Above: Outline map of the area around Smithfield representing a date of around 1500.
The remarkable thing about London’s street plan is how far back it goes. Much of the street layout has remained the same for over a thousand years! Because many of the lines of the streets have remained unaltered for centuries, the problem is knowing which ones are the same and which ones have been altered. This article looks at the street plan for Smithfield in relation to (1) the City of London and (2) St John Street which is part of Clerkenwell.
If Google Maps had been in existence around 1500 then the small scale map above would be what you would have seen. To the NW of the Roman Wall (that once completely surrounded the City of London) was a very large ‘smooth field’ which became corrupted to ‘Smithfield’. Because it was west of the City, it was often referred to as ‘West Smithfield’. It should be pointed out that there was also a place called East Smithfield, now remembered by a street name on that site immediately east of the City of London.
The sites of four buildings – two churches, a hospital and a priory – are shown on the outline map, along with a short stretch of the Roman Wall and the ancient stream known as the River Fleet. The map needs to be studied in conjunction with a modern street map so that a comparison can be made.
The first thing that we notice is that the open area of Smithfield is considerably reduced today from how it was around 1500. This is due in part to the extensive buildings of Smithfield Meat Market that were erected in Victorian times along the northern side of Smithfield – acting almost as a vast ‘gateway’ between the remaining open space of Smithfield and St John Street.
Further west was once the stream known as the River Fleet. It was crossed by Holborn Bridge. South of the bridge the river was sometimes called the ‘River Holborn’. To the north it was called ‘Turnmill Brook’ because the power of the water was used to turn a water-mill. Near the course of the old stream today is a reminder in the form of Turnmill Street. In the 18th century the whole stream was run in a specially constructed tunnel and Farringdon Road and Farringdon Street were laid out on top. Holborn Viaduct was constructed on the site of Holborn Bridge which meant the connecting roads either side could be built up and run horizontally over the new viaduct bridge.
Looking at the smaller streets like Cow Lane, Cock Lane and Snow Hill it will be seen that those names still survive on a modern street map but, in some cases, their alignment has been altered. To the east of Smithfield, Long Lane is now called Fair Street and another street was laid out in Victorian times called Charterhouse Street. That in turn caused the realignment of St John Street.
To the north we see part of St John Street whose southern end is not as ‘bulbous’ as was in medieval times. The southern junction with St John’s Lane is just visible. Cowcross Street, whose name is hardly a surprise, bearing in mind the thousands of cattle that were once to be seen at the market, has an alignment that has hardly changed from the 1500s.
At the southern end of the open space called Smithfield we have Giltspur Street but its southern junction with today’s Newgate Street and the roadway called Holborn Viaduct was rather more winding in earlier times. It must have been rather awkward for a horse-drawn cart to navigate the twists and turns as it left the City – on its way to Holborn. Steep gradients going down can be just as difficult for a horse pulling a cart as it is for a hill going up. It took until Victorian times before all the winding road alignment was made relatively straight and Holborn Viaduct removed the dip in the road where Holborn Bridge once crossed the Fleet.
For subscription members there is a large and much clearer version of the above map as a pdf that can be downloaded.