Above: Entrance to Leadenhall Market from Gracechurch Street.
Most of London’s streets and ancient buildings tend to have interesting names but because we have lived with those names since children we often say the name without really thinking about what it means or how the name came about. The name in the title is a good example so, let’s start with its meaning. The name ‘Leadenhall’ should be written ‘Leaden Hall’ – that is to say ‘A hall whose roof was leaden (or made of lead)’. Many of the church roofs of old churches are lined with lead. This also applies to the roofs of cathedrals as well. Being a relatively soft metal, lead is easy to beat or cut into shape and even in medieval times, it was considered a good material to use to weatherproof a roof. Lead is expensive which meant that only churches could afford the luxury of a lead roof. This also applied to other buildings but only for owners who could afford the cost.
Above: Leadenhall Market from an early map of c1553. The name ‘Ledden hall’ is shown above the rectangular building. Notice the well in the quadrangle of the building. Opposite Leaden Hall (on the west side of Gracechurch Street) is shown the church of St Peter, Cornhill (labelled ‘St Pr’).
The origins of Leadenhall Market go back to 1296 when the earliest mention was a ‘La Ledenehalle’. In 1390 the building was described as ‘a manor belonging to Sir Hugh Nevill’. In 1408 it was ‘confirmed’ on Richard Whittington – yes, he was a real person, four times Lord Mayor of London and the less said about the cat the better! In those times the large building was in use as a residence. In 1411 Richard Whittington handed the building over to the City and it was from that date that a market was held there. In 1446 the Lord Mayor – Simon Eyre – had the premises rebuilt or converted. A market was held on part of the site but, in addition, there was ‘a common garner for corn for the use of the City’. It should be explained that in those times the harvest of corn failed from time to time, usually connected with wet weather conditions. In some years, the City imported grain from countries on the Continent to feed the citizens. To prepare for the eventuality of a year with a poor harvest, the City stored grain at Leadenhall.
A document of 1345 lays down that all strangers should take poultry for sale to Leadenhall Market and all Londoners should sell at Westcheap (the old name for the street now called Cheapside). The nearby street called Poultry was probably the actual location. From this document, we can conclude that there may have been a market before the building was handed over to the City. In 1446 it is recorded that wool, cloth and leather was sold there. In 1503 an order was made that Frenchmen were only to sell their wares of canvas, linen and cloth, at this market. Other foreigners, selling nails, lead and iron-work, were also limited to this market only. It was held on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Foreign butchers were admitted in 1553 to sell flesh in Leadenhall Market. Formerly they stood nearby in Lime Street and paid rent for their stalls to the householders. In 1595 the Butchers began selling at Leadenhall and for a time after this date, the market became famous for meat.
Due to diligent action, during the Great Fire of London (1666) the buildings were saved. After the Great Fire, the market was extended to accommodate Country butchers; City butchers who had lost their shops; fish; meal; hides; and leather. Some of the names of the commodities are shown on the Ogilby and Morgan map of 1667. The evidence for the leaden roof is now a distant memory but the name lives on.
The greatest change to the market came in 1881 when Sir Horace Jones (the City Architect and also the architect for Tower Bridge) designed the building that we all know and love today. While the new structure was being constructed, the foundations of the Roman Basilica (or Town Hall) for Londinium were discovered in the ground. The market, which covers an area of 27,000 square feet (2,508 square metres), continued to flourish throughout most of the 20th century. There were butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers among the many shops at the market. They sold to the public but also supplied the many Company Halls who provided banquets for various functions.
Above: Early morning view of the interior of Leadenhall Market, looking east from the Gracechurch Street entrance.
Around the time of the Millennium, trade was declining and the shops selling groceries gradually closed down – unable to justify the high rents of their premises. Today there are two shops, one selling large hams and a fishmonger remaining in the building. The market buildings look exactly the same as they were in the last century but they are now used for different purposes. Many of them have become the inevitable coffee shops and high-end restaurants, mainly serving the needs of the local office workers. For those who remember the days of the flourishing meat, fish and vegetable shops, it not really the place that it was.
Since the 1990s there has been a marked increase in glass-clad offices in the City – many of them high rise. It has led to many people complaining that the ancient character of the City is gradually being eroded. Not only that but, due to their height, the new offices are creating dark ‘chasms’ which lie in the huge shadows of these new tall structures. The concept of ‘glass and steel’ – with a concrete structure to support the new buildings – is hardly a new concept. Although Victorian buildings were not so tall as those of today, it was in that era that ‘glass and steel’ started to be used for large structures, due mainly to advances in the production of steel (in various forms) and the ability to produce large sheets of glass. The next time you decide to lament the modern buildings to be seen in the City, just remember the structure of Leadenhall Market which is, essentially, constructed in ‘glass and steel’.