a million sheep were sold here each year. By the middle of the 1800s there were 220,000 cattle and 1,500,000 sheep. As it grew, there were more and more complaints and people grew worried about livestock being violently forced through narrow thoroughfares. It was seen by one commentator as an obnoxious ‘abomination’ in the ‘very heart of the most Christian and most polished city in the world’.

It closed in 1855 (partly because people found it so unpleasant and partly because it was no longer big enough). In 1868 the Smithfield Meat Market (pictured below) was re-opened at a cost of £993,816 (£82 million as of 2018). It’s a beautiful building designed by Sir Horace Jones, who also designed Tower Bridge and Billingsgate and Leadenhall Markets. In 1881, a large water trough was installed next to the market so parched animals could have a last drink (also pictured below). However, from the mid-1800s the place started changing as animal carcases were more easily brought in by rail. Gradually the meat market became a less savage place.

Now lorry drivers instead of herdsmen bring meat into the market. It’s still an amazing place and is open every weekday between 2am and 7am.

And news from elsewhere – 

This is an absolutely brilliant read from the Guardian that busts eco-myths. Eat cod, be wary of bioplastics (they don’t biodegrade), cling on to clingfilm & don’t buy tote bags (unless you’re planning to use it 149 times or more).

Many people think a better form of consumerism will change the planet (cutting down takeaway coffee cups for example). However, what we need is structural change. This is George Monbiot complaining about BBC’s Blue Planet in the Guardian:

‘The BBC’s approach to environmental issues is highly partisan, siding with a system that has sought to transfer responsibility for structural forces to individual shoppers. Yet it is only as citizens taking political action that we can promote meaningful change’, Monbiot writes.

‘Disposable coffee cups made from new materials are not just a non-solution: they are a perpetuation of the problem. Defending the planet means changing the world’, he says.

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